True story ... I remember it like it was yesterday. It's 1985 and a kid in a leather jacket and greasy hair walks into a record shop, searching for kicks. He was the only rockabilly kid in town, a lone wolf. New wave was in full swing and punk and garage were happening, but that desperate, degenerate driving rock 'n' roll he sought after was more obscure. He'd comb the record store bins throughout Rochester at the Record Archive, Record Time, The House of Guitars, and The Bop Shop for whatever he could get his paws on. It didn't have to be exclusively rockabilly, just loud and fast and greasy. Then one day it hit him: the wildest record he'd ever heard.
Colorblind James Experience guitarist Phil Marshall was day-giggin' it at The Bop Shop selling records. He saw the greasy-haired kid in the leather jacket walk in, and with no fanfare or preamble — fully aware of the kid's quest — Marshall dropped the needle in the groove. The speakers began to scream.
That record was Barrence Whitfield and the Savages' "Dig Yourself." The kid was me. And like I said, it was the wildest record I'd ever heard. The loud guitar, the jungle drums, the wailin' sax, all sat behind a dude who roared with a baritone shriek on a jagged cocktail of R&B, garage rock, and soul. The sound was haunted by the resurrected ghosts of cats like Screamin' Jay Hawkins, James Brown, Little Richard, Esquerita, The Phantom, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Solomon Burke.
Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. It shook me to my bones.
The band got started in 1977 after then-Lyres guitarist Peter Greenberg first heard Whitfield sing. Whitfield was working in a record shop while studying journalism at Boston University. The band earned a solid reputation for its explosive wild shows in and around Beantown. And before long Barrence Whitfield and the Savages were touring overseas and inking a deal with Rounder Records.
Seeing Barrence Whitfield and the Savages live is thrilling and dangerous, like an hour long punch in the face or getting caught in a naked lady avalanche. It's rockin'. It's relentless. It's gone.
And the band is still at it with the release of its 13th platter, "Under The Savage Sky" (Bloodshot Records). It's still got that trademark Savage soul but seems to be heading in more of a garage direction. Whitfield doesn't necessarily disagree.
"Peter, Tom, Phil, and Andy are from a garage background, pretty much," Whitfield says. "I mean, Peter played with The Lyres and DMZ. The album has the same drive: rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, soul. There are some really cool tunes. It's got its humor. It's got its fun."
Though it comes on manic, lyrically, "Under The Savage Sky" has something to say.
"It's got some poignant songs about guys having trouble functioning in the world," Whitfield says. "Like the boxer in the tune 'Angry Hands' who can't get over being a boxer and he still has these angry hands to worry about. Then there's the guy in 'Incarcerated Casserole' whose wife is in jail and he doesn't know how to cook and he wants to eat, he can't clean up the house, he's at a loss for everything."
But then there are future classics like "The Claw," which sounds like it could have been done by The Sonics.
Funny I should mention that...
"We did a tour earlier this year with The Sonics," Whitfield says. "Inspiration grew between the two bands and we became great friends. The tour was just unbelievable. They're guys we've worshipped, and we were partying with them, jamming with them."
Influences like The Sonics run rampant throughout the band's whole catalogue.
"I was raised on the radio," Whitfield says. "I was able to listen to a lot of great music when I was a young man, 50's soul, 60's R&B, and garage rock."
Still the "p" word gets tossed around. Whitfield understands why some fans equate his band with punk.
"Weeeelll ..." he says, "I think because of the way we deliver the sound. We go for the throat every time we hit that stage. We're like boxers coming out for the kill, or a buzz saw. We just turn it up and come at ya. You show up to our show and we've got you for 75 minutes, maybe an hour and a half, and we've got you by the throat, dragging you around like a rag doll, and by the end of the show, you've caught religion from The Savages."
At 60 years old, Whitfield is still going strong: climbing all over the stage and writhing on the floor like a man possessed. But he has a dream of doing a soul record like Otis Redding's 1965 "The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads," and he demurs when it's suggested that all Whitfield's records are, in fact, soul records.
"I don't know," he says. "You know how as you get older you keep going back further? I don't get to hear a lot of new things. I'm always listening to a lot of jazz, a lot of avant-garde and blues."
And he's got the end figured out. Whitfield quotes The Blond Bomber, Ronnie Dawson, from his 1959 song "Rockin' Bones."
"When I die, buried six foot deep / With a rock 'n' roll record at my feet / A phonograph needle in my hand / I'm gonna rock my way right out of this land"
"With the record spinning 'round and 'round," Whitfield says. "I'm gonna rock my way right out of this land and onto heaven. That's how I'm gonna go."