To promote the current tour from garage rockers Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, the band’s record label includes a link to a performance that took place a few years ago on Later with Jools Holland
. The band really smokes as Whitfield delivers piercing screams and punctuates the performance with a few well-timed fist pumps. It speaks to the vintage group’s recent revitalization.
“It was a great,” says Whitfield when asked about the performance. “The Pixies, Chvrches and Tony Joe White were on the episode. It was a very interesting show. It made a little dent on the record in terms of sales in Europe.”
Whitfield, who grew up in Newark but lives in Salem, Mass., deserves whatever breaks he gets. His career stretches back decades. He says his parents encouraged him to sing from an early age. His dad was “a big jazz guy,” and his mom “liked her Jackie Wilson.” Since the church was right across the street from his house, he wound up singing in the church choir where he learned how to “do the high registers” and harmonize.
Later, when he was a teenager, he developed aspirations to sing like soul greats such as Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Otis Redding.
“Just listening to the well-rounded radio as a kid, which a lot of us in the ’60s were privileged to be able to do, you could hear the Beatles and James Brown and Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra in a sequence,” he says. “Today, the only time you hear that sequence would be on college radio. Back then, that’s how singles and hits were made. We had a wonderful soul station in Newark, WNJR, and we listened to lots of great music.”
Later on, he got hooked on George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic.
“After seeing them for the first time, they came to Newark and the singers were up front and these five guys walk out wearing underwear, and they turned around and bent over and they all still had the do-do stains on their drawers,” he says. “I thought, ‘Now, that’s funky.’”
He’d put together the first incarnation of his group, the Savages, in the late ’70s/early ’80s when he teamed up with guitarist Peter Greenberg, a veteran player famous for having played with Boston garage rock acts such as DMZ and the Lyres. Whitfield describes him as a “legend.” They met virtually by happenstance since one of Greenberg’s friends put them in touch with one another after he heard Whitfield singing at a record store. Before long, he and Greenberg were fast friends who would spend hours listening to rare 45s of rockabilly and rhythm and blues and country stuff.
“He told me [Greenberg] wanted a new band with a black singer, someone who could sing like Little Richard,” he says. “We got together and he made me a nice bowl of chili. We started listening to 45 records. He had a huge record collection and the first thing he played for me was the Bobby Peterson tune ‘Mama Get the Hammer There’s a Fly on the Baby’s Head.’ I said, ‘This is going to be really, really good.’ He had the dream of putting together a band like this and outdoing what he did when he was with the Lyres and DMZ. That was my start getting into the Boston music scene. Now today, they come up and tell me I’m a legend. I never thought I’d hear that word.”
They recruited bassist Phil [Lenker] from the Lyres and drummer Howie Ferguson from the Real Kids and the Lyres. Shortly after forming, the band inked a deal with Rounder Records, a respected imprint devoted to bluegrass, blues and roots music, after a few of the record label’s reps caught an off-the-charts performance at a frat party at Tufts in Massachusetts.
“They were definitely a folky, bluegrass kind of label, they had had a little success with George Thorogood,” he explains. “They were interested in the Savages. We were shocked. My manager told them about that party at Tufts. They showed up at that party, and it was one of the wildest parties. It was like Animal House but triple the intensity. The guy who was giving it was on crutches and by the end of the whole thing, he had thrown his crutches away and was dancing all over the place. They showed up and there was beer up to their ankles. We thought we were too wild for them, but they wanted to sign us to a three-record deal. They said it was out of their norm but very exciting.”
In 1986, Greenberg left the band to “start a family and become part of the human race.” Lenker left some months later. A second version of the Savages started up and carried on until 1995 when the group called it day.
But the group would be reborn a few years ago when the U.K. label Ace Records reissued the band’s first album. Whitfield spoke to Greenberg for the first time in two decades. He invited Whitfield out to his Taos, New Mexico home where they sat in his kitchen and right then and there decided to bring back the band. The two reformed the group; they’ve been steadily recording and touring ever since.
“I talked to him for the first time in 26 years about possibly working together,” says Whitfield. “He put some dates together and then called Phil to get him back in the group. We played some dates. It was kind of rusty because we hadn’t played in a long time, but we looked at each other and said that something really hit us when we played together, and we wanted to go for it.”
A friend of theirs worked at Munster, a Spanish label. They put an album out featuring the reunited lineup and then Whitfield released it Stateside on Shake It Records, a Cincinnati label. “It got us back on the map again,” he says. “People started reliving those ‘80s days when the Savages were slaying everyone and every club on the East Coast.”
Their latest album, Under the Savage Sky
, just came out last year. It commences with the rip-roaring “Willow,” a tune that finds Whitfield screaming just like James Brown. In addition to some fantastic original material, the album includes a rousing rendition of the Timmy Willis tune “I’m a Full Grown Man.”
“When I first heard it, I thought what a rocking’ song with soul overtones to it,” Whitfield says of the track. “Peter said it was the perfect song for us. We just went ahead and covered it, and everyone loves it.”
Another highlight, “The Claw,” features a ragged horn section that could give the old horn-driven Rocket from the Crypt songs a run for their money.
Whitfield says it’s been gratifying to tour and record again. While a fall tour with garage rock heroes the Sonics fell through at the last minute, Whitfield says he’s still looking forward to hitting the road again.
“This year, we were supposed to go on tour with the Sonics, but some of the guys left the band and they had to cancel the tour,” he says, “but life goes on. We’re still doing the next record with Bloodshot. With that in mind, we love what we do, and we’re a little raw since we haven’t played since January, so we’re excited to get out and play.”
Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, Arlett and the Affections, DJ Kristen Garageland, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $13 ADV, $15 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.