Tick Tock, Tick Talk: His real name is Barry White

John Swenson

John Swenson

John Swenson has been writing about popular music since 1967. He has worked as an editor at Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Circus, Rock World and OffBeat magazine and been published in virtually every classic popular music magazine of note, and edited the award-winning website for Knit Media. He was a syndicated music columnist for more than 20 years at United Press International and Reuters. Swenson has written 14 published books including biographies of Bill Haley, The Who, Stevie Wonder and The Eagles and co-edited the original Rolling Stone Record Guide with Dave Marsh. He is also the editor of The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide. In another role, Swenson is a veteran sports writer who covered the New York Rangers for 30 years, writing pieces for outlets from Rolling Stone to the Associated Press. Swenson is also a veteran horseracing columnist and handicapper who covered the New York racing scene as a columnist for the New York Post and the New Orleans Fair Grounds meet for The Daily Racing Form. His profile on jockey Steve Cauthen, "Rise To Stardom, Fall From Grace" in Spur magazine, was nominated for an Eclipse Award.
John Swenson

Latest posts by John Swenson (see all)

I don’t usually bother to comment on lame television programs about popular music but in the case of HBO’s Vinyl I can’t keep quiet. I lived in a loft in lower Manhattan and worked at Crawdaddy magazine on 5th Avenue and 13th St. during the time depicted in the series and the show is so ridiculously wrong about the details and the history of what was going on that it infuriates me. There are so many examples of this I’m not even going to bother to list them, I’ll just say that the continuity in the inaccurate story actually presented is so horribly wrong it often ends up as unintentional comedy.

Even so I don’t really care what HBO does with its money and there are those out there who want their myths sanitized in such Orwellian fashion. Good for them. But in the end what really galls me about Vinyl is the inherent racism that permeates the story. I grew up in a 1950s society that was inherently segregated; by the time I was coming of age in the 1960s I was part of a generation that saw racism as America’s Original Sin and campaigned against it during the Civil Rights movement. But my social avenues didn’t bring me much interaction with non-whites, except when it came to music.

The period depicted in Vinyl, which depicts black people as either mythical figures or victims to exploit, is the period I remember as the time when I was able to build friendships with black people I met in the music industry. They remain some of my most treasured friendships to this day.

Which is why I want to tell you about a guy named Barry White, whose stage name is Barrence Whitfield.

Barrence Whitfield, 2016 | Photo: J. A. Areta Goñi (JUXE)

Barrence Whitfield, 2016 | Photo: J. A. Areta Goñi (JUXE)

I met Barry indirectly through Peter Stampfel of the Holy Model Rounders, who was living in the same building on 55th street in Manhattan as my future roommate Dan Doyle. Doyle was friends with Andy Doherty, a record store manager at a place called Nuggets in Boston, a block away from the famed Rathskeller club, a joint nicknamed “The Rat”, as notorious in Boston as CBGB’s was in New York City, but without the fashion police and Hollywood connections to objectify itself for future generations. Among the Nuggets’ employees was Barry White, who was introduced to local guitarist Peter Greenberg, a founding member of Boston’s infamous garage band The Lyres. Lyres keyboardist Mono Man was difficult to get along with, so Greenberg quit the band, taking bassist Phil Lenker and drummer Howie Ferguson with him. Greenberg wanted to start a group that sounded like Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, recording Smiley Lewis tunes at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary New Orleans studio, the place where many people believe New Orleans R&B gave birth to rock & roll. He needed a vocalist with the power of Little Richard at his best to pull this off. He found that vocalist working at Nuggets.

Barry White, a kid from Newark, New Jersey, was attending college in Boston and working at Nuggets on the side. Barry White already existed as a stage name (irony department: his real name is Barrence) so the new band was christened Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. Like all great rock & roll, it’s almost impossible to explain how great this band was and even more impossible to capture how great they were on record. Barry was one of the most driven vocalists I’ve ever seen/heard, some impossible combination of Screaming Jay Hawkins and Howling Wolf with astonishing range, a ridiculous falsetto and a scream that could break the bartender’s glass.

I got to be real good friends with Barry and all the other members of his band as well as their road manager Jimmy Mac. When they came to New York to play at Irving Plaza with Los Lobos, then with Sun Ra, they would hang out at my loft and party.

When Peter Greenberg retired from the music business the Savages broke up but Barry continued to play and record, making great music with Tom Russell and with his own R&B band. A few years back Greenberg decided to put the original band back together but couldn’t get all the members. Barry and Phil Lenker were available, and a new drummer Andy Jody and saxophonist Tom Quartulli were hired. Barry’s voice has matured to the point where his ballad singing has become as great as his soul shouting, but he can still scream with the best of them. When the band came to play in New Orleans last year they stayed at my house, a couple of blocks away from Euclid Records, where they played a terrific in-store show. Gigs downtown at Siberia and uptown on Freret Street were well attended and helped the band bring it all back home, in a manner of speaking.

Barrence Whitfield and The Savages

Barrence Whitfield and The Savages | Photo: Drew Reynolds

Here’s an interview I did with Barry about his life in music:

JS: Barry, you were a teenager in Newark during the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination. It was a scary time in any city, but Newark was particularly hard hit. What was that experience like?

BW: It was 1967. I lived right on the block where it happened. I remember the night that it started. People were on the street then they started smashing windows and the national guard came in there was shooting and I saw tanks going down the middle of my block. Everything burned.

A National Guard officer passes the smashed window of a black-owned flower shop in riot-torn Newark, N.J., in this July 15, 1967, file photo. Dozens of shops and stores had been stripped clean in three days of racial rioting. The 40th anniversary of the riots that devastated Newark has rekindled a sometimes acrimonious debate on the causes and effects of the events of July 1967 that sent the city on a downward spiral from which it took decades to recover. (AP Photo)

A National Guard officer passes the smashed window of a black-owned flower shop in riot-torn Newark, N.J., in this July 15, 1967, file photo. Dozens of shops and stores had been stripped clean in three days of racial rioting. The 40th anniversary of the riots that devastated Newark has rekindled a sometimes acrimonious debate on the causes and effects of the events of July 1967 that sent the city on a downward spiral from which it took decades to recover. (AP Photo)

JS: Newark has a great musical tradition. Were you aware of that growing up?

BW: When I was a little boy there used to be a club in my neighborhood, back in the ‘40s it was where guys like Ike Quebec and Big Jay McNeely would play. My first experiences with music were going into bars and listening to people play Motown and soul music. Motown and Stax and whatever was on the radio, but I was into black rock ‘n’ roll too. I got hip to Little Richard, I got hip to Chuck Berry, that stuff was getting played on the radio, even if it might have been on the oldies stations. I was hearing doo wop, so I was into that. I listened to (disc jockey) Frankie Crocker.

JS: How did you start singing?

BW: I started singing in church. I couldn’t get away from it. There was a church across the street from my house. I would always sing to the radio while I was walking around. It was one of those Baptist churches in the area. My mom would take me. And there was this woman up front who was always yelling and screaming and fainting. “We have a friend in Jesus.”

JS: Why did you move to Boston?

BW: I got this wonderful scholarship to go to BU. My cousin moved up there from New Jersey to go to Berklee and he would tell me “Come up to Boston.” So I came up and my first introduction to Boston was the 1978 blizzard. I never saw so much snow in my life. I didn’t have any musical aspiration ‘cause I left them all back in New Jersey.

JS: What kind of bands did you play with in New Jersey?

BW: I was in one band where I used to sing everything from Genesis to Led Zeppelin to Sparks, all sorts of rock & roll. This is while I was in high school and we won this battle of the bands and we won the chance to open up for Johnny Winter at this coliseum in New Jersey. That was my first gig in front of a lot of people, opening for Johnny Winter. It went well, we played for 45 minutes and I was proud to play in front of that many people. I was in another high school band that was big Funkadelic fans we called ourselves the Funkensteins. We did all Funkadelic songs and soul songs. Then I was in another band called Symphonic Revolution, doing Earth Wind and Fire, Mandrill and all that stuff. I was in another high school band where I wore an afro and my big song was “The Theme From Shaft.” The guitar player was a kid called Josh who used to practice all the time and he’s the only guitarist I know who got the exact sound of the wah wah from Shaft, it sounded exactly like the guy from the Bar-Kays.

JS: How did you get back into music in Boston?

BW: I was going to school. I was working hard, I wasn’t playing with anyone. In 1979 I ran into these two guys from Berklee who remembered me from New Jersey bands I was in. They were recording for a project for Berklee and asked me to sing on it. They wrote this song called “The Combat Zone.” The record got into the hands of one of the DJs at WBCN. He loved the record and it was my first radio exposure. They called themselves Sharp. It was my first 45, it was kind of New Wave with synth drums. I went on the air at BCN to talk about the record.

When I was working at Nuggets Andy Doherty was there and this guy named Dez McDonald worked there. It was a nice little crowd of people that I worked with. I used to sing a lot in the store, harmonize with records and stuff and Dez said “Barry you’ve got a good voice. This friend of mine is looking for a singer. He’s putting together a band and you should talk to him. His name is Peter Greenberg. He used to play with the Lyres and DMZ. He’s a great guitar player.” He gave me Peter’s number and I called and talked to him and he said he was looking for a singer to do some black rock & roll stuff. I met him at Nuggets one day and we went back to his house. That’s when the records started poppin’ out. We had a beer, he made chili, I remember it was burning hot, burned my asshole. The first record he played was ”Mama Get the Hammer the Fly’s on the Baby’s Head.” He played a lot of wild rock & roll stuff, Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino, I was being reintroduced to music I hadn’t heard in a while. I started getting into buying records. I had been buying soul and New Wave but I went out and was buying Fats Domino again. That’s how the band got started.

I asked him what kind of singer did he want and he said kind of like a wild Little Richard, crazy, wild, screaming his guts out. I said “I can do that.” So we started playing “Bip Bop Bip” and all these wild black rock & roll songs from the ‘50s. I was familiar with Little Richard, but Bobby Peterson, a guy from Philly, he’s the guy that had a regional hit called “Piano Rock.” Peter and Jeff Connoly and all those guys from DMZ and the Lyres, they were all heavy duty record collectors. A lot of that music, especially the garage stuff, ended up in their sets. I think Peter wanted to get away from the garage stuff and delve more into the black rock & roll, rockabilly period, raw and crazy music like that.

There was a place right across the street from the old Sears building in Boston, it was right down the road from Fenway Park, right in the fens. We had over 100 rehearsals there. It was all a big secret. I started talking to people about this band I was in and they’d never heard me sing and they always thought I was this quiet mild mannered guy. We got a gig to open up for the Del Fuegos at Storyville, which was a really hip club at the time, right up the street from where the Rat was. While we were at the rehearsal space we were wondering “What will we call this band?” We came up with the Savages because the music we were playing was pretty raw. I decided instead of using the name Barry White that I had used all these years I decided to use the name I used to get teased in school for having, Barrence, and instead of just White I added …field like Norman Whitfield. Peter said that sounds really good, so we played in June at Storyville as Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. We had a massive crowd. All the hip people were there. Most of them were shocked at what they saw. Even the Del Fuegos were shocked. Maybe they were expecting something that sounded like the Lyres, I don’t know what they expected, but once we started playing “Bip Bop Bip” and “Walking with Barrence” they were going what the hell is this? It just blew people’s minds.

We did that show and then we didn’t play again for another three or four months when we did another show at Storyville where we opened up for Johnny Copeland. I would scream and jump up and down and roll over the floor. At one point I dove through Peter Greenberg’s legs, did a forward roll and jumped back up singing, hanging off the side of the stage, on top of the speaker cabinets, I just went nuts. By the end of the night my pants were ripped, my shirt was ripped. I used to do flips. I was always on the floor, wiggling, writhing, walking backwards, all kinds of stuff. It was all pretty terse. We did a lot of two minute songs. I think we jammed a little bit off of ”Walking with Barrence” but a lot of our songs were two minutes, a minute and a half.

JS: You eventually brought it all back home by playing in New Orleans, where you developed a following.

BW: New Orleans, the home of black rock & roll. I love Smiley Lewis. Jeff Hannusch took me to visit his grave. He’s buried way outside of New Orleans. We did “Shame Shame Shame” down there, “Big Mamou.” I have to thank Peter for introducing me to those songs.

JS: You also developed a following in New York, where you met up with Los Lobos, a band you ended up influencing.

BW: The first time we played in New York we opened for James White and the Blacks. Next time we opened for Los Lobos and it created a connection between me and Los Lobos that’s been going on since. When we played with them in Rhode Island I jumped off the stage, did a forward roll and backflipped, then flipped back on the stage. That did it for them. They wanted me to play with them after that. They wanted me to come up and jam with them. They hadn’t done “Georgia Slop” until they heard us do it. I’m the sixth Lobos. When I sing with them I do “Georgia Slop,” “Hey Joe,” “She’s About a Mover”, some real wild covers, “One Way Out”, “My Generation.”

Barrence Whitfield and the Savages are touring in the United States through May and June 2016, and their latest album, Under the Savage Sky is released on Bloodshot Records.

Barrence Whitfield and The Savages

Barrence Whitfield | Drew Reynolds