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Barrence Whitfield comes back strong with new album

Juxe

BEVERLY — While playing a block party here recently, the one-man R&B wrecking machine who calls himself Barrence Whitfield was reminded of Grover’s, the old Beverly nightclub where his band, the Savages, often tore the roof off.

“People’s heads would be smokin’, ” recalled the stocky frontman with a grin.

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For the better part of two decades, Whitfield has sustained that energy, bringing his yowling brand of classic rock ’n’ roll from New England’s working-class stages to the summer festivals of Europe and Japan with a rotating cast of backing musicians. Now he’s reunited with Peter Greenberg, the guitarist who helped him create the Barrence Whitfield persona in the mid-1980s. Their new album, “Dig Thy Savage Soul,” out next Tuesday, has all kinds of smoke coming out of its ears.

For years, when Whitfield traveled overseas, he relied on a network of pickup musicians to back him up, “like Chuck Berry,” he said, signing a stack of posters in a coffee shop a few hours before the block party. Offstage, he’s a gentle soul with little round glasses and matching hoops in his pierced ears. Behind the microphone, he’s possessed by the ghosts of rock past.

He recently performed in Dubai, where “I was jumping on the tables in front of the sheiks,” he said. “It just goes to show that rock ’n’ roll is everywhere.”

One place it was not was in Greenberg’s life, for almost a quarter-century. The guitarist, known to Boston fans as a founding member of DMZ and a key member of the Lyres, quit playing music when he earned a degree in environmental policy and began a career in the energy business. Living in Taos, N.M., after selling his business to the country’s largest solar panel manufacturer, he began reissuing albums a few years ago by those early groups and the Customs, a beloved garage band he formed in Cincinnati in the late 1970s (between his stints in DMZ and the Lyres).

When Greenberg cut a deal with Ace Records to reissue the Savages’ 1984 debut, he invited Whitfield out to Taos, where they began working on new music together. After releasing an album with a label in Spain two years ago, they set their sights on reestablishing the Savages name in America. “Dig Thy Savage Soul” is poised to do just that, with the enthusiastic support of their new label, Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, an upcoming showcase on NPR’s World Cafe Live, and a record release party Sept. 7 at the Middle East in Cambridge.

“I think this record is going to explode all over,” said Whitfield. “Better late than never!”

A connoisseur of vintage rock ’n’ roll, he can still be found behind the counter at the Record Exchange in Salem, just over the bridge from his home in Beverly.

“It’s my life,” said Whitfield, who was born Barry White. “I’m very proud of what we’ve put out, and very excited to get a second chance.”

After studying to be a news anchor at Boston University and Emerson College, he dropped out; Greenberg convinced him to try performing while both were working at Nuggets in Kenmore Square. Since there was already a singing Barry White, they came up with Whitfield’s stage name.

“Truthfully, if it wasn’t for Peter, there would be no Barrence Whitfield,” he said.

The new album, a graduate seminar in delirious, soulful rock, features several can’t-miss songs with lyrics by Michael Mooney, a Taos musician with whom Greenberg plays in a local band called Manby’s Head. (The band is named for the Taos legend of Arthur Manby, a British speculator whose decapitated body was found in 1929.) Mooney writes with a flair that’s unusual for the Savages’ no-frills style of rock and R&B, which builds off the Louis Jordan and Bill Haley jump blues songs Whitfield often covers onstage. One of his songs on “Dig Thy Savage Soul,” “Oscar Levant,” makes the arch mid-century TV intellectual the unlikely subject of a hard-charging garage rock song.

Mooney is “kind of an art-rock guy,” explained Greenberg, on the phone from Texas, where he lived for a time until moving to Taos. “It’s my job to keep him down the straight and narrow.”

The album’s lead track, “The Corner Man,” plays off a boxing metaphor: “I’ll teach you how to go the distance before you’re on the ropes again,” Whitfield howls as the band (including onetime Lyre Phil Lenker on bass) rages behind him.

“It hits you right in the gut, which is what it’s supposed to do,” said Whitfield. “[Mooney’s] a great songwriter.”

The original songs and the recruitment of two younger members, drummer Andy Jody and saxophonist Tom Quartulli, have given the band a new sense of vitality, said Greenberg, who, like Whitfield, is in his late 50s.

“We really didn’t want to keep repeating ourselves. Barry and I both have broad taste in music. We love to hunt records together. We love anything that’s honest, and rocks.”

He credits his own long hiatus from the music business with giving him a fresh perspective. “So many musicians degrade over time — they get worse or do more of the same. Whereas I didn’t have a chance to. It’s like I was frozen in ice.

“Some people, when they get as old as we are, you look at them and they’re old. We haven’t given up on life."

Greenberg, said Whitfield, “wants to finish what he left off with us back in ’86.” And he couldn’t be more pleased. “Most people doing this music left great epitaphs,” he said. He won’t leave his own until he’s good and ready.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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