In the spring of 1985, my old friend Dave Woodhead, who had turned me on to many musical treasures, including Jim Ford’s “Harlan County”, lent to me an album he’d picked up on a trip to the States. When Dave recommended something I took notice.
The LP was the debut release of an R&B band then unknown outside of the Boston area. It was one of those moments in which I had to disagree with Bo Diddley: more often than not you can judge a book by the cover. Likewise an album. This one displayed an amateurish illustration of a cauldron in a jungle which itself carried with it a no-nonsense implication. The name of the band also advertised a record that was going to be uncompromising. Barrence Whitfield and the Savages sounds, on its own, like a declaration of rock’n’roll authenticity.
Uncompromising would have been a description of Barrence and the Savages that the Del Fuegos would rather not have had confirmed only a few days after Dave had lent me the LP. I was standing next to them, on the side of the stage in a huge quayside club in Boston. The Del Fuegos were the headliners that night. And the man opening for them was, at that moment, being borne around the room on the hands of a frenzied crowd, a little black ball of energy in a turban and dark glasses – honking, wailing, testifying and twisting – as his band, the Savages, some distance away on stage, ripped through the swagger of ‘Walking With Barrence’. The Del Fuegos looked like they wanted to go home.
What positioned Barrence and the band way beyond any other rock’n’roll of the era was a unique marriage of Barrence’s personality and R&B shouter elan to the bounce and insolence of Peter Greenberg’s essentially rockabilly guitar style. With the addition of much ill-mannered saxophone, we have here a band which embodied the heart and soul of rock’n’roll.
I hadn’t got to the end of Side 1 of Dave’s loaned copy before I called the number in the States on the back. It was that of Barrence’s manager, Andy Doherty. “They’re playing this Friday and Saturday,” he said. That did it. I just hopped on a plane and went to Boston for the weekend. Andy, a nice man and professional fan, put me up.
Barrence and I became instant pals and soul brothers. The source of his R&B credentials was clear on a walk with him around Boston. Barrence could not pass a collectors’ record shop and actually worked part-time in one. He knew his stuff and, unusually for a young black guy at the time, he was a real enthusiast for old R&B, soul, blues and country. Around the city, Barrence’s popularity was astonishing. Everyone seemed to recognise and adore the little bugger. If he’d run for mayor, I’m convinced he’d have walked it.
I came home to evangelise on Radio 1 about the live experience of the band whose debut LP tracks on my programme were already sending listeners daft. And I did what I could to help set up the first British dates for Barrence and the band.
Now, at last released on CD, is that astonishing album. If you were with us in 1985, you’ll welcome a replacement for your elderly Savages vinyl. If you are about to meet Barrence for the first time, be prepared to be shaken to your soul by the LP which made me hop immediately on a plane to the States and compelled one listener, another R&B screamer called Robert Plant, to track me down and phone me at home to reserve his ticket for Barrence’s first British gig. Be prepared, in fact, to be Savaged.
By Andy Kershaw