Christopher Becker Whitley (August 31, 1960 – November 20, 2005) was an American blues/rock singer-songwriter and guitarist.
Whitley was born in Houston, Texas and learned to play guitar when he was fifteen. His father was an art director and his mother was a sculptor. During his youth he lived in Dallas, Texas, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Mexico and Vermont. His parents "grew up on race radio in the South" and their musical tastes—including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix—influenced Whitley.
During the early 1980s Whitley was busking on the streets of New York City and collaborating with musicians Marc Miller, Arto Lindsay and Michael Beinhorn. He was given a plane ticket to Ghent, Belgium in 1983, and lived there for four years, recording several albums and playing with the bands Kuruki, 2 Belgen, Nacht Und Nebel, Alan Fawn, and A Noh Rodeo.
In 1988, producer Daniel Lanois heard Whitley perform at the Mondo Cane club in New York City and he helped Whitley obtain a recording contract with Columbia Records. In 1991 two of Whitley's songs charted on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts: "Big Sky Country" (#36) and "Living with the Law" (#28).
In 2000, Whitley recorded his album Perfect Day, an album of covers, with Chris Wood and Billy Martin—both from the jazz trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood—as his backing band. His follow-up album Rocket House (2001) featured guest appearances by Dave Matthews, DJ Logic, and Bruce Hornsby.
In early 2004, Whitley's song "Breaking Your Fall" from Hotel Vast Horizon (2003) won an Independent Music Awards for Best Folk/Singer-Songwriter Song. He won again the following year in The 4th Annual Independent Music Awards for Best Blues/R&B Song for "Her Furious Angels" from War Crime Blues (2004). Whitley was also an inaugural member of The Independent Music Awards' judging panel to support independent artists. Whitley recorded a collaborative project with Jeff Lang in April 2005 called Dislocation Blues.
He performed as a featured guest on albums for many musicians including Shawn Colvin, Cassandra Wilson, Rob Wasserman, Johnny Society, Joe Henry, Michael Shrieve, Chocolate Genius, Ely Guerra, Goat, Dave Pirner, Clint Mansell, DJ Logic, Little Jimmy Scott, Mike Watt and Daniel Lanois.
Whitley appeared in the concert film documentary Hellhounds on my Trail - The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, performing Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail" solo and "Walkin' Blues".
Style and influences
Whitley's style was rooted primarily in the blues but drew on an array of influences. In 2001, the New York Times described his act as "restless, moving into noise-rock and minimalist jazz evoking Chet Baker and Sonic Youth as much as Robert Johnson". Whitley himself refused to be classified in one genre as an artist, and dodged radio-friendly pop songs, insisting that he could never sincerely create and perform them. Whitley played a brand of confessional acoustic and electric blues, mixed with rock. His lyrics often contained overt sexual and religious references and sometimes bordered on the surreal.
He was fond of playing songs by Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan as well as Lou Reed, James Brown, J.J. Cale, The Clash, Nat King Cole, The Doors, Willie Dixon, The Flaming Lips, Jimi Hendrix, Howlin' Wolf, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, The Passions, Prince, The Stooges, and Sonny Boy Williamson II.
According to musician Dave Matthews: "I feel more passion for his music than I do for my own. I have a fervent, religious devotion to the magic that Chris Whitley makes" and Robert Lockwood, Jr. commented "[That] boy...plays like three men."
A music reviewer at the Detroit Free Press said: "The notable constant has been the quality of craftmanship, and the consistent question of how Whitley's combination of super songs, muscular-but-poetic lyrics, athletic voice and rock-god guitar work hasn't earned him a wider audience" while a writer at Rolling Stone magazine said: "The post-Hendrix explosion of whammybar wankers hasn't produced a single axeman who can compare to Chris Whitley. His eerie, bluesy voice and American gothic tunes frequently draw attention from the fact that he picks like a pissed off Doc Watson jacked through a Marshall stack".
Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby, Tom Petty, Jacob Golden, Myles Kennedy, Don Henley, Iggy Pop, Alanis Morissette, Sandi Thom, John Mayer, Gavin DeGraw, Joey DeGraw, Roland Chadwick and Keith Richards all count themselves admirers of Whitley's music.
In fall 2005, Whitley canceled his tour due to health issues. His brother, Dan Whitley, commented on November 11, 2005 that Chris was "in a comfortable warm home with hospice care at his disposal". Later that week it was revealed that Whitley was terminally ill with lung cancer. He died on November 20, 2005 in Houston, Texas at the age of 45.
Whitley's death received coverage in Time, the New York Times, National Public Radio and a mention at the 2006 Grammy Awards. After his death, the musician John Mayer said, "[When] Chris Whitley died...with him went a big part of modern American blues music. There aren't many fighters for the cause, and Chris never gave up on his mission. His somewhat prostrated place in pop culture earned him a sidebar of an obituary, but to those who knew his work, it registers as one of the most underappreciated losses in all of music."
Whitley is survived by his brother Dan and his daughter Trixie Whitley, a Brooklyn-based musician.
Whitley used various alternate tunings and often played slide guitar on a National resonator guitar and other musical equipment such as:
- 1931 National Style O (with Barcus-Berry magnetic Dobro pickups)
- 1931 National Triolian (with Barcus-Berry magnetic Dobro pickups)
- 1936 Gibson L-0 acoustic guitar
- 1956 National Reso-Phonic (with an old Danelectro pickup)
- 1958 Gibson ES-125 (used a lot on Terra Incognita (1997))
- 1967 Gibson Melody Maker (used a lot on Din of Ecstasy (1995))
- 1995 Bart Reiter five-string banjo
- Juice Box tube DI
- Fender Pro Junior amplifier
- Trace Elliot Velocette amplifier
- Dunlop purple flat pick and metal fingerpicks on his ring and middle fingers.
- Slide he made from a piece of bicycle handlebar, which was worn on his little finger and cut so that he could rotate it out of the way for fretting.
- Boot board amplified with a Fishman upright bass transducer
- Living with the Law (1991)
- Din of Ecstasy (1995)
- Terra Incognita (1997)
- Dirt Floor (1998)
- Live at Martyrs' (1999/2000 - recorded live 1999)
- Perfect Day featuring Billy Martin and Chris Wood (2000)
- Rocket House (2001)
- Long Way Around: An Anthology: 1991-2001 (2002)
- Pigs Will Fly (soundtrack) with Warner Poland and Kai-Uwe Kohlschmidt (2003)
- Hotel Vast Horizon (2003)
- Weed (2004)
- War Crime Blues (2004)
- Big Sky Country (album) (2005 Sony BMG release highlighting his Columbia Records years)
- Soft Dangerous Shores (2005)
- Reiter In with The Bastard Club (2006)
- Dislocation Blues with Jeff Lang (2006)
- On Air (2008 - recorded live 2003)
- Chris Whitley's Messenger Records Website
- The Chris Whitley Discography
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Image from Discogs