singer/songwriter Chris Whitley was restless. “He has always been interested in doing something that is interesting to him, and different,” says the singer’s devoted friend and one-man label Brandon Kessler, chief of Messenger Records. “Each record is different, if not the polar opposite of the previous. He’s an artist. He really had no choice in life but to create music and art. That was the only thing he was capable of doing.”
Whitley died Sunday, succumbing to lung cancer at a friend’s home in Houston. He was 45. His diagnosis just weeks earlier put the brakes on an uncompromising career, a wholly individual trip that found the Texas-bred Whitley evolve from slide bluesman to an avant, forever poetic soulman of sorts who could segue into Prince’s “Erotic City” mid-song just as easily as he could in genuinely spellbinding fashion summon the ghosts of the Mississippi Delta, with a slide over his finger, and his boot stomping the stage. To be sure, it could be quite jaw slackening.
“I remember when we were cutting ‘Narcotic Prayer,’ and Chris was doing the solo that ended the song,” recalls Danny Kadar, engineer of three Whitley albums, and producer of the 2002 anthology Long Way Around. “I was sitting there with the chief engineer, and when he finished the solo, nobody wanted to press the talkback button, because no one wanted to break the silence, the mood and the vibe. Nobody wanted to talk to him. It was just kind of, like, ‘What do you say?’ And of course Chris thought we thought it sucked. He walked into the control room and said, ‘Ah, that was just some dumbass shit I was playing.’”
“Chris was able to tap into emotions that go deep, that people even if they could do it, they rarely would,” Kadar says. “And he did it regularly whether it was a rage thing or a love thing. Everything was as completely deep as it could be.”
It’s a comment echoed by noted producer Daniel Lanois Tuesday: “The deep soul he was gifted with is the soul that challenged his life journey. I will forever remember
Whitley as a child moved around, picking up guitar while moving from Houston to Dallas and then to Mexico, Oklahoma, Vermont, Connecticut and eventually to New York’s Greenwich Village. It was in New York that he met Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Ron Sexsmith), who in turn helped him score a deal with Columbia for Living With the Law, a beautifully cinematic collection of songs both rural and urban. With gritty stories of drug runners and hookers, motorcycles and bordertowns, Living With the Law was widely praised (and even scored him an opening slot on a Tom Petty tour), but its follow-ups didn’t translate commercially, and after two additional major-label discs under the Sony banner failed to even appease sales goals, he began a long indie tenure interrupted briefly by the programming and scratch-laden Rocket House, his 2001 one-off for ATO Records, the RCA-affiliated label co-founded by Dave Matthews.
On the eve of the album’s release, Matthews told Billboard, “Chris is an example of one of those things that appalls me about the record industry—and, unfortunately, it is an industry. That is, how could a talent like his go relatively unnoticed? So few singers have their own personality, and Chris is his own man to the bone. Honestly, I feel more passion for his music than I do for my own. My music I’m critical of. But I have a fervent, religious devotion to the magic that Chris makes.”
Whitley spent the bulk of his post-Sony years releasing albums through Kessler’s New York-based indie, Messenger Records, and acclimating to his smaller, while nevertheless acclaimed role in the music business. “What I came to terms with by making some small indie records and meeting other people who work in that way is that, hey, if a record doesn’t do blockbuster numbers, then that’s OK,” Whitley told Billboard in 2001, while discussing Rocket House. “Even if ATO doesn’t want me anymore, I could move to Santa Fe, make little records, advertise them on a website. I could even get a job and give the records away. I feel more comfortable with my place in the culture now and the fact that I don’t have to fear the cool police or this cult of youth.”
And over the past two years that indie tenure only seemed to be heating up, as Whitley enjoyed an especially prolific period in which he released four discs in three years. In July, Messenger issued Soft Dangerous Shores, of which veteran New York scribe Bradley Bambarger noted: “[Whitley] continues his quest to express the ‘universal blues,’ the song of love and death that Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix knew but so may have, in his way, André Breton.”
that includes the likes of Springsteen, John Mayer, Iggy Pop, Beth Orton and Keith Richards, as he experimented with digital sounds and alternative rock that teetered on the psychedelic. Yet it was always rooted in the blues. “The blues sound different in different places,” he told Bambarger last year. “But on a lonely, rainy night—whether you’re in New Orleans or New York, Dresden, Germany, or Ghent, Belgium—they feel the same.”
Lyrically, his songs were highly literate. Emotionally they were almost always sexy. “I have no time for records that aren’t erotically charged,” he said . “And I hear the erotic in a lot of things other people might not. To me, Iggy, Bowie, Monk, Satie, Little Walter, Bob Marley, John Lennon, the Flaming Lips are all erotic.”
“Chris was talented beyond words, and had the ability to make one guitar, one mic, and one boot sound fuller than a whole band,” recalls Ken Helie, who served as Whitley tour manager from 1997 to 2002. “[Revered bluesman] Robert Jr. Lockwood once told me that Chris played 'like three men,' and that is just about a perfect way to describe it… I feel so strongly in my heart that just as artists like Robert Johnson or Nick Drake found new fame years after their passing, there will come a day in the future where the whole world will know the music of Chris Whitley. And I'll be proud to tell anyone who asks how truly amazing he was, and that he was my friend.”
Having returned to the states in July 2004 after years spent living in Germany, Whitley spent his final days at a friend’s home in his Houston. He died Sunday in the arms of his girlfriend, Susann Buerger. “He passed in absolute and total peace,” Chris’ guitarist brother Daniel posted on chriswhitley.com Tuesday. “I hope you all will mourn my brother’s death, but more important, celebrate his life, as Chris was all about life and living. I started the celebration by cranking up Dirt Floor in his honor... crying still.”