Born c. 1961, in Houston, TX; married; children: one daughter.
Creating an original musical language that blends Delta-based blues with innovative rock, Chris Whitley has etched out a unique place for himself as a songwriter and performer. He has been heralded as one of the greatest slide guitarists of the 1990s and as a vocalist and musician who has both mastered and reinvented the blues. "[Whitley's] lyrics approach poetry, his playing would shame some jazz musicians, and his singing stretches from the lower chakras to a higher reach of reason no one would call blue," wrote Sean Elder in Vogue.
Whitley's music derives from many influences, ranging from the legendary Robert Johnson and Thelonious Monk to Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop, Erik Satie, and even the sounds of Moroccan and Tibetan music and jug bands. He has also professed a great love of rhythm and blues, especially as performed by Al Green. Although known for his blues sensibility, Whitley uses the blues in a fashion that is all his own. "I never wanted to do traditional music," he told Vogue. "Maybe that was why I got a lot out of it: I got the essence of what I wanted from it and kept looking for something else. When I was listening to Robert Johnson I was also listening to things like Gary Numan [the synth master best known for 'Cars']."
Whitley's musical restlessness reflects his nomadic youth. His family moved often, setting up residences in Texas, Oklahoma, and Connecticut before he was a teenager. After his parents divorced, he moved with his sister and mother to Mexico. A year later the family moved to Vermont, where Whitley began to immerse himself in music and spend a lot of time racing motorcycles. His first record purchase was Jimi Hendrix's Smash Hits, and he also found musical inspiration in Johnny Winter, Led Zeppelin, and Muddy Waters.
By age eleven, Whitley was playing harmonica in a dance band. He first picked up a guitar at age fifteen and then formed the short-lived group Faded Glory. Whitley was so disillusioned by the experience that he sold all his equipment after the group's demise and purchased a DobroO so he could pursue his growing passion for blues music.
Eager to move on musically, Whitley dropped out of high school and moved to New York City. He got a job at a deli and began performing his blues-based DobroO and guitar music wherever he could in public, often in city parks and on piers at night after work. Eventually he became a house musician at a club called Studio 10. Then a friend who worked in a travel agency helped him land a few gigs in Belgium.
After returning to the United States, Whitley reassessed his musical path. "I was working as a bike messenger," he said in a WORK Group press release. "It didn't seem like the kind of music I was making fit in anywhere. Everything was either new wave or really slick and I just felt out of place. In Belgium, I knew I could at least make a living just playing music, so I saved up enough money to go back, and wound up staying there off and on for almost six years."
Although he established a local fame abroad that contrasted sharply with his relative obscurity back in New York, Whitley lost his musical direction while in Belgium. He began trying to polish his music with synthesizers and a drum machine and found his creative efforts being homogenized while playing with a band called Noh Rodeo. As he told Mike Baker in Guitar Player, "I was in Belgium studying how many beats per minute people dance to and trying to write accessible tunes. I almost raped myself creatively doing that, and I finally asked myself, 'Why are you still playing music? You might as well work for IBM.'" He added in Rolling Stone, "It was sort of an attempt to slickify what I was doing, to make myself fit in somewhere."
Whitley stopped playing slide guitar for about four years and recorded an album that he didn't especially care for on a small Belgium label. After breaking up his band, he willingly derailed himself from a commercial path and focused on blues music again. By the time he returned to the States in 1986, blues music had gained considerable popularity. Numerous new blues clubs opened the door for Whitley's style of music, and he landed a weekend gig at Mondo Cane in New York City that lasted eight months. Meanwhile, he continued to write songs such as "Living with the Law" and "Phone Call from Leavenworth"--both rallying cries for the down and out.
While playing at Mondo Cane, Whitley was spotted by Daniel Lanois, a record producer who had worked with the Neville Brothers and U2. Whitley had built up an impressive selection of songs, and Lanois got him into the studio to record them for his major-label debut album, Living with the Law. Other artists contributing to the album included drummer Ronald Jones, bassist Daryl Johnson, and guitarist Bill Dillon.
Both underground and mainstream critics praised Living with the Law, which reveals Whitley's many influences from blues and country rock while still seeming fresh and new. The album also showcases his ability to sing in a variety of styles, from a low and rumbling growl to an eardrum-piercing falsetto. Rolling Stone called it "the most impressive debut album of ?1991?, a cohesive collection of songs that turns the rather neat trick of making bluesy material-- mostly played on an open-tuned National steel guitar--sound simultaneously contemporary and as old as the hills." David Patrick Stearns wrote in Stereo Review that Whitley's "netherworldly blues poetry, alternately graphic and opaque, casts a spooky spell, an eerie ghost-town glow."
Seemingly overnight, Whitley was a hot act in music. The raves for his album helped him land a spot as the opening act on a major North American tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. After the tour, he went into relative seclusion and assembled a new band with Alan Gaevert on bass, Dougie Bowen on drums (who had played with the Lounge Lizards and Iggy Pop), and other top musicians.
Whitley spent the better part of six months recording songs for his next album. The final result was Din of Ecstasy, released in early 1995. Reviews were mixed for the album, which depends much more on electric music than Living with the Law. It draws on sources ranging from the free-flowing playing of Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Neil Young to the 12-bar progressions of Robert Johnson and other bluesmen. In Guitar Player, Baker praised its "haunting bottleneck shivers over spacious, overdriven chords that angle out in unexpected directions underneath emotive singing and powerful lyrics." According to Time contributor Christopher John Farley, the album's "Narcotic Prayer" was "one of the better rock songs released [in '95]." However, John Milward opined in Rolling Stone, "The songs are thick with gnarly guitar lines and six-string orchestrations of Jimi Hendrix but largely lack the melodies to make them matter. And the often nonsensical Beat-style poetry of the lyrics doesn't help."
Homage to Jimi Hendrix on Din of Ecstasy is especially evident in the churning guitar licks of "O God My Heart" and "Ultraglide," and the smoky and steamy vocals of "God Thing." Songs such as "WPL" show tinges of psychedelic rock within a blues rock mix. Refusing to be predictable, Whitley set aside the noise on some his numbers, even offering an unpolished blues number with a sound that's straight from the Delta--called "New Machine"--on which he plays the slide guitar. As on Living with the Law, Whitley's lyrics on Din of Ecstasy reveal a preoccupation with living on the edge and groping desperately to feel alive, often courting danger. Jon Pareles noted in the New York Times, "They are troubled songs, testifying to struggles that have not been resolved." Whitley sings in "Never": "I stood all night out there waiting for the Ark / Gasoline all in my hair to tempt a spark."
Although Din of Ecstasy's title track has a polished power-pop sound and a more defined melodic line that may qualify it for release as a single, Whitley maintains a staunch attitude against going mainstream and still considers his talent to be evolving. As he told Guitar Player in 1995, "I can describe my guitar playing in two words. Clumsy and pragmatic. I still just make up the chords, and I'm as illiterate as hell."
by Ed Decker
Chris Whitley's Career
Played harmonica in dance band, early 1970s; began playing guitar, 1976; formed Faded Glory, late 1970s; performed in small clubs in New York City, late 1970s; played solo and with Noh Rodeo in Belgium, early to mid-1980s; returned to New York City and began playing in blues clubs, late 1980s; recorded Living with the Law, 1991; performed on Trios with Les Claypool; recorded "I Can't Stand the Rain," a duet with Cassandra Wilson; recorded Din of Ecstasy, 1995. Addresses: Record company--The WORK Group, 2100 Colorado, Santa Monica, CA 90404.
- Selective Works
- Living with the Law, Columbia, 1991.
- Din of Ecstasy, Chaos/Columbia, 1995.
July 26, 2005: Whitley's album, Soft Dangerous Shores, was released. Source: Billboard.com, /www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/index.jsp, July 29, 2005.
November 20, 2005: Whitley died on November 20, 2005, in Texas, of lung cancer. He was 45. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2005/11/24/arts/music/24whitley.html, November 27, 2005.
- Guitar Player, May 1995.
- New York Times, January 21, 1992; January 14, 1995.
- Rolling Stone, September 5, 1991; April 20, 1995.
- Stereo Review, November 1991.
- Time, April 17, 1995.
- Vogue, January 1993.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from the WORK Group publicity materials. (The WORK Group is a trademark of Sony Music Entertainment Inc.)