As anyone who heard his haunting remake of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” on the live disc knows, this singer/songwriter has an exceptional talent for interpreting the songs of others.. …. Whitley makes everything his own. [Billboard 2000-08-05]
“I’ve never wanted to emulate people, I’ve just wanted to be inspired, influenced by them. If somebody really inspires you then it should be inspiring to do your own thing. That’s the most honest kind of nod or tribute.” [Jambands 2000-10-15]
I am endlessly amazed by the way Chris covers a song. “Cover” doesn’t cover what he does; “reinvent” is a better word for what Chris does with other musicians’ material. Craig Street, producer of Dirt Floor and Perfect Day, has noted that “As a producer, I’m really interested in interpretation. But most people don’t even begin to put their own personalities into their music. Chris, though, has gone all the way through the blues and out the other side.” [Billboard]
This post is the last in a four-post series on musical influences and covers. In each of these blog posts, I’ve juxtaposed Chris’s cover with the original artist/recording because you need to listen to both to appreciate what Chris achieves.
JJ Cale: Old Man and Me
If I had to limit my CW catalog to exactly one recording of one song, Chris’s cover of JJ Cale’s Old Man and Me for the Radio Bremen concert (2003-09-08) would probably be it. Something about the guitar and vocal tone and syncopation of this track makes me feel that all is right in the world.
An early cover 1992-02-24 Batschkapp Germany:
A later cover 2003-09-08 Radio Bremen:
JJ Cale’s original is from a different planet; clearly, Chris’s worked his interpretive magic on this one!:
I love Chris’ treatment of this song. He alters the beat and speed and pretty much everything: I don’t speak Music, but I think what’s very different here is the syncopation.
D’Angelo: Brown Sugar
I always thought this was a song about a brown-skinned woman, but as I learned via a Google search, it’s about loving to get high on marijuana. Recall that, in an interview with Barnes & Noble in the late 90’s, asked about the negative characterization of a woman in New Machine, Chris said
I’ve often felt misunderstood when I use a relationship as a kind of metaphor in writing. Really, this song is inspired by my feeling like the media is running our culture, and because I’m a guy, I’m using a woman as the highest thing that shouldn’t be messed with. I’m not really into political songs unless you really feel it, and I can sing it and mean it a lot of the time if it’s a “her”‘ or a “you.” It’s not about a woman. My imagery is abstract while most of the lyrics in pop and folk music are kind of literal.
Knowing that Chris sometimes used a woman as a metaphor for something else probably explains some of his appreciation of this song. In that same interview, Chris listed D’Angelo’s new album as one that he was listening to at the time.
With Joe Lawler at Martyrs (Chicago, IL) 2002-05-24:
Bob Dylan: Billy
To my knowledge, the only times Chris covered this song were during a Winter 1999 European tour double-billed with Pat MacDonald. Here are Chris and Pat (with Pat and his guitar tech on guitar and Chris’s guitar tech Chris Reali on Chris’s Triolian) at Quasimodo’s (Berlin, Germany) 1999-02-05:
Interested in learning more about this tour? Check out a related blog post re Chris & Pat.
Dylan’s original (Pecos Blues Album):
Hendrix I’ve always loved, never “hard rock,” more sensual than most “hard rock,” you know – but totally blues…[Morning Coffee]
Hendrix is still really the only guitar player I like to listen to. [unsourced interview]
I’ve written a separate post Chris Covers Jimi about the Whitley/Hendrix connection, so here I’ll just give you a chance to compare the Chris vs. Jimi takes on the Hendrix songs Chris covered.
with Joe Lawlor at Martyrs’ (2002-05-24)
With Joe Lawlor at Tin Angel (Philadelphia, PA) 2002-05-29:
Hear My Train a’ Comin’
At KFOG Concert for Kids, Warfield Auditorium (San Francisco, CA) 1993-12-11:
Buddy Holly: Well Alright
I have no clue how this Buddy Holly tune came to be played quite regularly in Chris’s first year of touring and then years later in the Radio Bremen set that became On Air. And then, inexplicably, Chris played the tune again in a duet with Jeff Lang in Spring 2005. Maybe the link is that they are both native Texans? – through opposite ends, Chris from Houston whereas Buddy was a Lubbock export.
Chris in 1992:
Chris in 2003 for Radio Bremen/On Air:
Chris with Jeff Lang at The Vanguard (Sydney) 2005-03-29:
Howlin’ Wolf: Moanin’ at Midnight
In one of those Artist’s Picks lists popular in music magazines, Chris listed this song and described it as “the meaning of life.” I’ve written a separate blog post about this song and Gasket, which Chris said was based on “an inverted Howlin’ Wolf riff.”
Chris at The Loft in Berlin (1992-02-27):
Elton John: Love Song
Possibly the most unexpected of all covers, Chris recorded a demo of Elton John’s “Love Song,” which Danny Kadar shared on his SoundCloud channel.
Columbia/Sony played up the Whitley/Johnson link as it marketed Chris and Living with the Law, somewhat to Chris’s chagrin:
“… the Robert Johnson box set came out that summer, and Sony marketed me … [via] the Robert Johnson connection. I am pretty influenced by the blues, but only got into Robert Johnson in my late teens, especially his lyrics. I was into Sly Stone, Hendrix, Dylan, and Marley all before Robert Johnson, though.” [unsourced interview]
Whitley’s also uncomfortable with the inevitable comparisons to Robert Johnson and other blues masters, since the release of Dirt Floor. “Even blues has connotations that I don’t feel,” he notes. “It’s totally semantic, and people today think of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton when they think of blues. I don’t respond to their music. Spiritually, I’m from the blues via Zeppelin and Hendrix as much or more so than the old blues guys.
“I heard Robert Johnson years [after] Zeppelin and Bowie and Dylan and Hendrix and Bob Marley and the Beatles and the Doors. Mostly, I just respond to [Johnson] lyrically because he’s weird. He’s like nobody else from that era, and his writing is very wacked out.” [Stripped Down & Dirty]
The use of the National guitar and slide on the album prompted some to cast Whitley as a Delta blues revivalist. But he chafes at the label, because it ignores his other influences – sounds that range from Cream and The Doors to Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads.
“I don’t write in blues structures,” he says. “I don’t play 1-4-5 or 12-bar or anything like that. I didn’t hear Robert Johnson until I had been playing for five years. I sort of turned myself on to Son House, but I don’t know much about the other Delta blues guys.” [Gypsy Comes Home]
As for those comparisons to that other great American musician Robert Johnson, Whitley says, “I don’t think there really are any similarities, though there may be soulfully or stylistically.” [Going to the Crossroads]
Nonetheless, Chris covered several of RJ’s songs, using each as a stepping-off point to create his own interpretation.
Hellhound on my Trail
I’ve written a separate blog post about Chris’s iconic performance of this song at the Robert Johnson tribute in 1998.
Chris at Trax in Charlottesville (1992-11-02:
Chris at the Robert Johnson tribute:
Traveling Riverside Blues
Chris at The Sting (1992-03-28):
Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
Chris at the John Campbell tribute (August 1993):
Robert Johnson’s original:
Prince: Erotic City
Chris didn’t cover many Prince songs, the only other one being “Forever in My Life” on Dislocation Blues. But he did describe “Big Sky Country” as a “big fake Prince song,” and an ATCW member swears he saw Chris and the rhythm section of Soul Coughing cover “Kiss” when the Perfect Day tour played Higher Ground in Vermont, September 2000.
Solo at Trax in Charlottesville (1992-11-02):
With Sebastian Steinberg and Yuval Gabay at The Metro in Chicago, IL (2000-10-13):
With Alan Gevaert and Max S. at Burgerhaus in Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg Germany (2001-03-17):
Here’s an example of how Chris frequently incorporated EC into Phone Call from Leavenworth
Cafe de la Danse in Paris, FR (2001-11-07):
Taj Mahal: Light Rain (traditional)
Chris again at Trax:
Taj Mahal’s original:
Townes Van Zandt: Pancho and Lefty
With Joe Lawlor at Martyrs (2002-05-24):
Townes Van Zandt’s original:
Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield)
I still listen to old delta blues that I grew up on, I still listen to Muddy Waters … blues of a certain period you’re like: what kind of music is this? It’s so powerful … you’re like: what’s going on with that guy? [Poet Maudit]
I never studied any old blues records or slide guitarists. I listened to and have high regard for artists like Son House, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, but I never tried to emulate them. [Dirty Work]
When I started slide, I started off with a lot of the built-in esthetics of some of that early Muddy Waters and Johnny Winters stuff that I had heard, but as a songwriter – I mean, for me, as a selfish writer, I didn’t particularly want to play a kind of music. I just wanted to write songs and talk about how I felt. Certain forms or mediums can be limiting that way, so I never really took to particular people that much, just because I sort of wanted to do my own thing. [Stark Images ….]
Chris appreciated the early, primal, 1-chord “rural blues” of musicians such as Muddy Waters, but did note that “the guys … didn’t really know about structure, like one record would be in just one key, like “E”, even old Muddy, each song is exactly the same ones with different lyrics, well, not everything, I’m exaggerating.” [Morning Coffee]
Can’t Be Satisfied
We have just a one-minute clip of Chris covering this song in 1980s Belgium and no audio/video evidence that he ever played it again. Maybe it was in regular rotation when he was busking on the streets of NYC, which Alan Thompson, who knew Chris at that time, suggests in an ATCW post.
Down South Blues
Identifying the origins of this Muddy Waters’ song’s proved difficult because there are several old blues songs that have the same title (e.g., one credited to Ethel Waters/Fletcher Henderson/Alberta Hunter, another – or possibly a cover of the previous – sung by Dock Boggs, two totally different ones performed by Dave Von Ronk and Sleepy John Estes, and who knows how many others). Adding to the confusion is Chris’s changing (and mumbling) some of the lyrics. For example, the first verse is mostly Muddy Waters:
Well I’m goin’ down south child
This weather here’s too cold
You know I’m goin’ down south child
This weather here’s too cold
I gotta lay around Chicago I ain’t got change in clothes
… but Chris substitutes “New York town” for Chicago and “I don’t got my ass no change of clothes.”
Chris at Blues Harbor in Atlanta, Georgia (1992-10-08):
Compare to Muddy Waters (definitely the one Chris covers):
Standin’ Around Crying
Chris at The Loft in Berlin (1992-02-27):
Too Young to Know
This is another one of those songs that Chris seems to have performed live exactly once, in this case Batschkapp in Frankfurt Germany (1992-02-24).
Listen to Muddy Waters:
With the exception of Waters’ “She’s Alright,” it seems that Chris primarily drew from Waters’ catalog early in his touring career as a way of expanding his repertoire; the same can be said of his Robert Johnson covers.
Johnny Winter: Dallas
He switched to the acoustic National Steel after hearing “Dallas,” a slide blues number from Johnny Winter’s first album. “It was a crazed record,” he said. “I got into it, really, because all of that sort of blues/rock stuff – that sound – was just one guy playing and singing his thing. I didn’t even think it was blues. The sound was really appealing to me somehow – on a spiritual, almost subliminal level.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer 1992
Certain albums hold sacred places in people’s hearts. They know every chorus, verse, and bridge of one particular LP. …. For dobro ace Chris Whitley, it’s definitely Johnny Winter’s Johnny Winter. “To me, it’s just the best blues-rock record ever made,” says Whitley, on the line from Nashville, Tennessee. “There’s one track, ‘Dallas’, where he played National steel guitar, and it’s the song that made me get close to a steel guitar. But the electric guitar on it’s incredible, too.” The Georgia Strait 1991
Chris at the Space Needle in Seattle (1991-11-19):
Steve Winwood: Can’t Find My Way Home
This is another one of those unexpected covers. I would not have guessed that Chris listened to Winwood, although I guess Winwood’s collaboration with Jimi Hendrix on the epic 15-minutes of “Voodoo Chile” might offer a clue.
Chris again with Joe Lawlor at Martyrs’ (2002-05-24):
ZZ Top: Jesus Just Left Chicago
This track is clearly a cover of the ZZ Top song – again, seemingly played only once. Billy Gibbons (ZZ guitarist) provides an interesting note about the song’s origins:
There was a buddy of mine when we were teenagers — everybody called him R&B Jr. He had all these colloquialisms. He blurted out “Jesus just left Chicago” during a phone conversation and it just stuck. We took what could have been an easy 12-bar blues and made it more interesting by adding those odd extra measures. It’s the same chords as “La Grange” with the Robert Johnson lick, but weirder. Robert Johnson was country blues — not that shiny hot-rod electric stuff. But there was a magnetic appeal: “What can we take and interpret in some way?”
Chris at Blues Harbor (Atlanta, Georgia) 1992-10-08:
Compare to ZZ Top: