The Life and Music of Chris Whitley: A Timeline


In honor of Chris’s birthday this year – and in gratitude for the unforgettable music and the prescient insights he gave us, I’ve compiled this timeline of his truncated but productive life. I ‘snagged’ the timeline that used to appear at chriswhitley.com and then expanded it with many more moments and a lot of photos and other media, including links to relevant articles available elsewhere on All Things Chris Whitley. If there are ‘moments’ in Chris’s timeline missing here, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll add them.

Early Life

1960      August 31.  Christopher Becker Whitley is born in Houston, TX, the first child of Jerry Randall Whitley, then an aspiring art director, and Mikael Becker Whitley, an aspiring sculptress.

Baby Chris

1960 to approx. 1970      The family, including Chris’s younger brother Daniel and sister Bridget, made their home in Texas, Oklahoma, and Connecticut.

The Whitley Children

1971       First musical public appearance in Connecticut. Chris played harmonica in a cover band (songs by Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, The Rolling Stones).  When he was about 11 years old, his parents divorced and his mom moved with the children to an artist colony (San Miguel de Allende) in Mexico and shortly thereafter to Vermont.  Chris bonded with his now long-distance dad racing dirt bikes throughout his early teens until a father-son argument led Chris to pursue his musical interests (lucky for us!).

B/W photo from Warren Stewart; color photo from Jerry Whitley.

1974        Now living in Vermont, Chris gets his first guitar, a Hagstrom Electric, from a family friend which he later trades for a National.

1977 –      Quits high school and moves to New York City.  Busks the streets, works as a bike messenger, performs in … prisons! … and the bars and clubs of NYC, as captured in this video excerpt from the Scrapyard documentary:

 

Plays guitar in another band (Blue), gigs at CBGB’s to name but one, and records a demo at The Record Plant:

Chris with band Blue playing in Washington Square Park (NYC) 1978

 

Life in Belgium

1981      Meets Belgian travel agent, Dirk Vandewiele in Washington Square Park, NYC. Vandewiele helps Chris fly to Belgium to play a few gigs. Whitley remains in Gent, Belgium for nearly a decade. First gig at Mallemunt – August 21, 1981 in Brussels.

Some photos from early days in Belgium:

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1982      Chris forms his own band, Noh Rodeo, [aka A Noh Rodeo] with girlfriend Hélène Gevaert, her brother Alan Gevaert (who would become his on-and-off bass player throughout the nineties), and Marc Claeys, aka Little Jimmy. The band plays a weird mixture of dobro and percussion.  A very first version even includes NYC friend Peter Conway on harmonica (Conway would do the same thing on Chris’s critically acclaimed debut Living With The Law).  Listen to Noh Rodeo on YouTube.

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1983      Plays guitar on Nacht Und Nebel’s Beats Of Love, which becomes a dance floor hit in Belgium and France. Returns to New York for a few months, where he records with Material’s Marcus Miller, John Zorn and Arto Lindsay. This recording hasn’t surfaced yet.

1984      Plays guitar and guitar synth in another band called Kuruki on their singles Marina Key/Just a Cat and Action.

The video for Just a Cat :

 

Also in 1984, Noh Rodeo-track (Trojan Kiss – live version here) appears on a Belgian cassette sampler Made In Belgium 3.  Chris appears as guest on Alan Fawn’s The Third Man.

1986      Noh Rodeo releases the mini-LP Cool & Groovy, a very European sounding electro-pop-funk record.  Listen on YouTube.  Chris and band-mate Hélène Gevaert marry.

Chris & Helene from Joepie (Belgian music magazine) 11-23-1986

1987      Noh Rodeo split, daughter Trixie is born (June 24). Chris goes solo again and on occasion performs with Little Jimmy, e.g., this aggressive Smokestack Lightning.

Writes Big Sky Country (listen to an early recording with Chris on guitar-synth here), Bordertown and Phone Call From Leavenworth, which would later be featured on his debut album, Living with the Law.

Late in 1987, Chris plans his return to NYC and asks John Campbell to find a good guitar for him – a guitar we now know as the iconic Mustard.

Return to NYC and ‘Launch’

1988      Joined by his wife and daughter, Chris finds a job in a picture framing factory, but continues to write and play.

Chris, Hélène, and Trixie in NYC

Trixie recalls that time:

The first place we lived in as a family was in a basement studio on West-17th St & 9th Ave. My dad was busking for cash and working as a woodworker in a frame factory at the time. I remember the little bunk bed he had built for me inside the closet, to give you an idea of how small our studio was. My mother had quickly found a gig teaching French classes to children in after-school programs and together with a friend she soon opened up her own dance studio on Hudson St.

1989     While playing a gig at Exterminator Chili, Chris meets a photographer, Karen Kuehn:

He was singing and tapping that foot as he did….I was in awe of his talent.  Rather than tip him I gave him a note that said “good for one free photo shoot.”  We shot a lot and became friends.  I told my boy friend at the time (Dan Lanois) “you have to hear this guy.”  Dan was in awe of him too…still in awe.

Some of Kuehn’s photos:

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Dan accompanied Chris and Karen on the photo shoot, struck up a friendship with Chris, and invited him to come to Lanois’ Kingsway Studios in New Orleans.  As Chris recalled to Rolling Stone,

“So I came down here and just hung out and swept floors when they were shooting a video. And then I decided to come down for the fun of it during the jazz festival last year. Dan’s band played the festival, and I got to play their guitar roadie for the day.”

The night of the show, Lanois threw a huge bash at his house. One of the guests was a music-publishing executive named Kathleen Carey. “I asked him [Lanois] if he knew any great songwriters in New Orleans,” says Carey, “and he told me about Chris.” Carey was looking for a local songwriter to collaborate with another of her writers, but Whitley informed her that he really wasn’t from New Orleans and also wasn’t particularly interested in collaborating. He did, however, give her a tape of some of his songs, including rough versions of “Big Sky Country,” “Poison Girl” and “Phone Call From Leavenworth.”

[Note:  For an excellent perspective of Chris’s pre-LWTL years, I encourage you to read the entire Rolling Stone article – insightful to read Chris describing these years in his own words.]

As documented in this clip from the Dust Radio documentary, numerous record labels competed to sign Chris, with Columbia winning that effort and then giving Chris and his music “the big push”:

 

Music Career

1991      Columbia releases Living With the Law (July 2), a record full of unique and original tracks with a serious folk blues slant.  A few days earlier (1991-06-21), Chris opens for Bob Dylan on his European tour [listen to Chris’s set], performs at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival (Switzerland), and opens for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on their American tour.  A LA Times review of the show at Pacific Amphitheatre (Costa Mesa, CA) described Chris’s opening  performance:

Newcomer Chris Whitley and his three-man band opened with a half-hour of cinematic, big screen blues. Keyboardist Malcolm Burn created those wide, arid landscapes on synthesizers, leaving it to Whitley to probe them restlessly on slide guitar.  In a wounded voice that recalled Lowell George, Whitley sang impressionistic, understated songs whose main current was a roiling sexuality. Slender, with lank blond hair, Whitley could have been Axl Rose’s slightly weathered older brother. He cut a shy but intense figure, announcing songs in a voice barely above a whisper, then hunching over his microphone, playing his guitar from an odd, crook-bodied stance. Whitley came off as a promising all-around talent who, with some luck, might be able to hit home with the audience that fell for Chris Isaak’s steamy roots-music.

Rolling Stone described Chris and LWTL in glowing terms:  “a visionary,” “bona fide poetry,” “there hasn’t been music as wise as Whitley’s in quite some time.”

1992     At the 1992 Grammys, LWTL makes the top-10 list of Critics’ Choices.  European, American tour. Guest musician on Cassandra Wilson’s Blue Light Til Dawn and Shawn Colvin’s Fat City. Appears on soundtracks for Fathers And Sons and Thelma and Louise.

With Cassandra Wilson – I Can’t Stand the Rain:

With Shawn Colvin – Set the Prairie on Fire:

 

1993      Guest musician and singer/songwriter on Rob Wasserman’s Trios.

Home Is Where You Get Across

Appears on another movie soundtrack, So I Married An Axe Murderer.

Starve to Death

Chris and Hélène separate, and Hélène and Trixie return to Belgium.  Stuart Coupe – promoter on the Australia tour (see below) recalls that Chris “talked constantly about his child and the recent break-up with his partner.”

Short albeit eventful (in sometimes negative ways!) tour of Australia, including an excellent set at Sydney’s The Basement – where Chris first met Jeff Lang.  Plays a solo set at KFOG’s Concert for Kids, an annual charity event to raise funds for a local children’s hospital and for a Christmas toy drive.

 

1994      Plays guitar on yet another Cassandra Wilson record, New Moon Daughter.

Strange Fruit

March 26:  Joins Rob Wasserman, Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby and others for a Trios concert at the Beacon Theater in NYC.

Throughout 1993 – 1994, Chris, drummer Dougie Bowne, and bassist Alan Gevaert recorded the songs that would become Din of Ecstasy.  Recording occurred at Sony NYC, Muscle Shoals, Baby Monster, and Electric Ladyland studios, as captured in these photos:

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Dougie described some of that process:

The months leading up to Din, months and months of rehearsals, might be looked at a couple of ways. Chris had a surprisingly detailed view of what he wanted to achieve, and what the record would sound like in the end, evident to me the day we first met at Cornelia Street Cafe, so a good deal of the longish time it took to actually make the thing had to do with trying to paint with the new colors that he was, right then, adding to his palette. There were other factors, of course, not the least of which was dealing with the corporate forces that were, and this is always the case, resistant to any whiff of change that might be in the room, and what was in the air was not a delicate scent.

A huge amount of time was spent playing together, but also talking, we talked all the time, about the musics that we loved, the bands – Hendrix’s Gypsies and The Experience, AND of course the hybrids, how Jimi’s thing was different when Billy was playing, or Mitch; Cream, Sly, Parliament, from Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley band, to James Brown’s band, all of the stuff that we knew of while we were growing up – to try and make a thing that might be somehow more than just Chris’s songs in front of a wall of Marshall stacks, his poetry and a digital fuzz tone.

Chris was searching and knew that this was how to go about doing what we knew was the real thing, as opposed to a simulacrum. There was a ton of experimentation; we could play the songs the day I walked in. Finding the details that will inevitably reveal themselves after a few plays, being aware enough to grab hold of them, that’s what you hope is going on, and I think that’s what we were up to. I know that [Thelonious] Monk said the first take is the best take, but I also know that my favorite groups were like basketball teams: they got to know what the other folks on the court might be going to do. Most of the time.

Getting sounds, especially for Chris, was of tremendous importance, and we constantly talked about Jimi’s tone. To me it was as if you could hear the wood of Jimi’s Stratocaster, it always sounded organic no matter how much electricity was involved. Chris spoke of this, it has meaning, and just like the tone of a YoYo [Ma], a [Pablo] Casals, a Sirota, or a Miles [Davis], it does affect the end experience, it’s one of the parts of the music that he took as seriously as he did the words that he constantly massaged to say what he needed for them to say. Don’t get me wrong, there was an element of dudes sitting around talking about dirtbike mods here, but there was also, undeniably, the element of the poetry that is involved in the voice, electric guitar, bass and drum set being a transcendental force, capable of use as a vehicle. It can be, it’s a good ride.

1995      Chris and Hélène divorce.  Years later, during an interview with Anil Prasad, Chris described how his disintegrating marriage influenced Din:

I was breaking up with my wife of 13 years and dealing with my own morality issues. I realized that maybe a lightning bolt wouldn’t strike me if I split up with her. I was also madly in love with someone else at the time. I was asking myself a lot of questions like “What is my dogma about relationships? Why do people stay together when they’re not happy? Why is it called love when it’s a need? Why is it called sexual fulfillment when it’s just fucking?” That’s where the content for the album came from. It was a social response to a personal, intimate thing. I was trying to articulate all of that stuff, but I think I lost some people with that album because it wasn’t just a guy screaming out loud.

Sony Work releases Din Of Ecstasy (March 21), a loud, raw and intense electric record, totally unlike the successful Living With The Law. Regarded by some as his best and most intense work, equal to Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night and Lou Reed’s Berlin, Din was rejected by a lot of early fans.  Sony also ‘rejected’ Din, in contrast to its ‘big push’ of LWTL, as Chris recalled in a Jambands interview a few years later:

Then when Din came out we started a tour. We did five nights and every town we went to was sold out. But at the first gig the president of the label came down and said to me, “We’re not going to promote this so start writing another record.” That was the first gig of a two month tour. We were going off on the road which isn’t easy and it was all massive frustration and doubt. That’s the kind of shit that makes people give up playing music because it just becomes no fun. It’s all business and you don’t remember why you started writing songs. That’s the biggest danger, creative suicide.

American and European tour.  Appears as guest on Mike Watt’s E-ticket Ride/Piss-Bottle Man and Mindsurfin’, a record by the Belgian artist Dirk Blanchart.

1996      American tour as support for Warren Zevon. Guest on Goatboy’s Supercop.  Recording his next album (Terra Incognita) with Dougie Bowne at Blue Moon Racing in Vermont and El Teatro in Oxnard, CA.

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Chris talking about recording at El Teatro: 

 

1997      On February 18, Sony Work releases Terra Incognita, a musical mixture of his previous records. American and small European tour. Whitley and Sony part ways, due to lack of commercial success. Guest on Melissa Sheehan’s Kneel.

1998      Chris is signed as the first artist to the new Messenger label. On March 17, Messenger releases the successful solo acoustic Dirt Floor, recorded in two days in the Whitley barn in Vermont. Starts a seemingly never-ending tour throughout The States and Europe. Supports Alanis Morrissette. Plays guitar and sings on Goat’s Great Life and Wood by Johnny Society. Two Hands Clapping by drummer Billy Ward is released. Chris delivers two of his own tunes, which were already recorded in 1993, and a cover version of I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me) for Superbad @65: A Tribute to James Brown:

 

1999      Continues touring throughout Europe and the States. During a 3-day residence at Martyrs’, Chicago, IL, records songs for his first live album (Live at Martyrs’). Opens for Gov’t Mule (listen to Get Behind the Mule with Chris & Mule) and Johnny Lang on their US-tours. Plays guitar on Joe Henry’s Fuse.

2000      On May 16, Messenger releases Live at Martyrs’. Another European tour. Accompanied by Billy Martin and Chris Wood from the famous jazz trio Medeski-Martin-Wood, Valley Entertainment releases (July 25) the cover record Perfect Day, on which he interprets songs by The Doors, Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson, a.o. Followed by a short US tour with former Soul Coughing-members Yuval Gabay and Sebestian Steinberg. Release of Hellhounds On My Trail-DVD, a show held in Cleveland in 1998, in honor of Robert Johnson. The DVD includes a solo performance of Hellhounds On My Trail, and Chris plays guitar on Walkin’ Blues. Chris sings on Melissa Sheehan’s Goodnight Curve and plays on Johnny Society’s Clairvoyance.

2001      European tour with Alan Gevaert back in.  Signed to Dave Matthews’ ATO records.  On June 5, ATO releases Rocket House, a weird mixture of electronica, dobro and trip-hop blues. Guest musicians include Bruce Hornsby and DJ Logic.  American full-band tour including DJ Logic; small European tour accompanied by DJ BigWiz.  Appears on Chocolate Genius’ Godmusic and Steve Almaas’ Kingo A Wild One.

2002      Intensive one-month German tour as support of local heroes Stoppok, immediately followed by a US tour.  On September 3, Sony/Legacy releases the compilation album Long Way Around-An Anthology, which features some previously unreleased demos and alternate mixes. Moves to Dresden, Germany with Susann Buerger.  Appears as guest on former Soul Asylum-singer Dave Pirner’s Faces and Names and Ely Guerra’s Lotofire. Delivers songs (Moment of Calm plus LWTL) for the score of the Clint Mansell-movie Knockaround Guys.  (You can view Hiroshi Suda’s clips of the movie featuring these songs here.  Password:  ATCW)

2003      On February 24, ulfTone releases the atmospheric Pigs Will Fly, a German movie soundtrack, which Chris created together with Kai-Uwe Kohlschmidt and Warner Poland. A few weeks later (April 1), Messenger Records releases the acoustic jazzy Hotel Vast Horizon with Matthias Macht and Heiko Schramm. States and EU tour with the same band.

2004      On March 20, Messenger releases Weed, an acoustic interpretation of some of his older tunes, recorded on mini-disc in his Dresden bathroom, and the raw and intense solo acoustic and socially-politically engaged War Crime Blues, followed by two American tours.  Previously, these albums were available only at shows.

2005      On July 25, Messenger releases Soft Dangerous Shores, a unique but dark trip hop-blues record with the HVH-band.  Australian and US-tour.  Records two more albums: an electric full band effort [Reiter In] and a duo record with Australian singer/songwriter Jeff Lang [Dislocation Blues].

November 20:  Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; cradled by his brother Dan, daughter Trixie, and girlfriend Susann, Chris sheds his mortal coil, Houston, TX.  As Dougie Bowne, Chris’s long-time friend and drummer on Din and Terra said ….

Afterlife:  Tributes and Posthumous Releases

After Chris’s passing, musicians and fans celebrated his life and music in various tribute events.  And, again lucky for us fans, we were delighted by several posthumous releases.

2006     February 11:  Chris Whitley Memorial Concert – With a concert and celebration of Chris at the Windham Hotel in Bellows Falls, the Vermont tribute featured Dan Whitley, Melissa Sheehan, and others.

February 17:  Chris Whitley – A Musical Celebration of His Life and Spirit, NYC

March 3:  Chris Whitley Tribute, Vooruit, Ghent, Belgium

March 4:   A Night to Remember – Chris Whitley Tribute Concert, Austin, TX, featuring Shawn Colvin, John Egan, DJ Logic, Vernon Reid, Doug Pinnick, Charlie Sexton, et al.

March 5:  Houston tribute at Warehouse Live featuring many of the same musicians as the Austin tribute.

March 28:  Red Parlor releases Reiter In, with “the Bastard Club.”

August 19:  ABC Music releases Dislocation Blues, produced by Jeff Lang and awarded Best Blues and Roots Album by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) in 2007. The album peaked at number 64 on the ARIA Charts, becoming the highest-charting album in Australia for both artists.

August 20:  Dislocation Blues: Tribute to the Late Chris Whitley, Sydney Australia. A CD-release party celebrating Chris’s collaboration with Jeff Lang and remembering Chris and his music.

 

 

2007      March 3: 2nd Chris Whitley Tribute, Bellows Falls, VT.

2008      April 24 -26: 3rd Celebration of Chris Whitley, Bellows Falls and Saxtons River, VT  The YT playlist below includes videos of Alejandro Escovedo, Vernon Reid, Dan & Trixie Whitley, and others paying tribute to Chris.

On October 20, Tradition & Moderne releases On Air, Chris’s second live album, produced by Radio Bremen and recorded for ‘Sparkasse in concert’ on September 8, 2003, at Radio Bremen, Sendesaal, Germany.

 

2011      On September 26, 429 Records releases Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie, including Chris’s contribution On the High Lonesome:

2012      On May 7, Fire Records releases The Inner Flame: A Tribute to Rainer Ptacek, to which Chris (with Warren Zevon and Dave Pirner) contributed Powder Keg, recorded in a motel room December 6, 1996.  You can read more about this recording and about Chris and Warren here.

Echos from ‘The Other Side of the World’

I’m often haunted by the lyrics of Solid Iron Heart:

Meet me on the other side
Of the world
Meet me on the other side
Of the world
You’re farther away than anyone
Meet me on the other side
Of the world

It’s ten years now since our last formal message from ‘the other side’ – that 2012 release of Note of Hope.  Nonetheless, wondrous echos across the atmosphere reverberate through time and take form as, e.g., newly posted videos on YouTube, shared tracks from Danny Kadar’s stash, and new-to-me photos on Dan Whitley’s tribute page for his brother.  Lines from an Emily Dickinson poem express what Chris wrote in the lyrics of Din as “We all continue”:
But time slips away/Now there’s no return ….”  We can’t go back to those magic years when the bright spirit that was Chris Whitley graced the stage and shone so brilliantly in our lives.  But we can continue to embody the words Chris so often used in autographs:  “Love+Faith”.  Our love for Chris and the gift of his music – our membership in the church of Chris Whitley – motivates us to ensure that he continues.  As long as we “forget [him] every day,” that “very strange enchanted boy … a little shy and sad of eye, but very wise …” lives on.
Susann Buerger’s tribute video (from her now-defunct website):

3 thoughts on “The Life and Music of Chris Whitley: A Timeline

  1. This is wonderful and filled in a lot of smaller details that I wasn’t aware of. Grateful that I got to see Chris solo around 1998. Thanks for doing this!

    Like

  2. Thank you for the timeline. I miss Chris so much. Reading this reminded me how excited I’d be whenever a new album came out, and how he never ceased to surprise and challenge me with each new release.

    Like

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