Chris Whitley always played as if his life depended on it. Sometimes, as in his 2004 manifesto War Crime Blues, the emotion was so raw you could practically taste the blood on the strings of his National steel guitar. Other times it was more of a throbbing ache, as in this year’s Soft Dangerous Shores, his last dispatch as an expat in Dresden, Germany. He came home to die in Houston, Texas, where he was born in 1960, and passed on November 20, of lung cancer.
The news of his death came hard on the heels of Katrina and out of left field, like She did. The intensity of the last few weeks as he lay dying, smack in the middle of the Houston diaspora of New Orleans evacuees, was straight out of a Chris Whitley song. A menacing “City of Women” where “everywhere I go is wet and red.” A city of “Soft Dangerous Shores,” where “no one lives to tell of paradigm shifts you know so well.” A city not unlike New Orleans, where Whitley recorded his classic 1991 Columbia debut Living with the Law in Daniel Lanois’ fabled Kingsway studio. Malcolm Burns produced both his first and his final album, which bookend a career that was born on the streets of New York, honed in juke joints and Euro dance clubs, and produced a wildly eclectic, emotionally consistent body of work that was sometimes uncannily oracular. He always told the truth.
When I watched him coming up in New York on the cusp of the ’90s, he was a driven, driving, incredibly sexy guitar slinger and the only serious rival to John Campbell, who was making a heavenly noise with his National steel around the same time. (There were even a couple to-die-for double bills). What set Whitley apart were his songs. The sepia-toned portraits on Living with the Law, which cast him as a Sam Shepard antihero, had the harsh, bright beauty of “Big Sky Country” with just enough Big Easy ooze to make a lot of smart chicks want to “Kick the Stones” out of his bed. Then he disappeared for four years. He came back with a bang on Din of Ecstasy (Sony, 1995), turning the volume up to 11 with screaming existentialist blues that anticipate 9/11. Later, in a fine series of albums for Messenger records, he followed his muse wherever she led him, from his father’s Vermont barn, where he recorded Dirt Floor in a single day, to the Hotel Vast Horizon of his adopted home of Dresden, where dreadful memories of the Allied firebombing linger to this day. “No one was spared and nothing was learned,” he sings on “Fireroad,” a cautionary tale for post-K New Orleans. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Faced with “the news how the world gave way tonight,” he sets a “Medicine Wheel” spinning and tells us to “sustain your heart protect your light.” Fortunately, we have Whitley’s music to help us do that. He, and it, will be mightily missed.—Cree McCree
Joe Jones, musician, producer, publisher, and black musicians’ rights advocate, has died at age 79 in Los Angeles, following bypass surgery and a long battle with prostate and colon cancer. Jones, whose “You Talk Too Much” was covered by many a New Orleans band, was a music publisher and staunch—sometimes overboard—advocate for black musicians’ rights. Jones once threatened OffBeat then-editor Keith Spera with a lawsuit for interviewing a young black musician without Jones’s consent. OffBeat planned a cover story and photo for the young musician, who had just signed a deal with Quincy Jones’s Qwest label. Jones threatened OffBeat with a lawsuit, so the cover story was dropped. Jones was also responsible for putting New Orleans’ musical girl group, the Dixie Cups, on the map.
The director of Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, a documentary that presented New Orleans legends Allen Toussaint, Tuts Washington and Professor Longhair playing together in the studio, was found dead of a gunshot wound in his home on Banks Street in New Orleans.
Palfi had lost much in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; his Mid-City home was severely flooded and Palfi was staying with his ex-wife at the time. Suicide is suspected, and his death is currently under investigation by the NOPD.
“His seminal work was non-pareil as a rare, timely and brilliant piece of documentary film-making. Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair, died during the filming of this work. Stevenson had the foresight to capture the entire second line celebration of Fess’ life and death.” said Justin Zitler, attorney for SongByrd Inc., the Professor Longhair estate.
Informed of Palfi’s death, Allen Toussaint said, “My friend Stevenson Palfi’s life’s work was immortalizing others and in so doing, he has immortalized himself. His work will outlast all of us.”
Composer, arranger, vocalist, pianist and Bonerama trombonist, Brian O’Neill passed away suddenly after suffering an apparent heart attack while on a solo piano gig in New Orleans
O’Neill was noted for his work with Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders in the ’70s as well as being a mainstay of the popular New Orleans R&B vocalist Luther Kent’s band “Trick Bag” for the past 25 years. As a freelance trombonist O’Neill was one of the most frequently-called trombonists in New Orleans. O’Neill penned the most recent “Bone Up” from the Bonerama’s Live From New York. O’Neill appeared in countless sit-ins with the Bonerama horns including appearances with Gov’t Mule and the Radiators.
Fellow Bonerama trombonist Mark Mullins recalls, “I met Brian on a gig at a Mardi Gras parade 21 years ago and after the first song I realized that is what I wanted to sound like. To have him in the Bonerama band was just a constant inspiration on both a personal and musical level. There was so much he had not had a chance to say yet.”