Chris Whitley

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For the Canadian ice hockey goaltender, see Chris Whitley (ice hockey).
Chris Whitley
Chris Whitley 1998.jpg
Chris Whitley in concert in Belgium, 1998
Background information
Birth name Christopher Becker Whitley
Born (1960-08-31)August 31, 1960
Houston, Texas
United States
Died November 20, 2005(2005-11-20) (aged 45)
Houston, Texas
United States
Genres Blues rock, Blues, Alternative rock
Occupations Musician, Songwriter
Instruments vocals, resonator guitar, guitar, banjo, dobro, foot stomp
Years active 1983–2005
Labels Columbia, Work, Messenger, Classic, ulfTone, Valley Entertainment, ATO, Legacy, Sony, Red Parlour, Tradition & Moderne
Associated acts Daniel Lanois, Trixie Whitley
Notable instruments
1931 National Style O
1931 National Triolian

Christopher Becker Whitley (August 31, 1960[1] – November 20, 2005)[2] was an American blues/rock singer-songwriter and guitarist.

Early life[edit]

Whitley was born in Houston, Texas and learned to play guitar when he was fifteen.[3] His father was an art director and his mother was a sculptor. During his youth he lived in Dallas, Texas, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Mexico and Vermont. His parents "grew up on race radio in the South" and their musical tastes—including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix—influenced Whitley.[4]


Whitley playing guitar on stage with Alan Gevaert

During the early 1980s Whitley was busking on the streets of New York City and collaborating with musicians Marc Miller, Arto Lindsay and Michael Beinhorn.[4][5] He was given a plane ticket to Ghent, Belgium in 1983, and lived there for four years, recording several albums and playing with the bands Kuruki, 2 Belgen, Nacht Und Nebel, Alan Fawn, and A Noh Rodeo.[6]

In 1988, producer Daniel Lanois heard Whitley perform at the Mondo Cane club in New York City and he helped Whitley obtain a recording contract with Columbia Records. In 1991 two of Whitley's songs charted on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts: "Big Sky Country" (#36) and "Living with the Law" (#28).[7]

In 2000, Whitley recorded his album Perfect Day, an album of covers, with Chris Wood and Billy Martin—both from the jazz trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood—as his backing band. His follow-up album Rocket House (2001) featured guest appearances by Dave Matthews, DJ Logic, Stephen Barber, Blondie Chaplin, and Bruce Hornsby.[8]

In early 2004, Whitley's song "Breaking Your Fall" from Hotel Vast Horizon (2003) won an Independent Music Awards for Best Folk/Singer-Songwriter Song.[9] He won again the following year in The 4th Annual Independent Music Awards for Best Blues/R&B Song for "Her Furious Angels" from War Crime Blues (2004).[10] Whitley was also an inaugural member of The Independent Music Awards' judging panel to support independent artists.[11] Whitley recorded a collaborative project with Jeff Lang in April 2005 called Dislocation Blues.[12]

He performed as a featured guest on albums for many musicians including Shawn Colvin, Cassandra Wilson, Rob Wasserman, Johnny Society, Joe Henry, Michael Shrieve, Chocolate Genius, Ely Guerra, Goat, Dave Pirner, Clint Mansell, DJ Logic, Little Jimmy Scott, Mike Watt and Daniel Lanois.[citation needed]

Whitley appeared in the concert film documentary Hellhounds on my Trail - The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, performing Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail" solo and "Walkin' Blues".[citation needed]

Style and influences[edit]

Whitley's style was rooted primarily in the blues but drew on an array of influences.[2] In 2001, the New York Times described his act as "restless, moving into noise-rock and minimalist jazz evoking Chet Baker and Sonic Youth as much as Robert Johnson".[13] Whitley himself refused to be classified in one genre as an artist, and dodged radio-friendly pop songs, insisting that he could never sincerely create and perform them.[2] Whitley played a brand of confessional acoustic and electric blues, mixed with rock. His lyrics often contained overt sexual and religious references and sometimes bordered on the surreal.[citation needed]

He was fond of playing songs by Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan as well as Lou Reed, James Brown, J.J. Cale, The Clash, Nat King Cole, The Doors, Willie Dixon, The Flaming Lips, Jimi Hendrix, Howlin' Wolf, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, The Passions, Prince, The Stooges, and Sonny Boy Williamson II.[12]


According to musician Dave Matthews: "I feel more passion for his music than I do for my own. I have a fervent, religious devotion to the magic that Chris Whitley makes"[14] and Robert Lockwood, Jr. commented "[That] boy...plays like three men."[15]

A music reviewer at the Detroit Free Press said: "The notable constant has been the quality of craftmanship, and the consistent question of how Whitley's combination of super songs, muscular-but-poetic lyrics, athletic voice and rock-god guitar work hasn't earned him a wider audience" while a writer at Rolling Stone magazine said: "The post-Hendrix explosion of whammybar wankers hasn't produced a single axeman who can compare to Chris Whitley. His eerie, bluesy voice and American gothic tunes frequently draw attention from the fact that he picks like a pissed off Doc Watson jacked through a Marshall stack".[citation needed]

Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby, Tom Petty, Jacob Golden, Myles Kennedy, Don Henley, Iggy Pop, Alanis Morissette, Sandi Thom, John Mayer, Gavin DeGraw, Joey DeGraw, Johnny A., Keith Richards and Roland Chadwick all count themselves admirers of Whitley's music.[15][16][17][18]


In fall 2005, Whitley canceled his tour due to health issues. His brother, Dan Whitley, commented on November 11, 2005 that Chris was "in a comfortable warm home with hospice care at his disposal". Later that week it was revealed that Whitley was terminally ill with lung cancer. He died on November 20, 2005 in Houston, Texas at the age of 45.[2][14][19]

Whitley's death received coverage in Time, the New York Times, National Public Radio and a mention at the 2006 Grammy Awards.[citation needed] After his death, the musician John Mayer said, "[When] Chris Whitley died...with him went a big part of modern American blues music. There aren't many fighters for the cause, and Chris never gave up on his mission. His somewhat prostrated place in pop culture earned him a sidebar of an obituary, but to those who knew his work, it registers as one of the most underappreciated losses in all of music."[15]

Personal life[edit]

Whitley is survived by his brother Dan and his daughter Trixie Whitley, a Brooklyn-based musician.[19]


Whitley playing his resonator guitar

Whitley used various alternate tunings and often played slide guitar on a National resonator guitar and other musical equipment such as:[20]



  1. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Chris Whitley biography". Allmusic biography. 2010 Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 12 October 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d Dansby, Andrew (Nov 23, 2005). "Singer-songwriter Chris Whitley dies at 45 Bluesman, rocker was always reinventing himself". Obituary for Chris Whitley. Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 15 October 2010. 
  3. ^ Irwin, Colin (29 November 2005). "Chris Whitley: Eclectic singer-songwriter". Comprehensive Obituary. The Independent. Retrieved 22 November 2010. 
  4. ^ a b "Chris Whitley 1960 - 2005". Biography, Soft Dangerous Shores press release. Messenger Records. 2010. Retrieved 22 November 2010. 
  5. ^ "A Noh Rodeo". The Belgian Pop and Rock Archive. SABAM,. December 2001. Retrieved 22 November 2010. 
  6. ^ Biography, Allmusic
  7. ^ Billboard, Allmusic
  8. ^ See Album Credits for Rocket House and Perfect Day.
  9. ^ Independent Music Awards - 3rd Annual Winners
  10. ^ Independent Music Awards - 4th Annual Winners
  11. ^ Independent Music Awards - Past Judges
  12. ^ a b The Chris Whitley Discography
  13. ^ Powers, Ann (July 12, 2001). "POP REVIEW; Blues With a Scratch". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 November 2010. 
  14. ^ a b "Singer/Songwriter Chris Whitley Dies". Billboard. Billboard Magazine news. 2010. Retrieved 20 November 2010. 
  15. ^ a b c Esquire magazine, February 28, 2006
  16. ^ Messenger Records Hotel Vast Horizon press release
  17. ^, Newsletter - 2001 Recap
  18. ^, News, February 2009
  19. ^ a b Bambarger, Bradley (November 2005). "Chris Whitley (1960-2005)". Messenger Records. Retrieved 13 May 2014. 
  20. ^ a b Rodgers, Jeffrey Pepper (September 1998). "Gearbox Chris Whitley". Acoustic Guitar. String Letter Publishing, Inc. pp. page 48. Archived from the original on 17 September 2012. 

External links[edit]