BEVERLY — Rock ‘n’ roll soul screamer Barrence Whitfield, the lead singer of Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, has toured Europe, backed up Tina Turner, sang with Los Lobos, and opened for George Thorogood.
Not bad for a guy who has lived in Beverly for over three decades and who first broke out on Boston’s music scene in the 1980s. At age 66, he’s still going strong. Whitfield has been married to his wife, Patti, for 34 years. She hails from a prominent Beverly Jewish family.
His soul screaming style, Barrence said, comes from gospel music. Many Black performers from the 1950s and ‘60s, including Little Richard – whom he got to meet in 1987 while touring in Belgium with the Savages – came out of the church.
Barrence Whitfield was born Barry White in Jacksonville, Fla., in a family that came from Brunswick, Ga. (He changed his name when he started to perform to avoid confusion with singer-songwriter Barry White.) He grew up in Newark and East Orange, N.J., and moved to Boston to attend Boston University on a full scholarship, which he only attended for one year.
“I ended up doing a little bit of odd jobs,” said Whitfield, including working as a security guard at the Harvard Coop. He went on to attend Emerson College to study journalism with an eye toward becoming a television reporter. “I was still into music because I had done it back in New Jersey growing up,” he said.
Whitfield & the Savages got their big break in 1985 when BBC Radio DJ Andy Kershaw caught them live at the former Channel nightclub in Boston. It was so hot that night on stage, Whitfield fainted toward the end of the set, and his friends carried him off the stage while the Savages kept playing.
“And, so Kershaw came backstage and said: ‘Barrence, are you OK? Are you all right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it was a little hot up there.’ And he said, ‘This is fantastic! This is great! I can’t wait to get back to London to tell everybody!’”
The band would go on to gain an international following. Whitfield kept on performing after the Savages broke up in 1995. Fifteen years later, they got back together.
A Spanish label called Munster Records put out their album, “Savage Kings,” in Spain. They also signed with Bloodshot Records in the United States.
Whitfield has toured Europe, and he recently appeared on a Los Lobos album.
The last time he played in Spain was in February 2020 just before the pandemic hit with a 28-piece orchestra performing before a crowd of 3,000. A few weeks later, every tour he had booked in Europe and the U.S. was canceled by COVID.
His wife’s grandfather, Sam Kransberg, was one of the first Jews born in Beverly, Patti said. He helped break ground on Temple B’nai Abraham. Her grandfather made his living in real estate and owned Kransberg Furniture on Cabot Street. Sam lived to be 94, residing with the couple toward the end of his life.
“It wasn’t so much [he] was a religious Jew but he was very proud of his ethnicity, we all are,” said Patti, who is 65.
The couple raised three children, and none of them were brought up within an organized religion, “yet they will all tell me they are Jewish,” Patti said. Her eldest two children are from a previous marriage.
Their daughter, Allegra, is now 28. In addition, they have five grandchildren. Patti’s 93-year-old mother, Phyllis, lives in the same apartment building as they do.
Patti says it was not easy when she started dating Barrence. She knows there are racists and bigots in the world and that there are people who hate Jews. She faced antisemitism growing up as a “scrappy” kid in Beverly Farms.
“You like who you like,” Patti said, about falling in love with someone regardless of race or religion.
Patti was 32 and Barrence was 34 when the couple met in 1989 while she was going through a divorce.
“When I met him I went to see him play at a club,” Patti said, “I had no intentions of meeting him and falling in love with him.” They met at Grover’s in Beverly, just before he went on stage.
They struck up a conversation, and Whitfield knocked her socks off with his performance. “It was like the best show I had ever seen,” she said. Afterward, they talked, exchanged phone numbers, and he called her a couple of days later.
“It hit me so quick,” said Barrence of falling in love with Patti. He proposed after they dated for just three months on New Year’s Eve 1990.
Over the years, Patti said the city’s Jewish community has proved to be a huge supporter of her husband’s music. A performance at Lynch Park for Homecoming 20 years ago drew more than 10,000 people.
“Every Jewish person from the temple that I grew up with was there,” Patti said.