Together with singer Roger Chapman, guitarist John “Charlie” Whitney was Family.
Born Richard John Whitney on June 24, 1944, in North Yorkshire, Whitney was a show-biz kid and was very active in the Leicester music scene by the mid-’60s. He started an R&B group (the Farinas) as a teenager, and even ran a small talent agency for the locals. Family was the final stage in an evolution of bands founded by Whitney, an evolution in both personnel and style. Over eight LPs and six years, Family continued to evolve and set the standard for truly “progressive” rock music.
Although Whitney was Family’s guitar player, his image was in direct contrast to other guitar slingers of that or any other period. He took solos, but most of the time he preferred to anc hor the song with solid guitar work, whether that was acoustic or electric. In many lineups, he allowed the bass players… John Weider, John Wetton and Jim Cregan… to step forward with lead guitar work. Whitney’s lead playing, based in standard blues and R&B, was satisfying; but that which is most notable is his songwriting.
Put simply, Family’s body of work was Roger Chapman’s words matched to the music of Charlie Whitney. Whitney will usually downplay his writing as basic ideas that were developed by the band as a whole, but when taking into account the range of styles over Family’s eight LPs and numerous singles, this is a heck of an impressive achievement.
Chappo and Charlie continued their partnership with the four-album Streetwalkers in the mid- to late ’70s. They haven’t worked together since. While Chapman has had a steady output of solo albums (14 originals and counting), Whitney has layed relatively low over the past 20 years. He formed Axis Point with Eddie Hardin for two albums in 1978 and 1980. He reportedly did some session work in the ’89s, but his casual acoustic blues and bluegrass outfit, Los Racketeeros, didn’t have a CD release until the self-produced, self-titled offering from 1995.
He has been kind enough to answer some questions through the post, so let’s get to it. (Originally published in Family fanzine “Weaver’s Answer” issue no. 7 – Fall 1999.)
A few choice words from Charlie Whitney…
Weaver’s Answer: You were born in Skipton, N. Yorkshire, but how did you end up in Leicester? Is it true that your parents were in the circus, or just a publicity story you came up with for the release of Family Entertainment?
Charlie Whitney: It’s true … My parents, Joe and Maidee Whitney, were in show business. So I spent the first five years of my life on the road, then I had to go to school so we settled just outside of Leicester. This is the basis of the song “Showbiz Joe” on Streetwalkers’ first album.
WA: Please tell us about the “Farinas” days. Did the band ever play outside of England?
CW: The “Farinas” played all over the Midlands and London, mostly at the 100 club supporting Pretty Things, Graham Bond, [the] Art Woods, etc.
WA: How did you first meet Roger Chapman?
CW: I first spoke to him at the Leicester Palais de Dance. I’d seen him sing once and we needed a singer for a gig; he couldn’t do it but introduced me to another singer, ca. early-60s.
WA: Do you know what became of some of the early players, like bassist Tim Kirchin or drummer Harry Ovenall? Is there a bit of a ‘Pete Best syndrome’ linked to their leaving the Farinas/Family at such an early stage?
CW: Tim Kirchin got married and moved to Brighton. 1 saw him a few times in the ’70s. Harry Ovenall still lives in Leicester and is involved in antiques. He was sacked because Jimmy Miller (producer) didn’t like his drumming. Also he [Ovenall] said our original songs were crap.
WA: How long did the Roaring Sixties moniker last? Wasn’t it hot playing in pin-striped suits?
CW: “Roaring ’60s” lasted only a few months, as we were getting labelled as the band who made the “We Love the Pirates” record. Those suits- QUE CALOR!
WA: You recorded demos for Kim Fawley under that name … any chance we might find them some day? And don’t worry, 1 already asked Kim …
CW: There’s maybe some acetates around somewhere.
WA: We know of your guitar influences while you were starting out in the Farinas (Chuck Berry, blues, etc.), but what influenced your songwriting once Family was getting together? The melody and composition are way beyond blues.
CW: In 1966-67 there was a whole lot of good music around. My influences were in folk/rock/raga/jazz. Lovin’ Spoonful, Tim Buckley, Oscar Brown Jnr. etc.
WA: Legend has it that when Family moved to London, they eventually shared a house with the Byrds. Can we imagine that you and Roger McGuinn were giving each other lessons on 12-string guitar?
CW: We played our first gig abroad with the Byrds (Rome Festival [May 1968]) and became friendly with them. So when they played in London, some came round to our house in Chelsea – Gram Parsons, Doug Dillard, Chris Hillman and the drummer…
WA: In your opinion, was Jim King pleased with Family’s “progressive” direction? His playing style changed and he gave up the 1st chair vocals to Roger.
CW: Jim didn’t do too much talking -the dark, silent type.
WA: Do you agree that Family’s sound was thickened with the addition of Poll Palmer?
CW: Maybe with the piano.
WA: Family’s guest players in the early days included Nicky Hopkins and Blue Weaver (on “Good Friend of Mine”, or so he told me).. Are there any other instances of uncredited session men/women on Family records?
CW: Blue Weaver is on “Good Friend of Mine”. Zoot Money (George Bruno) is on “Love is a Sleeper” and “Song for Lots”. Steve Winwood plays Mellotron on “Scene Through the Eye of a Lens”. Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Chris Wood play percussion on it too.
WA: What was behind the planning of the Anyway album? It is not a full-blown live album, yet it has all “new” songs on it.
CW: We recorded the whole concert at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, but only really liked the new songs.
WA: Whose idea was it to get do Vinci’s work for the Anyway cover?
CW: The band’s.
WA: We know who got the job when Family needed new members. Are there any auditions that didn’t pan out?
CW: We did audition a lot of bass players before John Wetton got the job.
WA: About Family’s changes in personnel, you’ve said “every time we change we’ve sort of come to the end of the thing with the guy that’s left”. What about Wetton?
CW: John left to join King Crimson… first we knew was the cover of Melody Maker.
WA: We’ve heard you play guitars, occasional bass and a little piano 1 organ. How’s Charlie Whitney behind a drum kit?
CW: In a word, useless- but I like programming drum machines.
WA: How about vocals… did you ever sing with Family? Who is that narrating in the song “It’s Only a Movie”?
CW: Not until Los Racketeeros – “What Will Be,” “What’s Really Yours” and “Burlesque.” Tony Ashton narrates “It’s Only a Movie.”
WA: Can you imagine any another artist covering a Family/Streetwalkers song?
CW: Jimmy Nail has just done a version of “My Friend the Sun” on his new CD- haven’t heard it yet! [Jimmy Nail was an actor on British TV before launching a singing career. He also had roles in 1996’s Evita and 1998’s Stitt Crazy.]
WA: Did you enjoy touring?
CW: I liked touring in short bursts, but really preferred recording.
WA: How did Streetwalkers concerts compare to those of Family? Was there as much energy expended?
CW: Just as much energy, I think, in both bands.
WA: Have you had a chance to hear the remastered Family CDs?
WA: What are your thoughts on reissuing the “missing” albums? Old Songs New Songs, Chapman/Whitney Streetwalkers, Downtown Flyers, Streetwalkers Live?
CW: I think they should all be out.
WA: What are the chances of seeing the two Axis Point albums reissued on CD?
CW: Eddie told me a couple of small labels were interested in releasing them, so maybe. The double-neck Gibson… This little red devil gave Family and Charlie some extra charisma in the image department. As legend has it. Family opened for Cream in 1967 and between sets, Eric Clapton offered to take it off of Charlie’s hands. Whitney politely declined.
WA: When did you acquire this?
CW: I spotted it in a Gibson catalogue, 1963. Ordered it with a 50% deposit. It finally arrived in 1964!
WA: Did you use the same one through all of the Family / Streetwalkers / Axis Point years?
WA: Did it ever wear out, and do you still have it?
CW: I still have it, with some different fittings- bridges, volume controls, etc.
WA: The guitar’s weight is definitely a down-side. What attracted you to that kind of guitar?
CW: Very heavy- I’d been using a Levin 12-string with a De Armond pick-up, so when I saw an electric 12-string, that was it. I’d been very influenced by Leadbelly’s playing.
WA: Tell us something about the double-neck acoustic that is mentioned on the Los Racketeeros album. Sounds expensive!
CW: It was handmade for me by Robert Armstrong, a guitar maker in Coventry. Sounds big and great- cost about $3,000.
Slide guitar… another pioneering mark of Whitney’s guitar playing was his use of lapsteel to embellish his sounds. It can be heard on such Family songs as “Hey Mr. Policeman,” “Observations from a Hill.” “Today” and “Spanish Tide.” He began using it even more in the music of Streetwalkers and Axis Point, while the Los Racketeeros album found him playing acoustic slide almost exclusively.
WA: Who were some slide players that influenced you?
CW: My influences were Blind Willie Johnson. Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Earl Hooker, etc. Low down dirty blues!
WA: Well, I’d say that your slide playing has gone way beyond blues … you often use the flavors found in country pedal steel and Dobro. Were you always playing lap-steel, or was it ever slide on a regular six-string guitar?
CW: It’s always been lap-steel – no bottleneck.
WA: What influenced you to incorporate slide into the extreme rock of Streetwalkers? It’s not your typical rock’n’roll instrument.
CW: Just the wild sound!.
WA: What model(s) did you use?
CW: 1 have quite a few lap slides- Rickenbacker, National, Weissenborn acoustic and an Oahu, which was the one I used on stage they’re all six-strings.
WA: What kind of music do you listen to these days?
CW: All kinds of stuff- blues, rock, bluegrass, Hawaiian.
Tim Buckley‘s 5/21/74 “Old Grey Whistle Test” session, featuring “Dolphins” and “Honey Man”, along with Tim Hinkley (b) and Ian Wallace (d). Hinkley and Wallace were part of Streetwalkers Mk. 1. The session is found on Tim Buckley’s Morning Glory.
Axis Point (1978-1981)
Was created by Charlie Whitney. Drummer Rob Townsend is ex-Family and Medicine Head. Guitarist Bob Tench of Humble Pie, Hummingbird, Widowmaker and Streetwalkers guests on the debut album as does Quatermass and Gillan bassist John Gustafson and additional drums by former Fancy and Judas Priest man Les Binks. Despite the undoubted pedigree of talent involved the second album, 1980’s Boast Of The Town, is generally regarded as uninspired.
Los Racketeeros (1981-present): Whitney’s blues/bluegrass group has a 16 year history, and they finally released their first album in 1995. This crossover rock-country album is in the same vein as Workingman’s Dead. All of the tunes are originals, except for a cover of “Burlesque.” The talents of Whitney can be heard throughout this CD, with many slides and rich 12-string tones to be had.
John Whitney AKA Charlie Whitney (1999): Whitney’s first solo CD is a product of his recent work in the home studio. An electric counterpart to Los Racketeeros, it features some great rockers, songs of rumination and a few tunes which expose his fascination with the sea. Whitney plays almost all the instruments, and he sings lead vocals throughout the album. His never-before-heard quirky vocal style, matched with his penchant for guitar slides, clearly shows his fondness for George Harrison. The record features 12 tracks, including a raw slide version of “My Friend the Sun.”
The Whitney Roberts Combo (1999?): “From the opening brace of songs through a compelling mix of of cutting edge Country and Cajun to Rock and Reggae the Whitney Roberts Combo bring together their musical influences both new and past, put them through a musical spin drier and add a dash of coherence.” – Pete Feenstra for Soundcheck Magazine