Charlie Whitney: The Heart of Family
Charlie Whitney was born Richard John Whitney on June 24, 1944 in Skipton, North Yorkshire, England. His parents, Joe and Maidee Whitney, were circus performers. When Whitney was five years old in 1949, the family moved outside Leicester so he could attend school.
In 1960, 16-year-old Whitney formed his first semi-professional group, The Rebels. The initial lineup featured Whitney on lead guitar (Fender Stratocaster) and vocals, 16-year-old bassist Rod Moore (1944-1966), bassist Graham Potterton, and drummer John “Ent” Entwhistle.
In 1961, 15-year-old Tony Bartholomew (b. Anthony Frederick James Bartholomew, Thursday, February 22, 1945, Foleshill Road, Foleshill, Coventry, Warwickshire, England), was attending Guthlaxton County Grammar School in Wigston. A passionate aspiring pop star, his friend Steve Marriott (not of Small Faces fame) informed him about a semi-professional band called The Rebels, led by Charlie Whitney and looking for a vocalist. Marriott secured Bartholomew an audition at Great Glen Village Hall, where he met The Rebels: Whitney, bassist Rod Moore, bassist Graham Potterton, and drummer John “Ent” Entwhistle. Bartholomew performed the Bobby Vee song “Rubber Ball” and his rendition earned him the open vocalist role. After trying out additional songs that evening to seal the deal, Bartholomew was sent home with sheet music to learn. The group became Tony Bart and the Rebels in January 1961.
Then one day Whitney told Bart he was going to take him to see what he described as the best group in Leicester called Johnny Taylor and the Strangers. So on the following Monday they both went by bus to the Village Hall in Whetstone village. What they saw when the stage curtains opened was four young men dressed in smart satin suits and the guitarist’s all had Red Fender guitars. Then the group’s singer Johnny Taylor appeared from the wings of the stage and started to sing. On the way home on the bus Whitney told Bart that’s what we have got to beat, so our band has a long way to go. Johnny Taylor and the Strangers would play some significance to Bart’s life later on.
So during the following months Tony Bart and the Rebels went out playing at various village halls for Rock’n’Roll dances, usually with a Trad Jazz Band. As the months progressed the band improved and started to get bookings at some of the dance halls in Leicester, but it was becoming obvious that some of the group members were just not making the grade.
Also by this time Whitney had met Harry Ovenall (b. Richard Harry Ovenall, Sunday, September 12, 1943, Thorpe Hall, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England) at Leicester Art and Tech College, both were on a foundation course and shortly after that Ovenall joined the group replacing drummer John Entwhistle. The next week link in the band was the bass player Graham Potterton, so once the decision had been made that he had to go, Rod Moore said that he would like to play bass so another one of Whitney’s college friend’s Pete Davis (b. Peter Davis, 1944) joined them on rhythm guitar, thus allowing Moore to move over to bass. Now they were ‘cooking,’ the equipment was getting better and gigs were getting better.
Then a new group name came about as a result of a printing error in local paper the Leicester Mercury when they were advertised to play at a Summer Festival in 1961, an outdoor event known as The Wistow Fiesta and the paper wrongly billed them as Tony Bart and the Revels and not The Rebels. So they stuck with the Revels due to the Duane Eddy thing.
So now everything was in place and the group were going great guns and then came the fateful day in Late 1962 when Tony Bart received a phone call from drummer Tommy Lorne, who played in a band called Johnny Taylor and the Strangers (formed in 1959 in Leicester). This group had a line-up of Johnny Taylor on lead vocals, guitar (b. John Maxwell Taylor, Lancashire, England), Stu Garbett on lead guitar, Ralph Douthwaite on rhythm guitar (1959 – 1963), Mike Smith on bass (b. Michael Smith) and Lorne on drums (1959 – 1963). Lorne informed Bart that their vocalist Taylor had been offered a job with another Leicester band called The Cardinals, who were off to work professionally in France and Germany and would Bart like to take his place. This was such an exciting offer that he just could not turn it down and so that was the end of his life with The Revels and Bart moved on to his life with Tony Bart and the Strangers. I think that his leaving was probably the reason that the musical direction of The Revels changed as Bart was a bit of a Elvis Presley/Cliff Richard type singer where as his replacement, James King (b. Alec Woodburn, Tuesday, May 5, 1942, Hawthorn Road, Kettering, Northamptonshire, England d. Monday, February 6, 2012, Middlewich, Cheshire, England), who was another friend of the bands from Leicester Art and Tech College, was completely different to Bart and was heavily into Rhythm & Blues. So one could argue that Bart did them a favour, although they didn’t think so at the time.
John “Charlie” Whitney’s musical odyssey, marked by innovation and versatility, is a story of constant evolution. As the founding force behind Family, Whitney was instrumental in steering the band through an evolution in both personnel and style over eight LPs in six years, setting a benchmark for what could be termed truly “progressive” rock music.
Distinct from the typical “guitar slinger” image of his era, Whitney’s approach to guitar playing in Family was grounded and versatile. He often opted to provide a solid foundation for songs, whether on acoustic or electric guitar, allowing bass players like John Weider, John Wetton, and Jim Cregan to step into the spotlight with lead guitar work. Whitney’s lead playing, rooted in standard blues and R&B, was compelling, but it was his songwriting that truly set him apart. The essence of Family’s sound was Roger Chapman’s lyrical narratives seamlessly married to Whitney’s musical compositions. While Whitney modestly attributes the band’s sound to collaborative efforts, the stylistic diversity across Family’s eight LPs and numerous singles speaks volumes of his songwriting prowess.
Post-Family, the Chapman-Whitney collaboration continued with the four-album stint of Streetwalkers in the mid to late 70s. After their partnership dissolved, Chapman pursued a steady stream of solo albums, while Whitney’s career took a quieter turn. He formed Axis Point with Eddie Hardin, releasing two albums in 1978 and 1980, and dabbled in session work in the 1980s. However, his passion project, Los Racketeeros, a casual acoustic blues and bluegrass group, didn’t see a CD release until their self-titled offering in 1995.
Whitney’s journey with Los Racketeeros, which he formed after reuniting with former Family drummer Rob Townsend, showcased his affinity for folk rock. The group, active in the pub and club circuit for nearly eighteen years, finally released an album in 1995 that echoed a Grateful Dead influence reminiscent of the “Workingman’s Dead” era.
In 1999, two decades after Chapman’s solo debut, Whitney released a solo album titled “John Whitney AKA Charlie Whitney.” This record, veering more towards electric than his work with Los Racketeeros, revealed Whitney’s unique vocal style, comparable in its distinctiveness to Chapman’s. The album, featuring twelve tracks where Whitney plays all the instruments, delves into themes of the sea and introspection, with a notable use of slide guitar. It even includes a reimagined version of Family’s “My Friend The Sun.”
Recorded in Whitney’s home studio and self-released due to major label disinterest in the UK, the album’s cover features a young Whitney with his guitar. Fans can obtain this intimate glimpse into Whitney’s musical psyche through a direct purchase, a testament to his commitment to sharing his art, irrespective of mainstream channels.
In 1999, Whitney has been kind enough to answer some questions from the original Strange Band website fanzine 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. I 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 Fowley under that name… any chance we might find them some day? And don’t worry, I 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 Jr. 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 Stir 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.
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
Tim Buckley: “Old Grey Whistle Test” Session – May 21, 1974
- Featured Performances:
- “Honey Man”
- Tim Buckley – Vocals
- Charlie Whitney – Guitar
- Tim Hinkley – Bass
- Ian Wallace – Drums
- Notable Mention: Tim Hinkley and Ian Wallace were integral members of Streetwalkers Mk. 1.
- Session Details: This memorable session, recorded on May 21, 1974, for the renowned “Old Grey Whistle Test”, captures Buckley’s unique artistry. The performances of “Dolphins” and “Honey Man” are a testament to his musical versatility and depth.
- Album Inclusion: The session recordings are included in the compilation album “Morning Glory”, and a DVD, which serves as a testament to Tim Buckley’s enduring legacy in the music world.