Ironically, the biggest loss to the local music scene in 2015 wasn’t a local at all. Producer/bandleader Lou Whitney died at home in Springfield in October.
Recording at Whitney’s Column One Studio had been a rite of passage for Boone County bands for decades. Over the years, the studio’s “live to two track” (eventually multitrack) signature sound enhanced recordings by most of the major bands to come out of our area. That list includes Untamed Youth, the Bel Airs, Barton & Para, Bob Dyer, Fugitive Kind, Ditch Witch and others. All recorded some of their best material with Lou and the coterie of musicians who hung out and played at Column One. Add to this august company national acts such as the Bottle Rockets, Ben “That ’70s Show” Vaughn, Uncle Tupelo, Jonathan Richman and Dave Alvin — all who found a second home in Springfield with Whitney, sometimes even poaching players in the house band for their own touring acts.
As a musician, Whitney was more than an excellent performer; he was an entertainer, and this was a role that carried over into his production skills and personal life.
Circuit To Studio
While attending East Tennessee State University in the early ’60s, Whitney cut his teeth playing bass on the same competitive, R&B-drenched southeastern frat-rock circuit that produced Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts, Dan Penn and Gary Stewart. Lou even did a brief stint touring with circuit superstars The Swingin’ Medallions (“Double Shot of My Baby’s Love”).
After settling in Springfield in 1970, Whitney spent the last decades of the 20th century recording and engineering every kind of music — be it metal, gospel, you-name-it or country. He used to tell me that Springfield would have been Nashville but for the turn of an (un)friendly card, and that it remained as the real musical crossroads of America — a belief that Branson at least in part bore out.
He nicknamed his studio “The Studio,” and referred to Springfield as “the recording capital of Greene County.” His vanity label, Borrowed Records, had two mottos: “Borrowed Records: Everybody has one” and “Borrowed Records: Fewest returns in the industry.”
It was in his persona as a showman that first exposed me to Whitney’s genius. At the Gladstone, back in the day, Whitney’s band The Symptoms would knock down honkytonk obscurities and rock oldies like Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Kicks.” Songs that had gone unplayed for years in those pre-oldies radio days were given the full treatment, a style Lou always described as “shake and push.”
Over the years, whether it was the Morrells, the Symptoms or the Skeletons, Whitney and company gave every song — be it a novelty like “Waitin’ for my Gin to Hit” or a classic like “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” — the same over-the-top treatment from a band so tight they squeaked. In the 1980s as the Morrells, Lou’s band would pack clubs like The Blue Note for weekend-long gigs. Eventually Rolling Stone declared them “the best bar band in America.” National success, of course, while never a priority, still proved frustratingly elusive. But every few years “that whore named Fame would lift her skirts” (Lou’s words) and an album and tour would follow.
To call Lou “engaging” on stage falls well short of accurate. He loved corny jokes, long song intros and, like all producers, lots of keyboards and guitar. He kept unerring time while making sure that everyone had a good time.
His approach to recording a song for someone was the same as his approach to performing one — the song or the session represented the “musical moment of some person’s life” and he had no choice but to bring it all — every time.
As Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy aptly eulogized, “He guided the way, literally and figuratively, for hundreds of aspiring musicians (myself included) with great wisdom, patience and egoless energy, a true champion.”
I have two Lou Whitney memories, both from the 1990s.
One afternoon at Streetside Records, two teenaged members of Cat’s Pajamas — cousins Jordan and David Wax (both now successful professional musicians) — sat at the listening bar going through consignment discs looking for a producer for what would be their second disc. The young band, which also included Taylor Bacon and Sam D’Agastino, had consumed members’ early teen years playing the junior high lunchroom circuit and the cousins had saved enough to spend some small money on a producer. They picked Lou and then spent the summer in Springfield visiting their aunt and recording at The Studio. “Uncle Lou” impressed the aunt and cousins so much that he became an honorary family member.
Around the same time, Rich King of The Blue Note (with help from Columbia Public School’s Linda Harlan) coaxed Chuck Berry out of an extended, sulking isolation to play a one-off in Columbia. This was before (but in fact helped inspire) his Blueberry Hill residency. Berry, a private man who is guarded and reserved under even the best conditions, hibernated in his RV watching basketball until sound-check time. There, backstage, he was reunited with piano player Johnnie Johnson, whom Chuck hadn’t seen or played with in years even though they lived just a few miles apart. The reunion was an emotional one and I assumed it would be the highlight of the afternoon.
You see, one of the knocks on Berry’s touring technique is that he rarely did sound checks, even though he was traditionally backed by strangers — locals recruited by the promoter. Since Berry’s music was basic repertory, everyone was assumed to know all the songs. The results were often uneven musically, so Berry’s attitude toward his backing band was usually perfunctory, even rude. King had hired some of the Morrells: Whitney, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks and guitarist D. Clinton Thompson — serious talent at the peak of their powers. The real highlight of the afternoon came about a minute into the first song, when Berry — realizing the power and skill that would be behind the reunion that night — turned, grinned and nodded at the band.
Last thought: Lou and I had a little routine when we’d run into each other. As encouragement, I’d enthuse, “You know, Lou, if rock history is ever written …” He’d never let me finish before declaring, “I wanna write it.”