Chris Whitley

Eclectic singer-songwriter

He was alternatively described as a rock'n'roll troubadour, a "nu blues" artist, an alt country pioneer, a slide guitar master and a trailblazing singer-songwriter who drew on everything from jazz to grunge, but Chris Whitley never fitted into anybody's pigeonhole. He pursued his own path with defiant independence, which may be why he inspired such a devoted following, without ever achieving the heights of mainstream success his talent merited.

He spent much of his career defying expectations; each of his albums was very different to the last, some of them dark and obtuse, recorded with apparently little attention to commercial potential, but always geared to stretching himself. A famously heavy smoker, he died at 45 of lung cancer, leaving a rich, eclectic back catalogue, but also the frustrating realisation that he still had a lot more to give. "Love and death," he said once when asked what his music was about, "that's what all art is about or at least what it should be about . . ."

Whitley was born in Houston, Texas, but his early years involved regular moves across the south-east of the United States with his father, an art director and his mother, a sculptress. After his parents split when he was 11, he lived with his mother in Mexico and they later moved to a log cabin in Vermont.

Raised on the music of blues greats like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and further inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter, he learned to play guitar at 15 and it quickly consumed him. Becoming particularly adept at slide guitar, he bunked out of school to go to New York and took to the streets busking. Bizarrely, it led him to Belgium when a would-be promoter spotted him and suggested he try his luck in Europe.

With his colourful personality, a distinctively gruff vocal style reminiscent of Joe Cocker, a gritty musical hybrid of blues, soul and Americana and a natural talent for communication honed on the streets, he found plenty of work in Europe and fronted his own pop band, A Noh Rodeo. But he returned to New York in 1990 and a chance meeting with the inspirational record producer Daniel Lanois changed the course of his career.

Lanois was so impressed by the earthy, rootsy quality of his songs that he set up a deal with Columbia Records, and Whitley recorded his entirely self-written first album Living With the Law (1991) at Lanois' mansion in New Orleans. With its dark, lyrical themes and a disquieting intimacy, the album caused quite a stir. He went on to play major venues on a support tour with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and had one airplay hit single with "Big Sky Country".

Whitley, meanwhile, partied a little too hard and, amid stories of a spell in rehab, it was to be four years before he recorded his follow-up, Din of Ecstasy (1995). Heavy and grungey, it was so different in spirit and tone to Living With the Law that it completely alienated most of his hard-won fan base.

This didn't appear to bother him one jot - he played music to please himself - and he continued to pursue his highly individual, intuitive path. His subsequent work included collaborations with Bruce Hornsby, Dave Matthews and DJ Logic, resulting in perhaps his most completely satisfying album, Rocket House (2001), shaped by his later years living in Dresden, Germany.

On one song "Serve You" he duetted hypnotically with his daughter, Trixie, and the track "To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)" featured him blending banjo, hip-hop scratching, trip hop, synths and Middle Eastern rhythms. It was the perfect microcosm of his restless sense of adventure and his refusal to recognise musical barriers. He embraced electronica, reggae, jazz and classical music; his gift was to absorb it all and turn it into something original.

In 2000 he even got to record the memorable album Perfect Day, featuring minimalist covers of songs by some of his heroes, including Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Howlin' Wolf.

His 11th album, the haunting Soft Dangerous Shores was released in July to warm, if characteristically confused reviews, many claiming it was the best of his career, signalling a new beginning for him. He was diagnosed with cancer soon afterwards.

A further album, Reiter In, is scheduled for release next month.

Colin Irwin

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