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Friday, November 25, 2005

Chris Whitley, 45, Songwriter Whose Music Blended Genres, Dies - New York Times

Published: November 24, 2005

Chris Whitley, an innovative songwriter and guitarist who played traditional blues as well as hybrids made with the sounds of electronic dance music, died on Sunday at a friend's home near Houston. He was 45 and lived in New York.

The cause was lung cancer, said his brother, Daniel.

Mr. Whitley emerged in 1991 with "Living With the Law," an album of traditional acoustic blues and some conservative blues-rock that was acclaimed by critics. A tour that year with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers introduced him to a wide audience.

But on his second album, "Din of Ecstasy," Mr. Whitley changed course, favoring loud, grungy alternative rock and setting a pattern of experimentation that would characterize his career. On later albums he played a stark blues-cabaret music reminiscent of Tom Waits, as well as combinations of blues, funk and slippery electronics; his album "Rocket House," from 2001, made use of turntable scratchings and what he called "electronic abstraction."

In recent years Mr. Whitley's music became especially dark. "With his slurred voice and the lurching propulsion of his bluesy slide guitar," Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in a review last year of his protest album "War Crime Blues," "Mr. Whitley has come to sound like a haggard, desolate wraith, carrying tidings from some private inferno."

Mr. Whitley's changes kept critics watching him closely, and he was praised by many as a clever modernizer of the blues. Other musicians also held him in high esteem, particularly for his mastery of the slide guitar. Dave Matthews was one admirer; the label ATO, of which Mr. Matthews was a founder, released "Rocket House."

Mr. Whitley's music was challenging to many listeners. What was viewed as free-spirited creativity by some was seen by others as capriciousness, and throughout his career he remained on the fringes of both the blues and alternative-rock worlds.

Christopher Becker Whitley was born in Houston and took up the guitar at 15, inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival. He taught himself slide guitar after hearing Johnny Winter's song "Dallas" and got his start as a teenager playing in public places in New York.

In addition to his brother, his survivors include a daughter, Trixie; his father, Jerry, of Red Bank, N.J.; and a sister, Bridget Anderson, of Saxtons River, Vt.



Chris Whitley, 45, Songwriter Whose Music Blended Genres, Dies - New York Times


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