One branch of Kansas City’s musical family is mourning the death of Lou Whitney, a Missouri recording engineer and bass player who many of them considered a father figure.
Whitney, of Springfield, Mo., died Tuesday after a battle with cancer.
Whitney established his reputation at now-legendary gigs with his 1980s-era bands The Morells and later The Skeletons, both of which made regular appearances at the Grand Emporium in Kansas City.
“They were so good they could have been from anywhere,” remembers Fred Wickham, whose band Hadacol recorded three albums (one of them never released) at Whitney’s studio. “But it just happened your favorite band was from Springfield, so we knew their records inside and out.”
Whitney also engineered records by national artists such as Dave Alvin, Jonathan Richman, Exene Cervenka, the Bel Airs, and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
"Lou made you feel right at home in the studio," Cervenka tells KCUR. "He brought so much positive energy to recording. He was extremely witty, very wise, and a great musician to boot. I will always appreciate how much he cared and how encouraging he was. Lou was one of a kind."
But while Whitney's technical skills were clearly in demand, it was his behind-the-soundboard philosophizing that drew generations of area musicians to his Springfield studio.
“Anybody who was playing roots-based music, it was a rite of passage to go spend some time in Springfield with Lou,” Wickham says. “He really cares about the recording and works very hard, but the whole experience of being in Springfield with him is what drew people to keep going back there.”
“Every significant band I’ve been in, we recorded with Lou,” says Anthony Ladesich, the singer, songwriter, filmmaker and former frontman for Pendergast and Sandoval. “I viewed it as trial by fire: If you got through your recording session with Lou and he thought you were OK, you were OK.”
Ladesich met Whitney in the mid-1990s after he quit school at Southwest Missouri State University but was still living in Springfield.
"Lou was a much older guy, in his 50s then – but he was the coolest older guy I knew,” he says.
Whitney told Ladesich to quit using a pick when he was writing songs – he’d have a better sense of what he was doing if he strummed with his fingers, stripping the song down to its bare minimum, Whitney told him. Then came the advice that Ladesich says blew his mind.
“He said my lyrics were too specific,” Ladesich remembers. “He said, ‘You remember when you were in elementary school, you remember the Big Chief tablet notebook you wrote in, with big elementary school lines on it? You remember the gigantic Goliath pencil? Write your songs with a Big Chief tablet and a Goliath pencil. Be specific, make it unique it to you, but write about themes that everybody can understand.’”
Ladesich’s favorite Whitney story: During the monotonous down time when Pendergast was recording its first album, Ladesich was hanging out in the front room reading rock magazines. He picked up an issue of Q Magazine dedicated to the 100 greatest rock photos of all time. The number-one greatest photo, according to Q, was the iconic cover of The Clash's London Calling.
"Lou says, ‘Funny story about that: (The Morells guitarist) Donny Thompson got pushed out of the way so the photographer could get that shot.’ The Morells were in New York and had been at that Clash show. There was always something like that with Lou. He had his fingerprints on a lot of things you didn’t know he had his fingerprints on.”
“You could only be away from Lou for so long before you feel like you have to get back there and do something,” Wickham says. “There was some comfort knowing Lou’s there, in his studio, sitting behind his desk or the console, and if you have some problem you could drive down there. Might not be solved, but it’ll be better. It’s just hard to imagine the world without him.”
For those who never knew him, his appearance in this “Jack Daniels Hard Cola bass player ad” might be as good an introduction as any: