"So what if we're not singing about Sandinistas or social injustice?" An agitated Peter Greenberg, guitar player and leader of Boston's Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, is heating up the phone line from Boston to D.C. "The Savages are promoting freedom and abandonment through sound. It's ridiculous for some idiot rock star who reads Time magazine to be singing about some political situation he couldn't hope to understand."
It's not that the Savages don't have a message. It's just that they'd rather sing about big bad women with names like Sadie Green, Miss Shake It, Fat Mama and Wild Cherry than about war, the ecology or South Africa. In fact, the Savages' philosophy is summed up in the title of their 1984 debut album's first song -- "Bip Bop Bip."
Of course, it's not what you sing about, but how you sing it. The Savages, who appear at the Saba Club tonight and tomorrow night, have brought an over-the-edge frenzy to rock that hasn't been heard since Little Richard turned minister.
Greenberg organized the Savages in 1983 when he grew tired of the '60s garage-rock of his then band, the Lyres. "I just wanted to play rock 'n' roll," he explains. "I wanted to hear more quirks, more question marks, more mistakes. I liked '50s rock 'n' roll and was just tired of playing high school music."
First, Greenberg got drummer Howie Ferguson and bassist Phil Lenker, both of the Lyres, to join him. Next came saxophonist Steve LaGrega, whom Greenberg convinced to give up free jazz for the fat honks and wild screeches of classic rock 'n' roll. The band members had no singer to match their fiery sound until they stumbled upon a cherubic, mild-mannered man named Barry White.
"He used to work at the same record store as I did," Greenberg says. "Someone told me he could sing, so I invited him over to listen to records. Without even hearing him sing, I knew his head was in the same place as the rest of the band. When we first practiced with him, it was just unbelievable. We'd listen and smile in amazement."
In White, the Savages discovered a fire-breathing heir to the hysterical shouting tradition of Little Richard. The Georgia-born White, who uses the stage name of Barrence Whitfield, is a gospel-bred singer, which partly accounts for his church shrieks, falsetto wails and wild-eyed testifying. On stage, Whitfield is a man possessed, his body shaking with the heebie-jeebies as he pushes his band and the audience higher and higher.
"With Barrence, it really goes over the edge," Greenberg admits. "We recently played a club in Boston and it ended in total wildness. About 20 guys formed a big pig pile on top of Barrence on stage. Of course, Barrence was just singing away at the bottom. Now, whenever we play, the crowd ends up carrying him around on their shoulders."
According to Greenberg, the Savages ended up being "a wild, black-sounding band like Little Richard's Upsetters, only with a rockabilly guitarist, and that's neat." It was neat too that Greenberg finally had the perfect band for reviving a lot of rock 'n' roll classics found on obscure records by lost heroes like Hasel Adkins, Jerry McCain, Pretty Boy and Leroy Washington.
"To me," says Greenberg proudly, "those rock 'n' rollers symbolize the whole American dream of freedom and vitality. Most of those guys dropped out of school early and played their music for the fun and freedom of it. Their music had personality, it had regional character. It couldn't be packaged or formulized."
In addition to their self-released debut album, the Savages have a new album, "Dig Yourself," due on Rounder Records. Their high energy rock 'n' roll celebration has earned them a lot of fans, especially in Washington, where they have benefited from airplay on WHFS.