A Conversation With Kenny White
Reprinted with permission from The Winnsboro News.
Kenny White has carved out quite a niche for himself since becoming a professional musician in the 1970s.
He’s produced and toured with some of the industry’s biggest names. He’s released five records and has written commercials we all recognize. He even had the honor of conducting the London Symphony for a series of commercials for the Greyhound bus line.
The pianist/songwriter brings his deep catalog to the Bowery Stage in Winnsboro on Saturday, June 2.
In addition to opening for Judy Collins and Stephen Stills on their current swing through the country, White is touring in support of his latest release, “Long List of Priors.”
White grew up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and began his career in the 1970s, touring exclusively as the keyboard player for Jonathan Edwards and Livingston Taylor.
He then became a fixture in the NYC studio scene throughout the 1980s and 1990s, producing and arranging hundreds of commercials for TV and radio, beginning with “The Unsinkable Taste of Cheerios,” nearly seven years of Chevrolet’s “Heartbeat of America” campaign, and countless ads for the Coca Cola company.
Commercial work enabled White to direct artists as renowned and varied as Gladys Knight, Linda Ronstadt, Mavis Staples, Ricky Skaggs, and Aaron Neville.
We caught him during a rare break at a friend’s place north of Santa Barbara where he took time to answer some questions about his career, writing, and the many artists he’s worked with through the years.
The Winnsboro News (TWN): Did you take piano lessons?
Kenny White (KW): I took the obligatory early classical lessons, mainly because that’s all you had to choose from back then. I would play songs I’d heard on the radio on my two-octave, plastic organ. My parents thought I might want to explore the piano and so I did. The teachers weren’t very good and my ear was. So I’d quickly memorize next week’s lesson and then go out and play baseball, my true passion at the time! I later wish I had given more time to those lessons, especially when it came to reading music, a skill I needed more honed in my studio years. Basically, my love and desire came from playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands in high school and beyond. And when I discovered improvisation (thank you, Grateful Dead,) I was completely hooked.
TWN: Do you like playing smaller venues where the audience can truly focus on the lyrics and let them soak in?
KW: For sure!! The lyrics are the main impetus for my song writing and have been since I started making records. It is where I allow myself to be as honest and uninhibited as is possible for me. It’s much easier for me to get the lyrics across in a smaller venue. Also, I’ve had the most practice in those sized places, since I’m not a household name.
TWN: You said in an interview with “No Depression” that your work is “not music to cook dinner by; there needs to be an investment on the part of the listener. That may sound pretentious but it’s true. You probably won’t ‘get me’ with a one-ear listen.” Expand on that.
KW: I realize that my songs require somewhat of a commitment on the part of the listener. That why I was rarely able to make an imprint doing in-stores in malls or book/record stores. No one walking past was going to “get it.” That wasn’t meant as a disparaging comment, in any way. But some of the attraction of Norah Jones or Diana Krall - or even Metallica - is that you can put the record on when you’re in a certain mood. My records run the mood gamut and that’s what I mean about it not being music to cook by. You might need a lithium prescription before dinner is served!
TWN: “The Other Shore” bears several listenings. I think it wasn’t until the third pass that it occurred to me it might be the ultimate goodbye song. Can you talk a little bit about how it came to be?
KW: I had started this song while thinking about the impending loss of my mother, which didn’t come for another two years. As the song went on, it morphed into a few other aching losses. I had the music finished in my head before I was able to find the first words for it. There are a few of those, where that has been the case.
TWN: Who do you listen to on the road?
KW: I usually rent cars with Sirius/XM satellite radio. I listen to tons of old (pre-1975) country music and bluegrass. I listen to the 50s and 60s stations, Grateful Dead channel, Sinatra channel and Classic Vinyl. I used to be a listener of The Loft, the station that made me feel that I belonged in this arena, since they were one of the only stations that would play me in solid rotation. They had true curators as deejays. People like Mike Marrone and Meg Griffin who had a lifetime of knowledge and hugely diverse tastes. Satellite radio promised to be different and offer an eclectic palette. They have sadly gone back on that promise. Apart from the few stations, it is just another popularity contest. I also listen to some of my friends’ music quite a bit. Today, I was listening to Lucky Dube, an African reggae artist whom I love. He was killed in a carjacking, some years ago, after dropping his kids off at school. The shooter turned out to have been a huge fan who had no idea whom he had just killed. Incredibly sad.
TWN: Since you’ve worked with some of the most notable artists in the music business, let’s go through some of them. Give me a few words on each.
Linda Ronstadt: I worked with her three times and liked her very much. I found her to be open and generous, both musically and socially. I’m so sorry about what she’s going through. (In 2013, she announced that she has Parkinson’s and can no longer sing.)
Aaron Neville: A bit more insulated and reserved than Linda, but very easy to work with. The Neville Brothers had recorded a song of mine in the 80’s called, “Shek-A-Na-Na,” on their “Uptown” album, and I had sung all the background vocal parts for them to learn. Quite exciting for me. I later worked with Aaron on a couple of commercials. A one-of-a-kind voice.
You got to tour with Tom Jones: Also, a lovely guy and the consummate professional. He sings everything in it’s original key, which is very rare for someone pushing 80! A font of stories, too, as you’d imagine. Truly, a surreal couple of weeks for me.
Were the women still after him? Absolutely. Although on this particular tour, he wanted to play smaller venues and just get up and sing--as when he started out. There was very little “entertaining” on stage. Just a soulful guy doing what he was meant to do. That said, there were no fewer than 20 pair of undergarments thrown on stage each night. Mostly symbolic, I’d wager, since if you followed any of the trajectories (which I did), you’d notice that what was being pitched onto the stage was likely not what was being worn by the pitcher. But screaming fans galore. I’d never been privy to anything like it.
Shelby Lynne: I produced her vocal for the Peter Wolf album we were working on over the phone from my sofa, 3,000 miles away. She’d ask me to sing what I was hearing and I would. I told her that I didn’t want to inhibit any natural tendency she might have, but she said that she loved having direction, as many great artists do. It’s often the more mediocre ones that bristle at being offered a “better” idea. Later, we performed with Peter W on the Jimmy Fallon show and she was a joy. We did a sultry version of “Suspicious Minds” at the prior night’s rehearsal. Organ, guitar and Shelby. To this day it’s one of my biggest regrets that there is no recording of it. She transported me.
TWN: You’ve worked with the great Mavis Staples. How was that?
KW: Everything you’d expect. It was only during my jingle days though. I was at the point in that business where I could ask for pretty much anything I wanted, so I asked for Mavis to be flown in to sing on a demo. The following day, she arrived with her sister and laid down one of the most amazing vocals Chevrolet would ever have on a commercial of theirs. Unfortunately, they decided that they wanted a male voice instead and asked if I could “please replace this female with a male.” I was both incredulous and heartbroken, as you’d guess. But she was so great. When she finished, she looked at me and said, “What else y’got for me?” Had I known, I would have written a song for her to sing. I tried to get her to sing the duet, “Charleston,” on the new record but she couldn’t manage it, due to scheduling conflicts. I haven’t seen “Mavis!” the HBO documentary, though I did see the Staple Singers open for The Doors at Madison Square Garden!
TWN: What are some of the songs normally on your set list?
KW: I’ve been leaning heavily on “Long List of Priors.” Also, the previous, “Comfort in the Static.” Although, I’ve been mixing it up pretty well on the shows I headline. I have five albums now from which to choose. If anyone wants to hear something, I’ll play it.
TWN: Your lyrics cut to the bone. How do you do that? Like in “4,000 Reasons to Run.”
I’m not going to fight you if that’s what you came for, you know how I feel so
If it’s not the same for you go now, cause love never wavers, if you don’t see that
Don’t do me any favors. I wish I liked whiskey more than I do
It sure would help soften the volume of you
And I might’ve seen the clues from day one
When you gave me your heart and 4,000 reasons to run
KW: I don’t try to accomplish anything besides honesty in a lyric. As a result of that, I’ve noticed many people share the same observations, frustrations, dysfunctions, concerns, and wonders that I experience. And that seems to extend to other demographic groups, as well. I’m currently opening the Stephen Stills/Judy Collins tour and most of those people have never heard me, but they’re buying lots of CDs and signing up for the mailing list in droves. So I must be hitting a nerve with them.
Tickets for White’s show are $15-$22 and are available at winnsborocenterforthearts.com or by calling 903-342-0686.
Check out “4,000 Reasons to Run” on YouTube.
To learn more about White, visit his website, kennywhite.net.