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Chris Whitley, 45; Singer-Songwriter's Music Mixed Blues, Jazz, Electronica

November 24, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Chris Whitley, a singer-songwriter who followed his critically acclaimed blues-drenched debut album with a series of recordings that seesawed between musical styles, has died. He was 45.

Whitley, who was diagnosed with lung cancer several weeks ago, died Sunday at a friend's home in Houston, according to Messenger Records, his record label.

Rolling Stone called the guitarist's first album, "Living With the Law," the "most impressive debut album" of 1991 and praised its "neat trick of making blues material ... sound contemporary and as old as the hills."

One single, "Kick the Stones," became a cornerstone of the "Thelma & Louise" soundtrack. The title track was a minor hit, and Tom Petty and Bob Dylan hired Whitley to open their tours.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a major musician who wasn't blown away by his talents, his guitar-playing and his singing," Brandon Kessler, Messenger's owner, told Reuters. Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews and Keith Richards were reported to be among his admirers.

Whitley released more than 10 albums that embraced rock, jazz, electronica, grunge, alt-country and other styles.

"I feel like I'm always doing the same thing; I'm just using different tools and I try different vocabularies," Whitely said in 2004.

Christopher Becker Whitley was born in 1960 in Houston to an advertising art director who played blues guitar on weekends, and his sculptor wife. He grew up moving around the country and lived in Mexico with his mother after his parents divorced when he was 11.

At 17, he quit high school in Vermont to become a street musician in New York City. His signature instrument was a National steel guitar, and he taught himself to play the blues with a bottleneck slide.

Eventually, Whitley ended up in Belgium and had some success in a teeny-bop funk band. After six years, marriage and a daughter, he returned to New York in 1988.

When his early records failed to match the style and success of his first album, Whitley was dropped by Sony, his record label. At Messenger, he recorded albums as quickly as he could; as of August, Whitley had made four records in 18 months.

His latest release, "Soft Dangerous Shores," written and recorded in two weeks, mixed a deep-blues feel and jazz harmonies with electronica.

Whitley, who was divorced, is survived by his 18-year-old daughter, Trixie of Belgium; his brother, Daniel; his sister, Bridget Whitley Anderson; and his father, Jerry.

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