When I first started learning keyboards as a teenager, I would hear stories from other musicians about this great keyboard player named “Peanut” who lives in Virginia and has played for all the reggae greats. Through the years, I heard the music he produced with singers, and would see him play with acts like Culture and The Itals, as well as many others. I admired the level of musicianship, and his love for the music and the culture. This inspired me and many other musicians to try and reach to those heights, and play music with that level of precision. Chris “Peanut” Whitley has played music all over the world with some of the most popular reggae and blues artists and continues to record and perform. Recently I had a chance to sit down with him and ask him some questions for the newest edition of the Unsung Heroes capsule.
RF: Could you tell me a bit about your backstory and how you came into music?
CPW: I came into music at a young age. My grandfather and father played music.
I used to sit and watch them play and my Dad would let me and my siblings play on the instruments.
But my biggest teacher was a local Rasta named Doug Mason aka D-Irie, who introduced me to reggae and gave me my first lessons on how to play it.
I went onto Shenandoah Conservatory of Music and studied there. After that, I started and played in a few local reggae bands (Unity, Unification, Shades of Grey & Stable Roots) in the Harrisonburg, VA, area, and got the bug to really study Rastafari and reggae music deeper after seeing the bands Full Stop out of James Madison University and AAE aka Awareness Arts Ensemble out of Richmond VA. Around those times, along with D-Irie, who would get me in all the reggae shows and tours passing through the area, my passion to play reggae grew.
RF: What early influences inspired you?
CPW: The two bands that I mentioned above, Full Stop, local reggae band in Harrisonburg VA, and AAE out of Richmond, VA. But D-Irie introduced me to the world of reggae and a lot of the early roots artists.
The first reggae tune I ever heard was “Pass the Dutchie” by the Musical Youth. (Laughs.)
My first reggae album that I heard was Bob Marley’s Uprising. The first reggae albums that I ever purchased were Conscious Party by Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers, Legalize It by Peter Tosh and Rat in the Kitchen by UB40.
RF: What early projects were you a part of?
CPW: My first bands were Unity, Unification, Shades of Grey and then Stable Roots locally in Harrisonburg, VA, but my journey took another level when I met the reggae group Rasta Rafiki out of Morgantown, WV, at a show they were playing in Harrisonburg.
We talked and they asked if I would be interested in trying out and performing with them.
I moved up to Morgantown for about two years while performing with them and touring all over the country.
I also got my first experience in recording in a real studio through them. I was already writing songs and music with the early projects but never really recorded anything professionally.
After working on two albums with them, I moved back to Harrisonburg and joined a local reggae band out of Richmond called Razor Posse. I played with them for a few years and through that, I got my first chance to play with an international reggae artist from musicians who liked how I played.
My first international artist was playing some shows with the Itals out of Jamaica. Then, my big break came after opening up for Culture, in Charlottesville VA. Their music director approached me about auditioning and playing on their upcoming world tour.
My first tour was the “One Stone Tour” which was a six-month world tour.
RF: Talk a little about what drives you to devote such a big part of your energy towards recording and making albums and traveling around playing this music for people?
CPW: Well, music is a blueprint into life and its experiences lived. It’s therapy that helps me maintain a good balance of the realities of life. So, the drive comes from the love and passion of playing music that uplifts the people and spreading good vibes through the music.
As for recording it’s a blessing being able to create for artists and help artists put forth their musical offerings to share with the people.
Touring the world spreading music is a blessing. It has taken me to almost every continent and country in the world numerous times. I have experienced new cultures and met so many great people, creating so many lasting memories of the many shows and festivals I’ve played the last 25 plus years.
RF: Who are some of the artists that you have helped produce and toured with?
CPW: Iron Lion, Greg Ward, Rafiki D, Clyde, Randy Washington aka Gemini, Ever-G, Lenny Kurlou, Ras Lidj, Mighty Joshua, Nickey McMullen, Lutan Fyah, Corey Harris, Albert Walker, Kenyatta Hill, Jah 9, Culture, Abyssinians, Yellowman, The Itals, The Meditations, Luciano, Gyptian, Etana, Glen Washington, Andrew Tosh, Eek A Mouse, Taj Weekes, Frankie Paul, The Cables, Marcia Aikens.
There were many others, but that is an example of the many I toured and did music for, or produced over the years. For the one’s I produced or played on, you can get them on all the various music platforms.
RF: What are some of the current projects you are working on now?
CPW: I just finished my first solo instrumental piano album called Piano Talk, and I am currently almost finished with volume two.
I am working on tracks for Albert Walker of Culture, Lenny Lurlou, Corey Harris, Nickey McMullen, Iron Lion and Ever-G, as well as Rafiki D to name a few right now.
Also, I just keep making tracks to be available for purchase to use by other artist and bands.
RF: What is your message to the people and younger bands inspired by reggae?
CPW: First, learn its origins through and through. Know its history and why this genre of music was created. Understand and respect the Rasta faith behind a lot of the music. Understand that this music is from blueprints of lives lived and from ancestors struggles through their pain and suffering that brings forth a sound from Africa by way of the Caribbean.
Be respectful to the sound and seek out many of its original artists to help you understand the feel of the music.
Reggae has a pulse that is spiritually driven and to capture its essence, one has to be in tune with self-spirituality.
Music is life and life is music.
“The disciplined child is the road to prosperity.”
Enjoy the journey.