Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: Krisztian Lonyai
The pursuit of perfection is both a blessing and a curse for soul-drenched musician Whitley Deputy, whose sizable talent is matched by his reputation as a strong-minded guy who speaks up when things aren’t sounding right to him, onstage or off. And the leader, vocalist and drummer of the popular B-Town Project makes no apologies.
“If someone isn’t playing right, if someone is bullying someone, if I think there’s something wrong with the government, I’m going to say something … that’s just the way I am,” said Deputy, who fell in love with soul music the instant he heard Stevie Wonder’s classic “Superstition” as a high school teen in Bluffton (aka B-Town).
“Everybody was listening to rap or rock, and I remember thinking, ‘this is freaking unbelievable,’ and it just opened up a whole new world for me,” Deputy said. Stevie led him to Ray (Charles) and a wealth of other artists many refer to by first name: Otis, Marvin, James, Aretha and Michael.
“They all have such an organic sound, and it just always feels so good to me,” Deputy said. “It’s getting harder to get people to listen to these classics because technology has ruined the music industry, but I don’t think anybody is going to be listening to what’s coming out today in 40 or 50 years.”
As lead singer of the Martin Lesch Band, Deputy’s stately renditions of Charles’ standards have helped anchor Monday night New Orleans/R&B tributes at the Jazz Corner for the past four years, and he serves up a mix of rousing tributes to the others with his B-Town Project in a wizened voice that belies his 31-years.
As such, his name comes up in any serious discussion of the area’s finest singers. “I do take pride in my work and what I try to do is bring the original emotion to the songs,” he said. “Whatever the lyrics are, I put myself in that position—how would that make me feel? When I started singing I wasn’t very good. I just knew what I wanted it to sound like, and I’ve kept trying to achieve that.”
Deputy’s teen years discovering soul also found him banging away on a makeshift drum kit—“a five-gallon drum, a big Rubbermaid container and my dad’s two largest screwdrivers”—in the family shed with his younger brother, Zach, the latter just learning to play a cheap guitar. The (better-equipped) duet debuted at the Big Bamboo on Hilton Head in the late ’90s despite “being so awful I can’t believe we got any gigs,” but soon improved and expanded to include a rotating cast of players that finally became the Funky Hayride.
However, the brothers “butted heads” often, and Whitley quit just as the band was peaking in 2002. “We were both leaders, and you can’t have two leaders in a band,” he said. “It’s not a dictatorship, and you should share opinions, but at the end of the day somebody has to make the final decisions.” Zach would grow into a national touring solo act—“we’re best friends and I’m happily jealous of him,”—while Whitley retreated from performing to appraise real estate and spend welcome evenings home with his spouse, Barbara, and their three children.
The recession that upended the nation’s economy pushed him back to working nights, showcasing his skills with various bands fronted by others; a steady living that nonetheless included occasional disputes with fellow players who differed on musical, and sometimes personal, directions. Yet he began to find a fresh groove working at the Jazz Corner, and doubters have watched him emerge as a commanding singer who can silence a room with a soulful ballad or evoke a dance floor frenzy with a high-throttle take on James Brown’s “Sex Machine.”
Another semi-regular shuffling of local musicians opened the door for the founding of the B-Town Project about 18 months ago, and the trio rounded out by stand-up bassist Delbert Felix and guitarist James Lee Smith has found increasing success on the scene. Deputy is striving to expand the band’s commercial and artistic reach while continuing work on a solo project that, like his brother’s, centers on using tape loops to create an entire ensemble. “It’s cool because I have complete control over everything. It’s not cool because it’s not where I want it to be yet,” he said.
So the focus remains on his B-Town Project, at least for the time being. “My priority is to keep us busy as a funk and soul cover band that has some good originals as well,” he said. And that’s where Deputy’s desire to have things sound just right continues to cause some conflict. “I’m nervous about putting my own stuff out there. I’m worried that people won’t accept it because they’re not familiar with it.
“I’m my own worst critic and my biggest obstacle is being good with imperfection,” he continued. “That’s a big problem in my life… I want things to be a certain way, and one day I finally have to learn to say, ‘well, it’s good enough.’”