Keyboard ace Carson Whitsett was known for talent, humor
Cancer claims musician´s life
By PETER COOPER
Singer Kathy Mattea and songwriter-producer Jon Vezner were visiting their ailing friend, renowned keyboard player Carson Whitsett. Mattea made a joke of some sort, and the keyboard man laughed a little.
´Hey, I´m dying over here,´ he said, both because it was kind of a funny thing to say and because it was true.
Mr. Whitsett died on Tuesday at his Nashville home after battling brain cancer for 16 months. He´ll be remembered by his friends for boundless humor and boundless talent, and he´ll be remembered by music fans as a key contributor to works by Mattea, Paul Simon, Tony Joe White, Patti Page, Conway Twitty, Solomon Burke and others.
´He was the most amazing musical guy I´ve met in my life, and in some ways he was the best kept secret in town,´ said Vezner, who wrote songs with Mr. Whitsett and who, with wife Mattea, was a near-constant presence in the Whitsett household during Mr. Whitsett´s cancer struggle.
´He never jockeyed for position and he never played the game,´ Vezner said. ´He just did what he did, and there was nobody like him. He´d send an arrow through your heart with three notes. They were the right three notes.´
He helped many artists
A Mississippi native, Mr. Whitsett played on albums ranging from the elegant pop of Paul Simon´s There Goes Rhymin´ Simon to the swampy blues of Tony Joe White´s Heroines to Webb Wilder´s Music City rock manifesto It Came From Nashville. Mr. Whitsett´s songs were recorded by The Staple Singers, B.B. King, Conway Twitty, Lorrie Morgan (her first hit, ´Dear Me´), Solomon Burke and, recently, Joe Cocker.
Mr. Whitsett took Booker T. Jones´ place when Booker T. & The MG´s became The MG´s, and he spent about a decade playing keyboards in Mattea´s band.
´When he would accompany a singer, he intuitively knew where to make the music breathe,´ Mattea said. ´It felt like he was in your head.´
A master improviser, Mr. Whitsett played piano and Hammond organ with nuance and invention.
Playing piano a final time
About a month ago, he knew he would have to be moved to a downstairs area where there was no piano. He asked to play the instrument for what turned out to be the last time.
´He sat down and was shaking, and then started to play,´ Vezner said. ´He plays this beautiful thing, and I said, ´What´s that? That´s gorgeous.´ He said, ´I don´t know, I´m just doodling.´ ´
A stream of famous visitors came to see Mr. Whitsett in the final months of his life, with White, Michael McDonald and many others conveying love and thanks. He was amazed at the gestures, wondering aloud what he´d done to deserve such kindnesses. Last weekend, Vezner had run an errand and upon his return to Mr. Whitsett´s house he asked, ´What are you doing now?´
The response: ´Just enjoying life,´ both because it was kind of a funny thing to say and because it was true.