For more than a decade, Dog Talk was one of the city's go-to feel-good bands, a multi-genre outfit that played just about anything with a beat: Caribbean, reggae, Zydeco, funk.
And, according to Dog Talk guitarist Bill Lancton, "the reason it was a feel-good band was because of Cliff White," the band's lead singer, percussionist and all-around magnetic personality.
White, who performed infrequently with the band following a 2004 stroke that deprived him use of the left side of his body, passed away Sept. 24 at age 52.
A celebration of life in honor of White will take place Sunday at The Rathskeller and feature music by members of Dog Talk, among others. Donations will be accepted for White's wife, Annie, and 10-year-old daughter, Amy. In addition, all Dog Talk CD sales through November will be donated to White's family.
According to Lancton, White's work with Dog Talk was an ongoing celebration of life. He points to e-mails that have poured in recently.
"People are saying that the Dog Talk days were the best days of their lives," he said. "We've heard things like, when my husband had cancer, the only thing that made us feel good was coming out to see Dog Talk to play; we always knew that we would leave there uplifted, ready to face another day."
Lancton remembers a White-led conga line at a Carmelfest that consisted of, by his estimate, 1000 people, large enough to circle around an audience of approximately 7000.
"There's very few people I've seen that have the charisma to get a crowd involved like that," he said. "He was probably the most unique entertainer that I've worked with because he was really like a big kid."
White played a range of percussion instruments, from Latin hand percussion, to the washboard (part of White's basic outfit because the band played plenty of Cajun music), to the traditional drum set.
But, Lancton said, "The main thing with him was his voice. He had incredible range, from deep, big baritone bass, all the way up to Michael Jackson-style high stuff."
Susan Guyett described White's on-stage demeanor in a 1997 NUVO profile of Dog Talk: "Whether he's being Satchmo or Cab Calloway, singing a sweet ballad or harmonizing with the other band members, you know when White is on stage. His trademark head scarf is more than decoration — it keeps the sweat out his eyes, and sweat he does during his energetic performances...Like all charmers, Cliff White makes you think no one else exists when he's talking to you, even though he's aware of everything that's going on in the room at all times."
Until the end, White was working towards playing music, despite physical limitations. "The night that he passed away, he was banging on his percussion stuff," Lancton said.