Steve White was a world class touring musician who spent much of his life on the road, singing and playing guitar and harmonica, often as a one-man band. The singer-songwriter was uniquely talented musician and humanitarian who was awarded one of the thousand points of light by both Presidents Bush and Clinton. White volunteered his time and love to help others who needed it for over 20 years. Whether it was playing in nursing homes or to schools and childrens centers he played and entertained to bring joy into others lives. And he did it with no fanfare.
In 2009, due to cancer, White lost his vocal chords and was no longer able to sing or play harmonica.
“The treatments are completed, and my taste buds are returning, so I’m happy chappy,” wrote White in a February 13, 2010 email, five months after doctors removed his vocal chords to fight the cancer in his esophagus. As White underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments, he strummed blues riffs on his guitar and watched the stack of medical bills inside his Leucadia home grow.
To help raise money for White’s mounting medical debt, local blues musicians Steve Mendoza, Shawn Rolfe, and Candye Kane joined efforts and appeared at benefit concerts for White, one at the Encinitas Public Library in December 2009 and another at Old Time Music in North Park a month later.
“I had a chance to perform,” wrote White in his email. “It was cathartic because I was unsure whether I could do it without my voice and harmonica, or that it would work, and I was most happy to find out it did.”
White’s influence and support stretched farther than San Diego County. Benefits for White have been held in Italy, Germany, and in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
“I am humbled by this response, and it has kept my spirits up and kept me alive,” wrote White about the benefit shows.
White passed away on April 22, 2011, at the age of 61. A documentary film, Steve White: Painting the World With Music, debuted August 14, 2011 at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas. The film was produced and directed by Leucadia-based filmmaker Clint Burkett.
When Burkett began work on the documentary, however, he didn’t know the North County bluesman was dying of esophageal cancer. “When I found out he was sick, I started shooting the benefits and interviewing friends and fellow musicians...I never got to interview him because [doctors] had taken his voice away, and I didn’t want to do that.” Burkett edited the rough footage in June 2011.
“If you knew him,” says Burkett, “you loved him and his music and art touched your heart and soul. His body of work is phenomenal and each song or painting is special in its own way. This documentary is intended to move you through his poetic and rhythmic music and verse, just as he moved the hearts and minds of everyone who ever knew him, heard his music, or got to see his uniquely wondrous sketches and art.”
The film starts like White’s music: rapid, with sound bites and clips of him playing. Says Burkett, “It draws your attention right away. That’s how he played. He got your attention.” He says the story of White’s life is otherwise told through interviews with family, copies of radio interviews, and performance videos.
To make Painting the film, Burkett gained permission to use footage of concerts filmed in Italy, Czechoslovakia, Vermont, and here at the Adams Avenue Roots Festivals. “Steve was huge in Europe. I don’t think people realize how huge he was there. He would pack concert halls. There were billboards [advertising his concerts] on the street.”
The outside footage was provided by photographers and filmmakers like Pierpaolo Adda in Italy, Milos Zajdl in Czechoslovakia, Erik Swanson, Tom Zizzi, Craig Burkett, Glenn Goodwinn in the U.S. White packed concert halls in Germany, Czechoslovakia, The Netherlands and all over Europe. And White was loved in Asia where he spent his youth.
“I didn’t think he was going to die, to tell you the truth. I took Steve to the Leucadian to see Ben Powell play, probably a month before he passed. He said I can’t wait until next year, until all this health stuff is over. His mind was constantly going, constantly reinventing himself.”
Will the documentary reveal a side of White’s personality that is not already known? “He was an amazing painter,” says Burkett. “He kept that part private.” Hence, the film title, he explains. “He made hundreds of paintings,” many of which, Burkett says, are featured in the documentary.
Burkett, an Emmy-winning video producer and editor, says the White documentary is self-financed. “My number one goal is I want Steve’s name, his art, and his music known around the world.” To that end, Burkett says he will submit to Sundance and other international film festivals. “I’ve already got a request to show the film in Germany.”