Since moving to the Port City from Kinston, NC, Clay Whittington has found more opportunity to stretch his range of talents as an actor, singer, songwriter, pianist, and overall entertaining fella.
What sparked this 26-year-old’s move, besides following his fiancée: the call of our ever-growing arts scene. “With film here as well, I wanted to be an extra just to keep my days occupied when I’m not performing,” Whittington explains.
Onstage, Whittington has been in a plethora of shows, including “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Clue,” “TEXAS,” “Disney’s High School Musical On Stage” and “Nunsense!” in various venues throughout the southeast, including Kinston, Greenville, NC, and Canyon, Texas.
While he has played piano since he was 8 years old, Whittington studied music composition, opera theater and some technical theater at East Carolina University. Since his move, he has seen the set and cameras of FOX’s hit “Sleepy Hollow”—which includes committing to long hours without a guarantee of being in one of the episodes. “I think the first day I was on set, I was there from six in the morning until noon in the holding room,” he explains, “and they just said, ‘We don’t need you.’”
His second go-round was a 13-hour affair for 30 minutes on set—all to make a 5-second clip. “You can’t even see me,” he chuckles. “But I’ve only been here four months, and this is probably the best move I’ve made so far.”
As far as his live concerts, Whittington has landed a few gigs, including an ongoing run at Costello’s throughout January, February and March. “Overall, people seem to have a pretty good time with me behind the mic,” he observes. “People will sit and just listen, while others will sing along.”
It’s a nice change of pace from the smaller town life he was used to in Kinston. “Honestly, there wasn’t much going on where I was living, unless I just wanted to play for a church,” Whittington explains.
The church is from where Whittington’s talent stems. It inspired him to create a popular musical improv show—or in this case, “hymnprov.” He does improvisational piano performances and features melodies of well-known spiritual hymns.
“Improvisation is something I’ve worked on for years [and] played piano for 18 of them,” he divulges. “I’ve been playing in a church since I was 10-years-old, from contemporary praise bands or as a choir director.”
For “Hymnprov,” also the title of Whittington’s debut album, he features a series of hymnals—sometimes chosen the day before or even on-the-spot. Yet, Whittington interprets them through his own style of classical jazz or rock piano.
Inspired by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Billy Joel, folks can find him frequently paying tribute often to an audience that isn’t necessarily expecting infusions of songs like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Piano Man,” or other juxtaposing themes. The irony has not been lost on Whittington that many of his idols were known for drinking, drugs and other activities—all the stuff not quite in line with the hymns Whittington infuses in them.
While the artist admits he may not be the most religious person in the world, he does have strong faith in his church at Camp Ground United Methodist Church, where his unlikely pairing of songs were received with open, albeit confused arms. “It was another thing that raised a few eyebrows, but, at the same time, I did it because no one would hear those two songs together, or would even think to,” he quips. “[However,] it’s not really a performance at church but an offering with the gifts that I’ve been given.”
Though his drive for entertaining may be different in purpose in and outside of church, Whittington says he sees the same appreciation of his work in both audiences. “I will say I got a few raised eyebrows at the church when I told [the church] I was playing at bars,” he says. “But really, whether you’re sitting in a bar or in a church, music speaks to people. For me, it’s just that I get to perform and do what I love, and I don’t really care where it is.”
For his performances at Costello’s, Whittington chooses a different repertoire for listeners. He sticks with classic versions of songs by his favorite artists. “None of it is Christian music by any stretch,” he explains. “I won’t really play anything of my own in that setting; it’s mostly from popular collections from jazz standards to modern stuff like Capital Cities, Cee Lo Green, Elton John, Billy Joel, even [Ylvis’ YouTube sensation] ‘What Does the Fox Say [The Fox].’”
Whittington will perform at Costello’s (211 Princess St.) through March, with his monthly January schedule including the 3rd, 9th and 31st. His “Hymnprov” show is slated for February 9th at Grainger-Hill Performing Arts Center in Kinston; his debut album can be purchased through iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
For more information, booking, and Whittington’s complete performance schedule, visit www.claywhittington.me.