Back in mid-90s, John Whittemore was faced with a tough decision about his professional future. A third-year student at University of Tennessee's College of Dentistry, Whittemore was also one of Memphis' hottest young guitarists. He'd been nominated for a local Grammy Premier Player award and was being enticed with an offer to join a major label band in Los Angeles.
"In that moment, I suppose my life could've tipped in a totally different direction," said Whittemore. He would ultimately choose dentistry, but he would not turn his back on music entirely.
As the third annual "Memphis Means Music Month" kicks off this week, Whittemore remains one of the Bluff City's most respected, versatile and in-demand guitarists — as well as one of its top dentists.
"I admire John for being able to do both things, and do both things so well," said Scott Bomar, leader of noted R&B band the Bo-Keys, Memphis Grammy chapter trustee, and a former Whittemore band mate. "He's one of those guys whose brain and his hands are wired in a very special way."
The 43 year-old Whittemore grew up in Mobile, Ala. Music ran in the family: his grandfather was fine ragtime jazz piano player and Whittemore picked up the guitar at age 12, turned on by late-1970s FM radio and his mother's Beatles records.
He came to Memphis in 1987 to attend Rhodes College where he hooked up with local art-rock outfit Neighborhood Texture Jam. He recorded and toured with the band for a several years before its breakup in 1995.
Inspired by a fellow musician friend who'd enrolled in medical school, Whittemore decided to give dentistry a shot. The parallels between playing guitar and working on teeth struck the proverbial chord in Whittemore. "Playing guitar or working as a dentist, you've got to deal with people and use your hands in precise little ways," he said. "So it was a perfect thing for me."
While going through the second year of dental school, Whittemore had his crossroads moment and considered quitting school to pursue music professionally. "I thought about it, but I'm not much of a quitter," said Whittemore. "So I really plugged back into school and dentistry."
After graduating in 1997, Whittemore went to work for Dr. Mickey Bernstein of the Germantown Dental Group. Five years later, he became a partner in the practice, and now is one of its two owners.
Whittemore has been voted "Best Family Dentist" by the readers of Memphis Parent Magazine, was named among the Best Dentists in America and become an active member of various professional organizations.
As he established himself in the dental world, Whittemore continued to make meaningful music. He help launch garage rock legend Jack Yarber's post-Oblivians band The Tearjerkers, recording several critically acclaimed albums. He also formed the blues-rock band Delta Queens and performed with old school country band Papa Top's West Coast Turnaround, among others.
Often, while working in the recording studio, his band mates would find Whittemore studying dental manuals and journals. "I take dentistry freakishly seriously," said Whittemore. "I care tremendously about what I do and about doing it well."
A versatile player, adept at guitar, pedal steel, and mandolin, Whittemore continues to play with a wide range of acts. "I enjoy the heck out of backing people up," he said. "I like to think of myself as the guy who sits in the corner and makes it all sound good."
Despite his mild-mannered look and style — no one would ever mistake Whittemore for a rock star — there is an untamed aspect to his playing. "Sometimes when we're on stage when John is soloing, he will play some lick that's so unexpected and wild, the rest of us in the band will laugh," said John Paul Keith of local roots outfit the One Four Fives. "His playing has what we call 'stank,' which is something you wouldn't expect from someone who is also a successful dentist."
On more than a few occasions, Whittemore has been playing a show and some startled nightclub patron will look up to realize their dentist is on stage. "That does happen from time to time," said Whittemore.
This month is a particularly busy one for Whittemore. He will join Keith's One Four Fives as part of a free show at the Levitt Shell; and along with Yarber, he's put together an Alice Cooper cover band called Return of the Spiders, to play a couple Halloween-themed shows including the Kidney Foundation's Wolf Mash Dash, among other gigs.
On Oct. 20, Whittemore will also lead his dental practice's fourth annual effort for the Give Back a Smile Foundation. The organization connects survivors of domestic abuse with cosmetic dentists to rebuild their damaged smiles. Whittemore will offer the Zoom Whitening treatment at a third off, with proceeds going to the charity. The effort has raised $7,000 each of the last three years.
Intensely driven, Whittemore has managed to balance work, music, and family. He and his wife of 14 years, Weetie, have three young children. "I have great kids and a great wife who put up with my insane hyper activity," he said.
Whittemore has more projects in the offing, including an album with indie pop band Snowglobe and a gypsy jazz project with guitarist Joe Restivo. There are limits, of course, to his musical aspirations. Given his professional obligations Whittemore can't tour and has often been forced to cede his place in various bands to players who can.
"That's the sad part of a serious day job," said Whittemore. "But, ultimately, I'm a really lucky person in that I have two great passions in teeth and music, and I've been able to make it all work."
Memphis Means Music Month
Staged by the Memphis Music Foundation, the program invites local businesses, schools, churches, restaurants, and retail shops to participate in the citywide celebration by planning special music-related activities. For more information and events, go to memphismeansmusic.com
John Whittemore will perform with John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 12 at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park. He’ll also perform with the Return of the Spiders at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 19 as part of the Kidney Foundation Wolf Mash Dash at the Memphis Farmer’s Market; and at 8 p.m. on Oct. 20 at the Bayou Bar and Grill, 2094 Madison Ave.
Admission for all three events is free.