For years, Thin White Line was among Pittsburgh's most memorable rock bands, and the main reason was Bobby Porter. He wrote most of the group's hard-hitting and poetic originals, singing them in a soulful, gritty voice -- operatically melodic, and loud enough to be heard unamplified over a rampaging four-piece band.
And Porter -- who stood about 5'2", with a missing front tooth -- fronted the group like a madman. Often shirtless, he moved with a wild energy, turning backflips and one-handed cartwheels.
"It was like a volcano, blowing you back," says Christiane Leach, a singer who first heard Porter in the '80s.
"There's a man who owned the stage. It was his stage," says Vinni Belfiore, a friend of Porter's who edited Rock 'n' Roll Reporter magazine in the 1990s.
Robert C. Porter died Oct. 28, of stomach cancer. He was 59.
Porter grew up in the Hill District, singing in his church choir and the All City Choir. While in high school, he studied classical singing at Duquesne University. After a stint in Vietnam, as a Marine, he returned to front several bands, including early punk outfit Young Lust.
Thin White Line formed in 1982, making its name at now-defunct clubs like the Electric Banana and the Upstage. Its two self-released albums were 1988's Dock of the Bus Stop -- which nodded to "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay," a song Porter often sang unaccompanied to close sets -- and 1994's Something Invincible. The music mixed soul, hard rock and more; longtime guitarist Tim Dunleavy calls it "punk psychedelic."
"He was a black man singing punk rock during the rap explosion. He was really one of a kind," says Belfiore.
Musician Evan Knauer recalls Porter performing at the old Graffiti nightclub. During the song "Under the Blades of Love," he'd run offstage, up into the balcony, still singing. "He was like Pavarotti," says Knauer. "You could hear him coming."
An avid reader, Porter loved science fiction, Star Trek, underground comics and William S. Burroughs. His lyrics delved deep. "We're not animals / I won't put down this book just to pull your plow," goes one. His songs often explored racism and other social ills. "Good men die hard on the avenue / drop dead in Khe Sanh and Mr. Rogers' neighborhood," goes "Towers Open Fire."
In a tribute posted online, music-scene veteran Kevin Amos calls Porter "the baddest mothercruncher EVER to front a band in this area. ... OUR urban legend, a brother from another planet."
"I just thought he was gonna be a giant star like the Dead Kennedys," says Leach. "He felt that cosmically superstarish."
But the critically praised band seemed more popular away from home. "We'd go to Youngstown and hundreds of people would show up," says Dale McQuaid, Thin White Line's drummer. "We'd go into the bar and all the bartenders would be wearing our T-shirts."
Porter worked odd jobs, including janitorial work and a stint as a bouncer at South Side club the White Eagle. But his love of performing abided. McQuaid recalls the group's first (and only) public performance of Porter's song "Superfluous America," in 2003. When it ended, Porter dropped to his knees and whipped the stage with his sweaty T-shirt, exulting, "That's how you do that! That's how you do that!"
After Thin White Line broke up in 2003, Porter, past 50, started a new group, mischievously named Short Dark Strangers. The band performed locally and twice toured Europe -- but not at clubs. The gigs were in multi-generational communities called squats, drawing crowds of up to a couple hundred. "This grandma totally came up and Frenched him at this one place," says bassist Dana Barker.
Porter was diagnosed with cancer last year, says close friend and longtime housemate Nigel Swat. Surgery and treatment followed. Toward the end, she says, Porter left their Polish Hill house only for band practice or bar gigs.
Swat recalls Porter joking about his cancer treatment. "He said he had so much radiation, he wanted superpowers. We didn't have the heart to tell him he already had one."
The singer's death occasioned posthumous drama. Porter, a Buddhist, had requested cremation. But the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't fund cremations. With the unwanted burial imminent, Swat emptied her rainy-day savings to cover the cremation, and Porter's rock 'n' roll friends fundraised to reimburse her.
The Facebook group "RIP Bobby Porter" has some 210 members; a wake is planned for Sun., Nov. 21. His ashes, meanwhile, are with friends. "Actually," says Swat, "we had him at the bar the other night."
Wake for Bobby Porter 9 p.m. Sun., Nov. 21. Kopec's Korner, 3523 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville. 412-682-0892