Shawn Phillips is one of most fascinating and enigmatic musicians to come out of the early-’70s singer/songwriter boom. The mere fact that he was a musician as much as a singer and songwriter made him stand out, and helped him attract a dedicated following. His refusal to shape his music — which crosses between folk-rock, jazz, progressive, pop, and classical — to anyone else’s expectations allows him to hold onto a large and dedicated cult following, without ever achieving the stardom that his talent seemed to merit.
Phillips was born on Feb. 3rd 1943 in Fort Worth, TX, the son of best-selling spy novelist James Atlee Phillips, (Pseudonym Philip Atlee), who moved the family around the world at various times. The family tree also contained the controversial Uncle, David Atlee Phillips, author of 5 books and Operations Director for the CIA, Western Hemisphere during the 1960s (see Kennedy assassination plot). After hearing his Mother play “Malaguena” at the piano, he took up the guitar at age six, and by the time he was 8, he was playing the chords to Carl Perkins songs. Phillips’ musical experience transcended rock & roll, however. In the course of his family’s travels, he got to live in almost every corner of the globe, including Tahiti, and absorbed the music that surrounded him wherever he was living. He returned to Texas in his teens, with no training in classical music other than hearing his Grandmother play Tchaikovsky on the record player, while his Grandfather listened to Hank Williams on the radio, but also with a love for performers like Jimmy Reed and Ike & Tina Turner, and many other blues and R&B performers. He did a hitch in the Navy, and then went back to Texas before retreating to California, where he played around the early-’60s folk circuit with Tim Hardin, arrested and jailed with Lenny Bruce, including a stint in Calgary, Canada where he showed an aspiring musician/waitress, Joni Mitchell his guitar techniques.
Sharing a flat in London with an unknown comedian named, Bill Cosby, Phillips made his first record, an over-produced single of Bob Gibson’s version of “Frankie and Johnnie”, with a B side of Travis Edmondson’s “On A Cloudy Summer Afternoon” for United Artists Records, then went to England on his way to India to study Sitar, when producer Denis Preston of Lansdowne House of Columbia Records heard him play at a party, after which followed two albums, I’m a Loner and Shawn, neither of which was successful in England, where he performed and wrote songs with roommate Donovan, in a professional relationship somewhat clouded in controversy. (Phillips claimed in interviews that he co-wrote “Season of the Witch,” as well as a major portion of the songs that finally surfaced on the album Sunshine Superman, but only ever received one co-author credit for “Little Tin Soldier” on the Fairytale album.) When Donovan was asked about Phillips claim he doesn’t deny it but stated: “Jamming and licks can’t be copyrighted.” While staying in England, the range of his work vastly expanded, partly with the help of fellow friends, and musicians Paul Buckmaster, and J.Peter Robinson.
Before he was ejected from England for playing without a work permit, he gave George Harrison tips on the sitar, sang back up on the Beatles song “Lovely Rita” and making an impromptu performance between John Sebastian and Joni Mitchell performed at the 1970 Isle of Wight music festival (Murray Lerner, festival film producer, said he doesn’t know why Phillips performance was left out of the movie). Next he tried living in Paris before he headed for Italy where he finally found sanctuary and inspiration in the ancient fishing village of Positano. By the late ’60s, Phillips’ musical expertise had broadened to include not only different kinds of guitars, but also the Indian sitar. After a few years of trying, he recognized that he’d started too late and would never master the sitar in the traditional manner, and instead began learning to make his own music on the instrument.
In 1968, he went to London with the idea for a trilogy of albums and recorded a major portion of it in collaboration with Traffic members Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, and Jim Capaldi. No record company in Europe was willing to commit to such an ambitious body of work by an unknown artist, and the material languished for more than two years, until Phillips’s met producer Jonathan Weston who took the work to A&M Records. A& R man Jerry Love listened to his work and that same afternoon called Jerry Moss and told him “We have to sign, and release this guy’s music right now.”
Although most of the management level of A&M records loved the idea of the trilogy, the one mind in the financial dept. that was a naysayer, comptroller Bob Fead, decided that a trilogy of albums was unfeasible, so it was taken apart and only the songs were put on a single LP. This became his A&M debut album, Contribution, which ranged freely between up tempo folk-rock (“Man Hole Covered Wagon”) to introspective quasi-classical guitar pieces (“L Ballade”), and works mixing sitar and acoustic guitar (“Withered Roses”). The album got positive reviews, but it was when Phillips embarked on his first U.S. tour, in conjunction with his next album, Second Contribution, late in 1971, that he was discovered by much of the press. Critics in the New York Times and other publications displayed unbridled awe at Phillips’ prowess on a range of instruments, including electric and acoustic six- and 12-string guitars and the sitar, and his singing range, a full five octaves from baritone to counter-tenor, as well as his songwriting. He was one of the few singer/songwriters to play double-necked six- and 12-string guitars (a standard feature of progressive and metal bands) on-stage, in intimate locales such as New York’s Bottom Line, and to test the full range of the hybrid instrument. Along with a new record contract was also a music publishing deal. Phillips signed away his songs to Dick James Music for $1.00 each (common practice of the time). Phillips recalls listening to an unknown young man play piano in Dick James’ office, Elton John, where he befriended Bernie Taupin and remains friends.
Writers lavished praise on Phillips for his unusual lyrics, haunting melodies, daunting musicianship, and the ambition of his records. He was a complete enigma, American-born but raised internationally, with a foreigner’s keen appreciation for all of the music of his homeland and a seasoned traveler’s love of the world’s music, with none of the usual limits on his thinking about music. He slid between jazz, folk, pop, and classical sounds — it was nothing for Phillips to segue from a progressive-style mood piece with a 50-piece orchestra into an R&B-based number driven by his electric guitar, and back again. “The Ballad of Casey Deiss,” from Second Contribution, was a case in point, a song about a friend who died when he was struck by lightning, scored for acoustic guitars, electric guitars, vibraphone, and the horn section of a full orchestra, as well as multi-layered vocals. A third album, Collaboration, followed, along with another tour, and then Faces, Bright White, and Furthermore. His collaborator was conductor/arranger Paul Buckmaster, the man responsible for the choral accompaniment on the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and several other rock-meets-classical touchstones. On tour, he was booked into clubs with artists such as comedian Albert Brooks, singer/songwriter Wendy Waldman, and Seals & Crofts, and usually worked solo, surrounded by a half-dozen guitars, or sometimes with a single accompanist, Peter Robinson, on keyboards
Phillips never achieved major stardom, despite his critical accolades. He never courted an obvious commercial sound, preferring to write songs that, as he put it, “make you feel different from the way you felt before you started listening,” primarily love songs and sonic landscapes. He made nine albums for A&M before moving on to RCA in 1978 for Transcendence, which mixed his guitars with a 60-piece symphony orchestra and members of Herbie Hancock’s band, produced in collaboration with arranger/conductor Michael Kamen. In 1983, with Michael Hoenig at the producer helm, the album Beyond Here Be Dragons was recorded but did not find a distributor and subsequently was released years later in 1988 on Chameleon Records. He also contributed to movie music by Manos Hadjidakis, and appeared in the movie Run with the Wind (1966) with British actress Francesca Annis.
In 1996 Phillips underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery and during his recovery hung up his guitar for a while to heal through EMT-public service work. He became a certified Firefighter/EMT in the State of Texas.
Two more new releases followed: The Truth if It Kills, 1994 (Imagine records/Canada) and No Category, 2002, Fat Jack Records.
In 1998, 5 of his A&M albums were re-released via the Wounded Bird label.
To his credit, he created 15 total albums, out of which several A&M titles charted on Billboard’s Top 100 producing multi platinum and gold record awards, including the Burt Bacharach penned, Top 20 hit movie title song Lost Horizon. His catalog also includes 6 anthologies and 3 DVDs. Phillips has a following in America, South Africa, and Europe. A cult figure, he remains an enigmatic figure on the music landscape although artists ranging from Yanni to Alanis Morissette have been rumored to mention his music to be influential.
At 68, Phillips career spans nearly 50 years. Today, he is now working on a new CD, and continues as a very successful touring artist with great demand for his shows. He resides in Port Elizabeth South Africa with his wife and 4 year old son Liam, where he continues his passion for public service work as an active sea-going crew member with the National Sea Rescue Institute.
Official Web site – http://www.shawnphillipsmusic.com