Phillips in 2006
|Born||February 3, 1943|
Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.
Shawn Phillips (born February 3, 1943) is an American singer-songwriter and musician, primarily influential in the 1960s and 1970s. His work includes folk-rock but straddles other genres including jazz and funk. Phillips has recorded twenty six albums and worked with musicians including Donovan, Paul Buckmaster, J. Peter Robinson, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bernie Taupin, Tim Hardin, Manos Hatzidakis and many others.
The Texas-born singer-songwriter was described as "the best kept secret in the music business" by the rock impresario Bill Graham. His biography at Allmusic states that: "His refusal to pigeonhole his music - which seamlessly melds folk, rock, jazz, funk, progressive, pop, electro, classical, and global folk traditions - to meet anyone else's expectations allowed him to retain his cult following without ever achieving the stardom that his talent seemed to merit."
Phillips was born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of James Young Phillips who wrote detective novels under the name Philip Atlee and was the brother of CIA officer David Atlee Phillips. Shawn Phillips grew up in various locations around the world, including Tahiti, and learned to play guitar as a child. He returned to live in Texas in the late 1950s, and, after a time in the U.S. Navy, moved to California.
He played in folk clubs in the early 1960s, alongside singer-songwriter Tim Hardin, comedian Lenny Bruce and others, and when in Saskatoon, Canada, met and taught guitar techniques to aspiring singer Joni Anderson (later Mitchell). He recorded his first single, an adaptation of Bob Gibson's version of "Frankie and Johnnie" (credited as "The New Frankie & Johnnie Song"), in 1964. While travelling to India, he stopped in London and met record producer Denis Preston, who signed him to Columbia Records. Phillips released two albums on the label, I'm a Loner (1964) and Shawn (1965), though neither were successful. Phillips also met Donovan, and the pair collaborated on several of Donovan's songs, including "Season of the Witch" for which Phillips (though uncredited) composed the tune. Phillips also appeared on several of Donovan's albums, including Fairytale (on which Phillips is credited as co-writer of "Little Tin Soldier"), Sunshine Superman, and Mellow Yellow. Through Donovan, he met the Beatles, and contributed backing vocals on "Lovely Rita".
In 1967, he left England after his work permit expired, and after a period in Paris moved to Positano in Italy, while continuing to tour. He returned to England to write and perform, with The Djinn, the music for the controversial Jane Arden play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven at the Arts Laboratory on Drury Lane in London in February 1969. Sponsored by Dick James, he also recorded material with Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood of Traffic. This was intended to become a trilogy of albums, combining songs together with instrumental pieces and verse readings. He was signed by A&M Records, but they decided to release only one album, comprising only Phillips' songs, which was released as Contribution (1970). The album, which ranged from folk rock to "introspective quasi-classical guitar pieces" was relatively successful, and Phillips released a string of further albums on A&M through the 1970s, starting with Second Contribution (1970), and Collaboration (1971).
Phillips continued to tour, and secured a standing ovation for his impromptu solo performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. He was also approached to be the lead in the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and started rehearsing the show, but withdrew because of contractual disagreements with the show's producer, Robert Stigwood. He recorded successfully throughout the 1970s, with four of his albums – Faces (1972, #57), Bright White (1973, #72), Furthermore (1974, #50), and Do You Wonder (1975, #101) – reaching the Billboard pop LP chart in the U.S.. In addition, the singles "Lost Horizon" (#63) and "We" (#92) appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1973.
According to Bruce Eder at Allmusic, his 1970s recordings "established his reputation for boundless, nearly peerless creativity and virtuosity... [as a] 12-string guitarist combined with his four-octave vocal range.....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 the music of his homeland and a seasoned traveler's love of world music, with none of the usual limits on his thinking about music." Eder continued: "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."
Later in the 1970s, Phillips began experimenting with jazz and funk music. using electronic keyboards. He moved to RCA Records, and released Transcendence (1978), on which he played with Herbie Hancock and a symphony orchestra. He also wrote music for movies. After moving from Italy back to Los Angeles, he recorded Beyond Here Be Dragons with musicians including Alphonso Johnson, Caleb Quaye, J. Peter Robinson, and Ralph Humphrey; the album was released in 1988.
Phillips retired from music in the mid-1990s, and qualified as an emergency medical technician (EMT) and firefighter in Texas. He moved to near Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 2000 with his wife Juliette, and worked as a paramedic with the National Sea Rescue Institute. His album No Category, containing a mix of new and unreleased music featuring his longtime collaborators Paul Buckmaster and Peter Robinson, was released in 2002. In 2007, his first live album, Living Contribution, was released, along with a live DVD of the same title. His early recordings were reissued on CD during the 1990s, together with several compilations of his work.
In an interview with Chicago music critic Scott Itter, Phillips was reminded that he had once been described as "the best kept secret in the music business" by the late rock impresario Bill Graham. Asked why he was still "a secret" to many people, Phillips replied:
I'm not that interested in the fame, and popularity, but I would like to have the money that comes with it. I suppose the two have to go hand in hand. My "secrecy", is simply because none of the companies I have ever been affiliated with have cared enough to hire a national PR firm on an annual basis as part of the machine that creates the fame and popularity. Also, if you use a word like xenophobia in a song, or any word that the general public has to look up, they tend to shy away from any semblance of intelligence in popular music.
Family and personal life
- I'm a Loner (1964) [re-issued in 1965 as Favourite Things]
- Shawn (1965) Columbia Records [re-issued in 1966 as First Impressions]
- Contribution (1970)
- Second Contribution (1970) US #208, Canada #68
- Collaboration (1971)
- Faces (1972) US #57, Canada #38
- Bright White (1973) US #72, Canada #50
- Furthermore (1974), A&M Records US #50, Canada #56
- Do You Wonder (1974) US #101, Canada #42
- Rumplestiltskin's Resolve (1975) US #201
- Spaced (1977)
- Transcendence (1978) RCA Records
- Favourite Things (1987) Capitol Records
- Beyond Here Be Dragons (1983) Wounded Bird Records
- Best of Shawn Phillips (1990)
- The Best of Shawn Phillips: The A&M Years (1992)
- The Truth If It Kills (1994)
- Another Contribution: Anthology (1995)
- No Category (2002) Universal Records / Fat Jack Records
- Living Contribution (2007) Sheer Sound
- At the BBC (2009) Hux Records
- Reflections (2012)
- Perspective (2013)
- Infinity (2014)
- Continuance (2017)
- "A Christmas Song" (1970, A&M AMS-819)
- "We" (US #89, 1972, A&M 1402)
- "Lost Horizon" (US #63, 1973, A&M 1405)
- "Anello (Where Are You)" (1973, A&M 1435)
- "Bright White" (1973, A&M 1482) (#62 Canada)
- "Do You Wonder" (1974, A&M 1750) (#89 Canada)
- "Shawn Phillips official website home page". Shawnphillips.com. Archived from the original on March 17, 2012. Retrieved February 19, 2012.
- Eder, Bruce. "Shawn Phillips". AllMusic. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
- "Shawn Phillips". Drmusic.org. Retrieved June 17, 2015.
- Jeff Cramer, "A Very Candid Conversation with Shawn Phillips", Jeff Cramer, July 12, 2018. Retrieved 24 January 2020
- Susan Croft, "Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven, 8th November", Feminist Archive North, 13 October 2009. Retrieved 24 January 2020
- Whitburn, Joel (1985). Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Albums 1955-1985. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 286. ISBN 0-89820-054-7.
- Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955-2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 547. ISBN 0-89820-155-1.
- Rolling Stone
- "RPM Top 100 Albums - October 13, 1985 (actual page for the 13th unavailable - see previous week for #90)" (PDF).
- "RPM Top 100 Albums - February 17, 1973" (PDF).
- "RPM Top 100 Albums - February 16, 1974" (PDF).
- "RPM Top 100 Albums - February 15, 1975" (PDF).
- "RPM Top 100 Albums - October 18, 1975" (PDF).
- "RPM Top 100 Singles - February 9, 1974" (PDF).
- "RPM Top 100 Singles - October 25, 1975 (No charts published in November)" (PDF).