Songwriter, singer, guitarist, sitarist
Guitarist, songwriter, singer, and sitarist Shawn Phillips boasts a five-decade career that has left critics and audiences wondering how to categorize the type of music that he performs. Initially identified as a folk-rock singer-songwriter in the manner of 1970s musical stars James Taylor, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne, Phillips subsequently released albums that were alternately labeled progressive rock or art rock. Regardless of their classifications, each of his releases display Phillips’s three-octave vocal range and adept-ness on six-and twelve-string guitar. He is also noted for his collaborations with British folk-rock singer Donovan Leiten and for his minor participation in the recording of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Phillips described his varied career to Albert Salerno in a Discoveries magazine article archived on Phillips’s website: “I have chosen to be a musician. I discovered early in life that I had what I consider the greatest gift any individual can be given—the ability to create music. Not rock and roll, but music.”
Phillips was born on February 3, 1943, in Fort Worth, Texas. His father, James Atlee Phillips, was a journalist who wrote a series of mystery and espionage novels in the 1960s about the Cold War under the pseudonym James Atlee. James Phillips also wrote the screenplay to the 1958 Robert Mitchum film Thunder Road. His father’s career provided Phillips the opportunity to live in Mexico, the Canary Islands, France, Switzerland, Africa, Italy, Germany, Tahiti, and locations throughout the United States. According to Phillips, in the Discoveries interview with Salerno, his father “was a great influence on my creativity. He said ‘You need to write with anger, with wonder, and with technique. Anger is, when you look at the world around you, is it a perfect place? If you think it is, then you’re probably certifiable. Wonder comes from looking at the world through the eyes of a child. And technique is keeping a balance between the two.’ That’s the way I write, always has been.”
Phillips began playing guitar when he was seven years old, after hearing the folk song “Malaguena.” When he was twelve, he could master the chords to Carl Perkins songs. In high school, he formed the band Straight Jacket with Delbert McClinton. He also performed occasionally with schoolmate John Deutchendorf, who later changed his name to John Denver. After high school, Phillips served briefly in the United States Navy. After his discharge, he befriended singer and songwriter Tim Hardin—most famous for writing the song “If I Were a Carpenter”—and the pair traveled across the United States while performing, writing songs, and experimenting with such psychotropic drugs as mescaline and LSD. By the early 1960s, Phillips had established himself as a frequent performer in the Greenwich Village coffeehouses—a scene that included Hardin, Bob Dylan, Cass Elliot, John Sebastian, and Fred Neil. He also spent time in the folk-music venues of California and Toronto. It was in Canada that he met and tutored Joni Mitchell in guitar playing. “She wasn’t performing then, but I taught her how to play guitar. I was playing in Saskatchewan, at a place called the Louie Reo Coffee House, where she was working as a waitress,” he explained to Albert Salerno in Discoveries. It was also in Canada that he first saw Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. “I went to his concert in Toronto, and after the concert, he was kind enough to sit down with me for about four hours. He showed me how to sit with the instrument, how to hold it, the very basics of the sitar, and that hooked me,” he told Salerno.
In 1963 Phillips moved to England, where he recorded his first album, I’m a Loner. The album included original songs as well as cover versions of songs by Phil Ochs, Shel Silverstein, and Rogers and Hammerstein. He recorded Shawn the following year. Both albums were recorded for Lansdowne Series, an imprint of Capitol Records. When Columbia Records purchased Lansdowne, those albums were subsequently reissued on Columbia as, respectively, Favorite Things and First Impressions. In 1964 Phillips wrote the music for and starred in the British film Run with the Wind. During this period, Phillips met Donovan Leitch, with whom he shared writing credits on the song “Little Tin Soldier” on Donovan’s Fairy Tale album. He also played sitar on the album and is rumored to have co-written “Season of the Witch” as well as other songs on Donovan’s Sunshine Superman album. He also roomed for a while with Paul Simon, who was living in London prior to finding fame in Simon and Garfunkel. He befriended Cass Elliot, Elton John, Bernie Taupin, members of the Moody Blues, and the Beatles. He sang backup vocals
Born on February 3, 1943, in Fort Worth, TX; son of James Atlee Phillips (a novelist and screenwriter).
Began playing guitar, age seven; played Texas folk-music circuit, 1960s; starred in film Run with the Wind, 1964; recorded albums I’m a Loner and Shawn for Capitol Records, 1965-66; wrote songs and recorded with Donovan Leitch, mid-1960s; recorded triple-album Contribution with Traffic members Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood and future Elton John guitarist Caleb Quaye, 1968; Contribution edited, released as single album by A&M Records producer Jonathon Weston, 1970; received positive critical reception for tour following release of Second Contribution, 1971; released Collaboration, 1971; released Bright White, 1973; released No Category, 2003.
on the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita” and gave George Harrison his first sitar lessons.
Phillips left England when authorities discovered that he did not have a work permit. He relocated to Paris, France, and, later, to Positano, Italy, where he resided for the next twenty years. During this period, he wrote the songs that he would take back to England in 1968 to record with members of Traffic, including Steve Win-wood, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood. He also employed future Elton John guitarist Caleb Quaye. The group recorded three albums’ worth of material, but Phillips was unable to find a record company to release the project. He later auditioned for and won the title role in the London stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but he has claimed that he lost the part to Ted Neely when the play’s producer, manager, and agent, as well as song publisher Robert Stigwood, found out that Phillips already had his own manager, agent, and song publisher. In the meantime, Phillips continued to seek a record company for his recorded songs that featured virtuoso instrumental performances and obscure lyrics. The eclectic selection of songs included passages of classical guitar, sitar, and acoustic music that were balanced against more up-tempo folk-rock songs like “Man Hole Covered Wagon.” The recordings languished unreleased for two years until A&M Records producer Jonathon Weston edited the triple album into a single album, entitled Contribution. The second album released from the sessions, Second Contribution, was a critical success, accompanied by overwhelming positive reaction to a subsequent United States tour.
For his next album, Collaboration, Phillips recruited Paul Buckmaster, who previously had orchestrated the chorale on the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and provided the string arrangements for Elton John’s albums of the early 1970s. Phillips continued to release such critically praised efforts as Faces, Bright White, Furthermore, and the 1978 album Transcendence, which features a 60-piece orchestra and members of Herbie Hancock’s band, with production and arrangements by Michael Kamen. Phillips, however, never rose above the status of cult favorite due to the fact that he couldn’t produce a top-40 single, and for a time in the early 1980s, he was homeless and survived by panhandling.
In 1991 Phillips underwent open-heart surgery. While recovering from surgery, he became a dispatcher for a firehouse in Austin, Texas. He went on to receive certification as a fireman and as an Emergency Medical Technician. His health problems were exacerbated by a career setback revolving around the production of his 1992 album The Truth If It Kills. “On that project, the producer, Michel Le Francois, didn’t follow my vision,” he told Salerno. He subsequently placed a legal injunction on the album to prevent it from being released outside Quebec, where the album was recorded. After a prolonged period of depression, he traveled to South Africa in 1994 to perform 20 sold-out shows. In 2002 he reunited with Paul Buckmaster to record No Category, which was self-released in 2003. Over the years, his popularity in Canada and South Africa have overshadowed his recognition in the United States, but his 1970s albums on the A&M and RCA labels continue to attract new fans and to generate a high degree of critical respect.
I’m a Loner, Columbia, 1965; reissued as Favorite Things, Capital, 1965; reissued, Wounded Bird,
Shawn, Columbia, 1966; reissued as First Impressions, Columbia, 1966; reissued, Wounded Bird.
Contribution, A&M, 1970; reissued, Wounded Bird.
Collaboration, A&M, 1971; reissued, Wounded Bird.
Second Contribution, A&M, 1971.
Faces, A&M, 1972.
Bright White, A&M, 1973; reissued, Wounded Bird.
Furthermore, A&M, 1974; reissued, Wounded Bird.
Do You Wonder, A&M, 1975; reissued, Wounded Bird.
Rumplestiltskin’s Resolve, A&M, 1976.
Spaced, A&M, 1976.
Transcendence, RCA, 1978; reissued, Wounded Bird.
Beyond Here Be Dragons, Chameleon, 1988.
The Best of Shawn Phillips: The A&M Years, A&M, 1992.
The Truth If It Kills, Imagine, 1994.
Another Contribution: An Anthology, A&M, 1995.
No Category, self-released, 2003.
“Shawn Phillips,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusicguide.com (October 29, 2002).
Shawn Phillips Official Website, http://www.shawnphillips.com (October 24, 2002).
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