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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 allowed him to hold onto a large and dedicated cult following, without ever achieving the stardom that his talent seemed to merit.
Phillips was born in 1943 in Fort Worth, TX, the son of best-selling spy novelist Philip Atlee, who moved the family around the world at various times, including the South Pacific. After hearing "Malaguena" at the piano, he took up the guitar at age seven, and by the time he was 12, 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 some training in classical music but a love for performers like Jimmy Reed and Ike & Tina Turner, among 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.
Phillips made his first record, an over-produced single of Bob Gibson's version of "Frankie and Johnnie" for Columbia, which he followed with two albums, I'm a Loner and Shawn, neither of which was successful. Phillips went to England, where he performed and wrote songs with Donovan, in a professional relationship somewhat clouded in controversy. (Phillips claimed in interviews during the 1970s 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.) While staying in England, the range of his work vastly expanded, partly with the help of various controlled substances.
He was ejected from England for playing without a work permit, and tried living in Paris for before he headed for Italy. He settled in Positano, a tiny fishing village. 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 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 came to A&M Records. Producer Jonathon Weston listened to his work and decided to try and release an edited version of the music.
This became his A&M debut album, Contribution, which ranged freely between uptempo 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 three 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.
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 Transcendance, 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. He also contributed to movie music by Manos Hadjidakis, and appeared in the movie Run with the Wind.
With close to 20 albums behind him since the mid-'60s, Phillips has a following in America, Europe, and Japan, and he has performed at different world music festivals. A cult figure whose peers include Van Dyke Parks and, perhaps, Leonard Cohen (though Cohen's public profile is enhanced by his following, as an established poet and author, in the literary community), he remains an enigmatic figure on the music landscape. His work remained sufficiently in demand in the 1990s, however, to justify a best-of compilation from A&M in 1992 that included notes by Phillips and one new song. In 1998, eight of his LPs were re-released via the Wounded Bird label.