After yesterday’s tale of my journey from showbiz to healthcare, you’ll be able to see why the subject of today’s article is someone I admire. He has led a life of romance and adventure in exotic, faraway lands. As a young man, he lived with a famous actress and co-starred in one of her films. His songwriting, singing and playing are unique and powerful. He performed and created alongside more famous musicians, and released 20 albums. Bill Graham called him “the best kept secret in the music business“. His name is SHAWN PHILLIPS.
Shawn’s father, a best-selling spy novelist, moved the family all over the world. He became a global citizen while still young. He picked up guitar early, and was already playing at clubs in his teens. When up in Saskatchewan, he gave some guitar pointers to a waitress (later performer) named Joni Mitchell who was interested in his 12-string technique. At age 19 he went backstage after a Ravi Shankar concert to ask about the sitar. Shankar generously shared his time, and showed him some basics. A few years later when Shawn was playing in England, he introduced George Harrison to the instrument. Harrison followed the knowledge back to Ravi Shankar, and most of what Americans know of Indian music comes from their friendship and collaboration. Sometimes generosity is rewarded.
He knew the other Beatles too. John Lennon liked his dry sense of humor. Shawn sang some of the high backing vocals on “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid” from the Sergeant Pepper album. Donovan was Shawn’s close friend. They wrote and played together. They appeared on Pete Seeger’s TV show Rainbow Quest. Here they are with a song about a queen. (King Arthur’s legends show up everywhere in my world.) —
Shawn has said he co-wrote most of the songs on Sunshine Superman. He didn’t get credit for it (or royalties), and his manager, who he had introduced to Donovan, became Donovan’s manager and dropped Shawn. Sometimes generosity is not rewarded.
He recorded first for Columbia, then two albums for Capitol. They didn’t sell well. He recorded on spec in 1968, and because those sessions were so impressive he was signed to A&M, where he released nine albums. The A&M albums feature the work of one of the finest orchestral arrangers in popular music, Paul Buckmaster. Buckmaster also wielded the baton for Elton John, and did the choral arranging on the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
People have had trouble selling Shawn Phillips as a product. He’s hard to place in any standard music category. He sings in a strong Texas-flavored baritone, but also has a clear falsetto/head tone in his vocal arsenal. His songs sometimes rock, but they are also country, however they also include full orchestras and are lyrically structured like myths. Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that Shawn was producing “world music” before it became a sales genre. The vocabulary in his writing can be off-putting to an average audience. Here’s a phrase from his song “Early Morning Hours” (1976):
And the effluvium of excess,
It is hidden at the behest of mentality
of a low degree.
How many copies of a song like that do you think you could sell? Shawn has used words in lyrics like “velleity” that even I (big reader, college-edumacated) had to look up. It means “a mere wish, unaccompanied by the effort to obtain”. Now you have a new, cool word to use.
I saw Shawn perform in 1978. He played solo on a variety of guitars, with an amazing rack of mysterious sound-processing modules. He came across like a one-man guitar orchestra, very unusual in those days before mass-produced guitar synthesizers.
He eventually sold millions of records, but despite critical acclaim he never became famous by ordinary standards. Shawn went broke, grew depressed and attempted suicide. He thought his work had been forgotten. Some kind of inner angel pointed him toward service. He became a firefighter and EMT. By learning to save others, he also saved himself. To this day he splits his time between music and service work. He’s a Navigator with the National Sea Rescue Institute of South Africa.
Arlo Hennings, a young fan with few connections in the music industry became his friend and manager in 1994, and together they re-built his career. Direct donations from fans provided money for a new CD in 2003, as well as the re-release of his previous albums. Shawn Phillips might never be the kind of star you would think of normally, but musicians from many genres consider him an important influence. He’s one of my favorites. Here’s a link to one of his best-loved ballads:
Who are your under-appreciated favorite artists?