Full Circle

Shawn Phillips: Donovan’s Musical Muse

Shawn Phillips

Shawn Phillips in the 1970s

Donovan and Phillips in June at the Royal Albert Hall

In the canon of ’60s British folk rock, Donovan’s 1966 album, Sunshine Superman, is a milestone. After being pegged by the media as a Dylan wannabe – a categorization also addressed during a uncomfortable moment in Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back documentary – the Glasgow-born Donovan Leitch reinvented himself as a full-blown Celtic mystic. A heady mixture of Indian influences, modern jazz, Arthurian troubadour melodies, and in-vogue psychedelia, Sunshine Superman was worlds apart from the music Dylan was creating in Nashville during the Blonde on Blonde sessions.

It’s an album that deserves re-listening, a reappraisal. On June 3, Donovan took on a major challenge by performing the album in its entirety at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. Originally conceived as a ruby wedding anniversary gift for his wife, Linda, Donovan successfully staged one of the most remarkable comeback shows in recent memory. Joining him in the hall was arranger John Cameron, who created the elaborate orchestrations on the original disc; Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson; and Jimmy Page, a hot guitar session-man-for hire in the mid-’60s. Page would later serve a stint in the Yardbirds before developing his own supergroup. The name of that band had something to do with an exploding dirigible…

It was a sublime moment when Donovan was joined by Texan-by-birth-but-citizen-of-the-world Shawn Phillips, the latter performing on sitar the songs “Three Kingfishers,” “Guinevere,” and “Ferris Wheel.” Phillips’ appearance at the concert served not only as a reminder of his contribution to Donovan’s recordings but also to his own genre-leaping solo albums of the ’70s. San Diego audiences will have a rare opportunity to see Phillips in concert on Saturday, August 27 at the AMSD Concert series in Normal Heights.

According to the official biography on his website, Phillips’ family tree is as colorful as the man’s music. Born in Ft. Worth in 1943, Shawn’s father was the best-selling author James Atlee Phillips, known to spy aficionados by the pen name of Philip Atlee. He created the fictional master spy Joe Gall in a popular series of novels and ventured beyond the world of cold war espionage when he successfully sold some screenplays, penning the scripts of Thunder Road starring Robert Mitchum, and Big Jim McLain, a vehicle for John Wayne. It was a family tree that also saw life imitating art; James Atlee Phillips’ brother was David Atlee Phillips, operations director of the CIA during the ’60s when the federal agency was at its most powerful.

Shawn’s childhood was a potpourri of musical influences. Island music came calling after he spent time living in Tahiti with his family. From his grandfather he heard the music of Hank Williams. And by his own intuition, he began mastering at an early age the guitar licks of rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins. A few years later, Phillips found himself in the middle of the folk music boom.

Comedians whose repertoire elevated above the mother-in-law jokes of the day kept company with the growing legion of folk musicians. Bill Cosby, who preferred developed monologues over one-liners, was a roommate of Shawn’s, and Phillips defended Lenny Bruce’s fight for free speech, going so far as to be arrested along side the beleaguered satirist and social commentator.

But it was the endless nightclub – coffee house touring with the likes of Tim Hardin (“If I Were a Carpenter” ) where Shawn began to perfect the art of live performance. A true woman of the Canadian prairie, Joni Mitchell once received a guitar lesson when Phillips was in Calgary.

United Artists was the first label to release a Shawn Phillips single, an unremarkable version of the folk standard, “Frankie and Johnny.” This was the during the “pop” infiltration of folk music, similar to the bombardment of strings, which was drowning out country music in Nashville. The flip side was “On a Cloudy Summer Afternoon,” composed by Travis Edmundson, one half of the singing duo of Bud and Travis.

In England, producer Denis Preston of the British wing of Columbia Records heard Shawn entertaining at a social gathering and secured the American a contract. The two albums he recorded for Columbia – I’m a Loner and Shawn – suffered similar fates as the earlier UA “Frankie and Johnny” single. However, the English years provided some high points. Phillips did become a roommate with Donovan and, for a period, the Texan and the Scotsman were as thick as thieves. You Tube videos now provide us with captivating moments; Donovan on guitar and Shawn on sitar. One couldn’t imagine a more eclectic lineup – Leitch, Phillips, Pete Seeger, and the Rev. Gary Davis discussing music. Such a summit did occur during episode 23 from the 1966 season of Seeger’s educational music program, Rainbow Quest. In the interview segment, Shawn explains the tuning techniques for the sitar (which Seeger inexplicably keeps pronouncing as the “see-tar”) to the host and the good reverend. Leitch and Phillips conclude the discussion with a rendition of “Guenevere.” The song was also performed by Donovan and Shawn for episode 43 of the teen music show, Hullabaloo, aired over NBC on March 7, 1966.

Yes, Phillips did in fact provide the best-known “rock star” sitarist, George Harrison, with a primer on mastering the difficult instrument. The good deed did not go unrewarded; that’s Shawn providing some background vocals on “Lovely Rita.” Before being unceremoniously booted out of Britain for lacking a work permit, Phillips performed a set at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival on a schedule that featured John Sebastian and Shawn’s Canadian prairie friend Joni Mitchell.

After ironing out immigration issues, Phillips returned to England and began a long association with A&M Records, a label created by Herb Alpert and an associate, Jerry Moss. In the late ’60s, A&M undertook an ambitious campaign to sign more creative artists; Procol Harum, Fairport Convention, and the Strawbs were some of the acts added to the roster. Phillips seemed like a logical choice. His first release was 1970’s Contribution, an album that had actually been recorded in 1968 and conceived as part of ambitious trilogy by Shawn. A&M got cold feet and decided to narrow the trilogy down to a single disc. Backed by Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood of Traffic, the album was praised by the press for its ingenious blend of folk, psychedelia, and Eastern influences.

There was no sophomore jinx for the follow up album, Second Contribution (1970). Phillips carefully timed the release of the album with a North American tour. For ’70s music fans, this album served as the LP that introduced Shawn to the masses. Second Contribution garnered a large amount of positive press and enjoyed accolades on both sides of the Atlantic. In San Diego, the album was added to the playlists of KGB-FM, KPRI-FM, and KDEO-AM. The surface of the actual disc contained individual tracking bands but this was merely an illusion. The album was one continuous flow of music, with songs perfectly segueing into each other. Second Contribution was an achievement on many levels; extraordinary musicianship, first-rate songwriting, and Shawn’s powerful vocals, registering an emotional wallop as he challenged – and triumphed – over several octaves. If Shawn Phillips had done a disappearing act after Second Contribution, he would still be fondly remembered for this recording today.
Fortunately, he didn’t vanish. 1971’s Collaboration proved to match the imagination of Second Contribution. During his time with A&M, Phillips would release nine albums. On many of these discs, Shawn was accompanied by the splendid orchestrations of Paul Buckmaster, whom, like Phillips, was prolific in the ’70s. Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson and Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection were two masterpieces that greatly benefited from Buckmaster’s charts for strings. Shawn concluded the ’70s decade with an album that professed his deep love of jazz, a genre that always seemed to be bubbling under the surface in his works. 1978’s Transcendence featured the popular jazz fusion of the day.

The decade that followed was a slow time for Phillips and singer-songwriters in general. During the ’80s, the public’s musical allegiance was divided by the revolution that was punk/new wave, the waning days of disco, and the rise of hip hop. Beyond Here Be Dragons, an album that had been in the vault for five years, was finally released in 1988. The break from the rigorous touring and recording schedules of the ’70s allowed Shawn the opportunity to venture into film. He provided soundtrack music for Manos Hadjidakis, the Greek composer who provided the appropriate theme for sensuous Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday.

In addition to his qualifications as a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, Phillips may add the following to his curriculum vitae: firefighter and emergency medical technician. It was an emotional payback for the successful quadruple bypass surgery he had in 1996. After life in Texas, Tahiti, England, France, and Italy, Shawn now resides in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. His humanitarian spirit remains intact as he serves with the National Sea Rescue Institute as a crew member.

San Diego’s show could indeed find the audience in the old Normal Heights church being taken on a world tour without leaving the neighborhood.

Shawn Phillips will perform in concert on Saturday night, August 27, 7:30pm, at AMSD Concerts, 4650 Mansfield Street in Normal Heights. Visit www.amsdconcerts.com for ticket
information.

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