Before We Was Fab

Yes I’m writing about Phil Phillips and no, I’m not writing about “Sea of Love.” There’s really nothing for me to add to the story of that great song, which was already covered quite well by our own Jon Cummings several years ago. So you might be wondering, “wasn’t Phil Phillips a one-hit wonder? What else could there be to talk about?”

True, Phillips’ “Sea of Love” was his only hit and to this day is the song we all associate with him. That’s not because he didn’t record any other good material, however. Phillips recorded an album’s worth of material to follow up his hit, but shelved it in disgust over how he was treated by Mercury Records. And so other than a handful of singles in the 1959-61 period and the late ’60s cult classic  “The Evil Dope,” the American record buying public heard little from Phillips ever again.

And so it was that in 2008, almost 50 years after “Sea of Love” should have made Phillips a star and set him up for life, the songs he recorded for his never-released album saw the light of day. The album, cleverly titled Sea of Love, was issued by Bear Family Records, and it’s well worth hearing. What becomes apparent almost immediately is that the raw, doo-wop flavoring of “Sea of Love” was replaced by slower arrangements and lots of strings. I guess that’s what a bigger budget will get you.

Phillips’ warbly, slightly reedy tenor delivery is a bit of a mismatch for the gentle, swooning arrangements provided for him, but once you get used to it there are definite pleasures to be had. Phillips is no Nat King Cole — hell, he’s not even Pat Boone — but he possessed an easygoing charm that’s hard to deny.

Take the previously unreleased “Weeping Willow” for instance. Largely stripped of the fluffy and fussy arrangements that hamper some of his other songs, it’s a minor key gem. It’s a more fully produced song than “Sea of Love,” but wisely makes use of only a few instruments — my ears detect a double bass, acoustic guitar, some plucked (violin?) strings, and some drum brushes. What I really think elevates it, however, is the inclusion of some typically fantastic backing vocals by the Jordanaires. Yes, Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires.

The whole thing is an exercise in subtlety and really is a fine performance. I can’t say with conviction that it would have been enough to maintain Phillips’ commercial momentum, but he sure as hell deserved the chance.

After leaving the music business as a performer, Phillips found work as a radio disc jockey in Alabama and his native Louisiana. He also married and had seven children. In 2007 Phillips was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, where he gave one of his very rare live performances. It was, to say the least, a poignant and bittersweet moment.

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