Bruce Springsteen once remarked that Roy Orbison was the only truly operatic singer in rock music. With no disrespect intended toward the great Mr. Orbison, it is apparent that Bruce never heard Shawn Phillips.
Shawn Phillips was and is the original cosmic contra-tenor – a hippie Pavarotti with a waist-length ponytail and a buckskin jacket, a sometimes gifted songwriter with a mastery of several stringed instruments, a prodigious vocal range, and, by most accounts, a formidably drug-shrouded mind. He stopped making albums in the late 1970s, and I had pictured him as the quintessential hippie burnout, the slacker/stoner who flamed out in his mid-thirties and disappeared from the public eye. As usual, the truth is something far different and far more complex, driven more by the vagaries of the music industry than by personal demons or tragedy. In any event, Shawn Phillips may be the greatest singer you’ve never heard. And even if you’ve paid close attention to the music of the past twenty-five years, there’s a good chance you’ve not heard him. Thirty-five years after he played in front of 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival, Shawn Phillips is a nearly forgotten man.
I distinctly remember the first time I heard The Voice. Phillips’ “Song for Mr. C.,” from his 1971 album Second Contribution, was played fairly frequently on Chicago FM radio stations in the early 1970s, and the greasy R&B of that song reminded me of the grit of Leon Russell and Lee Michaels, blue-eyed soul men who were popular at the time. I snatched up the album, thinking that I was in for more of the same. What I got was something altogether different and altogether less prone to easy categorization: tender love ballads that sounded like Johnny Mathis with testosterone, sweeping, romantic strings, strutting R&B horns, sitars, progressive jazz, hushed acoustic folk music with exquisite six-string fingerpicking, and, on “The Ballad of Casey Deiss,” the sound of the human voice soaring into the heavens. A conventional folk ballad for its first four minutes, it suddenly took a turn for the celestial when Phillips’ pure falsetto spiraled upward, more upward, impossibly upward until I could not believe the notes I was hearing. It was my introduction to the most remarkable voice of the singer/songwriter era.
If that voice borrowed influences from almost everywhere it is perhaps because Phillips lived almost everywhere. A military brat who grew up in Texas, Mexico, and Tahiti, he traveled in his young adulthood to California, London (where he befriended Donovan in his Flower Power phase and spent time with Lennon and McCartney), and Paris before finally settling down in the picturesque Italian fishing village of Positano, where he lived throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Phillips absorbed the music around him, from
Unfortunately, much of Phillips’ music sounds hopelessly dated now, the product of the patchouli-scented times in which it was made. It has not aged well, and the sitar drones and “love your brother, man” sentiments only serve to highlight the naiveté and excesses of the Age of Aquarius. The voice still sounds exquisite – soulful, passionate, and gritty on one song, light as a feather and soaring the next. But the song titles tell another story: “Spaceman,” “What’s Happenin’, Jim!” and the ridiculously named, impossibly lovely “She Was Waiting For Her Mother At The Station in Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It’s Getting Too Heavy To Laugh.” Far out. And therein lies the problem. To listen to Shawn Phillips is to be confronted with stark contrasts. With the possible exception of Al Green, never has a human voice combined such earthy soul with such a soaring, angelic falsetto. And never has such an otherworldly, gorgeous human voice been placed in the service of such hazily muddled hippie tripe.
What renders the tripe palatable, even highly listenable, is The Voice. Possessing a three-octave range that could move effortlessly between a natural baritone and the most astonishing falsetto I’ve ever heard, Phillips sang not so much songs as hippie arias, impossibly dramatic mini-operas that showcased his evocative passion and startling vocal range. If the words have not always aged well, the good news is that the falsetto is often wordless. And it is singing of the highest order; of an unearthly order, for that matter.
Today, Phillips is 62 years old and lives outside
He still has the waist-length ponytail, his once light brown hair now shot through with grey. And he still has The Voice, now a little weathered by the years and the miles. His infrequent concerts still find him soaring impossibly upward, trying to find a place to alight that is not of this earth.