Shawn Phillips is one of those legends that had been swept up in mystery, disappeared under the cloak of the sixties, or stripped of acknowledgement due to dirty management and contracts. Such is the case with the twelve-string acoustic genius, Shawn Phillips, one time flat partner with Tim Hardin, who played the Indian sitar for Donovan on “Sunshine Superman” and exquisite “Three Kingfishers”. At the age of twenty Shawn moved to London and became known as a prolific writer, musician, and vocalist. Not only did he tutor Joni Mitchell at a very young age, but also this Texas born folk musician was a regular at the Bleecker / McDougal folk clubs of the early sixties. Shawn’s vox had reached cathedral level and Andrew Lloyd Webber handpicked the minstrel to lend his god-gifted voice to the controversial Jesus Christ Superstar, but Shawn opted for an Italian sabbatical and was displaced by Ian Gillian of Deep Purple.
The poetry of this troubadour is much to be admired and his many years of solace in Italy brought forth some of the most inspiring love ballads to appropriate the early seventies. It’s a hidden secret fact that he actually featured on the Sgt. Pepper’s album (“Lovely Rita”) as a backup vocalist for the Beatles. Shawn’s first song he wrote “Death Train” reflected the legends of past folklore, a scenario that would enhance his dimensional future. The early albums I’m A Loner and Impressions were set in the woody confines of his Greenwich roots with deliberate versions of Hamilton Camp’s “Pride Of Man” and Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things” first heard from the We Five. Shawn also wrote the Hans Christian Anderson child rhyming “Little Tin Soldier” which came to light with the noble Donovan plus co -penning the jazzy “Season of the Witch”. Shawn’s sitar is mystically seasoned on “Sunny South Kensington” and the full version of “Sunshine Superman”.
George Harrison received his first sitar lessons from Shawn. Shawn appeared as a folk singer in the 1965 film Run With the Wind and worked extensively with Steve Winwood, Mick Weaver and Chris Woods during his A&M contract. The 1972 German film The Pied Piper and Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon also featured Shawns’ twelve- string behind Donovan’s tender vox. Well, at least one aspiring musician recognised his ability, that being Zoot Money (Big Roll Band). In fact, Zoot covered one of Shawn’s classics “Look at You Now” which came to surface on a live album, while further afield Shawn played and sang on Wynder K Frog’s third album Into The Fire. Mr Phillips nobly applied most of the crystal twelve strings behind Donovan’s eclectic “Summer Day Reflection Song”.
To describe the music of Shawn Phillips one would have to be somewhat cautious and the best description to portray his eclectic style would be progressive folk. Quite honestly his vocal and guitar ability would have made him easy prey for the likes of Genesis, the ultimate replacement for twelve-string guitarist, Anthony Phillips( Kindred spirit, surname with twelve-string virtuosi). Quartermass pianist, Peter Robinson, immaculately manipulated most of the keyboard work on Shawn’s compositions. With eighteen prestigious albums under his belt Shawn can look back to his early days with a sense of satisfaction. A worthy introspection of Contribution with the stellar “L Ballade” and understated support from Mick Weaver and Eric Clapton showed promise of greater things to come. Collaboration, (1973) Faces, (1974) and the 1971 Second Contribution brings eternal joy. Shawn’s genteel approach was magnificently enhanced by the string arrangements of Paul Buckmaster.
Shawn Phillips’ epic 1972 Second Contribution released some of the finest acoustic and high vocal soprano of the time. The album is a spiritual manifestation of harmonics fused with Gregorian tones and layers of twelve-string guitar. The angelic “Ballad of Casey Deiss” will long be remembered for the harmonic soprano and heightened level to which Shawn could reach. Shawn was a brilliant songwriter who fused electric and acoustic, creating a spectrum of colours. Not only could he perform live with no overdubs, but also the mastery of his twelve-string came forth as intricately as the finesse of Da Vince. Shawn’s “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”, evokes a Christ like atonement, as it shivers through one’s being, poignant splendour, and his ultimate magna opus.
The 1973 Faces, an apt description of the varied styles that travelled through the album, is very much an about turn for Shawn Phillips. The session recruitment was an all-star employment comprising of America’s shadow bass man Leland Sklar, Sneaky Pete on the steel guitar and Joe Sample on the piano. Flute was normally blown by Johnny Almond, John Mayall’s Turning Point star. Shawn picks up the sitar on the isolated “Chorale”, which paints stellar moments, reflective of his nature and spiritual state. The ultimate octave is delivered on his exquisite 13min introspection “Parisian Plight 11”. “The Plight” was enhanced by Juicy Lucy steel guitarist Glen Campbell, Traffic roadster Steve Winwood, and Keef Hartley’s primal wind force Henry Lowther & Chris Mercer. In hindsight the album has many faces each with its own expression.
Shawn’s 1974 Furthermore release has ex Big Three / Quartermass bassist John Gustafson ploughing into the progressive intro “January First”. It is here that you realize that Shawn was far from folk, but more in the jazzy confines of intricate Progressive Rock. As if to pacify the mayhem Shawn paints his brushes through the tranquil “Starbright” with Peter Robinson etching the canvass with his rippling keyboards while ex Blue Mink Anne Odell bends the mellotron on this choral stargazer. Shawn once told me on a 10min radio interview that Furthermore was his absolute assault and creation. The album also boasts the ethereal cello of Paul Buckmaster, a master arranger of note. This album has dimension beyond the shifting sands of Camel or Caravan such as the spacey “Cape’ Barras” airlifting Shawn’s yodel vox.
Shawn recruited phase axe innovator Caleb Quaye for the guitar inquisitions that sprouted out of “Ninety Two Years” and “Talking In The Garden”.Perhaps the most moistening deliverance saddles the infectious “Breakthrough”, a master in it’s own reflection. Each of Shawn’s albums has a dazzling gem that often blinds the listener, namely Collaborations that gave us the stirring “Moonshine” and “Spring Wind” while Furthermore, shimmered through “Talking in the Garden”, and then there was Bright White and the underrated Rumpelstiltskin Resolve. Get them all before it’s too late.
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