Gene Phillips was one of the early stars of Modern Records. In the early 40s he sang and played guitar, was a jump blues specialist and led his own band, the Rhythm Aces. He also had a penchant for sassy songs about fat women-.-his repertoire included Big Fat Mama, Big Legs, Fatso and Punkin' Head Woman. Stylistically they mirrored much of Louis Jordan's output. He was a big fan of Jordan's, and of Wynonie Harris.
The late Jake Porter of Combo Records, who played trumpet on most of Phillips' Modern recordings, took me down to meet him at his junkyard on South Central, Los Angeles in the 80s. When we arrived Jake said "stay in the car, I'll go get him because you might catch something". Jake hollered "Come out Gene, somebody wants to talk with you". About five minutes later Gene appeared down the alley, patting dust off his clothes and pulling up his trousers. He had a mop of grey hair that hadn't been cut for a long time. Jake whispered in my ear "He's suffering from dementia, you won't get a lot out of him." Phillips looked a sorry state, was slow talking and quietly spoken, but he did answer my questions, and even went back and got his lap steel guitar to show me. A few years later I heard he'd passed away. Sadly I didn't see any obituaries.
He was from the old school of electric guitarists, who came out of the big band jazz field of the 30s, known as Territory bands. They mainly operated out of the mid-west cities of Kansas City, Tulsa, St Louis and Omaha, reaching as far south as Dallas and San Antonio in Texas. Fellow pioneers of this type of guitar playing were Charlie Christian, Eddie Durham and Floyd Smith.
World War II broke up most of the territorial bands and the West Coast attracted many of the musicians. Those who weren't drafted formed smaller units such as trios and quintets. In the Central Avenue clubs of Los Angeles the joints were jumping. The leaders of this early blues and rhythm movement were Joe Liggins and His Honey Drippers, Roy Milton and his Solid Senders and Johnny Moore and His Three Blazers.
The first instrument Phillips played was the ukulele when he was about ten. He later switched to guitar. Although he came from a town steeped in blues, his interest lay in the big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. His particular heroes were the singers Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing. He soon joined the St Louis bands of Dewey Jackson and Jimmy Powell and later befriended Floyd Smith, who played guitar with Andy Kirk's Clouds Of Joy, and who had a hit, Floyd's Guitar Blues, in 1939 (with Andy Kirk). Smith played both electric and Hawaiian lap steel guitars. He taught Phillips the lap steel, which is the instrument featured on his Modern recordings.
Jake Porter of Combo Records, also a well-respected session player, remembered "Well, I think the first time I saw Gene Phillips, he was working with Lorenzo Flennoy's Trio. We were doing a show down in Los Angeles and they were one of the acts...it was the latter part of 1943. After the war the independent record companies were starting and that's when I met Jules Bihari - it might have been 1944. I made some records for Jules, and then he signed up Gene Phillips. I worked on most of his sessions up until 1950." It was during the early 40s that Porter and Phillips worked together on an 8-10 week engagement at the popular club, the Last Word, on Central Avenue. "They used me as the featured trumpeter" recalled Jake, "and we were making records at the same time."
Talking about the Modern sessions, Jake explained "most of the riffs were mine, some of the endings were Maxwell's and some of the introductions were Maxwell's". [Maxwell Davis, like Porter, was a top musician, who worked on both jazz and R&B sessions. Their arrangements were heard on many sessions including ones for Capitol, Imperial and Aladdin.]
Jake Porter had this to say about these marvellous Phillips sessions for Modern, "I guess music-wise and musician-wise he had the best musicians on his sessions, and Modern Records' boss Jules Bihari just loved the stuff. He never rushed time. One thing about Jules I got to say his love was to sit up in the control booth and watch a record being made. He was fascinated. It was just like he was in a trance.
All of Gene Phillips' Modern recordings were all-star sessions that used fine musicians such as Maxwell Davis, Marshall Royal, Jack McVea, Bumps Meyers, Willard McDaniel, Lloyd Glenn, Bill Street, Art Edwards and Al "Cake" Wichard.
Gene Phillips was a big selling artist during the early years on Modern Records with 17 singles issued. The Biharis wouldn't have released so many if an artist wasn't selling. Another release that's been worrying me for a long time is a record by Gene Phillips on the Twin Hit label - does any collector have a copy, and is it the same Gene Phillips who recorded for Modern? Please write and tell me at Ace Records (or email email@example.com). The remainder of Phillips' Modern recordings will be released later on Volume 2.
By Ray Topping