Interview by Andy Schwartz
Intro by Jason Gross & Andy Schwartz
Drummer Phillip Wilson's resume would be the envy of any respectable musician. Born September 8, 1941 and starting out by backing soul legends Rufus Thomas and Solomon Burke in the early '60s, Wilson would become part of the group that morphed into jazz avatars the Art Ensemble of Chicago, along with Lester Bowie (like Wilson, a native of St. Louis), Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Famoudou Don Moye. Wilson's powerful military–like precision on Roscoe Mitchell's 1967 recording of "Old" owes something to Max Roach but is also his own creation. During his Chicago period, the drummer worked with stone cold blues masters like Howlin' Wolf and Magic Sam before joining the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with which he recorded three albums for Elektra. With Butter, Wilson performed at Monterey Pop (listen to his masterful drum rolls and cymbal smashes on the Monterey version of "Driftin' Blues") and at Woodstock. (His song "Love March," co–written with saxophonist Gene Dinwiddie, was included on the original three–LP soundtrack album.) Around this time, Wilson also found time to jam with countless contemporaries including Jimi Hendrix.
In 1972, Philip Wilson formed Full Moon with several Butterfield alumni (including guitarist Buzzy Feiten) to play an inventive mix of R&B, jazz and rock. Their sole self–titled album showed off even more of Wilson's prowess, especially on the aptly titled opening track "The Heavy Scuffle's On" and the Latin–tinged jazz of "Malibu." Events soon eclipsed Full Moon and Wilson was off to Soul Central – Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee – to work with Isaac Hayes among others.
During the mid-‘70s, the restless Wilson recorded with the creme de la crème of the New York free jazz/loft scene, including Anthony Braxton, David Murray, and Julius Hemphill. Listen to the ruckus that Wilson kicks up on Braxton's take on the Broadway classic "All the Things You Are" or the joyous swing he weaves under Murray on "Bechet's Bounce." In 1985, Philip Wilson and bassist Bill Laswell joined forces as Deadline for the album Down By Law; Wilson wrote much of the material and played multiple instruments along with contributions from Jaco Pastorius, Bernie Worrell and "Soul Makossa" saxophonist Manu Dibango, featured on "Afro Beat." Some of Wilson's last sessions were with his old Art Ensemble running buddy Lester Bowie; the drummer was just 50 years old when he was murdered in the East Village on March 25, 1992. (After the case was featured on an episode of "America's Most Wanted," Marvin Slater was arrested and convicted on charges of premeditated murder in 1997 and sentenced to 33 years in prison.)
In this interview (done in NYC, around the time of Down By Law), Philip Wilson tells his own story, from his first high school groups through much of the amazing history outlined above.
Q: Were you born and raised in St. Louis?
PW: Yes, though I spent a lot of time in Chicago… I made a record, about 1960, with an organist named Sam Lazar. He had a big hit with a kind of blues thing called “Space Flight” on Chess. It was a trio, and we went on the road for about 3-4 years. Grant Green played guitar. That’s where I really got started.
Q: How about your earliest training in high school?
PW: The school I went to – Sumner High in St. Louis – was a very good school. I think Oliver Nelson went there, Lester Bowie (went) there, Dick Gregory, Grace Bumbry – it’s a very good music school. That’s what they were into mostly, music and sports… I had played violin first, and trumpet for a short time, but percussion was the main thing. I sang, too, in the school choir… I was in a drum and bugle corps too, called the American Woodsmen. That’s where I got a lot of training – I learned how to read, how to write music.
After graduation, I went to college for about a year – it was boring. That’s when I came to New York, in 1960. I was about 18 and working with Sam Lazar. First gig I worked was at Minton’s Playhouse – fantastic place. I met Henry “Red” Allen, Herbie Hancock, and a lot of musicians I’d only heard about… I stayed around New York for six, seven months, and then we went up to Nantucket in Massachusetts for a summer to play for the hoi-polloi, the right people. But they liked us, and we got down, played funk, played blues. It was a nice gig, but the people got kind of strange. We went to Cleveland, went to Denver – I’d been with Sam Lazar for three years now, and I was really kind of fed up with traveling by this time. He had this lady, and they would fight constantly. I went back to St. Louis and got a job waiting tables – thought I’d cool out for a while.
Yes, there’s quite a blues scene in St. Louis. Ike Turner, Albert King… Tina Turner and Fontella Bass went to my school. When I was in high school, they were singing out in nightclubs and stuff. Ike took Tina out of our school and on the road when they had a hit record! I knew this guitar player, Anthony Chenault – he’s Isaac Hayes’ guitar player now, but he went on the road with Ike Turner when he was 13 or 14. He used to play the solos on those records! I met him when he’d just come up from Arkansas – he could barely speak English!
So Anthony and I started a band, a trio, playing funk and blues. We wrote some of our own stuff and (we’d) do the hits of the day. That’s when I started finding these melodies in my head, and got into writing. We were supposed to make a 45, but I never saw the record and I never saw our manager again after the day we cut it… That band broke up, and I started working in a house band in one club, backing up all the people that came through. I got really tired of it, but I met some fantastic people. Who was it did “The Dog?” Yeah, Rufus Thomas. Man, he tore the place up! And he liked the band so much, he took us with him, through all these small towns in the Midwest and the South. Really low–class, man, I mean funky – people getting’ in fights every night.
We kind of floated away from Rufus Thomas and started working with Solomon Burke. I got Lester Bowie in the band, and Oliver Lake – good band! But the performers would treat you like shit, or try to pay you $25 a night and leave you packed in one room of some hotel. On Saturdays, you’d work from 10 ‘til 4, then come back at six in the morning for three or four hours more.
Well, Solomon Burke left us stranded one night – just drove away! (Producer) Bumps Blackwell told us to come out to Las Vegas – we were gonna work with the Wright Brothers at the Golden Nugget. We got there with $10 to our name, eight of us. We got to the Golden Nugget and they said, “Oh man, we didn’t think you were gonna make it, so we hired this other band.” I said “ARE YOU SERIOUS?” So we missed out on that gig. But Lester had a little money, so we started gambling, made about $200. And we went to L.A., trying to keep the band together.
This guy named Jerry Brown (Not the governor – ED), he was kind of the bandleader, he knew this lady. So we stayed with her and started working those gigs again. Mostly in Watts: you started Friday night until 4AM, came back at 8AM, got ‘til 10 or 12 Noon, and then maybe come back that evening again, until Sunday.
This was 1965, the time of the Watts Riots, and it was strange. We couldn’t get out or in. We’d go out, and the police would attack us. Go in, come back in, and they had checkpoints to stop you at every block. One time, on the way back from Hollywood, the National Guard and the police took us out of the car – threw us out of the car – jacked us up, popped us upside the head. I remember this cop kept asking Lester Bowie, “You know what eight o’clock means?” And Lester would go, “What am I supposed say? Yeah!” and WHOP! the cop would hit him again. But we’d laugh about it afterwards.
After that, Fontella Bass had a hit with “Rescue Me” and “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing,” so Lester (her husband) left to play with her. I went to Phoenix with Oliver Lake, we had a trio that made a lot of money there. But I went back to St. Louis for a while, then I went to work for Motown in Detroit. No, no sessions – I could never get session work, they had five guys that played all the sessions. That drummer (Benny Benjamin), this guy started all those beats – he was a wino, man, but the most fantastic drummer I’d ever seen! I worked with Choker Campbell’s big band, backing the Motortown Revues, and I worked with Marvin Gaye for a short time.
All this time, Lester and them had been playing free music, funk, jazz, blues. And after I got fed up with Detroit and went back to St. Louis for a while, Lester called me up, told me to come to Chicago. That’s when I joined the Art Ensemble. I had been playing jazz and free music all along, and I liked the people. So we started a group: myself, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, and Roscoe Mitchell.
We couldn’t make a dime – I’d never been so broke in my life! Speaking about punk rock – we used all those wild things, up on the bandstand. We did one concert with flashlights, and we did one with Allen Ginsberg where we pied each other. We started the show that way, throwin’ pies at each other. We played with the MC5 in Chicago – this was ’67, ’68 – and the people went crazy with those pies… I got a little bit of session work at the time, but Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire), he was playing on all those records at the time, and had it mostly covered. Nobody else could get in there.
I worked with a lot of blues cats at this time. Magic Sam, Otis Rush – he wasn’t doing records, but I could dig that music, I could play the blues. Howlin’ Wolf was my favorite, but I didn’t stay with him long – he was a dangerous person to work with. You did not mess up. But I enjoyed that period very much. I learned a lot about playing the blues, I saw how different it was from playing rock and roll, and other things.
I jammed one night with Elvin Bishop and Paul Butterfield for about eight or nine hours, in my basement. Butter said, “I want you to play with me.” “Man,” I said, “I don’t wanna leave these cats” [the Art Ensemble]. “You ain’t makin’ a dime,” he said… It got to the point of a trauma, the guys got really angry with me. But I told them, “Man, I just cannot live like this” – I was the one living on the lowest rung. I didn’t expect them to take care of me. I could take care of myself. And that’s when I went with Butter. I wasn’t gonna close myself in; I was learning, always learning stuff.
The Butterfield Band was really very close. I brought Buzzy Feiten in – he came down to the Café Au Go Go one night and sat in, and I said, “Get him!” I brought Rod Hicks in… I got Dave Sanborn in the band, I’d known him since he was a kid.
The road was hectic, we worked all the time. I’d spend three months in California, three months in New York, three in the Midwest. I couldn’t believe I was working so much, by car, cab, airplane. It got to the point where I had no place to live. I said, “I gotta get a house,” and that’s when I moved up to Woodstock.
When I left Butterfield, I went up to Toronto. This producer had a big hit with Motherlode, “And When I Die,” and he wanted to put a band together behind that. I wrote a lot up there, every day. But the guy tried to rip us off…
We had a great keyboard player and singer, William Smith, and this guy Anthony Chenault, that guitar player from St. Louis I told you about. Well, it didn’t sound like the same band as made the record, but the people loved it ‘cause we were so good. We tried to hold the band together, but this guy, he ripped us off.
About that time, the Woodstock album came out with my tune “Love March” by the Butterfield Band. And they said, “Hey, come and get some money” – the record sold almost a million in the first week. I took the money and drove to San Francisco, I just wanted to get away from the East and everything there. This was around 1971.
I really got a chance to study, piano and guitar, every day. And I played with a drummer from Senegal in this percussion group, playing traditional African pieces. This guy was the lead drummer and choreographer for the Ballet International of Senegal. He came out to San Francisco and we played some gigs at Sacramento State, San Francisco State – all percussion, and Julius Hemphill on flute and alto, and I would sing these chants. We played opposite Sun Ra one time, he loved it – he wanted to hire us. This was very different from the clubs and the Fillmore – it was college concerts and workshops. I got a chance to open myself up to a lot of things, meeting all these intellectuals. They would really prod you, try to make you define all these things in words.
Well, I did that for a while, then I came back to New York and started that band Full Moon, with Buzzy, (saxophonist) Gene Dinwiddie, Freddie Beckmeier on bass, and Neil Larsen on keyboards. It was a good band too, but we had some problems, drugs and stuff… We had a manager I didn’t like at all, I didn’t trust him and that turned out to be true. We did two albums with [producer] Alan Douglas, who had a good deal with CBS at the time, and a tour. We got to L.A. and there was some kind of money hassle, and I told Buzzy, “I’m leaving.” There were too many other things going on, this influx of bad karma…
Once again, I got tired of all of New York. In ’76, I went down to Memphis to work for Stax. They were almost on the rocks, but still trying to hold it together. I was doin’ commercials and stuff, working better than I could here. I did studio work for Stax, some demos for Isaac Hayes. I started going to Mississippi every weekend to visit a friend who worked in the pressing plant in Rimrock, Arkansas. Really a country dude – a white kid, but he liked to drink wine, so we’d drink wine together. And this town had no black people nowhere – these were mountain people, jug folks. This guy had an eight–track studio and the best pressing plant I’ve ever seen. They did everything by hand – fantastic quality. But they were putting out these strange records, this jug music – no, not jug band music, this is different, they tuned the instruments really strange… I met another guy named Coon – a white guy, believe it or not – and started playing country and western, which I never had before. He turned me on to some black people playing country music, and some blues players like I’d never heard before, in Greenville [MS] and all those small towns.
Well, by this time, Stax was falling apart and I got a call from Anthony Braxton, sayin’ “Phillip, I want you to come work with me.” And I was broke, and I worked with him for a while; I did the Town Hall album and the big band album (Creative Orchestra Music) with him. We had Leo Smith on trumpet and David Holland on bass. We did a lotta good stuff. People say Anthony don’t swing, but when I was with him, he swung.
After that, I put another group together with Frank Lowe (saxophone), Olu Dara (trumpet) and Donald Smith (keyboards), Lonnie Liston’s brother. That was more of a jazz thing, but not exactly straight ahead – we got into singing and all kinds of stuff.
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