Born Leslie Phillips, June 28, 1962, in East Hollywood, CA; daughter of William (an accountant) and Peggy (a medical secretary) Smith; married T-Bone Burnett (a musician and producer); has two stepchildren. Addresses: Record company--Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
Although she began her pop music career in the 1980s, Sam Phillips would find herself at home in any decade or style. She draws from such early twentieth-century poets as Thomas Merton, William Butler Yeats, Pablo Neruda, and Rainer Maria Rilke, but also from later, musical poets--Randy Newman, Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, and John Lennon. Though she infuses her music with a 1960s psychedelia, she is also rooted in the pop of earlier generation, adoring "melodic music, first and foremost," she explained in a Virgin Records press release-- old jazz, composer George Gershwin, and vocalist Nat King Cole reign among her favorites. She produces deeply spiritual albums, yet she retains a very sharp sense of wit and irony.
Phillips's music, which Craig Tomashoff of People described as "too hip for radio," has struggled to find a wide audience. Yet early in her career, Phillips became a favorite of music critics, who seemed to like the combination of "dark lyrics and light sounds," in the words of Rolling Stone's Patti O'Brien, and her voice, which Interview's Dimitri Ehrlich likened to a "soprano bagpipe."
Thom Jurek of the Detroit Metro Times ventured an explanation of her critical success: "Phillips makes the kind of pop records that most musicians only dream of. She consistently writes intelligent words; combines them with delightful, often stunning melodies; and delivers them in an unusual, yet attractive voice--with unexpected surprises popping out of the mix at every turn." Ron Givens of Stereo Review put it succinctly: "Sam Phillips is always wondrous to hear."
Phillips was born in East Hollywood, California, in 1962, the second of William and Peggy Phillips's three children. Though named Leslie, she was called by her nickname, Sam. She grew up in suburban Glendale, California, in what she described to Musician's Mark Rowland as a "standard dysfunctional house."
She first entered the music world through dance and turned to writing and playing in her early teens as she watched her parents' marriage disintegrate and end in divorce. "Basically, I was crying into the piano," she confessed to Jeff Giles in Newsweek. "One of the first songs I wrote was called 'Walls of Silence,' about the fact that my father would go days, weeks, even months without speaking." She learned to play her brother's guitar and began exploring music outside the Top 20, finding such artists as singer-songwriters Randy Newman and Bruce Cockburn. Her non-musical interests led her even further from the Top 20. She studied philosophy and religion-- primarily fundamentalism--and found herself drawn to the counterculture Christian movement of southern California.
Undoubtedly, the splintering of her family contributed to this attraction. "Because of that pain, I've always been interested in metamorphosis, and when that can happen to a human being, emotionally and spiritually," Phillips revealed to Rowland. "I've always loved that theme throughout literature. I think that's what attracted me to Christianity the most." She also found the church attractive because of her music. "I thought I would find an audience there that would want to listen to songs about spiritual things," she explained to David Wild in Rolling Stone.
At 18 years old, Phillips signed a contract with A&M's gospel label, Word/Myrrh Records, and performing as Leslie Phillips, she became a Christian music star. A 1985 press release, reprinted in Harper's, described her image: "If ever there was a Queen of Christian Rock, she's it. She's 22, blond, hazel- eyed, lovely, and single, and her hair and clothing are up-to- date, California youth style." Her albums sold well, up to 200,000 a piece, and she toured the country, performing in churches, coffeehouses, and festivals.
Her last album as Leslie, 1987's The Turning, was produced by T-Bone Burnett, a musician as well as producer who had worked with such rock luminaries as Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, and Los Lobos. Their collaboration impressed critics outside Christian music. Jimmy Guterman asserted in Rolling Stone that The Turning "is far more generous of spirit than most secular-gospel records nowadays, mostly because Phillips is such an adept writer." High Fidelity's Jeff Nesin found the album "spare and compelling," and Wild called it "an ethereal beauty."
After she released The Turning, Phillips left the Christian music scene, a world in which she had become increasingly uncomfortable. As she recalled in Billboard, she "wanted to explore spirituality, not dispense God propaganda." She elaborated in a Virgin press release: "I was naive enough to think I could talk about spiritual issues in my songs within the church. I wanted to ask questions, push the boundaries, and they wanted me to say that I'd found all the answers.... I just don't think life is that simple. True spirituality is much bigger than that."
Burnett introduced her to people at Virgin Records, and she had signed with them by 1988. The move to secular music meant a hit to her income, but as she insisted in Musician, "It wasn't a career decision to quit gospel music, it was a soul decision--and a turn-of-the-stomach decision." With this metamorphosis, Phillips decided to change her professional name as well, and redubbed herself Sam Phillips. She had no idea she was taking the name of the legendary Sam Phillips who founded Memphis's Sun Records, and who is credited with the discovery of Elvis Presley. Some things about Phillips did not change. Burnett remained her producer, and critics continued to love her music. Wild applauded The Indescribable Wow, her first release as Sam Phillips, calling it "an exquisitely crafted, introspectively romantic pop gem," and Nesin considered it one of the best albums of 1988.
Some critics noticed the influence of 1960s pop music, especially the Beatles, in her use of harpsichord, electric sitar, organ, and reverse tape. In Nesin's words, the album was "chock-full of dazzlingly arranged and executed pop songs redolent of the 1960s--not just in instrumentation ... but in a willingness to experiment, to push farther, that just hasn't been heard much since those hybrid, halcyon days."
Despite her move into the secular world, Phillips's work retained a spiritual edge. In her later material, the lyrics dwelt, Jurek noted, "on questions rather than answers." David Okamoto of CD Review also observed that, "Phillips no longer evangelizes, but she still celebrates her faith via secular signposts that everyone can follow."
Opting for one of the more out-of-the-ordinary routes of promotion, Phillips followed the release of The Indescribable Wow with a tour of the country, bowling with radio program directors. She also married Burnett, and they began working on her next album. With Cruel Inventions, released in 1991, Phillips and Burnett took the experimentation up a notch. Musically, Rowland noticed "increasingly elaborate and unpredictably textured arrangements."
Josef Woodard of Rolling Stone found the album more complex than The Indescribable Wow. He noted "alien guitar sounds," "savory string arrangements," and "unusual percussion." Woodard wrote, "conventional ingredients are transformed into something stranger, more evocative, to suit Phillips's cryptic lyrics." The underlying the lyrical and musical experimentation on the album was Phillips's increasingly characteristic wit and pop flair--qualities that led Rolling Stone to insist that Phillips helped "prove that it actually is possible to find beautiful, articulate pop in the nineties," and to rate the album "one of the years most arresting treasures."
Before she released her next album, Phillips discovered fans in important places. While working on his film Ruby in Paradise, director Victor Nunez heard "Raised on Promises," a cut from Cruel Inventions, on his car radio. He loved the song enough to drive immediately to a record store and buy the album. Eventually that song, and "Holding on to the Earth" from The Indescribable Wow, were added to the film, which became the Grand Prize winner at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival.
With her next release, Phillips sought a less complex album. "I think the experimenting wore us out a little bit in the past," she explained to Rowland. "These songs are a little simpler and maybe easier to figure out." In the resulting album, 1994's Martinis and Bikinis, Phillips's penchant for 1960s pop and unusual instrumentation was still evident. In addition to the harpsichord, sitars, and reverse tape, Phillips included a string quartet, treble guitars, and a mandolin. She also included an overt nod to John Lennon, covering his song "Gimme Some Truth."
Once again the album was a critical success, with Okamoto proclaiming it "the first pop masterpiece of this young year." Giving the album four stars, Rolling Stone's Kara Manning delighted in Phillips exploration of "not only the poetry of words, but the poetry inherent in stunning production techniques." Above all, critics were fascinated with Phillips's ability to balance the exuberance of pop music and a love of melody with a probing and unflinching quest for virtue and truth.
"Phillips has developed a singular voice, coopting the stylistic quirks of pop innocence in a heady search for modern maturity," Musician's Chris Willman averred. "Druggy with youth and punch-sober with experience, this album feels a little like getting to have your cake and eat it too. The effect is delicious, and uneasy."
Throughout her secular career, commercial success had eluded Phillips, and critics hoped Martinis and Bikinis would be her breakthrough album. Finding a niche for delicious and uneasy music on popular radio was not easy. "I'm not soft enough to be considered 'easy listening' or hard or weird enough to be considered 'alternative,'" she complained to the Merto Times' Jurek. "And in a way that's understandable, because I can't describe what my music is either." Phillips was also hindered by her aversion to adopting an image in a field where image can be everything.
Phillips remarked that she is not interested in the glaring stereotypes the industry markets in the name of image. Furthermore, after a career as the "Queen of Christian Rock," she had reasons to avoid image. "I'm leery, I've been through that once already," she told Jurek. Yet her lack of celebrity didn't particularly bother Phillips--she'd been there before as well. "Celebrity is really uninteresting, and it's tiring," she revealed to Woodard. "The work is the thing," she emphasized, "the great thing."
White conjectured that it will be the impact of her work, not any manufactured image, that will last. "Generations onward, when others reflect on the hollows of our faithless age, the work of Phillips, like that of the poets she holds dear, will show that many still sought to improvise virtue after much common evidence of it had evaporated."
by Megan Rubiner Zinn
Sam Phillips's Career
Signed with gospel label Word/Myrrh records, c. 1980; recorded and toured as Leslie Phillips, 1980-87; signed with Virgin Records, c. 1987; changed professional name to Sam Phillips; released first secular album, The Indescribable Wow, 1988.
- Selective Works
- Dancing with Danger, Word/Myrrh, 1985.
- The Turning, Word/Myrrh, 1987.
- The Indescribable Wow, Virgin, 1988.
- Cruel Inventions, Virgin, 1991.
- Martinis and Bikinis, Virgin, 1994.
April 27, 2004: Phillips' album, A Boot and A Shoe, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_5/index.jsp, April 29, 2004.
- Billboard, January 22, 1994; March 5, 1994; July 9, 1994.
- Boston Globe, April 19, 1989.
- CD Review, April 1994.
- Chicago Tribune, June 27, 1991.
- Guitar Player, June 1994.
- Harper's, May 1985.
- High Fidelity, February 1989.
- Interview, June 1991.
- Metro Times (Detroit), March 23, 1994; May 18, 1994.
- Musician, August 1991; July 1992; March 1994.
- Newsweek, April 4, 1994.
- People, October 21, 1991.
- Pulse!, November 1993.
- Rolling Stone, June 18, 1987; August 24, 1988; November 17, 1988; May 18, 1989; October 17, 1991; August 8, 1991; December 12, 1991; March 24, 1994.
- Stereo Review, August 1991.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Virgin Records publicity materials.