Youngstown's Premiere Guitarist Talks about guitars, his faith, growing up here, and his new CD
Phil Keaggy Gets Back
INTERVIEW BY STEVE ACKER
Warren, Ohio—Fall 1967
There were four bands on the bill at Packard Music Hall that night—the night that altered the course of my life. Four great bands and four great guitar players.
Local heroes, the Holes in the Road, kicked off the dance. The Measles, featuring a 19-year-old Joe Walsh, followed. The Human Bienz, riding the crest of their big hit, Nobody But Me, ripped into Foxy Lady by a band called the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Finally, the announcer introduced the New Hudson Exit and there in the spotlight stood a miniature Paul McCartney, complete with Beatles bands and a Sgt. Pepper mustache. For the next hour, I stood transfixed by the most astonishing display of sheer virtuasity that my 16-year-old eyes had ever witnessed.
The remarkable small Paul was Phil Keaggy.
I remember how he and the other guitar players shook their hands up and down across the fretboard, endowing their vibrato notes with a soulful vocal quality. I vowed that night to learn that myself. And what had been only a casual teenage hobby became a lifetime obsession.
With his next band, the Glass Harp, Phil Keaggy attained legendary status in Northeast Ohio—a legend that persists even today. To those not old enough to have seen him play with Glass Harp from '68 to '72...believe everything you hear.
He was magic, pure and simple.
To no one's surprise, Phil Keaggy continues to astound audiences in 1992. Over the last 20 years, he has released 15 solo albums ranging from all-acoustic (The Master and the Musician) to pure rock (his newset album, the soon-to-be-released, Crimson & Blue).
Although a Dove Award winner (Gospel's Grammy), Keaggy's name seldom appears in most "Best Of" polls, only because all of these albums have been recorded for contemporary Christian record labels and have, as such, reached a limited market. And that suits Phil Keaggy just fine. For he is that rarest of pop performers a genuine artist. Massive acclaim holds no allure for him.
Yet one listen to the new album (to be released February 20th) will convince anyone that Phil Keaggy ranks right up there with the Eric Johnsons and Joe Satrianis of the world.
Phil has been living with his wife, Bernadette, and their three children in Nashville, Tennessee since 1990. Recently, I got together with him (for the first time since 1972) to talk about the new album and the old folks back home.
SOS: Do you remember that particular show at Packard Music Hall?
Phil: Sure. It was the first time I saw Joe Walsh. I loved how he spoke with his guitar—slowly, but saying something every time he played. I, on the other hand, was going through the teenage flurries on the guitar, trying to say a lot without saying much of anything.
It was around that time, in fact, that Joe Walsh actually auditioned for the New Hudson Exit. We almost got him in the band, but it didn't work out.
There was also the time I got a call from Eric Carmen, who wanted me to join up with him in some kind of Beatle-type band. But I started the Glass Harp with John Sferra instead and he started the Raspberries.
Another group I remember well from those days was the Poppy with Dan Pecchio and Roger Lewis. I always liked Roger. I remember one time sitting around with him and listening to Wheels of Fire. We were both fascinated with Clapton.
SOS: Speaking of John Sferra, he's playing drums throughout the new album, Crimson & Blue. Is this the first time you've played with him since the Glass Harp?
Phil: No, John and I have kept in touch over the years and we did some unannounced reunion concerts in 1981 and then again in 1987. We got all the old crew together for that one: Nicky Dorazio, John Markovich, Chip Killinger. It was great reliving those old songs.
For this album, I said, "John, I'd love you to come down to Nashville just to visit and play and have a good time." At first, he was just going to play on a couple of tracks. We tried out a few bass players and it started to feel real good when we found Wade Jaynes. He and John had good chemistry right away. And of course, there's always been a chemistry between John and me. It's like riding a bicycle–it just works.
So we learned three songs together and put them on tape. John went home while I wrote lyrics to the tracks. I eventually wrote some more songs and sent the tape up to John. He learned everything.
Then we got together to do a couple of concerts and, by the end of those shows, we had learned all the songs. We decided to go into the studio to do the whole album. We did all the tracks in five days. We never belabored anything.
SOS: The new album rocks harder than anything you've released in years. It almost sounds live.
Phil: I started Crimson & Blue with a two-fold purpose: To record something more aggressive and to work with John again. We recorded all the basic tracks together and most of the leads were recorded live. It's just your basic four-piece group.
SOS: Last time I saw you, we talked about 1969 when we were both hanging out at a rather notorious band house on Hillman Street. You refer to those days as "a nightmare." How do you remember them now?
Phil: I'd been doing drugs for about a year at that time, which culminated on Valentine's Day, 1970, the day my Mom was killed in the car accident. Out of that tragic event, I became a believer in Christ. My conscience was born anew. Now, looking back at that time, it was like a dream. I'm just grateful to God that I was spared.
SOS: So am I. But on the whole, do you see your formative years as good years? Have you made peace with your past?
Phil: Well, even as a young musician—I started to play clubs when I was in eighth grade—my chief love and desire was to learn to play and sing better. I wasn't into sports. I didn't have a lot of girlfriends. I didn't get a car until I was 19. Music was everything.
I didn't start playing around with drugs until I was 18. I was devoted to music and, through my Mother's prayers, the Lord kept me out of a lot of trouble. I think my life was preserved and protected for something. That one year, 1969, was like a tunnel because out of it came Life, even though the catalyst was the accident. But I have made peace with those days, in terms of my friends. I don't blame anybody but myself for acting foolish sometimes.
My roots are Catholic, and I became an active Christian by way of Paul Dear's Assembly of God Church in Boardman. Now, when I think about all the phases I've gone through in my Christian walk, it gives me an appreciation of my roots and in particular my mother's influence. Looking back and remembering her, I see how Godly she was—a woman of faith and prayer.
So, I've made peace not only with the people in my past but also with the faith of my past. I'm not a Catholic now, but my Catholic upbringing instilled faith in me way before I made a decision to become a Christian. And I know that what I have become is a result of love and nurturing care and being taken to church.
I still keep in touch regularly with my friend Charles Crumbly, who is a Catholic priest in Warren at St. James.
So, I keep all my past doors open.
SOS: Did your mother inspire you to play guitar?
Phil: She encouraged it. Actually, I asked my dad for a set of drums for my tenth birthday but he came home with a Sears Silvertone guitar. My oldest brother Dave, showed me some chords and, by the time I was in fifth grade, I was playing with a drummer in front of the school. I started writing songs in sixth grade.
SOS: When did you realize that your musical gifts were beyond normal?
Phil: You're sort of naive about those things when you're young. And to feel gifted, you have to acknowledge the Giver. But if I were to pinpoint one turning point...when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I met a man named Nick who worked an electronics store in California, where my family lived for awhile. One day, Nick took me to a music store loaded with all these great guitars the British groups were using and he asked me "Which one is your favorite?"
I pointed out a 1962 Stratocaster and he bought it for me. He got me my first professional gig at Artesia Hall—just me and my guitar and amp.
After that, I joined my first real band in California, the Vertices, and then another band called the Pursuaders.
We moved back to Ohio when I was in the eighth grade and I met John Sferra, but I didn't start playing with him then. Instead, I joined a band called The Squires. Next, there was the Volume Four which later became the New Hudson Exit, and, finally, John Sferra and I formed the Glass Harp in '68, eventually getting Dan Pecchio from the Poppy on bass.
By the time we did our first album in 1970, there had been a real change in me, because you do change a lot from 18 to 20. It's a very crucial time for kids—it was for me. By becoming a Christian during that time, I didn't lose the desire to play, but did start seeking a new way to express my feelings.
At any rate, we released three studio albums and recorded a live album that was never released. It was the best thing we ever did.
SOS: Weren't the live tapes lost?
Phil: Nobody knows where they are. We recorded live at Carnegie Hall in December '71 and the tapes should have been released as an album. It was Glass Harp at its best. I do have a rough DAT copy of it, but the masters are gone.
SOS: Who else comes to mind in particular from Youngstown?
Phil: Do you remember Larry Turney? He was the original Garth from Wayne's World. What a sweet character! I wrote a song called "Way Back Home that went..."Way back home in the wild woods of my past, I ask what became of the lads and friends from school days gone by. I wonder if they turned out alright."
I saw Gary Markasky a couple of years ago at a reunion of the New Birth people. We were in the eight grade together at St. Christine's. It was good to see him again.
SOS: There was a place in Newton Falls called the Barn where all the "Jesus Freaks" hung out. Were you part of that scene?
Phil: I used to go there a lot on my way to JB's in Kent and sometimes showed up late for the gig. The Barn was a product of the sixties. It was established by a a street preacher named Tom Allman, who started holding prayer meetings in his home and they just grew. A lot of musicians showed up at the Barn. There was a very powerful spiritual thing going on.
SOS: Turning back to the new album, you pay musical homage to the Beatles in several songs "Love Divine," for instance. Was that intentional?
Phil: Love Divine is definitely premeditated. I was on the phone with my friend Lynn Nichols, who produced the album, and I mentioned that I would love to write a song that feels like the Beatles song All My Loving and he said, "Yeah, you ought to. Call it Love Divine." Just like that. So, in a matter of four hours, I had the song written and demoed. We used Gretch guitars (George Harrison's early Beatles guitar) for leads, Ringo Star sizzle cymbals, a walking bass.
SOS: Well, you certainly succeeded in capturing the Beatles flavor, How about "Reunion of Friends"?
Phil: Reunion of Friends is about my sister, Geri and me and our families being reconciled after some differences. It came out of real life and joy...a time to celebrate.
SOS: "Stone Eyes..."
Phil: That's a straightforward rock song, but the ending is pretty wild—a cross between something Arabian and Green Acres. The fade feels like "Flying" from Magical Mystery Tour.
It's a tip of the hat to the Beatles, because a lot of us are players today—and I'm doing what I do for God—partly because of the Beatles influence. Music took a whole new tone and direction in terms of how a band could sound.
That's why I'm using the old guitars and amps on this album. There's just nothing like the sound of a rhythm guitar going through a Vox AC-30. I used a '62 Strat on the solo at the end of Doin' Nothin', and the way John Sferra plays on that is just brilliant. I listen to it now just to hear him.
SOS: Your playing has matured since the Glass Harp, but the new album conjures up those long jams you used to do, particularly when you use the Les Paul on "John the Revelator" and "Don't Pass Me By."
Phil: The tone of that Les Paul with the Fender Deluxe Reverb, which I use a lot on the album, and the way John plays...it's like stepping back in time. It's all natural.
After parting ways with the Glass Harp in August, 1972, Keaggy embarked on an extended odyssey, a search for musical and spiritual identity. First to the West Coast, then back. Then to a Christian community in upstate New York called the Love Inn, where he and his wife lived for five years. Along the way, he recorded his first solo album, What A Day, in late '72.
Moving to Kansas City, he continued to record, but management problems in 1981 caused his career to take a downturn.
Finally, an old friend from his Love Inn days, Lynn Nichols, signed him to a division of Word Records, also the label of Amy Grant and other contemporary Christian giants. It out his career back on track.
Last year, he got to meet and play a few songs with his musical hero, Paul McCartney, when he performed at the wedding of Linda McCartney's sister on Long Island, New York.
Crimson & Blue is his fourth album for Myrrh/Word.
SOS: Most of your performances in recent years have been solo acoustic shows. With your new album featuring a rock band, will you be touring now with the band?
Phil: It won't be my mainstay. But we will do some band dates, and I'd like John to play them with me. So, I'm not opposed to it, but it takes a lot more planning and it's a lot more expensive to tour with a band. I've found that most of the people who come to see me are quite satisfied to see me alone with my acoustic guitar.
SOS: Do you regard your career as a ministry?
Phil: I don't refer to what I do as a ministry. If others feel that they receive life from what I do, if they get a message of hope, and if I bring Christ to people with my music, I'm happy about that, but I let them call it whatever they will. I'm not after a pop career, I'm just happy to be me.
It's true that there is a spiritual content to my albums because of my Christian point of view. Wrapping up Crimson & Blue, for example, with Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, makes that clear. But I think my albums are primarily works of musical art that also contain messages about God's involvement in our lives. I sometimes pray with my audiences, but I'm not an evangelist. I've discovered that God finds us. The Bible says, "Whosoever will, let him come."
I do want to bear fruit and I would certainly be delighted to know that I was evangelizing people's lives—bringing the Good News to them. But I've come to peace about something—that I'm not a preacher, I'm a musician. That's what God made me to be. So, in that, I'm going to do my very best to be true to him in the lyrics I sing and to be an available vessel for God to use without putting any titles to it.
SOS: That's reflected in most of your lyrics. They don't hit you over the head with the Gospel message like a lot of contemporary Christian performers.
Phil: And some people won't like that. If someone comes up to me and says, "Could you tell me about God?" I'll tell them about God. But with this album, I tried to be more subtle with my lyrics and to put my message in the context of everyday concerns. I WIll Be There and World of Mine are good examples of that. There's a definite message there, but it's not overt.
SOS: Nevertheless, you do get your point across. Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share with the folks back home?
Phil: I'd like to say a special hello and thanks to Del Sinchack, who worked as Dusi Music, and Johnny Kay, who was a disc jockey at WHOT. They were always such an encouragement to us young musicians in the early days.
The early days... For Phil Keaggy, as for many other former Northeastern Ohioans with successful careers in music, art and drama, the influences of Youngstown's psychedelic sixties remains a vital element of that success.
Nostalgia? I don't think so. That Crimson & Blue is Phil Keaggy's most electrifying album in years destroys that notion. The album excites precisely because of its link with Youngstown's glorious past.
Before we parted, Phil shared one more memory with me. I'm sure he had no idea, when he recalled me playing my old Gibson SG Les Paul with 'great vibrato' what a personal and ironic compliment it was.
Steve Acker is the former lead guitarist of LAW, a band popular in Ohio in the 70s. He is now creative director of his own advertising agency in Nashville.
*Note: The recordings made of the Glass Harp concert at Carnegie Hall were recovered and a CD is now available at www.glassharp.net.
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