Updated: Aug 21
If you’ve been in Columbus long at all, and you're a live music fan of any sort, you’ve at least heard of Willie Phoenix. Often described as having an “infinite supply of creative energy,” Willie’s been playing gigs in Columbus since the mid-'70s. His first ComFest gig was in 1976. In 1981, he signed a contract with A&M Records and put out his eponymous album in 1982. Has he slowed down like the rest of us? Well, he’s put out two albums in 2021, so no. He still gigs regularly and recently had a street named after him. If ever there was an artist who performed because they HAD to, purely for the love of music, it’s Willie Phoenix.
A&M Records - SP-4904
Born Willie Creagh in Camden Alabama, Phoenix settled in Marion Ohio with his family as a youngster and began gigging at 14. There are plenty of biographies out there, including one on his site, so I’ll keep it limited here. Suffice it to say that since moving to Columbus in the ‘70s and changing his name to Phoenix, Willie has become a Columbus institution, if an underappreciated one. Kudos to Watershed’s Colin Gawel for attempting to rectify this by spearheading the successful movement to have the corner of High and 16th renamed Willie Phoenix Way. If we have to accept a Target standing where the fabled Distillery once stood, at least we can take some solace in this small but significant gesture from our city. (Quick plug for Colin’s excellent blog Pencil Storm).
The A&M album was recorded at several Los Angeles studios and, by most accounts, was not very representative of Willie’s music at that time. Depending on who you ask, the problem was record company interference, misdirection by producer David Anderle, a synth-heavy mix, Willie picking the wrong songs to record, or some combination of the above. At the time of its release, Phoenix praised the label for the “chance to make the record basically the way I wanted it,” although he’d later lament the prominence of the keyboards, played by his cousin Mel McGary.
Having heard all of this over the years, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I found and ordered a still sealed copy from Denmark. There’s nothing I like better than new old record stock. Putting the needle down on pristine vinyl 40 years after it was pressed is unbeatable. I hear what people have said, but taken in the context of the early ‘80s, it’s a good record. It would be interesting to remix this thing from the original masters to see what you could come up with. That said, I’d take this over most current music. Then again, I’m old and we’re currently in an ebb for rock and roll and guitars in pop music.
A&M would hitch their wagon to Bryan Adams instead, and considering how well Cuts Like A Knife did, it’s hard to question the decision. But they’d also end Willie’s “long-term” contract after the one album, which is a shame. Fortunately, Phoenix has soldiered on and put together quite a prolific, diverse and artistically interesting body of work. Much respect to anyone that keeps the faith after a career arc is no longer on an upward trajectory. But to still be going full-time in his 60s - that’s a calling, an artist.
Side one kicks off with the single, Kiss Quick Say Goodnight. One of the more synth-heavy tracks on the album, it’s not exactly representative, but it’s catchy. Discogs currently has the style listed as “country rock.” No wonder A&M didn’t know what to do with this guy. Musicians with a style that can’t be easily pigeonholed always seem to get the short end of the stick. No Signs of Joanna includes a solo from Willie and captures the moody atmosphere he was going for. The Sketch includes some fiery lead guitar from the late, great Rob Brumfiel.
Maybe It Won’t Rain begins side two with organ replacing synth, a nice riff and a Springsteenian lyric and feel. The ‘80s snare sound and production is the main drawback throughout. New York Is Burning ends the record nicely with some acoustic guitar, piano, synth AND organ and another great Brumfiel solo. Despite the production, overall it’s a solid first effort. Whether or not you like the music, as a music fan you gotta respect that Willie’s persevered all these years. His influence on bands like Watershed is undeniable. I’ve mainly seen his ComFest sets, and he always puts on a great show. His main haunt these days is right down the road from me at Eldorados. I gotta make a point to see one of those shows.
A2 Talk So Loud
A4 The Sketch
B4 Rough Kiss
Phonographic Copyright (p) – A&M Records, Inc.
Copyright (c) – A&M Records, Inc.
Published By – Welbeck Music Corp.
Published By – Zach Music Publishing Inc.
Recorded At – Soundcastle
Recorded At – The Village Recorder
Recorded At – Kendun Recorders
Mixed At – The Village Recorder
Mastered At – Artisan Sound Recorders
Art Direction – Chuck Beeson, Jeff Ayeroff
Bass Guitar – Greg Glasgow
Album Design – Chuck Beeson
Drums, Percussion – Jerry Hanahan
Engineer – Joe Chiccarelli
Second Engineer – John Hanlon, Mitch Gibson, Robin Laine
Keyboards – Mel McGary
Lead Guitar, Acoustic 12 String – Rob Brumfiel
Management – Rob Friedheim
Mastered By – Greg Fulginiti
Mixed By – Joe Chiccarelli
Photography By, Coloration – Bennett Hall
Producer – David Anderle, Joe Chiccarelli
Lead Solo – Willie Phoenix (tracks: A3)
Vocals, Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar – Willie Phoenix
Written-By – Willie Phoenix