By Paul Bass
Reprinted with permission of New Haven Independent (www.newhavenindependent.org).
Watching Stacy Phillips contemplatively smoke his cigars in baggy pants and a T-shirt outside his Alden Avenue apartment in New Haven, Conn., or pass the hat between sets with his “bluegrass characters” at the Outer Space, you might not guess he won a Grammy.
You might not know that he played with some of the leading lights of the acoustic music revival of the 1960s and 1970s. You might not know that he was considered a master of the Dobro guitar on top of playing a mean fiddle.
Stacy Phillips didn’t consider himself a big shot. He scraped together a living, gigging with multiple New Haven-area ensembles, teaching students, and writing books for more than three decades. With an easygoing demeanor that masked an intense commitment to the highest standards, he kept old-time music alive, imbuing it with new meaning. And he inspired fellow musicians and roots-loving audiences alike.
That all came to an end Tuesday, June 5, when Phillips died in St. Francis Hospital in Hartford after lying in a coma for three days, according to bassist David Chevan, whom the family designated to speak publicly about the death. Phillips was 73 years old.
Phillips had just finished playing a gig at West Hartford’s Emanuel Synagogue Sunday with the Afro-Semitic Experience, a group he and Chevan cofounded with pianist Warren Byrd and other musicians. He was hurrying to a bluegrass gig in Old Lyme when he pulled over his car “and had a massive heart attack,” according to a notice Chevan posted via email Tuesday. Rushed to St. Francis, he was put into an induced coma.
“Once his family was all together he was taken off life support. He died surrounded by his closest family,” Chevan wrote.
Phillips never amassed riches, at least not financially. But he cultivated a lifetime’s worth of rich musical experiences that he shared with countless others.
“There is a hole in my soul now that Stacy is gone,” Yale University President Peter Salovey told the Independent.
Salovey, a bluegrass bassist, was a graduate student when he met Phillips at a bluegrass concert in the 1980s. They became friends and jammed together. Phillips played at his friend Salovey’s presidential inauguration at Yale.
“Stacy was the most gifted musician I have known,” Salovey reflected. “On both Dobro guitar and fiddle, his virtuosity could be appreciated in so many different genres and styles. Stacy was generous as a teacher and advisor to so many Yale students, converting them from classically trained violinists to creative and improvisational Appalachian fiddlers.”
“As a Dobro player, I think he was just the best in the world, no exaggeration,” said jazz saxophonist and composer Allen Lowe, one of the many veteran musicians who performed and recorded with Phillips. “Just a sweet and funny guy, quick-witted on the bandstand and off, a real old-school Yeshiva boy.”
Stacy Phillips was born on Sept. 29, 1944 as Melvyn Marshall. He later adopted Stacy Phillips as his stage name.
He grew up in Washington Heights, then a tough neighborhood in upper Manhattan. He sometimes got beat up in public school. His family switched him to Jewish day schools, first Yeshiva Rabbi Moses Soloveichik (named after a relative of Peter Salovey, coincidentally), then Yeshiva University High School. His parents kept kosher but didn’t accompany him to shul on the Sabbath.
After switching schools, Phillips still had to worry about being attacked in the neighborhood. “It got to the point where I wasn’t sure I would make it through each day. It was rather dangerous,” especially around Christmas and Easter when Christian neighborhood toughs preyed on Jewish kids, he recalled in a 2016 interview on WNHH FM’s “Chai Haven” program. “That was one of the things that made me feel Jewish – I was beaten up. Humiliated. It was dark at night at Christmastime. At Yeshiva High School, I would start studying at eight in the morning. I would come home at seven at night. I would be walking home carrying 25 pounds of gemaras and chumashim …. with my tzistzis hanging out.”
He studied to become a chemist at the then-named Polytechnic Institute.
The studies didn’t take. “I was thinking I’d wind up being a career criminal, because I didn’t like what I was doing. I was a lousy chemist,” he recalled.
The folk music revival was going strong in New York at the time. His junior year, “a friend of mine got himself a guitar and taught himself to play. I thought, ‘Holy cow! That is possible to do?’” Phillips got a guitar too. He discovered he had talent.
At some point he was playing at a party, and a fiddle player active in the scene named Kenny Kosek noticed that Phillips had talent, too. He invited Phillips to perform with him.
That led Phillips to learn the fiddle as well. And it landed him in the Breakfast Special, a breakout acoustic roots group. Breakfast Special delved into bluegrass, gospel, country western, jazz, New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll – and an Eastern European Jewish-derived music known as klezmer, which would soon undergo a revival of its own.
Phillips settled in the New Haven area in the 1980s. He became a regular at clubs and outdoor concerts, playing with an endless roster of musicians.
Phillips made his reputation most with his mastery of the Dobro, a resophonic acoustic guitar with a steel belly played with a slide and often placed on the musician’s lap.
“It’s the instrument I express myself best on. In a sense it’s my voice,” he said. “I’m not much of a singer. The instrument functions as that.”
Phillips joined other musicians considered the top players of the instrument on the 1994 collection The Great Dobro Sessions. That album won a Grammy for best bluegrass album, even though, Phillips noted, “it didn’t have very much bluegrass in it.”
The Grammy did not change his life or lead to fame. “It’s a lot better than not having it,” he’d say with a shrug. “But the reality is a lot of great musicians haven’t won Grammies.”
Phillips at the time of his death played regularly in several groups including The Afro-Semitic Experience, in which African-American and Jewish musicians play updated versions of gospel and Jewish liturgical songs. Phillips was a founding member.
Playing in that group for the past 25 years enabled Phillips to remain in musical touch with his Jewish roots; while he didn’t grow up to be religiously observant, he retained a strong Jewish identity expressed through the music.
“He brought a lot to the table, including a prickly personality that grated on everyone’s nerves at some point or another,” co-founder David Chevan recalled. “He was difficult because he was a demanding perfectionist and loved rehearsing and working on parts. Some of the best transcriptions of old Eastern European Klezmer melodies were made by Stacy. He put a lot of time and effort into that work.”
Phillips joined Chevan in founding another ensemble, Nu Haven Kapelye, dedicated to klezmer music. This became a community orchestra full of volunteers. Phillips wasn’t just a lead player. He was a mentor to many in the group, Chevan recalled.
Phillips’ Dobro was highlighted in some of the Afro-Semitic Experience’s most memorable recorded tracks, such as “Ani S’filosi” on the Days of Awe collection reinterpreting classic melodies from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. It begins with Phillips playing solo, on one string, extracting and bending each note from deep inside his soul the way supplicants beseech the Lord for one last forgiveness before the Gates of Heaven close for another year. On such tunes, Phillips said, the Dobro becomes “the small still voice. It could be my voice, alone in the universe. Or me and the maker dealing one on one.”