A friend of mine posted this image on Facebook today. It’s a poster advertising one of the Dick Clark roadshows of the 1950s, for which Clark was famous. For a couple of bucks, you could go see some ten or twelve of your favorite recording artists singing their latest hits. Each artist would do two or three songs, and then the show would pile into a bus and head for the next town.
A close look at this poster reveals a guy named Phil Phillips billed last. That would date the event to 1959, when Phillips’ first record, Sea Of Love, was beginning its climb on the charts. The song has since been cut many times, often by big name artists, but none have captured the magic of Phillips’ version, recorded in a tiny studio in south Louisiana. The irony of Phillips’ bottom billing, beneath many other bigger, more popular artists whose tunes have been lost to the mists of history, was not lost on me.
Born John Phillip Baptiste in Lake Charles, LA, he desperately wanted to impress a local girl so that she would go out with him. He wrote Sea Of Love, thinking she might realize he could take her to a peaceful place where they would…oh, you get the idea. Anyway, someone heard him practicing the song one day and suggested he record it. He did, and I am 100% certain that when all the principals got together in the studio that day, there was no way they could have known they were about to make musical history.
Baptiste brought some friends with him for moral support and to sing backup vocals. They didn’t know the song, so he taught it to them right there in the studio. Those prominent backup vocals, along with Katie Webster’s relentless 1-3-5-octave scales on the piano, provided the highly unique backdrop. Baptiste’s soaring vocals of his haunting melody lay perfectly on top of it all to make one of the most identifiable records of the 20th century. The alluring sound of that record has never been duplicated.
The studio’s owner, George Khoury, liked what he heard and decided to release it as a local record on his “Khoury’s” label. He told Baptiste to adopt the stage name of Phil Phillips, which he did. The record scored locally, and pretty soon, Mercury Records got wind of it and leased the master from Khoury, putting it out nationally, where it became a #1 hit. Of course, Phillips’ version was revived in 1989 as the title song in the Al Pacino-Ellen Barkin movie.
You never know where inspiration comes from, or what’s going to come of it. But on that day in 1959 in south Louisiana, they caught lightning in a bottle in that little studio. What went down on that tape was magic in every sense of the word. Phillips, now in his 80s, never made much money from it, and he never had another hit, but he was no ordinary one-hit wonder. He walks the earth today knowing he wrote that song and knowing his name is on a recording that might well resonate for hundreds of years.