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Music Journeys: Willie Phoenix

Oct 19, 2020

Willie Phoenix came to Columbus in the mid-1970's and hasn't stopped recording and performing. The 68-year-old released new music this year, and the city recently honored him with a street dedication ceremony. 

On Music Journeys, Phoenix reflects on his career, the first song he recorded, performing in Columbus, and the lessons he's learned along the way. He also explains why he loves his new collection of songs and takes part in the Fast Five. Thanks for listening.   

The Sun plays...

Willie Phoenix played a virtual show for Com Fest this summer and more recently as part of CAPA's online sessions to support local artists. While he misses the presence of a crowd, the virtual performances make him reflect on a lesson he learned early on.   

"When you go to play a bar or a festival or at church, you cannot rely upon the crowd alone," Phoenix said. "You've got to enjoy what you're doing, and you'll be okay. You get up there, and you do what you do. I have literally played for two people before with a band. You still play the same way. You have to."   

Back To the Fillmore plays...

Born in Alabama, Phoenix grew up in Marion, Ohio. He learned to play guitar from his dad, who was a Blues musician. He picked up some piano from his mom, who also sang. Phoenix's first recording came in the late 1960's with a band called Magical Soul. 

"We cut a 45 in Freemont, Ohio at this little studio," Phoenix recalled. "The A-side that I sang was called Rowkerr's Bakery."  

Rowkerr's Bakery plays...

"Kind of a trippy and psychedelic but not too psychedelic record that was inspired by a little bakery shop," Phoenix said of the song. "I went on to record a bunch of other stuff. I was always interested in the records. I love live performing, but a record or recording feels like it lives forever. It's amazing with the things you can do. For me, it's like a playland." 

Woodstock Tattoo plays…

"Recordings are all demos because I'm forever learning," Phoenix said. "I love to experiment with sounds, layers, and textures. It's kind of like an artist with a brush and a canvas. Why not try this color or try a little sparkle here." 

Phoenix hasn't stopped making music, and though some tally his recordings at around 30, even he stopped keeping track. His latest release This Ain’t 1968 came out this year.

“I call it power pop bar music,” Phoenix said of the new release. “I was listening one night to my old band The Buttons. I heard a couple things and thought this never made it to any kind of record. Maybe I should fix them up and record them. I love the way the songs came out.”

Shake Me plays…

"I pretty much dig the whole thing, and it's not often I dig an entire album of mine," Phoenix said. "I love it being light enough, and I didn't have to play guitar hero. I never was a guitar hero in the first place. I just had to be a singer with some songs and make sure everybody's in the groove that I want to them to be in." 

Cover Me plays…

Phoenix describes the street dedication as surreal, with plenty of memories surfacing.

"Having my band play Bernie's, for instance," Phoenix reflected. "Many nights the line went all the way up the stairs and to the street to see the band perform. The other memory was having the earlier Com Fest on that street and watching the students sit up on the roof and watch bands. I also remember a lot of the folk street musicians including myself on the corner just playing after the band performances. You take it outside, and everybody's still gathered around at 3 o'clock in the morning until almost sun up, if not sun up."  

Along with being in the Columbus spotlight, Phoenix had a taste of the national scene. He’s content with the journey.

“When I lost my record deal, of course I was really disappointed,” Phoenix recalled. “I was going to be a big star, so they told me. That stays with you for a moment or two or as long as you want it to last. But then at some point if you are for real in this business, you pick your clothes from the floor off the floor, you clean them up and put them back on and go out and face the world and do what you do. That's me. You can't revel in that crap forever. It's a business, and that's what I had to learn. Me, I just had to roll on and keep rocking and rolling because when it comes down to it, it’s about Rock and Roll. It's about the music.” 

Soul Song plays… 

"My story I guess is being blessed to make Columbus my base and have so many people like what I do," Phoenix said. "I think I'm proud of the fact that the music has sustained me, and I've sustained the music through life. It's a blessing that I can even do it. It’s a blessing that if I think something in the song sucks, I can figure it out and make it at least better for me. If I can make it better for me, somebody is bound to like it. But I don't want it to leave my domain without me having it exactly how I want it to say in the music or how it should feel. The music always - even when I was feeling down - can bring me back. The music, just give it time. It'll do its magic. It'll bring you back." 

At the ceremony, Columbus musician Colin Gawel summed up Phoenix’s influence best.  

“Seeing Willie for the first time as a teenager at Com Fest, there were thousands of people there screaming his name,” Gawel recalled. “He was a rock star, and he was from my hometown. I didn’t know your hometown could have a resident rock star, but we did. My friends and I in Watershed wanted to come to Ohio State so we could be in a band and see Willie Phoenix as much as possible, and we did. We were at Bernie’s all the time. Every show was amazing. The energy, it was life changing. Every band on High St. got better because of Willie. We all knew Willie was the best. Willie never ran for office, but he is the mayor of High St. He’s an incredible guitar player, but he uses his talents and his efforts to bring people together. Willie Phoenix has always brought people together. He takes an electric guitar and tears down walls and builds bridges. Rock is dead, they say. Not in Columbus, Ohio. Not on this corner, because we’ve got Willie Phoenix Way.”  

For more about Willie Phoenix, visit his website or Facebook page.

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