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Willie Phoenix Reflects On Career

Oct 15, 2020

Credit Willie Phoenix

The City of Columbus honors long-time musician Willie Phoenix today with a street dedication.

The corner of 16th Avenue and High Street will become Willie Phoenix Way. The 68-year-old Phoenix came to Columbus in the mid-1970's and hasn't stopped recording and performing. 

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 made 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."   

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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." 

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"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 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." 

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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."  

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. 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." 

Thursday's ceremony will be streamed at 1pm on Columbus City Council's Facebook page. You can also hear more reflection from Phoenix in an upcoming edition of the Music Journeys podcast