At Melvyn Marshall’s memorial Sunday, his older sister Rochelle explained how he became Stacy Phillips.
By then, the room was already packed with friends, family, and musical compatriots who had gathered at Cafe Nine on Sunday afternoon to bid farewell to Phillips, a Grammy-winning Dobro player and fiddler (nee Marshall) who died last Tuesday at the age of 73 after suffering a massive heart attack.
The memorial had begun in grief.
“None of you want to be here. I don’t want to be here,” said David Chevan, Phillips’s bandmate in the Afro-Semitic Experience. But “where words fail,” he said, “music begins.” So two cantors sang for Phillips. Prayers were chanted. The Kaddish was said. The air was heavy with mourning. That’s when Chevan invited Phllips’s family members in attendance to get up and speak.
“I can tell you a lot about Melvyn Marshall, who was a very different person from Stacy Phillips,” his sister Rochelle said. He was quiet. He didn’t draw attention to himself. That was how she thought of her brother. Until the day she first saw him on stage, bouncing from instrument to instrument, joking with the crowd. He was a man transformed.
One evening early in his career, she said, his bandmates decided to have some fun with the crowd, and introduced Marshall as “Stacy Phillips, heir to the Phillips Milk of Magnesia fortune.”
“The next day,” Rochelle said, “there was this huge article in the Village Voice,” and there it was in print: Stacy Phillips, heir to a digestive fortune.
The name stuck, forever.
The assembled crowd at Cafe Nine was in stitches, and a memorial that was billed as a celebration of Phillips’s life became just that.
Rochelle wasn’t done. She explained that everyone in the room had stories about Phillips, she said, tons of stories she didn’t know. “Every single one of you is writing his obituary,” the story of his life.
Those stories poured out of dozens of people who took the stage during and between music sets, telling the story of Stacy Phillips, from his prodigious musical talent to his keen intelligence to his sharp sense of humor. His nephew pointed out that he was wearing Phillips’s shirt (aloha) and suspenders (piano keyboard) in his honor. Musicians from a range of bands that include Phillips took the stage at Cafe 9throughout Sunday afternoon.
Before the Nu Haven Kapelye began its set, a saxophone player described Phillips’s integral role in that group. “He kicked our butts in this band,” the sax player said. “He was a mentor to our youngest. He was a mentor to me.”
Violinist Seth Rosenthal described him as “creative, cool, and hilarious,” and gave the crowd a taste of what it was like to sit next to Phillips in the violin section. “The first time I had suggestions” for Chevan — the Kapelye’s bandleader — Phillips quipped, “you tell him. He won’t listen to me.”
He also turned Ronsenthal’s amplifier up “so people could hear me,” Rosenthal said, “which I wasn’t necessarily going for.”
“I feel an enormous obligation to remember this man’s crinkly jokes,” said Jay Miles, the Kapelye’s drummer. “I’m still the new kid in the Kapelye,” he explained, and on his first day, he said, he showed up with the attitude and the drum kit of a rock ‘n’ roll drummer. “Stacy walked by me and said, ‘You brought too many cymbals.’” There was a serious musical idea at the tip of that barb: less is more, a lesson Phillips imparted in five words.
Another line came from Joyce, one of Phillips’s students: “I like what you meant to play,” he told her once. As she learned more about him, she understood that the sharp humor was a way to push people to be their best, “a reminder to make music and not skip a note.”
But Phillips’s humor and virtuosity were on best display in the music of the Kapelye itself, a big raucous band that didn’t even come close to fitting on Cafe Nine’s stage, spilling out into the crowd. Somehow there was still enough room for dancing, and it didn’t take long for many in the crowd to start doing just that, threading their way through the packed room, hands and handkerchiefs in the air.
Before the Bluegrass Characters assembled on the stage, Norman Plankey, guitarist and longtime friend of Phillips, got at the man beneath the curmudgeonly exterior.
He explained that, many years ago, his wife had a brain aneurysm while giving birth to their first child. Plankey found himself a new father with his wife in a coma. “It was a bizarre time for me,” he said, and he wasn’t thinking straight. “Stacy Phillips showed up and really took over.”
Yale-New Haven Hospital informed Plankey that as long as his wife was a patient at the hospital, he would be allowed to keep his newborn son there. “Sounds good to me!” Plankey recalled thinking. He came to the hospital the next day to discover that Phillips had intervened. “Your wife is sick, but she’s going to get better. But this is a place for sick people.” His son had to get out of there.Phillips had lined up child care to take the baby while Plankey was taking care of his wife.
Sometimes that child care was Phillips.
“Stacy was putting the finishing touches on his epic book, Western Swing Fiddle, while he was changing diapers and filling bottles.”
Plankey’s wife recovered. They named their son. And they asked Phillips to be his godfather. “Your duty here is to keep the Old Testament in the picture,” Plankey told him.
It was a duty Phillips took seriously. “He didn’t want any recognition at all,” Plankey said, “but he loved this role, and was the best godfather for my son that he could be.”
Sunday afternoon was a date that Phillips himself was supposed to have appeared at Cafe Nine with his Bluegrass Characters band. In his absence, the Characters — a rotating cast — arrived en masse to pay their respects, crowding the Cafe Nine stage with banjos and guitars.
“I just want to say that this would be Stacy’s nightmare,” joked singer and guitarist Andy Bromage. “All these banjos on stage.”
But they played as a cohesive unit, swapping places and taking turns in front of the microphone like the best bluegrass bands around. They even replicated some of Phillips’s shtick.
“Well, I guess we should introduce the band,” singer and mandolinist Phil Zimmerman said. He turned to the nearest guitar player, Betsy Rome. “Betsy, this is Joe,” he said, motioning toward one of the banjo players.
Yale President, bassist, and bluegrass aficionado Peter Salovey took the stage for a tune or two, lending a hand on bass and vocals. “He only knows two songs,” Zimmerman said, “but he also knows them in Greek and Latin.”
But the most cutting zinger went to bassist Rick Brodsky, who mentioned that in one of his earliest gigs with Phillips, Phillips introduced him by saying “I’m so pleased to be playing with Rick Brodsky, the best bass player ... in his price range.” Brodsky never forgot it. At a later gig, Phillips announced that Brodsky should do the talking for a change. Brodsky agreed — and got Phillips back.
“I’m so pleased to be playing with Stacy Phillips,” Brodsky recalled saying, “the best dobro and fiddle player ... in his price range.”
The last set of music before the open mic portion of the celebration, before even more swapping of stories about Phillips, belonged to the Afro-Semitic Experience, who had played with Phillips an hour before his heart attack. Phillips had booked two gigs that day and, because the venue was running late, had to leave the Afro-Semitic Experience gig early to make the second one on time. He never made it to that gig, and got to play only two songs with the Afro-Semitic Experience first. But the Afro-Semitic Experience remembered which ones, and played them.
Without Phillips on stage, his parts had to be covered by Will Bartlett on clarinet and saxophone. The band played with ferocity, deeply rhythmic and full of feeling, the testimony of musicians to one of the best of their own.
As percussionist Abu Carter put it, “I feel doubly blessed to make music with Stacy on his last day on earth. I don’t feel loss. I feel gain, because I got to play with someone of his stature.”
He paused, then added, “tell someone you love them, because you never know.”