A Star Ascends To Bluegrass Heaven

Lucy Gellman PhotoWatching Stacy Phillips contemplatively smoke his cigars in baggy pants and a T-shirt outside his Alden Avenue apartment 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 guess that he wrote books on music or that he had spent decades studying the intricacies of musical genres ranging from Hawaiian to hillbilly, from klezmer to gospel, from Ukrainian to Middle Eastern. 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 here, 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 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 with Nick Anderson and Shady Creek when he pulled over his car “and had a massive heart attack,” according to a notice Chevan, who is speaking for Phillips’ family, sent out via email Tuesday. Rushed to St. Francis, he was put into an induced coma.

“Today the doctors determined that he did not have enough oxygen in his brain and that while he could be kept alive, he was essentially going to never be functional again,” Chevan wrote. “Once his family was all together he was taken off life support.  He died surrounded by his closest family.”

Phillips donated his body to Yale Medical School. No funeral is planned, but Chevan is organizing a “musical memorial” to him this coming Sunday. It begins at 1 p.m. at Cafe Nine.

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. Even after becoming Yale’s president, Salovey annually dropped in for a few numbers during the annual Christmas Eve concert put on (for a mostly Jewish audience) at local spots by Stacy Phillips and His Bluegrass Characters, a fluid ensemble of regular players Phillips headlined the last Tuesday of every month at Best Video and the old Outer Space. 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 style. 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.”

Mandolinist Phil Zimmerman performed off and on with Phillips since they met in 1972, most recently in the Bluegrass Characters. Tuesday night he recalled how Phillips “would have us rehearse harmony parts note by note. He’d pick apart a song, pick apart an arrangement, just bring it to life.”

“He had a way of bringing musicians together and taking the ingredients and stirring them up and making a real cohesive,” Zimmerman said.“He had very high standards. He pushed his bandmates hard. He pushed himself harder. His greatest joy was making good music.”

“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.”

Chumash, Chemistry Didn’t Take

Paul Bass PhotoStacy Phillips was born on Sept. 29, 1944 —  not as Stacy Phillips, but 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 8 in the morning. I would come home at 7 at night. I would be walking home carrying 25 pounds of gemaras and chumashim …. with my tzistzis hanging out.”

Phillips didn’t come from a musical family. He didn’t pick up instruments in his teens, the age when many musicians get their start. 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 that recorded an iconic record for Rounder in 1977. (Rounder reissued it in 2011.) The group included banjo player Tony Trischka and mutli-instrumentalist Andy Statman, who remain nationally renowned musicians to this day. Back then, bluegrass was just beginning to enjoy its own revival. Breakfast Special delved into 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.

Voice Of The Dobro

Paul Bass PhotoPhillips 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. He had a loose onstage style with old-timey between-song shtick (like one memorable story about a Lower East Side man who kept getting spooked by a talking majtes herring) that matched the old-timey songlists drawn from bluegrass masters like Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt. Between the banter and the improvisational playing, audiences learned a lot about those masters and the roots of the music.

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. He recorded an album dedicated to the instrument, tailoring songs from a range of genres from Hawaiian to gospel to Jewish liturgical music to what was usually thought of as a country music tool. He also wrote an instruction manual for Dobro players.

“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.”

In addition to two other solo albums, 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 album’s producers, Jerry Douglas and Tut Taylor, got the Grammy statue. Phillips received an embossed certificate. He gave it to his mother, who framed it. In time it returned to him. But he didn’t hang it on his wall.

“The awards I won — I would lose them if I didn’t put them in a central place,” he said. “Which is my freezer.”

Why the freezer?

“Because there’s space there.”

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.”

In addition to headlining the Bluegrass Characters, Phillips at the time of his death played regularly in a duo with Paul Howard, with a Hawaiian music trio called Three Finger Poi, with the old-timey country Heroes of Tradition, in a traditional Irish music duo with Joe Gerhard, in a contra dance combo called The Fascinating Swivets, and in the groundbreaking ensemble The Afro-Semitic Experience, in which African-American and Jewish musicians play updated versions of gospel and Jewish liturgical songs. That group has recorded memorable albums and played often in local churches, synagogues, and other venues. 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.

“We often have very young musicians, some as young as 10 or 11, playing alongside their elders,” Chevan said. “Year after year Stacy would find a way to bolster the confidence of the youngest, newest members of the group and encourage them and show them how to play their parts. He would often write little arrangements just for those beginning klezmer musicians.

“Yes, Stacy could be really gruff, but he was 100 percent about the love of music and music making, and what he shared with those young players had an impact. Often when I was working on a difficult passage with another section of the Kapelye he would work on violin parts with the rest of the violinists.”   

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.”

 

You can hear Phillips play a beautiful rendition of “Shalom Aleichem” and then discuss it at the beginning of a radio interview in the above audio file.

Phillips’ Dobro also adds a new twist to the gospel classic “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” (the Afro-Semitic track that closes each episode of WNHH FM’s daily “Dateline New Haven” program).

“Play It Again!”


Some of Phillips’ most memorable performances came as a sideman to bigger names. In 2008, for instance, David Bromberg called him onstage at the Little Theater on Lincoln Street. Blown away by Phillips’ playing, Bromberg called out, “Play it again!” Which Phillips did. (You can hear the solo at the 1:10 mark in the above video.)

Tony Trischka invited Phillips onstage to take the Dobro lead on “Nashville Skyline” during a show at Cafe Nine dedicated to Bob Dylan tunes.

Phillips’s former Breakfast Special bandmates Statman and Trischka came to New Haven in 2016 to reunite onstage with Phillips at the Outer Space Ballroom. They played for hours, old friends picking up where they’d left off in New York in the 1970s. Statman and Trischka were the big names, the officials bluegrass stars of the night. But everyone in the room, including them, knew that the now gray-maned Stacy Phillips, bending over his Dobro and sliding up and down the strings, was right up there with them.

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posted by: billy fischer on June 6, 2018  6:57am

i am so grateful to you paul for this tribute to stacy
he will be missed by me and many others
his presence locally and in wider circles is powerful
and will remain so
prayers and blessings for his family

posted by: david m. lesser on June 6, 2018  8:48am

My wife, friends, and I would reserve the last Tuesday of every month to hear Stacy and his Bluegrass Characters. The music was excellent. Stacy was a wonderful guy to be around—funny, irreverent, but with a gentle soul. We will miss him very much. Sincerely, David Lesser

posted by: Jefff on June 6, 2018  9:19am

Words fail me, and fail to describe what a wonderful presence Stacy and his music brought to our community!  He was the epitome of cool in so many ways, many of which are described well by Paul in this article.  The world will be a darker place without Stacy and I will miss playing with him on those precious and rare occasions we worked together.

posted by: Patricia Kane on June 6, 2018  9:25am

Thank you, Paul, for this loving and well written tribute to this masterful musician.
  The music is timeless, as is the joy it brings.

posted by: IsaiahDCooper on June 6, 2018  9:50am

Thanks for a thorough obituary of Stacy Phillips, a fantastic musician and wonderful man!

It was my pleasure and honor to have been able to make music with Stacy, though I did not get to do so nearly enough!

posted by: hartman on June 6, 2018  9:59am

I’m so very sad after hearing of Stacy’s passing. Stacy was my next-door neighbor for almost twenty years. In the evenings, I would listen through my walls to some of the most beautiful tunes and instrumental works I’d ever heard. During the daytime, I would listen to a patient master teach his students. I could tell when the students would break their time, stumble at the chords and I’d listen for Stacy’s scolding. It never came. He was endowed with an inexhaustible supply of patience. I’m reflecting on years of cello and piano lessons. My teachers were saints! I sucked! What pain I must have caused them. My piano teacher, Adrienne Lewis spent seven years listening to me banging away on the keys and I could barely pull off “Chopsticks”. Cheers to all music teachers. Stacy was a master. So accomplished and so eager to share his gift with the world. I guess I’ll have to carry my own Amazon packages upstairs now. Rest in eternal peace, my friend.

“Such sweet, such melting strains!
Their soft harmonious cadence rises now,
And swells in solemn grandeur to its height!
Now sinks to mellow notes–now dies away–
But leaves its thrilling memory on my ear.” - Unknown Methodist Protestant

posted by: David E. Eisner on June 6, 2018  10:47am

I was fortunate to work with The Afro-Semitic Experience ( as their sound engineer) several times when they would perform in synagogues around the Washington,DC area. When I first saw the tech input list/stage plot, I thought there must be two musicians named Stacy Phillips. Nope, the one and only Stacy spreading his musical wings into a land that Dobro players do not normally inhabit. The A.S.E. Is an amazing band that merges genres. Stacy loved playing with them and vica versa. Do not worry, David Chevan and the A.S.E. will keep his memory alive.

posted by: David Lindsay on June 6, 2018  12:13pm

Thank you Paul Bass, for an excellent and touching piece about Stacy Phillips. I wish I’d spent more time going to his concerts.
I wrote on my one of my blogs: My casual friend and talented associate in contra dance music Stacy Phillips passed away yesterday. He was an extraordinary bluegrass fiddler and dobro player and author of fine music books. It was a privilege to hear him perform. We will miss his music and mirth. My condolences and love to his close friends and family.
David Lindsay is a contra dance caller, and author, who blogs at InconvenientNews.wordpress.com and at TheTaySonRebellion.com

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 6, 2018  12:35pm

Years a go When I did a radio show   at Wpkn.He came into the studio to do a interviewi I did not know him.We just started talking and I will say.He knew his music.

posted by: Joe Vinikow on June 6, 2018  1:09pm

Thanks to Paul and NHI for this informative and affectionate tribute. Stacy was unique in all the world, and those of us lucky enough to know him and share music with hm will always be enriched. And the jokes, always with the jokes.

So long, Dr. Verkacktah, we’re gonna miss those pretty notes, and the general hilarity. Heaven just got a little sweeter sounding today.

posted by: Jennifer Botwick on June 6, 2018  1:30pm

I was completely disheartened to hear of Stacy’s departure to play bluegrass in heaven- I wanted him to play down here for much more time!
Paul- thank you for this articulate and loving tribute to an amazing musician. I loved hearing Stacy play,  whatever the venue, because he was a master musician and was exciting to listen to and watch. I enjoyed his jokes and valued his kindness and incredible humility. This is a deep loss for our community and for the world.  Prayers and compassionate sympathy to his friends and family.
“Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.”
― Edward Bulwer-Lytton
To Stacy,whose spirit and music will never die.  Sincerely,Jennifer Botwick

posted by: Lorirobin on June 6, 2018  1:37pm

Thanks for the lovingly well done tribute. I think Stacy would have been both pleased and embarrassed to be the subject of so many outpourings of emotion over his life and death. Hard to think he is gone.

posted by: Millie Grenough on June 6, 2018  1:44pm

Paul, thanks for your loving tribute to Stacy. What a loss for all of us. And how much of his spirit stays with us. I remember him arranging “Tennessee Waltz” in swinging 4/4 time so I could sing it along with him on fiddle and Lou Florio on guitar in the basement of the Shirley Frank Foundation. Sweet memory from 30+ years ago. Stacy, always fun, always teaching, always giving.

posted by: meredith on June 6, 2018  3:42pm

Stacy Phillips was ubiquitous in the CT music scene. It’s hard to imagine his absence.

posted by: JDoe on June 6, 2018  6:20pm

25 years ago when I first arrived in New Haven I invited a drummer and fiddler I had met to jam in my kitchen (I played guitar). My fiddler friend brought his teacher Stacy along to join. A world class player hanging out in the kitchen sipping a few cold ones and playing some old time numbers. It was an unforgettable experience. What a class act - not only an extraordinary musician but a patient sharer of his deep knowledge - witty, supportive and always uncompromising. It’s easy to play with someone so unerring. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to learn from a bonafide master and echo others here in saying how he will be missed by all who knew him and appreciated his boundless talent and magnanimity.

posted by: Karen G. Anderson on June 6, 2018  7:36pm

Paul, thank you so much for capturing the passion, complexity, and wry humor that was Stacy. Stacy’s music is always on my playlists—- tracks from the Breakfast Special, Tall Boots, the Great Dobro Sessions, From the Inside, and The Afro-Semitic Experience. I urge all of you with turntables to find a copy of Stacy’s brilliant debut album, All Old Friends, and listen in awe. May the memory of this righteous man be for a blessing.

posted by: fiddleharlot on June 6, 2018  10:18pm

So sorry to hear the news.  I know him through his amazing fiddle books, which were both helpful and humorous.  Your great article gave me an appreciation of all the diverse areas to which he contributed.  We will miss him.

posted by: Coetred on June 7, 2018  7:50am

Stacy was my first teacher and had continued to guide me in my musical journey for the past 13 years .  I was an adult student with little to no experience.  Stacy’s patience and humor along with his commitment to expect the best from me has helped me to enjoy my fiddle as much as I do.  His lessons were not only valuable but fun!  The time would fly by!  I cannot believe that they are finished.  There was still so much more to do, still so much to learn. 
I loved seeing Stacy with his characters the last Tuesday of the month. I even performed with them a couple of times.  What fun that was.
I am grateful for his presence in my life.  My heart is broken.  He will never be replaced. I can only keep working at what he was so committed to teaching me.  He wouldn’t settle for anything less.  I will miss him more than I can possibly say.  Coe

posted by: Lisa Saunders on June 7, 2018  8:43am

I never got a chance to thank him for his touching violin playing on May 23, 2018, for the recording of a song meant to share the heart of a mother who learned her child’s birth defects could have been prevented. Please listen to his violin in the song, “Had I Known (about CMV) by Debra Lynn Alt. You can hear it at this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9Klfxar2CmjRGN0cnBNQXRDdExMQWJOVHVZRGR1aWFJX0lJ/view

The song was inspired by the life of my daughter. Share it with others as June is National Cytomegalovirus (CMV) Awareness Month.

posted by: amystarke on June 7, 2018  1:25pm

An excellent and interesting obituary about a musical powerhouse.  I became a big fan of his a few years ago after I watched his instructional bluegrass fiddle DVDs.  I had to watch them several times each and took notes too because he offered so much useful information.  Wish I had had an opportunity to meet him in person and tell him how much I learned from him.  Amy Starke of Beaverton, Oregon

posted by: a friend on June 7, 2018  2:33pm

To all his heartbroken students: know that Stacy kept every letter you wrote him, and was touched and gratified to hear from you. I never saw him look as pleased as when he was talking about one of your successes, or antics, or just about your struggles and progress ...unless it was when he was telling stories about his amazing parents and sister and niece and nephew. Stacy was all about the music, sure… an endlessly curious and prodigious talent who studied constantly and drove himself to work harder and understand more deeply and keep things true and keep things fresh. His teachers were everywhere, in every conceivable style. He came late to Beethoven, but once he got there, he couldn’t stop listening. The amount of work he put into preparing lessons and workshops was extraordinary. Don’t forget what an excellent writer he was, deploying that rich vocabulary with flair and discretion. Reread his articles and reviews; they’re worth it. I don’t believe for a minute that he would have made a lousy chemist, as he told that interviewer. He was fascinated by chemistry and physics, and would hold forth for hours on the beauty of mathematics. Stacy had a huge intellect and an enormous heart. He held strong (some would say headstrong) beliefs about what was most important in life. Ultimately, that was people.  He performed countless acts of quiet kindness that I was aware of, and who knows how many that I never knew about. In these, he shunned the spotlight and shrugged off thanks. This was the Stacy I came to know. I will cling to this vision of him, and let it inspire me, for the rest of my life.

posted by: adam mcowen on June 7, 2018  3:28pm

I first encountered Stacy many years ago through his instructional books, which really helped me learn the language of American fiddle tunes and roots music. They also contain wonderful flashes of his wit and sense of humor. Around that time I took a couple lessons with him in New Haven, which were like a cross between jam and therapy sessions. Stacy was a master teacher and picker, and he had a way of teaching that was almost spiritual, like you could just feel yourself becoming a better musician in his presence without any effort at all. It was a blessing to know him.

posted by: Bob Stepno on June 9, 2018  12:27pm

Stacy was amazing, and so is Paul’s tribute, but it leaves out Stacy’s years playing dobro, mandolin; guitar, fiddle, and singing, with the late-sixties/early-seventies Golden Nectar Goodtime Band, a terrific jug/washboard band based in the UConn area. [It also included Peter Menta (later known as “Washboard Slim”).]

The wonderful but unlucky band was booked to play the Newport Folk Festival in 1970, the year the festival was cancelled. It recorded a professionally produced L.P. in New York, but only released it privately ... in a plain white jacket with (Stacy’s) mimeographed liner notes about the big New York producer’s “insidious schemes to have the band play music for an early morning cartoon show for seven-year-olds.”

Here is the first paragraph… presumably by Stacey… (spelled with an “e” at that point).

“Out of the noxious dust from the collapse of the folk boom rose, phoenix like, the Golden Nectar Goodtime Band. In ignorance and innocence it embraced an ideal that music should be, above all else, entertaining. In times of acid rock and Rebellion it turned a deaf ear to the call for electric sensuality and pseudo social relevance. In the purity of its acoustic tones, titillating melodies and outre rhythms, it remained true to its basic tenet. It chose to express itself in the music of the Twenties and Thirties, music which was, in comparison to the heavy sounds of the Sixties, exceptionally light.”

The notes preserve one of Stacy’s memorable song introductions, to the 1918 novelty song “Hindustan,” with its S capitalized:

“Based on the life story of an auto parts dealer from Willimantic, named Stanley Kowalski, who converted to Hinduism. After becoming a Swami he found himself in a butcher shop one day, ordering a pound of sheeps liver. The owner, thinking that anyone with a towel around his head in Willimantic was a little slow, told his assistant to ‘weigh down upon the swami’s liver.”

R.I.P., Stacy