The long, winding road to Willie Phoenix Way

Joel Oliphint
A photo illustration previewing what the corner of 16th Avenue and High Street could look like, which Watershed's Colin Gawel used in his online petition.

Willie Phoenix played his first gig at Bernie’s Bagels & Deli/The Distillery in 1976. The kid from Marion, Ohio, wanted to get his feet wet in the big city, and he’d heard that Bernie’s — the once-iconic and now-demolished basement rock club near Ohio State — offered open stage opportunities. So one afternoon, Phoenix grabbed his acoustic guitar and ventured down to the campus dive, where he met bar manager Jack Lefton.

“Jack told me, ‘Do an audition right now, and if people like you, I'll give you a cup of coffee and a bagel,’” said Phoenix, who decided to play “I Feel Like a Holiday Inn,” an original tune with an upbeat melody disguising its blue lyrics. “It was a little bit after lunch, and there were people there, so I stood there and played one song. Everybody clapped, and then he said, ‘OK, do a couple more,’ and he gave me a meal.”

That was the beginning of a decades-long relationship between Willie Phoenix and Bernie’s, which developer Campus Partners reduced to rubble in 2016. Phoenix estimates he played well over 100 gigs at the bar, often with lines snaking up the stairs, out the door and down High Street. For a time, Bernie’s became his home base. He wrote songs there and would fill in when other bands canceled. People would leave notes for him at Bernie’s, and he would take calls from record companies and producers at the bar.

“Jack said to me, ‘We're gonna start answering the phone, “Willie's office.” And one day I was in there, and I could hear him across the room going, ‘Willie's office. Who is this? Jimmy who?’ It was Jimmy Ienner, producer for the Raspberries,” Phoenix said.

Across the street, Phoenix said neighboring business Morris the Florist provided him with a basement rehearsal space and a room to rent. Nearby, at 16th and Waldeck avenues, Phoenix wowed crowds at early Comfest gatherings. While Phoenix would go on to share stages with big names (the Ramones, Talking Heads, Bryan Adams) and sign a major label deal in the coming years, that part of town has always held a special significance for Phoenix. And now, thanks to a petition started by Watershed’s Colin Gawel, the corner of 16th Avenue and High Street will commemorate that history with a new street sign: Willie Phoenix Way.

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"Willie Phoenix is a Columbus, Ohio rock/blues legend. He has been writing and performing music in Central Ohio for 50 years and remains active to this day,” Gawel wrote in the petition in mid-May. “The very first thing I did when arriving on campus was go see Willie Phoenix perform at Bernie’s Bagels. It changed my life.”

“It’s so hard to figure out a way to give Willie what a lot of people feel he deserves. When you have this much history, how can you possibly explain it to anyone?” Gawel said recently by phone. “Strangely enough, a street sign is probably the easiest way to explain Willie Phoenix. … It’s at least enough to know that this guy is something, you know what I mean? It's right up there. It seems like the most reasonable thing to do, as crazy as that sounds.”

Gawel let the petition sit on the back burner once George Floyd protests hit Columbus, not wanting to add unnecessary noise to the voices in the streets (and recognizing the city had more pressing issues to address). But over time he would email someone about the petition or mention it to someone at his Upper Arlington shop, Colin’s Coffee. One of those customers brought the petition to the attention of Tom Krouse, CEO of Donatos and a cofounder of the Columbus Music Commission. Krouse loved the idea.

“Willie Phoenix is such a unique guy, and he exudes such positivity and love, that there was no doubt something like this could happen,” said Krouse, who contacted City Council Chief of Staff Michael Brown, who circled back with Gawel and passed the idea along to Council President Shannon Hardin and the Columbus Music Commission.

“Once Tom got on board it started getting some traction,” Gawel said. “It just found the right path. The amount of goodwill Willie has in this city is kind of incredible. He's touched so many people. So it wasn't like there was any resistance.”

On Thursday, Oct. 15, at 1 p.m., the city will hold a virtual event to dedicate Willie Phoenix Way. “It is our hope that this street marker will inspire young musicians who walk down High Street to pick up a guitar, sit behind a keyboard or rock a turntable to write the next chapter of Columbus, Ohio, rock, roll and soul," Hardin said in a press release. (The corner, which is now home to a Target, is unrecognizable from what it once was, like much of that stretch of High Street, thanks in part to City Council’s green light to Campus Partners’ rezoning and redevelopment plans.)

When Gawel called Phoenix to give him the news, he was shocked. He’d seen the petition circulating on social media at one point, but he took it more as a joke and a nice gesture, not as a real possibility. “I was like, wait a minute, I'm not a politician. I'm not a soldier,” Phoenix said. “But it's an honor and a total surprise. And people that know me, they know it's hard to surprise Willie.”

Those who know Phoenix also know he’s not one to dwell on the past, which, in some ways, made this honor a bit of a risky endeavor. For years, Gawel and other Phoenix fans have begged the singer and guitarist to revisit some of his classic songs from bands like Romantic Noise and the Buttons. When I spoke with Phoenix for a Columbus Monthly profile in 2014, he had no patience for living in the past. “You gotta move on,” he said.

But in the last several years, Phoenix has changed his tone. “The former me never liked to look back. But I’ve started to realize those things are important. What I've done is important. And it's taken other people, such as Colin and [former longtime bandmate] Jimmy Johnson, to make me realize that,” said Phoenix, who previously found himself dwelling on the bad stuff when he looked back, like getting dropped from A&M and never being happy with the self-titled album he made for the label. That very first song he played at Bernie’s, “I Feel Like a Holiday Inn,” for instance, was recorded, but the second album never came to fruition. He doesn’t even have a demo recording of the song.

“There are some things in the past that make you not even want to go there,” he said. “Some people say, ‘I have no regrets.’ But I realized regrets aren't that bad, especially if you can learn from them.”

These days, Phoenix is comfortable embracing the past, present and future all at once. He can look at Willie Phoenix Way and remember a bygone era brimming with promise, but he can also still rock out with his friends at this year’s virtual Comfest. Looking back or forward, the overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude.

“I thank the city, and I thank fans like Colin, who's always a believer, even when he probably didn't know I'm sitting across town somewhere, or I'm playing a gig in West Virginia, and I'm not even believing in myself that night,” Phoenix said. “It’s good for people to send that vibe out. It travels somewhere, and it finds its way to Willie, and then all of a sudden I'm having a great gig that night when I didn't think I would. It's a spiritual thing to send out good vibes and to believe in something — and to believe in someone.”

Willie Phoenix