Rise Up: The Unstoppable, Unknowable Willie Phoenix

The longtime Columbus musician has worked for decades, racking up numerous bands, recordings, live shows and even a brush with big-time fame. Could a new album send him skyward again?

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
Willie Phoenix

It's Halloween night, and High Street is teeming with Ohio State students scurrying to and from bars and nearby rentals. I'm headed to Bernie's, a basement deli and concert venue that opened in the '70s, to catch a set by Blues Hippy and the Soul Underground-aka Columbus rocker Willie Phoenix, whose musical history in this town goes back as far as Bernie's does.

The show is running about an hour behind schedule, so Phoenix doesn't take the stage until after midnight, following sets by two lackluster opening bands that draw only a handful of onlookers to this dark, dank room. One band spills beer onstage and pesters the bartender for more. The sparse crowd, which trends a couple decades older than the students on the sidewalks above, talks over the music and mills around the scattered bar stools and tables. Toward the back of the room, near the bathrooms and the sound man reading his book with a penlight, LPs and 45s by '90s Columbus bands like Gaunt decorate the wall.

Twenty years ago, there would have been a line out the door to see Phoenix perform at Bernie's. Tonight, no more than 20 people have ventured in, but they all crowd the area in front of the stage when Phoenix walks to the mic. One middle-aged man is wearing a wig of black dreadlocks. "I'm 1985 Willie Phoenix," he says. A woman grabs her friend's arm and begins hopping in place, saying: "I get to see Willie Phoenix tonight! I get to see Willie Phoenix tonight!"

Phoenix, dressed in all black and a skull cap, still looks like a rock star at 62. His latest stage name, Blues Hippy, is a particularly apt descriptor; he performs bluesy throwback songs about love and peace, plus covers of "All Along the Watchtower" and "Gloria." It's a short set, and about half the songs are merely vehicles for Phoenix's guitar wizardry. The man has been playing scorching solos for decades with a right-handed guitar flipped over for a lefty-just like Jimi Hendrix, except Phoenix leaves the strings upside down, too, which makes his fingering of even normal chords unrecognizable.

The songs are crowd pleasers. No one there would guess Phoenix has an album's worth of material that bears little resemblance to these hippie blues. Phoenix has titled the new record Crazy Velvet Horses-a reference to his most recent muses, The Velvet Underground and Neil Young.

Musician Willie Phoenix has called Columbus home since the mid-1970s.

In the early '80s, Phoenix was signed to a major label, performing in front of thousands at sold-out venues with bands like the Ramones, Talking Heads and Bryan Adams. As I ascended the grimy steps to the costumed throngs on High Street, part of me felt like I'd witnessed the tragic consummation of a 45-year career in music. The other part of me admired Phoenix's commitment to his music and his ability to survive-to slug it out in rock clubs after enduring all the highs and lows the music industry dealt him over the decades.

The question nagged at me: Was it admirable or sad? After conversations with Phoenix and others who know him well, I discovered that his life is, and always has been, a study in contrasts-a tale of two Willies. He's a genial optimist with a paranoid streak. A rock-star hippie who doesn't drink or toke. A generous, loving, deeply spiritual person who keeps his friends at arm's length. A prolific, ambitious, career-minded musician who's resistant to change. A musical sage who won't follow his own advice.

Even those who've known Phoenix for decades consider him an enigma. As a former bandmates once said: "Old friends don't know Willie better. They've just known him longer."

Phoenix was trying his best to listen to his English teacher at Marion Harding High School. But he was having trouble paying attention. It was a warm spring day, and 10 of his classmates were right outside the classroom windows protesting with chants and signs.

In the late '60s, the white kids at Harding were getting kicked out of school for wearing their hair long and their skirts short. Meanwhile, the black students were angry that Harding had never crowned a black homecoming queen. Eventually, the two factions united under the common goal of freedom.

Outside the classroom, one of the protestors shouted: "Hey, Willie! Get your guitar!" He tried to ignore the repeated requests, but they kept it up. After a few minutes, his teacher put it to him. "What do you want to do?" she asked. "I wanna get my guitar," he said. She looked the other way while Willie grabbed his guitar from the music room, passed it through the window to the protestors outside, made a break for it through a back door and joined the protestors on the lawn.

Willie was in a band called Little Eric at the time. One of their songs, "Gold Rush, 1849," was mostly silly, Phoenix remembers, but the chorus had a call to action: "We've got to stand up and testify…"

"I started walking around and singing that song, and all of a sudden, kids are pouring out," Phoenix says. "It's like a movie."

Pretty soon the cops and the mayor showed up. They insisted the crowd disperse.

Willie Phoenix performs for a crowd.

Phoenix and several others were suspended from school. The administration was especially disappointed in Willie, who wasn't the type of kid to get in trouble. But the following year, students could wear their hair long, and Harding crowned its first black homecoming queen.

"I think that was the first time I realized the true power of music," Phoenix says.

In those days, he was still known as Willie Creagh ("Phoenix" didn't come along until the mid '70s, when he copped the name from a character in the film "Phantom of the Paradise"). His father, "Big Willie," was a warehouse worker, Pentecostal preacher and bluesman who moved his family from Camden, Alabama, to Lansing, Michigan, before settling in Marion, where "Little Willie" learned to play guitar from his dad and learned to sing from his mom.

"My mom would be cooking in the kitchen, and she would start singing a spiritual," he says. "She'd say: 'Come on, Willie! Help Mama sing this now.' "

Little Willie, who never grew taller than 5 feet 5 inches, learned about bands like Cream, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles from older guys in Marion. His love of those bands-particularly The Beatles-would never die. His cousins would playfully tease him: "Here comes Little Willie, the black Beatle!"

In high school, Phoenix saw a band called Lothario and the Deceivers (the guitarist, Jim "Kozmos" Cummings, would later play bass with Phoenix). "These guys were cool, man. They wore shiny vests and skinny black ties," Phoenix says. "I remember going to a parking lot downtown behind one of the department stores, and there was a throng of people and the girls were screaming. I was looking at these guys going, 'One of these days I'm gonna have a band like this.'"

Phoenix played his first bar gig at 14. Soon after high school, he got a manager who encouraged him to spend some time gigging in Canada, which he did for a couple years in the early '70s before moving to Columbus around 1974. Here, he started jamming with guys like Bill Sims, a Marion native, and former Dantes guitarist Dave Workman. Every once in a while during those jam sessions he got up the courage to say, "Let's play one of my songs!"

Columbus musician Willie Phoenix

Phoenix spent about a year in California in the '70s, as well, after his cousin persuaded him to move out there. He played acoustic, troubadour-style gigs at a coffee shop in Berkeley, but soon Phoenix was back in Columbus, playing his first ComFest show in 1976. A couple years later, he formed Romantic Noise, a power-pop group that's still spoken of in hushed tones in some Columbus circles.

Phoenix was becoming a recognizable face and name up and down High Street. "I was one of the very few people who had dreadlocks," he says. "That's how people knew Willie Phoenix."

He also dressed like a rock star wherever he went: tight jeans, unbuttoned shirts, leather jackets, platform boots or red Keds, scarves and neckties. Some passersby shouted his name excitedly. Others threw bottles at him and called him a freak. Still others asked him where they could score some weed, not realizing Phoenix didn't drink or do drugs.

One day he decided on a whim to call CBGB, the now-defunct, legendary rock club in New York City. He got owner Hilly Kristal on the phone and persuaded him to let him play a solo show. Phoenix hopped on a bus and played an acoustic set before Cleveland punks the Dead Boys took the stage. Romantic Noise went on to play CBGB and other New York venues many times.

Record companies began to take notice, as did publications like CREEM and The Village Voice. Columbus music writers were late to catch on but eventually wrote about Romantic Noise as part of a burgeoning punk movement in town. "We were power pop," Phoenix says, "but whatever. I'll walk through that door."

Romantic Noise recorded about six songs for Mercury Records, but that project was shelved. Phoenix changed the name of the band to the Buttons after hiring a new drummer and had a local hit with the song "I Saw Superman," which ended up on a 1979 QFM96 compilation. He recorded more songs for EMI, but those were shelved, too. Phoenix even played in front of the legendary John Hammond Sr. at Columbia Records. But they all passed. Hammond called his sound "generic."

Phoenix returned to Columbus feeling low. "Nobody wanted Willie Phoenix," he says.

Willie Phoenix performs.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, everyone wanted Willie Phoenix. Arista, A&M, Capitol-all the major labels loved two of his new songs. Talent scouts from A&M came to Columbus to see the Buttons play a packed show at Zachariah's Red Eye Saloon. Soon after, the label flew Phoenix to Los Angeles to play for label head Jerry Moss-the "M" in A&M. Moss made him wait in a room at the label's offices for a tense five hours after playing his set. Staffers assumed the worst and offered Phoenix their condolences. Then a rep walked in and said, "Welcome to A&M, Willie."

Phoenix began touring all over with bands like Humble Pie and Bryan Adams. He'd periodically go to LA for meetings with the label. There were limousines and industry events with Joni Mitchell as his date. Phoenix was a star.

The self-titled A&M debut went over pretty well with critics, garnering a handful of 3- and 4-star reviews. But A&M didn't know what to do with him or how to sell him. Was he the next Bruce Springsteen? A punk rocker? The second coming of Hendrix? Plus, the record suffered from heavy-handed '80s-style production, with very little of Phoenix and guitarist Rob Brumfiel and lots of processed keyboard from Phoenix's cousin, Melvin McGary.

"I never liked the record," Phoenix says now. "It's very clean. I wanted the record to sound dirty and trashy. I wanted that soulful sound. We wanted more of a guitar album, but it showcased more of my cousin."

Years after the label booted him, a retired A&M executive told Phoenix that it had come down to him or Bryan Adams. A&M bet on Adams.

Phoenix laid out much of his life for me in a four-hour conversation at a McDonald's a few days after the Bernie's show. I heard story after story from his childhood through the '70s and '80s. But after that, he glossed over 25 years in just a few minutes. Even when pressed, he kept the details to a minimum.

"I just kept going on; I became a madman," Phoenix says. He would constantly write and record, even if he wasn't releasing material. He never quit being a rock star, even if he wasn't one (except when he was).

Willie Phoenix

Ric Cacchione-he goes by Ricki C-was a roadie for Phoenix off and on from 1978 through 1990, and he describes Romantic Noise as the last Willie Phoenix band that was a true democracy. After that, Phoenix was in charge. Ricki C remembers a pre-gig ritual in which Phoenix had band members bring changes of clothes to his house so he could approve or amend all the stage outfits.

"I don't consider myself a musician as much as an artist," Phoenix says. "A really good artist surrounds himself with really good musicians, but only the person at the helm knows exactly the moves that have to be made. It's good to have feedback from people, but it doesn't mean I'll go their route."

"Willie is the greatest guy I've ever known, but also the most recalcitrant," Ricki C says. "Everyone's connection to him is so tenuous. You say the wrong thing around him, and you're out."

The only time I saw that side of Phoenix was when I asked him what kinds of jobs he has held over the years to supplement his income, assuming a couple of shows every month and roughly an album per year wasn't enough to make a living.

"Really?" he answered with a disdainful chuckle. Willie Phoenix, he assured me, does not hold down part-time jobs. Music is his life's work.

"As a musician, I've had to take jobs I didn't want to pay the bills," Phoenix says. "If you gotta play covers, and you're as prolific as I am, that's kind of disheartening. But there's nothing wrong with being in a cover band. If that's selling out, well, I'm still doing what I love to do and keeping a roof over my head."

Phoenix has gone through multiple lineup changes and band names since the '80s: Willie Phoenix and the Shadowlords, Willie Phoenix and the Flower Machine, Willie Phoenix and the True Soul Rockers. He had another radio hit in 2000 with his short-lived band Dream 17 and the song "Gasoline," which CD101 (now CD102.5) put into heavy rotation. Ricki C says Phoenix always kept his bandmates at arm's length. Musicians who played with Phoenix for years say that remaining in his good graces is precarious.

"On average, my bands are usually together about five years," Phoenix says. "That's a lot of time! Some people are not even married five years. But arm's length is a good description. I don't do a lot of socializing. I'm not here to be a bleeding heart or go on hikes with somebody. Some of my friends would like to have a deeper relationship, but I just like my private time."

In our conversations, Phoenix heaped praise on his current Blues Hippy lineup-Myke Rock on bass, Jim Johnson on drums and Kim Crawford on rhythm guitar. "It's not all about me," Phoenix says. "You want your players to be happy. They got bills to pay. They have put up with me for the last two and a half years and counting. They deserve a medal."

Phoenix has a standing Wednesday night recording date at the home studio of Brian Eastman-a lawyer by day who records a handful of bands-and he brings new songs every time. Eastman estimates he has recorded 300 Willie Phoenix songs since 2009, and he considers it a privilege. "Willie is one of the most upbeat, positive people I'm around," Eastman says, "and his ability to just churn stuff out like that amazes me." But Eastman also echoes a sentiment I heard over and over. "Some of the best songs I've ever recorded with him haven't been released," he says. "He likes whatever he's doing now the most. If something is out there too long, he gets bored."

Phoenix has produced bands over the years, too, like The Toll and Watershed, and he's currently producing local band Brian Clash & the Coffee House Rebels. Colin Gawel, Watershed's singer and guitarist, recently embarked on a crusade to assemble Willie Phoenix's vast discography so the world can know his talent before the evidence is lost to the ages.

"I spend a lot of time thinking about Willie, because he basically showed us how the industry works in one afternoon," Gawel says. "Some bands never learn that."

Gawel says some of Phoenix's greatest skills have also held him back: He's an amazing guitarist and performer. He'll play behind his head, jump on tables and effortlessly whip out an electrifying guitar solo. But once he realized he could win over the crowd with showmanship, the songs didn't seem to matter as much.

Since 2004, Phoenix has released a series of blues-rock albums that have pleased his core constituency but continue to frustrate people like Gawel and Ricki C who swear Phoenix was one of Columbus' greatest songwriters and could be again if he'd let someone truly produce him-tell him what's good and what he should scrap.

"My buddy, Ricki C, he tends to live in the past," Phoenix says. "When he thinks about my songwriting-and he's not alone-they think about those short pop songs, which were good. But you gotta move on."

It's apparent frustrations of Phoenix's friends and bandmates are born out of love and hope that Phoenix can get out of his own way. He buries some of his best material and rarely plays old songs live. Friends say he declined to go on the road as an opener for Talking Heads, and when he did play opening slots at Columbus shows, he didn't stay to watch the headliners. According to Ricki C, for years Phoenix even refused to sell CDs at shows for fear of siphoning sales from record stores-information that could get back to the labels he still hoped were paying attention.

"He's his biggest impediment," Ricki C says. "But people still believe he can do something amazing."

This year could be a musical turning point for Willie Phoenix. His new album, Crazy Velvet Horses, which he hoped to release in December, is a departure from his blues-rock safe zone. He describes the record as a crossroads.

"I could do music that was a sure thing to make me money and keep me in the clubs-the blues-rock stuff-or this other stuff that was reminiscent of Crazy Horse and the Velvet Underground," he says. "[A] blues record was actually finished, but at the very last minute I pulled the cord. I had a meeting with everyone and said, 'I can't do it.' And everybody was on board."

The new songs came out of a dark period a couple of years ago when Phoenix was suffering from depression. "I was in a bad place," he says. "I wasn't happy with anything. I would cheer up for the crowd. I knew I could be on autopilot-you can be singing and smiling and dancing on tables, and inside you're dying."

Those bouts with depression conjured up new and different music, which was therapeutic for Phoenix, who says he's in a better place now.

"I think there will be a lot of people who dig the record," he says. "There will also be a lot of people who will say, 'Ah, he's not doing blues anymore.' But art-wise, this is where I'm at ... Right now, I'm having more fun than I've had in a long time." 

This story is from the January 2015 issue of Columbus Monthly.