Born John Phillip Baptiste, 14 March 1931, Lake Charles, Louisiana
Raised by his mother in a poor and strictly religious life, John Baptiste grew up on gospel music. While in high school, he formed a gospel group, The Gateway Quartet, with his brothers Edward and Elijah and Mack Robinson. This group had five singles released on Dot in 1953. After a brief stint in the Naval Academy at Annapolis, John became a bellhop at the Chateau Charles Hotel in Lake Charles.
In 1957, his girl friend Verdie Mae Thomas inspired the song that would become his claim to fame. "She was always complaining I didn't love her", said Baptiste in an interview. "I said if I can only convince her I'd take her out on the sea of love somewhere. I went out on the front porch and sat down and that's when I composed the song." He even paid to record his song at radio station KPLC with just his guitar to accompany his voice. Still, it took a while before the shy singer had the courage to shop his demo around. One day the gas meter reader heard Baptiste singing it at home and told him he had a hit. The meter man even told record store owner George Khoury about Baptiste and his song. Khoury was intrigued enough to pay him a visit. Soon he put the singer together with Ernest Jacobs, the pianist and arranger of Cookie and the Cupcakes. Baptiste and Jacobs worked on the song on guitar and piano for two months. The song was recorded in early 1959, at Eddie Shuler's small Goldband studio. John was backed by four members of Cookie and the Cupcakes, along with three backup vocalists, the Twilights.
George Khoury told Baptiste that he couldn't record under his given name, as it was too French for most people to pronounce, so Khoury changed his name to Phil Phillips. The record, originally released on Khoury 711, sold so well that it was leased to Mercury for national distribution. It was only when Phil saw the record that he discovered that Khoury had put his name on the song as co-writer. Khoury later explained that this was the way he did business. To this day, Phillips denies that Khoury helped write the song.
Having entered the Billboard pop charts at # 85 on July 6,1959, "Sea Of Love" seemed to falter by August 17, when it dropped from # 15 to # 22. However, the next week it made an unprecedented jump from # 22 to # 2, after several television appearances by Phillips. It stayed at # 2 for another week, kept from the peak position by "The Three Bells" by the Browns. In October, Phil joined the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, touring the country with the Drifters, the Skyliners, Bobby Rydell, LaVern Baker, Duane Eddy, Paul Anka, Lloyd Price and others. During this time, "Sea Of Love" belatedly hit the top position in Billboard's R&B charts.
After a second Lake Charles session in September, Phil fell into the assembly line of Mercury Records. He did several extended sessions in New York City, arranged by Fred Norman (later Belford Hendricks), and produced by Clyde Otis and then Shelby Singleton. "They put me in pop", remarks Phillips. "I felt I should have stayed in rhythm and blues". None of these Brook Benton styled recordings met with any success, good as some of them were. The best that any of his follow- up singles did "What Will I Tell My Heart" (that he knew from Fats Domino's version), which bubbled under Billboard's Hot 100 at # 108. Enough material was recorded for an LP, but Mercury never released it. Phillips got fed up with the music industry. All he ever received for "Sea Of Love" in the way of royalties was $ 6,800.
Phil never married Verdie Mae, the girl for whom he wrote "Sea Of Love". Instead he married Winnie Bell on June 3, 1961. They had seven children, raised in a ramshackle house in Jennings which didn't have any furniture. Phillips became a popular disc jockey in Jennings, but was still barely surviving. In the late 1960s he went to Muscle Shoals and recorded again. "The Evil Dope" has become something of a cult record. But he would not record again until 2002 Then, in the 1980s the popularity of "Sea Of Love" came back with a vengeance. After 16 years of absence from the charts, Del Shannon made a comeback with the song, peaking at # 33 in 1982. An even bigger hit was "Sea Of Love" in a version by the Honeydrippers, a supergroup consisting of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Nile Rodgers. This had a 20-week run in Billboard's charts, reaching # 3 in early 1985, just short of Phil's original chart position. And in 1989, a movie thriller called "Sea Of Love" was released. The song, Phil's original and a remake by Tom Waits, was a major plot element in the movie that helped turn Al Pacino's career around. Phil still does not receive full songwriting royalties from his famous song, even though George Khoury died on January 9, 1998. Khoury's estate is hidden and the current owners of "Sea Of Love" fight any attempt by Phillips to get any money. He does receive some BMI licensing fees, though.
Despite severe arthritis in his hands, Phillips proved that his voice was still strong in some rare appearances at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans in the pre-Katrina years. He has been inducted into musical halls of fame in Port Arthur, Texas and Baton Rouge. He and his wife Winnie live in a small but comfortable home in Lake Charles with several of their children around them.
Acknowledgements : Mainly adapted from Rick Coleman's liner notes for the Bear Family CD.
CD : Phil Phillips, Sea Of Love (Bear Family BCD 16981). Released 2008. 26 tracks, many of them previously unissued.
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