PHIL CHEN BASS LEGEND
Phil Chen is a well-known Chinese-Jamaican bassist. He was one of England’s most utilized session bassists during the 1970s and 1980s, including being part of the Rod Stewart band from 1977 to 1980, but is probably best known for his later work with Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger of The Doors.
One never knows when you are making history.
AI – Hi Phil thank you so much for taking some time to talk with me and readers here at TheDaily Funk Club. You grew up in Jamaica, then moved to England, what was your childhood like in terms of musical influence and inspiration, and when did you first fall in the love with the bass guitar? Did you know when you first picked it up you would play bass forever?
PC – I was born in Kingston Jamaica where Chinese , English, Jews, Indian, Syrian and the natives of Arawaks descent all lived in harmony, the only color we knew were the colors of the rainbow, our motto ”OUT OF MANY ONE PEOPLE.” My Mother and Father had a grocery store in Half Way Tree by the Clock Tower and The Rainbow Club where artists like Sugar Belly, Calypso Joe, the Cowboy, de bamboo man, Lord Tanamo, Lord Fly, Lord Flea, Lord Lebby, Ticklers and the Pork Chop Rhumba band, etc played. There was no shortage of Mento music and it became my every night good night lullaby and INSPIRATION. Up to today my love was to play the Banjo not to be a Rock Star bassist. Hell no.
On the weekends you could hear the sound system of Duke Reid, Sir Coxon, Tom Sebastian etc just lying in your bed ”Windy” by Paul Gayten was a fav blasting miles away. The only time you called the Cops was when your next door neighbor decided he was not gonna give your fav record a second spin. Big Trouble Rasta!
In 1964, my cousin Colston Chen had a successful group call de VAGABONDS and I use to go to rehearsal just to watch them rehearse as I was so intrigued making mental notes ”Maria Elena” Watermelon Man Ska” etc was etched in my cerebral cortex and hoping that the guitarist Wallace Wilson or Trevor Lopez would be a no show so I could take over and play what they had showed me the week before. I was in seventh heaven and the price of being a glorified go-fo was ok by me, because I would get dinner with Colston Family long after the rehearsal was over and a ride home. Thanks Mrs Chen.
AI – Once in England your presence became hugely important to the music being recorded there, how did you break into the scene and start to get so involved? What was the environment and scene like in terms of working with great musicians, writers and producers, did you fit in well right from the start on that scene?
PC – Colston decided to take SKA to London as Millie Small had just had Jamaica’s first million selling hit with ”MY BOY LOLLIPOP” arranged by Ernest Ranglin, my hero. So he asked me if I wanted to go as a spare guitarist WHAT? I jumped at the opportunity and 14 days later on the ASCANIA banana boat I had arrived at South Hampton for a 6 months tour which lasted 19 years. The first year was really ruff, freezing my butt off with a kerosene heater if lucky, starvation and eating Heinz baked beans accompanied by self raising flour dumplings (they swell and you get more for your money) and a cup of Rosey Lee Typhoo, was a staple diet. About 4 gigs a month for the West Indian community, and stealing milk and bread off people’s doorstep at 5 am was not the glamorous life of a rock star I had envisioned. But I turned crisis into an opportunity. Colston decided to go home, he handed me the bass and said take over. I was a pig in shit and told myself 4 strings it must be easier than 6 strings until James Jamerson shattered my dream? I felt every note he played, which was great, but how to find the meandering Charlie Parker be bop lines was another thing far away from the 3 chord calypso I had mastered. I stayed up till 6 am every day and night and as I had time on my hands. I made use of it to better myself envisioning myself in a Rock Group, while the other guys were running down the ladies.
We got managed by Peter Meaden, the manager of The High Numbers (which later became the WHO) but we had to change our repertoire to soul music as the WHO’s favorites were Maximum RnB, Otis, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Jackie Wilson, Lee Dorsey, Aretha etc were all fave’s among pill popping mods. Our change secured us a residency at the Marquee supporting The WHO and where I got to be friends with Pete Townshend and ended up playing on The WHO TOMMY soundtrack with Eric Clapton and his solo LP White city. The sax player Freddy Nathaniel, a wanna be Levi Stubbs, lived next to me in the bedsit and whenever I cooked I would open the door to let the flavor out and he would play his Motown records and open the door. Of course he wanted some of what I was cooking, but little did he know he was my James Jamerson DJ. I obliged with a bit of love / hate hesitancy. So you could say I was hooked on the Master James Jamerson FOREVER.
AI – I know it’s very hard to pick, but, will you please share just a few special experiences with us that are particularly near and dear to your heart over the years of recording and performing with so many legends of music? Any special gigs that blew your mind in a profound way?
PC – After the breakup of the Vagabonds in about 1970 I embarked on the session scene playing guitar and bass for reggae artists. Dandy Livingstone hired me for all his sessions and when the bass player was a no show I would switch. The first of many hits for him was ”Red Red Wine” by Tony Tripe (meaning nothing good) later changed to Tribe. (something good). after it became a hit.
Dandy decided to get sophisticated using strings on the reggae tracks as other artists had hits with strings and the arranger Jerry Shury liked my playing and he started to use me on his Jingle sessions for Ultra Brite toothpaste, Wonderloaf Bread, CocaCola, Tampax, Branston pickle, Gold Top milk etc etc. These Jingle sessions led to pop sessions and my start. The problem was I did not read music, but I got around this by bribing the guitarist on the session, the amazing Chris Rae, a great sight reader of treble and bass clef. We would meet early before the session and after a quick run thru of the bass lines on the guitar. I would deposit them in my cerebral cortex and Chris could be sure of lunch of fish and chips and a dandy pint of Guinness at lunch, of course all on me.
In the sixties the scene was of pop art The WHO reigned, and the Mods and Rockers were the in thing, like Carnaby Street, Montique, Burton (The Full Monty, for those of you who are not familiar Burton, it was the clothes store for suits. A half monty was just a pants or jacket, a Full Monty was a complete suit.) Purple hearts was the drug of the day.
I was common to see John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Jeff Beck, Eric Burdon, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, Ron Wood, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and even Dusty Springfield hanging out at local clubs like The Bag of Nails, Tiles, or the Speakeasy. Richard Bailey/Godfrey McClean and I were the bass n drums of Mick Eves Gonzales, a funk, latin style group with vocalist Carl Douglas who went on to have a massive hit Kung Fu Fighting. This watering hole secured me a lotta sessions with Richard, guitarist Crackle and Max Middleton. We ended up doing Linda Lewis, Donovan, The WHO Tommy with Pete and Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Doris Troy etc etc, and most artists were writers.
Sir George Martin CBE, the fifth Beatle, came to mind as one of the greatest as he did not tell anyone what to play. Puffing away on his Sherlock Holmes pipe, Jeff Beck had hand picked the right rhythm section and Blow By Blow made history as the only Jazz/rock/reggae instrumental LP to turn the world upside down. One never knows when you are making history. Thank Sir George and Jeff. Mickie Most was another creative genius who also picked the right musicians and let them do their thing – Donovan Cosmic Wheel among other was a hit.Thanx Mickey.
In comes the great Thomas Dowd the Man responsible for the NY Manhattan nuclear project. Hits after Hits with him, and the great engineer Andy Johns took Rod Stewart “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ to be the biggest selling hit. What can you say a genius who has worked with Aretha Franklin, the great Otis Redding, Eric Clapton, Derek and the Dominoes ”Layla,” Cream Disraeli Gears, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Booker T and The MGS, Sam and Dave, Lynard Skynard, The Bee Gees etc, the list goes on. I was blessed Thank you Mr. Dowd.
AI – It’s always such a pleasure to hang with you, and I feel blessed we’ve become friends Phil. What are you up to these days with gigs? recordings? Where can we come hear and see you getting down on your now legendary Fender basses with them soulful 50 year old La Bella flat’s?
PC – I am presently holding down the bass chair for Robert Krieger with his son Waylon singing The DOORS greatest hits, and have been with him and Ray Manzarek for the past 13 years. Robby, John, and Ray started The Butts Band in 1973 but Ray left to go back to LA. So I have known them a long time and the classic rock songs never die ”Light My Fire’’ Thank you Jim, Ray, Robby, and John.
My ’62 P/Bass never leaves home, it has the 50 year old 52-110 La Bellas (Don’t tell Eric Coco I never break a string he will hate me forever send me a doz condoms and buy me sushi ha) has graced umpteen gold and platinum lip’s & cd’s 50 to be exact, Hot Legs etc. It stands by my side in my studio, a constant reminder of the great James Jamerson Motown sound, while my 61 JAZZ stack knob,with Rotosound strings keeps asking me, ‘’Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? Hell Yes! 15 million fans cant be wrong, No way. One love – Phil Chen.
PS. My Dad wrote me a classic calligraphy poem as he watched me played my homemade jazz through a redifussion radio in Jamaica 1963. ”MASTER YOUR MUSIC YOUR FUTURE IS IMMEASURABLE”. I love you Mum and Dad and I thank Uncle Luther Chen for making my first Fender Jazz Bass copy – I am truly blessed. Irie.