Steve Phillips

Steve Phillips is one of life’s gentlemen. He cheerfully describes himself as a “Blues Singer/Guitarist, Landscape Painter, Keen Woodworker, And A Bit Of A Dandy” and he revels in the notion of being semi-famous. He was born in February 1948 and began his musical career in his early teens after being exposed to the music of Snooks Eaglin, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake and a host of other country bluesmen. At a time when most of us were busy buying and listening to the albums of The Beatles, etc, Steve was teaching himself to play what have since become country blues classics. He did this by obtaining recordings via mail order from the USA, recordings which though readily available today, were hard to come by in the early 60s and there was no-one around in those days who could teach you the licks. By 1967 Steve was playing in and around the Leeds area with an outfit known as Easy Mr Steve’s Bootleggers.

An historic photograph: Steve in his kitchen in Leeds in 1969, taken on the day he first met Mark Knopfler. The photograph was cropped and used for Mark’s Yorkshire Evening Post article (see next image) in which he described Steve as “the best of his type in the country.” Steve is playing the National Style O which he later sold to Mark and which became an iconic image on the cover of the Dire Straits multi-million selling album Brothers in Arms.

During the 1960s ‘British Blues Boom’ he accidentally met up with a young guitarist named Mark Knopfler. Mark was then working as a junior reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post. By sheer coincidence, Mark’s boss was another man by the name of Stephen Phillips. This has caused some confusion over the years and a number of Steve Phillips biographies have claimed erroneously that Steve himself worked as a journalist. Mark and his boss – the other ‘Steve Phillips’ – went to see Steve playing in Leeds. Steve fondly recalls how Mark’s first words were “Steve Phillips, meet Steve Phillips.” 

Steve and Mark found that musically they had much in common and they went on to form a duo called The Duolian String Pickers. By day Mark continued working as a reporter and Steve took a job restoring paintings and furniture at Leeds City Art Gallery and Temple Newsam House. They played together off and on over the next five years and some of their work is featured on Steve’s 1996 Just Pickin album (scheduled for re-release sometime in 2003). It was during this period that Steve introduced Mark to the majestic lead style of black blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson and the technical minutiae of finger style country blues guitar, a style which Mark eventually evolved into his own unique style of guitar picking.

After Mark left Leeds in 1973 Steve continued performing with The Steve Phillips Juke Band. Then, in 1976, he discovered a new musical soul-mate in the form of Bradford-born singer/guitarist Brendan Croker. At this time Steve supplemented his income by building and repairing guitars. Brendan took an old twelve-string guitar for Steve to repair. “It had a neck like a banana”, Steve remembers, and Brendan recalls seeing his first National steels in Steve’s flat. So began a long-standing musical partnership, the two performing under the unlikely name of Nev and Norris. They also established their own venue in Leeds known as ‘The Packhorse’. Steve maintains that the secret of the success of their musical partnership is all down to the attraction of opposites.

During the 1980s, as the ‘British Blues Boom’ came to an end, the partnership of Nev and Norris also ended. Brendan moved on to form The Five O’Clock Shadows whilst Steve, disillusioned with the music scene, began to make a living as a landscape painter. Steve has painted many scenes from the beautiful, natural landscape of his beloved North Yorkshire and used a detail from one of his paintings for the cover for his 1995 Been A Long Time Gone album.

By the mid-1980s interest in “roots” music revived and Brendan encouraged Steve to start performing live again. It was also around this time that Mark turned up almost unexpectedly at ‘The Grove’ pub in Leeds in May 1986 and sat in with Steve and Brendan as he had done on numerous occasions in the past. Steve was finally persuaded to release his first album, The Best of Steve Phillips, in 1987. It’s title, though a typical example of Steve’s wry, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, was wholly fitting and The Best of Steve Phillips brought his consummate skills as a country blues singer/guitarist to the attention of a new, wider audience. Mark offered to produce Steve’s next album but Steve suggested that a new album should feature both himself and Brendan. Guy Fletcher was brought in to help out on the technical side. From this evolved the collaboration known as the Notting Hillbillies which was chronicled by an extensive tour and the release in 1990 of the multi-platinum selling album Missing……Presumed having A Good Time. Since then there have been three further Notting Hillbillies tours, one in 1997, the Birmingham and London Ronnie Scott’s residencies of 1998 and the July 1999 six night residency at Ronnie Scott’s, London, and a number of charity performances, most recently Mark brought the Billies again together for four charity gigs in the UK in July, 2002.

Since the success of the Notting Hillbillies, Steve has moved from Leeds to the Whitby area of North Yorkshire. In 1990 he released his Steel-Rail Blues album followed by Been A Long Time Gone and Just Pickin. He has performed as a solo artist in the UK and abroad and in the spring of 1998 renewed his playing partnership with Brendan Croker, the two undertaking an extensive and highly acclaimed UK tour. He has also formed his own band, Steve Phillips and the Rough Diamonds. The band is featured on several tracks on the Been A Long Time Gone and Every One A Gem CDs. Steve’s album. Solo, was released in 2005. The live album, Live At The Grosvenor,, came in 2007 capturing the great atmosphere Steve and the band create at their regular Tuesday night sessions at the Grosvenor Hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay.

Steve and the band’s latest critically acclaimed album, North Country Blues, (2013), features a number of self-penned songs together with tunes from the likes of Bob Dylan and traditional country blues artists such as Tampa Red and Leroy Carr.

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Karen Ritson meets Steve Phillips

THE MAN DESCRIBED by Folk Roots magazine as ‘one of Europe’s most impressive Blues performers’ is unassuming and his fame sits easily about him. Steve Phillips is a gifted guitarist and singer who is as much at home building guitars as playing them. He is also a nationally recognised landscape painter. He plays with his band ‘The Rough Diamonds’ at the Grosvenor Hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay most Tuesday nights as though he were a regular pub gig. He is anything but. I met up with him at the Salmon Leap Hotel in Sleights – before a fundraiser for the Air Ambulance. Typically, he was donating his time and a large percentage of CD sales to this worthwhile and vital cause.

Steve Phillips was born in 1948 into a creative family. His grandfather was a painter, his father was a sculptor who taught at Leeds College of Art and his mother taught art and also played piano. It was a bohemian childhood, but practical too. The Phillips family first visited Robin Hood’s Bay in 1954 on the recommendation of Pat Cope, a past student of Steve’s father and a previous head of art at what is now Caedmon College in Whitby. They loved the place and became regular visitors.

Phillips first picked up a guitar at the age of thirteen and left school two years later to follow his love of music. He quickly notched up experience in a rock and roll band, a beat group and a rhythm and blues band. He developed a passion for blues well before it boomed in this country. As there was nobody to teach him he sent to America for records which he listened to over and over to learn the technique. It was a hard slog, but this was a young man with determination and a growing sense of integrity about his art. He says ‘When I was fifteen I wanted to be famous. By the time I was 18 I wanted to be a good musician.’

He learned from listening to musicians such as Leadbelly (an iconic American folk and blues musician) and by the age of seventeen he had a spot in the interval at a folk club between other acts. By 1968 he was encouraged to do a solo spot and things began to take off. He was soon opening for such names as Fleetwood Mac and the band’s founder Peter Green.

Life changed again in 1969 when a young reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post contacted him for an interview. That reporter’s name was Mark Knopfler. Knopfler was intrigued by Phillips’s ‘picking’ style and in Phillips’s words he ‘picked up in one week what it took me a year to learn’. Though the future Dire Straits front man later moved to London, the two formed a bond that withstood the storms of Knopfler’s fame. In 1976 Phillips met Brendan Croker and they played around Leeds as a duo. At this time Phillips repaired guitars for a living. By the end of the 1970s the repair work had dried up and he turned to his other love – painting.

Phillips studied art conservation for five years at Leeds Art Gallery as a young man. He enjoyed painting and at the beginning of the ’80s sent off a few ‘cheeky’ experimental transparencies to galleries in London. They were immediately accepted and sold well. He painted the landscapes he loved around Leeds and the coast of Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay. Atkinson Grimshaw, the artist well known for his moonlit townscapes, heavily influenced his work; both are masters at capturing the effects of light on landscape.

During this time Mark Knopfler was at the height of his fame following the Brothers in Arms album, but he contacted Phillips with an idea for a few small, unannounced gigs with Phillips, Brendan Croker and Guy Fletcher. The gigs made national front-page news and The Notting Hillbillies were born. As Phillips says ‘The energy was happening right where we were.’ Their album Missing … Presumed Having a Good Time shot up the charts and sold half a million copies in this country alone.

Now Phillips says he has scaled down his performance schedule but he still has regular gigs. At the local Musicport Festival he and ‘The Rough Diamonds’ enjoyed a standing ovation – a sign that his work is as popular as ever and how much the people of Whitby admire his remarkable talent.

During our interview Phillips speaks as a man who steers his own ship. He has never sold out, but follows what feels right. I ask him about his legacy. At first he says he doesn’t care, that the moment is all that matters, but then he reconsiders.

“I like to think I’ve been a catalyst for Mark, Brendan and other people –
hopefully for the good.”

As those of you who know the man and his music will surely agree, Phillips is as much an alchemist as a catalyst. He turns music into gold. ◼

Karen Ritson, Esk Valley News, No 126, January, 2015

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Acclaimed as ‘Europe’s finest acoustic Blues guitarist’  Blueprint, blues magazine.

Described as ”an obvious talent”, one of the rare British artists to feature in the Guinness Who’s Who of Blues by Colin Larkin.

’’The greatest exponent of country blues in this country today’’  Now Dig This magazine.

”Steve Phillips, a national treasure …… A consummate guitarist”  Blues In Britain.

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Steve is an accomplished painter. If you are interested in his art please contact Joanna Cole 01625 267634 or email info@joannacolefineart.co.uk

Joanna Cole Fine Art