Phil Keaggy:

Sunday's Child Is Full Of Grace

By Brian Quincy

From CCM Magazine, January 1989.

Reprinted by permission of CCM Communications, copyright 1989---all rights reserved.

Phil Keaggy can tell you where he was the first time he heard each Beatles single that was released on his local radio station. "I was in my grandmother's dining room," Keaggy says of the very first Beatles song to tap his young psyche. It was "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and he "was sitting by her phone, listening to her radio by this little, tiny Tiffany lamp - and I have that lamp now. It came on the radio and I had never heard any sound like that. It grabbed me like the first time I ever heard 'All Shook Up' by Elvis Presley. I was grabbed by the sound that came off the guitars, the sound that came off the voices and the kind of melody that it was. I thought that I had never heard anything quite so wonderful. I was probably the biggest Beatles fan in Ohio for my age, which was 6th or 7th grade, I can't remember. Every time a Beatles song was released I'd go out and learn it, how to sing it and how to play it."

That Phil Keaggy, now recognized as one of the finest guitarists within and without Christian music, was enamored with the music of the Beatles will be of no surprise to anyone. That even my nine-year-old son noted after hearing Phil Keaggy's newest recording that it "sounds a lot like the Beatles," confirms what critics and fans have noted since his 1974 solo Christian release, What a Day. Recorded in the same fashion as Paul McCartney's first solo effort, McCartney, with Keaggy playing all the instruments, his vocals recalled the bright and optimistic warmth of "Paul," while his guitar prowess opened the doors for something completely other than what we'd come to expect in Christian music. "What goes around comes around," Keaggy's brother Nick always says, and Phil's newest recording sounding every bit like a fresh start in a previously stalled career, returns to the musical roots that excited him when he was given his first guitar at 10 years of age.

Phil was born in 1951 into a Catholic family of 10 children in Youngstown, Ohio. His comical response to his order in this large brood emphasizes the obvious: "Number nine, number nine, number nine..." Once a Beatles fan, always...

Keaggy's brother David gave him a Sears Silvertone guitar at a time when all older brothers impressed with the early rock 'n' roll of the 60s were giving their little brothers those great Silvertones. David, who taught Phil chords on a '49 Gretch, recently found him another of those Sears models, quite similar to the first one he ever owned. Keaggy says his one-and-a-half-year-old son Ian carries it around much the way he did himself for the first year or so. "Actually, before I really saw anybody play and learned the proper way to hold the instrument," says Keaggy, "I played it like a lap steel, making barre chords with my thumb across the frets. If somebody hadn't jumped in I might play like Richie Havens." Or Jeff Healey.

But somebody did take an interest and within a year he was learning to play. By sixth grade he moved to Southern California and formed his own band, the Keystones. Soon Phil Keaggy owned his first Fender Stratocaster, and his band had changed their name to The Vertices. Keaggy recalls listening not only to the Beatles, but absorbing the Music of Elvis, the Everly Bothers, Little Richard and due to his locale, the surf music of The Beach Boys, the Astronauts and the Safaris. Recognizing the common comparison of his own work to that of the Beatles, Keaggy is quick to note "of course you can tell [in my music] who I grew up listening to. But remember that Little Richard, Elvis Presley and the Everly's were major influences on John and Paul. Listen to the Beatles' version of 'Long Tall Sally' and it's easy to see that McCartney blended Elvis and Richard."

The McCartney comparison haunts Keaggy, but he says, "that's okay really. I mean, he's an originator, and he's 500 times the singer I am. If I sound like him at all it has more to do with listening to him and singing along. I could never really sound like him, it just couldn't happen You've go this 5'11" chap from Liverpool, and I'm this 5'4" guy from Ohio; we're not often going to sound alike." Along with his stature, over which Keaggy's standard joke is, "I was born this size," the other physical feature which folks tend to isolate is the missing part of his second finger on his right hand. Admitting that it is neither a liability or a advantage in his playing, the accident (at four years of age) which severed the digit just below what would have been his first knuckle is remembered in his 1987 song "Way Back Home." Recalling childhood memories of a family farm, Keaggy sings of "the barn and the water pump that took a part of me."

In 1968, Keaggy's family returned to California, but Phil returned to Ohio after only a few months to live with his friend John Sferra. "We were going to start this dream band. Michael Bloomfield was my biggest influence, really, and we wanted to form a seven-piece band like the Electric Flag," explains Keaggy of Glass Harp's beginnings. "We could only come up with bass players and after we had run through several, we met Dan Pecchio and gelled as a three-piece. In Four Years, Glass Harp recorded three Albums, an eponymous debut, Synergy, and It Makes Me Glad, for Decca Records. Glass Harp became a massive regional success on the shirt tails of the James Gang, who's leader Joe Walsh once nearly joined Keaggy's Band New Hudson Exit.

By the time Glass Harp recorded their second effort, Synergy, lyrics revealing Keaggy's deeply held faith began to appear in the songs he was writing for the band. Like this one from "The Answer:" "The search for happiness and purpose in life is more intense than ever / I've searched, you've searched, we've run in the night and still felt untogether / In word and song to e sung with you / I've found the way now. Today you can find it too / The answer - you don't need to be alone anymore / The answer is Jesus / believe me he'll open the door." This was 1971 on a secular label remember. Pretty radical stuff. Keaggy explains, "at first there was this openness, what with George Harrison writing about his religious experience, and Eric Clapton's "Presence of the Lord" - Which was the first song I played after I became a Christian - Not to mention the Moody Blues and Traffic. There was searching going on for people to find some peace in their hearts, and it sort of fit with that."

Sferra and Pecchio "were really patient with me, thinking back on it," says Keaggy. "We all knew there was a place for religion, being raised Catholic, but it was another thing to bring it to the stage. It was obvious we were headed in different directions. There came a time, quite simply, when my Bible was more important to me than my guitar. I left because of some internal conviction. I wanted to do what I do completely 100 percent for the Lord and there were a number of Christians who felt I needed to leave rock 'n' roll."

There were some who saw Keaggy's witness in Glass Harp, which seemed destined to follow the James Gang into National success, as a rare opportunity. Keaggy admits "It was quite phenomenal really. There was something special about our band that we really didn't understand fully at the time. I remember this brother, Turley Richards, came all the way to New York City while we were making It Makes Me Glad to try to talk me out of leaving the band, because of the influence I was having. But I had to go, I needed a sabbatical."

Keaggy remembers one such contact with a wry twist of humor. Glass Harp had played with the Amboy Dukes, and Ted Nugent had come over and asked Keaggy to show him a certain lick he had played during the last set. "I said, 'I will if I can tell you about Jesus.' Today I'd probably just teach him the lick without placing a condition on it. I was so full of zeal, so outgoing with my faith that sometimes I would push people. The Lord really wants us to be more giving of ourselves, and let God take care of their conversion. God wants us to be available, to be there to listen and share what's going on in their lives and maybe something on the guitar, just befriend someone. That's what the Lord did, and that's what we ought to do." Keaggy remembers a quote Nugent later said about him: "He said, 'I don't know what happened to that Phil Keaggy, he could have saved the world with his guitar.'"

What happened to Phil Keaggy after he left was that he visited Love Inn, Scott Ross' community in Freeville (near Ithaca), NY. recorded What A Day with $1800 of his won money, and did a brief tour with Love Song, the premier Christian country rock band from Southern California. Keaggy moved to Love Inn in the summer of '74 because he "needed to get off the road and get fellowship," he says, "but musically it was a most frustrating time." Keaggy describes Love Inn as a ingrown group with a string emphasis on discipleship and shepherding a la Bob Mumford. He is quick to point out that he feels "no bitterness over that time. I accepted what was said to me and allowed it all to happen."

Not everyone, gratefully enough, was content to leave Phil Keaggy out in the upstate New York boonies duping copies of the Scott Ross Show on cassettes so it could be mailed to radio stations across the country. Paul Clark invited Keaggy to Kansas City and together they worked on Come Into His Presence and Good to be Home, two of the finest early Christian rock albums around, as Paul Clark & Friends (two of those were John Mehler and Jay Truax of Love song). Buck Herring, husband of Annie and producer of 2nd Chapter of Acts, invited Keaggy out to California to work n some tracks. "Remember that great opening track of In the Volume of the book, "Yaweh?" asks Keaggy. I had felt so stifled, that the opportunity to let go and really play was a breath of fresh air. What you hear me playing there is the sound of me coming alive."

Keaggy had toured some with another guitarist, Peter York, and later did some touring with folk songstress Honeytree, but 1976's Love Broke Thru, produced by Buck Herring, gave Christian rock it's first great guitarist. "What can you say about a song like 'Love Broke Thru'", says Keaggy. "Buck took me to hear Keith Green play it [it was written by Green, Randy Stonehill and Todd Fishkind], and I was given the privilege of being first to record it. It's truly one of the greatest songs written in Christian music."

What stands out about that album is not only Keaggy's ability as a singer and a guitarist, but "the presence of a really strong producer." Keaggy explains, "The real difficulty with many subsequent albums, was that often I acquiesced to the direction of a friend who became my producer or manager or both, and ended up not making the musical statement I was capable of making."

Emerging is case in point. Recorded with the Phil Keaggy Band, musicians drawn from Love Inn and featuring Phil Mediera and Lynn Nichols, the record was "A real let down after Love Broke Thru," says Keaggy. "I remember Buck calling up to express his disappointment. He felt I needed a string producer, and I agree." Emerging was not the only crisis in Phil Keaggy's life in '77 and '78. "I was in a creative environment, to a point, but there was a conservative bias," explains Keaggy. "That the fact that Bernadette, my wife, lost triplets and then another baby, left me feeling broken. It came across in the way I sang. I listen and I don't hear nay emotion."

Keaggy took up running, eventually running a marathon, and began working on the instrumental work which has become his strongest signature in Christian music, The Master and the Musician. Seeing an obvious similarity, Keaggy notes, "I've made two instrumental albums, and both were serious times of transition. I made Master and the Musician, then packed up my wife and left Love Inn, signed a contract with a new label and then we moved to Kansas City. Bernadette gave birth to our first daughter, Alicia, and I became very productive, writing most of the material for Ph'lip Side and Town to Town. Likewise, I recorded The Wind and the Wheat while I was looking to move into a new recording situation, I got a new manager, signed to a new label and began to work with a new producer, Lynn Nichols, my old friend from PKB."

Keaggy admits that he has made unwise business decisions because of relationships. "I guess I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to make waves, and that at times has hurt me," he says with a little anger. After Ph'lip Side and Town to Town, Keaggy made Play Thru Me for Sparrow, produced with friend and then manager Bob Cotton. Together he and Cotton went off into Nissi Records and near obscurity. Underground, a bunch of home recordings and demos was released with only some minor touch ups in the mixing "because it appeared there was no moneys available for production," says Keaggy. In retrospect he sees, "I needed to make a stronger statement to follow Play Thru Me." Getting Closer was a stronger work, but it and Way Back Home were shuffled around and lost in confused distribution. "I should have been with a company like Myrrh all along," concludes Keaggy, who is saddened by the fact that many of his albums are out of print and/or unavailable. Now however, the future is looking brighter for Phil Keaggy as and artist, Christian, family man and guitarist.

"I've Just Begun (Again)," from Phil Keaggy and Sunday's Child, may be about the healing rejuvenation of a relationship in the grace of The One who gives, but given the psychodelic "Please Welcome Glass Harp" intro and Keaggy's fresh resolve throughout, there's a lot here that's new again. (By the by, Keaggy first wrote "I've Just Begun" back when he was 17, and he and Lynn Nichols updated it for this album.) "Yeah," he says, "something fresh is happening musically. I feel the album, as a good collection of songs, is really listenable. And the record is really a collaboration. I'm here with my old mates Lynn and Randy [Stonehill] and Rick Cua - he's such a good bass player, I really enjoy playing with him. I was working with Mark Heard, who I have a great deal of respect for, and Russ [Taff] sang some.

"If it were left up to Phil Keaggy working on his little ideas to come up with another vocal album another Underground. This was like 'hey Phil, we're your friends, we stand with you supporting you."

To those fans who still won't hear enough guitar, Keaggy responds, "Over the years you can hear plenty of lead guitar parts, from Love Broke Thru right on to Getting Closer. Take How the West Was One (recorded live with the 2nd Chapter) there's a lot of guitar out there. I feel that folk who want to listen to an album are more interested in good songs than merely the guitar player. For Sunday's Child, not only did we resort to using vintage guitars and amps, but I resorted back to old ways of playing. The rock leads are shorter and more precise. More to the point, feisty, and a little bit more dangerous. What you get is more incisive work. It's something that fits the song rather than trying to create a song around a riff or guitar figure."

Keaggy feels closest to a track like "Blessed Be The Ties," which features a lyric written by Steve Taylor on the virtues of family life. "Being somewhat of a melancholic romantic, I can't play it on the road and not miss Bernadette and the kids, Alicia, Olivia and Ian Sebastian." He adds, "I also really like 'I'm Gonna Get You Now' because it says 'I'm going to put myself into it, and I'm still gonna rock.' I think it's a statement I needed to make." Out with the Keaggy/Stonehill Band, Keaggy is working out his rock chops. "On some of my past albums I sound like a wimp, vocally. Working with Randy, I feel Like I'm singing better. He brings it out in me." But he's careful to remind us of the "Ph'lip Side." The same person who put the fake Liverpudlian accent and becomes Flip Keagster in the presence of Uncle Rand, is the sensitive artist who pulls back to produce a work of quiet dignity like The Wind and the Wheat. But for Keaggy, these are just two different chapters of the same book. "There are other chapters I have yet to explore." Perhaps, the chapter with that guitar album, which he says would "take hauling a bunch of recording gear out on the road. With the right band I know it could happen."

As for his own ministry, Keaggy feels "that the band shows are more an exhibit of the joy I find in my faith. In solo shows and in acoustic sets I can share from my own experiences and open up a bit more." And what does Sunday's Child say for Phil Keaggy? "What I think comes through this album is that sense of longing, of love, of suffering and in all of this there can be hope. Everyone has to find their way to God and I hope people will see Jesus in my life and this album as a guide along the way."

Speaking of "on the way," Keaggy is limbering up in the high school locker room that is "backstage" for their St. Louis appearance. He mutely fingers scales up and down the neck of an acoustic, while Stonehill warbles in the shower like and opera singer stretching out his vocal chords. Rhythm section Tim Chandler and David Raven are looking bad to the bone. Almost unobtrusively, Keaggy plays a simple chord as we al turn as if called by name. Chandler leans forward to look. It was a G-minor suspended 7th, or something like that. It was the chord that rings out at the intro to "A Hard day's Night."

What goes around comes around, but since he met the King of Hearts they call Him Sunday's Child.

Many thanks to Steve Fricke for typing in this article!

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