104. The Indescribable Wow – Sam Phillips
THE INDESCRIBABLE WOW (1988)
Hmm, let’s see how this actually works.
Create an epically stunning final album for the CCM market. Check!
Perform an epically scandalous farewell performance at an amusement park. Check!
Marry your producer. Check!
Change name. Check!
Sign with a secular label and request Christian bookstores not carry the new album. Check!
Create an epically stunning debut album for the mainstream market. Check! Check! and Check!
After the scandalous farewell concert at Knott’s Berry Farm that saw a relatively scantily clad Leslie Phillips prance around on stage performing only songs from her most recent album (The Turning), and a crowd that dispersed quicker than if a fire alarm had been pulled, many wondered what had gotten into the beloved blonde princess of CCM.
I have always been of the opinion that it was not a matter of “something getting into” Phillips, but rather something finally able to get out. That night is forever etched in my memory, especially given that I was one of the few who stayed to the end. In fact, I had introduced her that night and spent some time with her and future husband T-Bone Burnett earlier that day. I kind of knew what to expect, but obviously the vast majority did not. A very good friend of mine was sitting in the back and can attest to the mass departure.
The band that night was pretty much T-Bone Burnett and the Alpha Band and I wasn’t going anywhere!
What was eventually to “come out” of Leslie Phillips was the artist that was always “in there.” She would be known as Sam Phillips, but she was there all the time. Even on the sickeningly sweet and over-produced pop album of the mid-80’s there were always touches of a brilliant and creative songwriter and performer. Her honesty even in those days made many uncomfortable, with one concert with Benny Hester during the “Black and White” tour where she admitted to having thoughts of attraction to a married man caused ripples in the crowd.
Honesty and vulnerability has never played well on the safe playground of CCM.
But with the freedom and relative anonymity of a new persona and the restrictions of a safe and restrictive CCM market behind her, Phillips would create a wonderful and glorious work of pop and passion. Vocally more subdued that at any time in her career, it is Phillips the singer and songwriter that shines through on this Burnett produced masterpiece.
Accompanied primarily by Burnett’s jangly guitar and some stunning string arrangements. Phillips works her way through ten marvelous and majestic songs. Primarily an album focused on the struggles of human love and loss, those common themes create uncommon results musically. Find a weak song, I dare you.
The rockers are fun and memorable, but it is the ballads that so engaging and haunting. Flame and it’s sexually Latin driven whispy musical approach just envelopes and consumes. It is a song that is inescapable. The beautiful string and vocal arrangement on “What Do I Do” never let go. Phillips voice is recorded over and over in self-harmony and echoing effect that acts like a whirlwind of clouds that just surround and lift the listener.
The 60’s influence abounds. “Holding On To The Earth” sounds like a soundtrack to a psychedelic trip while “She Can’t Tell Time” could have been written by Brian Wilson. The only song that sounds like “Leslie” is the pop rocker “What You Don’t Want to Hear.” It may be the music the old fans may want to hear, but maybe not the content.
Phillips appears more often on this list than any female artist outside of Julie Miller, both as Leslie and Sam. She remains one of the most influential and important artists in the genre and her place in history is secure. I can guarantee she will never grace the Halls of the Gospel Hall of Fame, but without her work many artists would still be held by the same binding restrictions she faced and overcame.