Home > CCM, Christian Music, Christian Pop, Christian Rock, Greatest Albums, Jesus Music > 13. The Turning – Leslie Phillips

13. The Turning – Leslie Phillips


Leslie Phillips

In 1981 I was shopping at a local Christian bookstore and stumbled upon a compilation of primarily local Christian artist on A&S Records – the Maranatha Music rock  imprint that a year later would give us John Mehler’s amazing “Bow and Arrow” album. The compilation contained several artists, many associated with Calvary Chapel, but one would stick out the most.

It was the female rocker Leslie Phillips who was originally much more Pat Benatar than the Cindy Lauper image her later record company would thrust upon her. Though the Penatar comparison is not accurate in 1981 there was a real lack of comparable artist in the music world as rock music was still primarily dominated by men, Heart and Fleetwood Mac not withstanding.

But she seemed to disappear as quickly as she showed up and the next time her familiar voice was heard my me was on Mark Heard’s seminal, “Victims of the Age” album a year or so later. She ended up singing background vocals on the song, “Heart of Hearts,” which would appear on her debut album and serve as her first single.

The most “rock” of her first three albums, “Beyond Saturday Night” was a great record that suffered from some questionable mixing. Perhaps it was the record company that forced the keyboards so high in the mix and pulled the guitars so far back as not to offend evangelical ears, but that did not hide what wonderful songs the album included. Highlights from the album are; Bring Me Through, Gina, I’m Finding, Hourglass and the previously mentioned cover of Mark Heard’s “Heart of Hearts.”

Phillips’ sophomore project, “Dancing With Danger” featured much better production but a much less controlled vocal styling that helped Phillips gain recognition as a Christian Cindy Lauper. Though the content of the songs remained strong and authentic, the musical expression never matched the quality of the lyrics.And all this was despite having a literal “who’s who” playing on the record including Dan Huff, Nathan East, John Andrew Schreiner, Jeff Lams, Russ Taff, Matthew Ward and more.

It is the only Phillips’ album that sounds intensely dated today with constant boppy keyboards and pseudo 80′s dance numbers. The real standout are the ballads”Strength of My Life” and “By My Spirit.” “Powder Room Politics” can be skipped altogether along with the final DeGarmo and Key influenced, “Here He Comes With My Heart.”

“Black and White in a Grey World” was an improvement over the previous as the screeching vocals were toned way down and the musical expressions were much more “earthy” and acoustic. But what was lacking from the first album was a more “questioning” sort of aspect. BWGW was so adamant about having the “answers” that the authenticity seemed to be lacking despite a vastly improved musical package. Here again the ballads were superior with “Your Kindness” being a classic.

The live concerts that were in support of this album told a radically different story. There was transparency and vulnerability in the concerts performance that he album sorely lacked. In fact, it was with this tour that chinks in the CCM queen began to show. There were comments by Leslie from on stage regarding the dangers on intimacy that takes place during the recording process and how we need to guard our hearts. This was a far cry from “Powder Room Politics.”

But what would happen two years later would literally rock the CCM world. I was managing Maranatha Village at the time and we put together a large in store event featuring several artists that would play later that evening at a Christian Music night at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park. One of those artists was Leslie Phillips and she was there to promote the album, “The Turning,” which was to come out several weeks later.

She arrived at the store with a signed poster for me and with T-Bone Burnett in tow. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor I introduced myself and begged Burnett for an interview. I had heard that he was producing the project but would have never thought he would come to my store. What a genuinely nice and warm gentleman. I still have that poster signed by both of them. My wife and I would actually sit next them at a U2 concert at Anaheim Stadium and he was kind enough to remember meeting previously. One a side note, Nicolas Cage sat in front of us at that same concert.

But what changed everything was not the event at our store but rather the infamous concert that took place later that night. Leslie bounced out on stage with a very short mini skirt, twirling around on stage in a manner that many in the audience found offensive. Her band was comprised of Burnett, David Miner and a handful of other musical stalwarts. I was in the front row as her and T-Bone’s guest. She played primarily only songs from the upcoming album and the audience felt alienated and actually began yelling out songs from her catalog.

It was plainly clear that she had no intention in bringing her past with her in the new musical and lyrical direction. I don’t recall if Leslie cut her set short but it didn’t really matter. I could feel quite a bit of movement behind me and realized that more than a handful had walked out under protest. Many left hurling insults and accusations and insults at her as they left. The show became quite famous and I believe the second set was canceled. I would write a review for “Newsound Magazine” about the night.

The funny thing the concert hall could hold, at the very most, about 500 people and I have met at least 5,000 that claim to have been there and stayed through the entire set. Since I actually could turn around and count how many people remained (which was less than 50) I know someone is lying!

What was missed about that night was that in a few weeks one of the greatest albums in Christian music was to be released. CCM listed in amongst its Top 10 of all time. “The Turning” would turn Christian music on its head. And it would also be the last album that would bear the name “Leslie” Phillips. She would soon love her record company, marry T-Bone Burnett and set out on a musical venture under the name Sam Phillips. Under that name she would release several amazing records worth discovering. (The Turning would later be released under the “Sam” moniker).

The album starts with simply Leslie and T-Bone played acoustic guitar performing a cover of T-Bone Burnett’s “River of Love.” This haunting and beautiful version is, dare I say, superior to Burnett’s own version. This song also points to the transparency and authenticity the listener should expect from the rest of the album.

I had to run before I knew how to crawl
The first step was hard but I have had trouble with them all
But now the night grows darker and the day grows dim
‘Cause I know I never will see you again
And I almost made you happy

There’s a river of love that runs through all time
There’s a river of fire that burns with no light
The flame is the pain of dreams gone up in smoke
From the lies we deny and breathe until we choke
There’s a river of love that runs through all time

“Love Is Not Lost” is the first real rock song on the album. As the first upbeat song on the album it also showed the obvious change in vocal direction from previous records. Gone completely is any connection to the high-pitched squeaky voice of any previous release and a more mature, breathy and controlled arrived. There is a level of confidence in this record that was also absent from the previous releases. Here she takes the normal “boy meets girl” scenario and plays it out with a much more optimistic twist.

I meet you
And you cut my heart
You shake my ideals
Until they fall apart
Have I lost it all if
I hope for something more
Than feeling fatalistic pain
And if true love
never did exist
How could we know its name

Don’t give up now
Love is not lost

The title track follows with a much more autobiographical feel to it. The struggles of turning and changes in one’s life can bring the danger of also having it change you. Phillips cries out in hope that the changes before her will not change who she ultimately is.

The turning from light to shadows
From burning to indifference
The turning of heart to granite
Of steel hopes to molten fear

And when it turns on me
Don’t let it turn on me

Again here it’s Burnett’s amazing arrangement and guitar playing that truly shine.

“Libera Me” was the first single and was a huge success despite the controversy. Here Phillips cries out for freedom from those things that have held her down, whether they be internal or external forces.
And I don’t know all the truth
from the lying
but I know that I need you
’cause I am dying
from bein’ held by hell
in this cell of blinding fear.

Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Libera, libere, liberame
from this dark dream
to a life stream.
Libera, libera, liberame
from this bruised soul
living half whole.
Libera, libera, liberame

“Carry You” is sung from God’s point of view as He shows His love for His own by carrying them through their darkest hours. The dark and somber melody fits nicely with the pain struggle explored in the lyrics. There is something captivating about the song that is relentless.

“Beating Heart” would point toward the direction that the listener would find on the first two “Sam Phillips” releases. The Burnett influence here is painfully obvious. Here the singer does not have all the answers that seemed so obvious on the previous releases.

“Expectations” deals directly with those expectations placed upon her within the music industry by both the label and the fans. This song is vocally the closest to anything Leslie did previously but is held together by a great T-Bone Burnett arrangement.

Let me pull down on your high ideals
To sweet earth honest and wide
Tumble with me in an undoubted craze
Don’t hold back the tide

You might get caught in sweet captivation
If you let your mind take this aberration
Loosen the pressure you choked me with
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe

You lock me up with your accusations
You lock me up with your accusations
You lock me up

On “Down” Phillips directly addresses the struggles over faith and the potential spiral she faces. But she discovers that these deeply held convictions that guilted her into acting a saying certain things were not truth.

Cut to the heart I am opened up
Like a wound
Shattered convictions I thought
Were reflecting you
Cut to the heart I am opened up
Like a wound
Shattered convictions I thought
Were reflecting you

The albumn closes with two of the finest songs Phillips has ever recorded. they are the perfect close to the album and to her career in Christian music. Nearly prophetic and ultimately timeless.

The first, “Answers Don’t Come Easy” follows perfectly the previous song as well as setting up the closer. The struggles admitted to in the previous do not find answers here but rather are explored with the realization that not having the answers is OK. For too often the Christian struggles not with the questions, but with not knowing the answers, leading to continued doubt. But here Phillips does not doubt God, but her own understandings.

I can wait
It’s enough to know you can hear me now
Oh I can wait
It’s enough to feel so near you now
And when answers don’t come easy
I can wait

The album finishes with the nearly worshipful “God Is Watching You,” a song you can still occasionally hear on Christian radio. Sung in a sing and response form with Leslie and T-Bone (and friends) the song is the glimmer of hope in the darkened world of “The Turning.” It is a beautiful expression of God’s care of those that belong to Him.

When your life’s about to start – God is watching you
When you have a shattered heart – God is watching you
When you’re a slave and when you’re freed – God is watching you
When what you call love’s really need – God is watching you
God is watching you
God is watching you

Phillips’ career has had its ups and downs as had her personal life. But for this one sliver in time in which the public was privy to the inner turmoil and struggles of an artist seeking their true form, Phillips created a masterpiece that stands throughout time and is the brilliant example of what can be accomplished when a gifted artist is free to create.

  1. November 17, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    I bought this album when it came out. I always kinda liked it, but I knew nothing of her previous work. I never heard about the Knott’s Berry Farm concert till I read this blog, but I do remember her shunning CCM and changing her name to Sam.

  2. Shawn McLaughlin
    November 17, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    Probably, if I were to do a list, the top 10 would be virtually interchangeable. This is one that could be anywhere from 10-2 for me depending on the day and my mood. I think Martini’s and Bikini’s is a better album but this transformed both Phillips AND the Christian market at the time. Having T Bone on board legitimized the CCM model and proved that Christians could make thoughtful, all encompassing art that genuinely touched on all aspects of the faith walk. great GREAT album.

  3. November 17, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    This album is…fantastic. I love every song. “God Is Watching You” is probably Leslie’s best song. I would rank it in my TOP5 CCM albums. When I heard it for the first time, I thought that this is even better than Larry Norman’s “Only Visiting This Planet”.

  4. Greenchili
    November 18, 2011 at 7:33 am

    I vaguely remember my youth leader talking about the stir caused when this album came out. Anyways I’ve always like the “sound” of this album.. very “earthy”.. great tones.

  5. Tim
    November 18, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Great album from beginning to end. T-Bone took her in a brilliant direction here. This placement seems about right to me. I really liked B&WIAGW, which I thought was her best album at the time it came out. The songs on it were quite an encouragement to me that year, so I didn’t see any lack of “authenticity” that you mention. It all sounded very heartfelt to me at the time. As a result, The Turning was quite a surprise to me, and at the time T-Bone Burnett was a new name to me, so I didn’t grasp his influence on her sound and her direction until years later. The Turning is very much the better album, but it took me quite a few dozen listens to really warm up to it.

  6. Charles H
    November 18, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    I had forgotten about this LP. The last place I remember it being was in my sister’s car. Of course, that was back in 1989. Wonder if she still has the cassette some where?

  7. Brett C
    November 20, 2011 at 8:55 am

    This one would also be in my top 10. A fantastic album. I have all of Leslie (Sam) Phillips albums, she is a true artist and a great songwriter. T-Bone Burnett brought out the best in her in the Studio (as he does for any artist he works with) especially on this release. Actually release is a good word to use when discussing Leslie and this album as I believe that this album was where the artist in Leslie was released and set free and something beautiful grew.

  8. November 23, 2011 at 2:28 am

    “Answers Don’t Come Easy” is easily one of the most daring songs ever released by any artist on a Christian label anywhere! Thus it is no surprise to me that I rank it as one of the top 20 greatest songs in CCM history, right up there with “Orphans of God” by Mark Heard
    “Walls of Doubt” by Daniel Amos and “The Great American Novel” by Larry Norman

  9. Andrew J. Persac
    March 24, 2013 at 6:18 am

    This IS MY # 1 project of ALL TIME! The deep and dark yet ultimately hopeful lyrics, the 60’s meets 80’s music production in a GREAT way (kudos to T-Bone Burnette for that & his excellent song contributions as well), her powerful vocals – WHAT a swan song for Leslie (Sam) it was……. (And YES, I did NOT choose an Amy G. project as #1 despite her as my FAVE overall artist EVER :O !)

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