Playing with Styx the best of times for bassist

Posted Online: April 11, 2013, 11:55 am
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By Jonathan Turner,

Ricky Phillips has played bass with some of the biggest names in rock -- Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Joe Cocker and Jeff Beck.

The 60-year-old Iowa native is back having a blast as bassist for Styx, reuniting last year's "Midwest Rock 'n' Roll Express" tour, with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent -- tearing across the U.S. over a month's time, including a gig April 20 at Moline's i wireless Center.

"I'm very proud of this band. This is probably the first band where everybody gets it," Mr. Phillips said in a recent phone interview. "They've got maturity about how difficult it is. When you find magic in a group of guys, you don't mess with it."

"It's a marriage of souls, of creative people," he said. "Everybody wants tonight's show to be better than last night.We are fortunate enough to have fans, they're obsessed. They sing all the lyrics."

"We get to go out every night and we see a lot of familiar faces," Mr. Phillips said. "People will travel with the group two weeks or three weeks. It's very humbling, very cool to see. We love our fans. They're very loyal."

Spawned from a suburban Chicago basement in the early '70s, Styx would eventually transform into the virtual arena rock prototype by the late '70s and early '80s, due to a fondness for big rockers and soaring power ballads.

Its long list of hits includes "Lady" (1975), "Come Sail Away" (1977), "Babe" (1979), "The Best of Times" (1981), "Too Much Time on My Hands" (1981) and "Mr. Roboto" (1983). REO Speedwagon first formed in Champaign, Ill., and its hits include "Keep on Lovin' You," "Can't Fight This Feeling" and "Roll With the Changes."

1981's "Paradise Theater"became Styx's biggest hit album (selling over three million copies in a three-year period) and it also marked the first time in history that a band released four consecutive triple-platinum albums.

When Styx was hot in the late '70s, Mr. Phillips was in The Babys (fronted by John Waite, and hit with "Every Time I Think of You"), and the bands toured a bit together. The bassist has been longtime friends with Tommy Shaw, Styx guitarist, singer and songwriter. "We had a sort of fun duality in our careers," said Mr. Phillips, who had asked to join Styx 10 years ago. Aside from recording an album of covers with the band, they've focused on touring on the road about 200 days a year.

"I got into this thing when I was 12 years old, playing in small bands. Your dream is to play in front of a live audience, not spend 16 hours in the studio, not knowing if it's dark or light outside," Mr. Phillips said."It's crazy to be able to do this. The Stones are still going out on tour. Who would have thought, much less myself?"

Born in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa (85 miles southwest of the Quad-Cities), where his father was a speech therapist, Mr. Phillips moved with his family to Redding, Calif., when he was 5 for his father's work. His parents were into theater, loved to sing, and Mr. Phillips picked up his father's guitar and taught himself Beatles and Stones songs.

He said he was blown away listening to Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney (on bass) with the Beatles.

"I hope people realize how incredible it is; he makes it seem so simple," Mr. Phillips said of Paul. "He's an absolute genius."

He said the first concert that he saw that "took me to a different place" was the progressive-rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer, which influenced Styx.

"It was just a level of musicianship, and it actually felt like it was so mental, focused and concentrated, it was like I was high," Mr. Phillips said. "It had a great effect on me."

Styx's "Fooling Yourself" is a great example of prog rock that made it big on the radio, he said. "It's incredibly well-written, so deep, disguised as a pop song on the radio. It's complex, with a lot of melody."

Mr. Phillips learned from Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones that when writing, you can "just shut down your brain, don't out-think a song -- let it happen," he said. "Words would come out, a story would formulate, over a few chords. It's almost like the song was writing itself."

Prior to joining Styx, Mr. Phillips also performed with Bad English, Ronnie Montrose, Ted Nugent and Eddie Money. He recorded a new disc with Mr. Montrose (who committed suicide last year), which also features Sammy Hagar and Edgar Winter, and has yet to be released.

The current Styx lineup includesTommy Shaw, James "JY" Young, Lawrence Gowan and Todd Sucherman. Mr. Gowan, 56, has been lead singer since 1999, and Mr. Shaw sings lead on the hits"Fooling Yourself," "Renegade" and "Blue Collar Man."

REO and Styx have toured together in previous years, and they played the i wireless Center in 2005. REOperformed last August at the Mississippi Valley Fair, Davenport, and the Adler Theatre in March 2008.

Mr. Phillips said small clubs are his favorite venue, even though Styx's grandiose, ambitious sound is made for arenas and stadiums. "I really love an extended two-hour set, people grabbing at your shoelaces. There's no room for all the amps onstage. We're loud and proud."

He has "great respect" for Styx's impressive catalog, and while classics, Mr. Phillips said there are places in the music "where I can stray, expand and build. I don't want to phone in a part. I want it to be fresh and new."

If you go

-- What: Styx, REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent.
-- When: Saturday, April 20 at 7 p.m.
-- Where: i wireless Center, 1201 River Drive, Moline.
-- Tickets: $29, $39 and $59, available at the i wireless Center box office, and


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