Imagine picking up the guitar at twelve and teaching yourself how to play without assistance from a teacher or an online source; the internet was virtually unknown then. Even with all the modern aids and teachers who are available, many students find it difficult and drop out before realizing their dream.
This musical prodigy, Phillips, was introduced to the guitar by his older brothers, who then served in the Indian Army. Hearing the guitar playing of Italian POWs at the Civil Internment camp in Deolali, 160 kilometers northeast of Bombay, inspired the brothers to learn the instrument themselves. They returned to base after their furlough but left behind their instrument for Phillips to noodle around. And boy, did he?
Would you believe it if I told you that Rita Hayworth was responsible for Phillips taking up playing the guitar?
So, Phillips was utterly captivated by the guitar after watching Blood and Sand, a lavish 1941 technicolor film starring Rita Hayworth as a seductive guitar-strumming siren. In the movie, she brings about the downfall of a matador with her sultry looks and the guitar strains. Phillips was so enamored that he dropped out of school and taught himself to play the guitar.
Now, that’s a true musician right there. While Rita Hayward would have naturally snared all the attention for many, Phillips was enamored by the guitar.
After two years of self-training on a hollow acoustic guitar, Philips headed to Gemini Studios, where he started playing in the movies. S. Rajeswara Rao, a film music director, was so impressed by his abilities that he adopted him. Rajeswara Rao was unmoved by the staunch opposition he faced for bringing in a young guitarist. Rao paved the way for Philips’s long and fruitful career as a guitarist and later as a composer.
In the film Apoorva Sagodarargal (1949) by M.K. Radha, Philips made his debut as a guitarist. The film’s music was composed by his mentor Rajeswara Rao and two others.
K.V. Mahadevan, the duo of Viswanathan – Ramamurthy, Sathyam, and V. Kumar quickly extended offers to work with Philips. He was allowed to play guitar solos while the rest of the band waited for their cues at an early age due to his obvious talent in the field.
For the first few years of his career, he primarily utilized a hollow body acoustic guitar to produce his remarkable works of art. However, Phillips used to listen to several American and British bands on the radio. The guitars of these bands sounded so good that he wanted to improve the sound of his guitar. So, he went to Moore Market in Madras, a majestic red-colored building next to the Madras Central station, searching for parts to build his own electric guitar. Moore Market had many shops selling used electronic equipment spares. A sort of a permanent flea market. The Moore Market burnt down one midnight, and everything literally all the merchandise of the 800 odd small-time merchants went up in smoke. I remember buying a WW2 headphone from there for about Rs. 2, intact with the standard khaki cable and all, but we are shifting tracks here. This is about Phillips and not me or Moore Market!
So, Phillips finds the necessary spares and makes himself an electric guitar. In an interview, he said that the first sounds that came out from the speakers gave him a thrill of excitement. “By moving the plectrum around the strings, I was able to create new tones with the instrument,” he remarked.
Philips composed the scores for about ten films shown at Salem Modern Theatres before moving back to Madras and taking solo gigs for the city’s music directors. His best friend in M.S. Viswanathan’s band was the phenomenal drummer Noel Grant. Noel improvised over Philips’s suggested rhythm patterns, creating the timeless tunes we know and love today.
Music directors in Bombay, like Hemanth Kumar, Madan Mohan, Chithra Gupta, and Ravi, encouraged Philips to relocate to Mumbai. After hearing him play for Miss Mary (1957), Hemant Kumar insisted on holding on to Phillips as his permanent musical companion. Phillips wanted to remain in the south of India.
It’s worth noting that Philips was an early proponent of the musician’s union, which enacted stringent regulations like immediate payment upon the completion of a recording and mandatory time off for holidays and Sundays. Philips fondly remembers the hard work and professionalism of the MSV musicians he’s worked with in the past, including Noel Grant (drums), Mangalamurthy (accordion), Nanjappa (flute), Fobes (violin), Henry Daniel, and Joseph Krishna.
You can hear all of these talented performers on the track Avalukenna in the movie Server Sundaram. You can hear how beautifully Phillip’s guitar stands up to the soaring brass section without losing intensity!
In his prime, MSV was a strict disciplinarian who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals. One recording session began at 7 a.m. and continued until 7 a.m. the following day. Philips begged MSV to release him, but MSV would not let him go. Finally, when it was time to leave, Philips had to make a beeline to the church for his wedding. I am not sure if MSV knew that he was getting married!
Phillips played the guitar piece, the opening, and the interludes in the song Varavu Etanna, in Bama Vijayam, a movie directed by K. Balachander. The strumming is so spot on. Today’s producers rely on quantization or other such technics, but in an analog recording of those days, you had to get it right, or else you had to play it all over again. These ‘bits,’ as they are called, literally set the tone of the song and are as immortal as the guitar pieces in, say, a song like Hotel California by the Eagles.
His end came about on Friday, January 21st, at the age of 88, bringing an end to the era of Tamil film songs that began in the early 1960s.
There was a focus on the orchestral depth of songs to complement their mood, melody, and meaning during this renaissance. Phillips and other instrumentalists contributed significantly to creating some of the songs from Tamil films that are now considered classics.
Phillips ayya, (reverent sir in Tamizh), you will always live eternally in the music you created.