Pick Up Styx
By Jon Lewis
Styx Bass Player Ricky Phillips
Story: Jon Lewis Photos: Jason Powell and Jesse Zimmerman Rulli
Ricky Phillips has fond memories of the Cascade Theatre—“that was where I first made out with a girl,” he says—and the Redding landmark was part of what he recalls as an idyllic life for a kid. All of which makes the bassist for the band Styx a little nervous about the Sept. 11 gig at the downtown theater. “I’m hoping we don’t blow the roof off the place,” he says, laughing. “Putting an arena rock band in that little place? I’ve got two words: ear plugs.”
Hearing loss was pretty low on Phillips’ list of worries when he was 5 and his family moved from Iowa to Redding. Life then was pretty much perfect, Phillips, 58, says during a phone call from a tour stop in Bethlehem, Pa.
“We never locked our doors when we were kids. We’d go on vacation for two weeks, and if we locked our door, the little girl down the street couldn’t come in to feed the cat. Steve Gunner and I, we’d ride our bikes to Timber Lanes, go fishing, catch snakes. When I think back to the way it was, I feel like we got one of the last windows where you can have that Tom Sawyer kind of upbringing.”
Entertainment and performing were big parts of that childhood as well. Phillips says every camping trip, car ride or family function inevitably turned into an a capella concert featuring his father, Richard, his mother, Margaret, and his brother Mike.
Both parents were active in community theater and Phillips recalls many a night that he and his brother would while away the hours in a teacher’s lounge or some other room while the adults rehearsed. If the show called for a child, Phillips would get the nod. “As soon as my brother was old enough, he took that over. He was a lot better at it. I turned my attention to Little League.”
Music was a constant presence, too. Phillips got his first piano at age 6 and quickly began cycling through “ruler-slapping spinster” piano teachers before gravitating toward the guitar his dad would play at every opportunity.
With encouragement from his father, Phillips applied himself to the new instrument and started piecing together Beatles and Rolling Stones tunes lifted from the radio. By age 12, he had formed his first band, the Warlox, with his pal Gunner.
Phillips switched his allegiance from guitar to bass after a band member left the big four-string guitar at Phillips’ house after a rehearsal. After a week of noodling around, he was hooked.
His interest in music continued through his school years until finally, during his senior year at San Francisco State University, “I went, ‘Man, this isn’t where I want to go. I want to see where I can go in music before I hang up my dreams.’ I ended up in Utah, saw this insane bar band, and moved to Salt Lake City.”
After that junket, Phillips hit the road. “I traveled all over the country, playing in rock dives, and up into Canada. It was kind of a rock ‘n’ roll college, trying to figure it all out, getting your chops up, your vocal skills, everything.
“I realized if I really was going to do it, I’d either have to go to New York City or Los Angeles, so at a certain point I had 20 bucks in my pocket—borrowed—and landed in LA with two guitars and a suitcase.”
Phillips slept on friends’ couches and hung out with musicians he had befriended on the road, including Rudy Sarzo, who went on to play with Quiet Riot, Whitesnake and Ozzy Osbourne. “It was a cool time. Of course, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we were believing in a dream and trying to make it happen.”
Phillips got his big break in the late 1970s when he joined the British group The Babys. He stayed with the band until the group split up in 1981. After a period of touring, session work and writing, he hooked up with ex-Journey members Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain to form the band Bad English.
When Bad English broke up in 1991, Phillips was invited to work with Jimmy Page (the guitarist from Led Zeppelin) and David Coverdale, the Deep Purple vocalist. “It ended up being a one-LP project, but it was a cool time working with Jimmy, seeing how he works and produces and writes,” Phillips says.
“That was also at the same time when the whole grunge thing came in and all the ’80s Spandex and hairdo bands were going away. If you were associated with anything in the ’80s you were kind of like not cool anymore, so I dived into my studio.”
The life of a traveling rock star returned in 2003 went Tommy Shaw, Styx’s guitarist, called and asked if Phillips would consider going back on the road with the band that had dominated the airways with hits like “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Mr. Roboto” and “The Grand Illusion.”
The Cascade show will mark his nine-year anniversary with Styx.
So, does Phillips foresee an end to his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle anytime soon? The short answer: No. “I was talking with Tommy Shaw and asked, hypothetically, about retiring. We both realized, why? We’re the center of attention at the party every night and we’re getting paid pretty well. Besides, we don’t look our age or act our age.”•
When the tour bus rolls in, it also will mark a reunion of sorts for one of Redding’s top showbiz families. Phillips’ stepsister Kathleen Kennedy (Phillips’ mother Margaret married Superior Court Judge Don Kennedy in 1978) is one of Hollywood’s top producers and was recently named co-chairman of Lucasfilm. Kathleen’s twin sister Connie Kennedy is a location manager and visual effects coordinator whose film credits include “Avatar” and “War of the Worlds.” Younger sister Dana Middleton was a news anchor and spent seven years hosting a news-talk TV show in Seattle before serving as press secretary for then-Gov. Gary Locke. Phillips’ brother Mike is a director at the New York City Opera Company. “I don’t know. It must be something about that water going through Shasta Dam,” Phillips says of the preponderance of entertainment connections in his extended family.
Styx • Cascade Theatre 7:30 pm Sept. 11 • Tickets $65 to $85 (530) 243-8877, www.cascadetheatre.org