An Interview with Phil Upchurch
Telling the Truth…
by Mark Ruffin
When Phil Upchurch was 20 years-old, he had a top 40 hit titled, “You Can’t Sit Down,” but he says he wasn’t secure enough when he first toured under his name. 40 years later, the guitarist has released his 21st album, “Tell The Truth,” and is widely known as a world-class guitarist, yet he can’t get promoters interested in booking him.
“Life is funny,” the 61 year-old said by phone from his Southern California home. “Back then, I wasn’t ready to tour by myself. Since then, I’ve been waiting my entire life to tour with my own band.
“But no,” he continued laughing, “I’m still the glorified sideman.”
The Upchurch legacy will always be that of one of the most celebrated sidemen in music history. He’s one of the very few back-up musicians with a prestigious Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.
He’s probably most famous for backing George Benson on the multi-platinum Breezin’ album. However, the guitarist and noted humorist has played on many other historic recordings, including Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Grover Washington’s Mister Magic, Quincy Jones’ Body Heat, Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 eponymous debut album, and dozens of others.
Even without mentioning all the artists Upchurch accompanied at the legendary record companies, Chess and Vee-Jay, the list of sessions seems endless. He’s recorded blues with Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, and John Lee Hooker, and the list of r&b, rock and jazz stars is just as impressive, including everyone from Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole, to Cat Stevens and Sheena Easton.
“I’m not your typical jazz musician,” said Upchurch, who is currently touring with the legendary jazz organist Jimmy Smith. Most jazz musicians are always posturing and showing off their chops and saying look how fast and how many notes I can play, I’m not really about that.
“My strong point as a guitarist is my ability to lay back when it’s time to lay back,” Upchurch continued, “then I know when to step forward when it’s time to step forward.”
He laughed again, when asked to describe the music on “Tell The Truth,” saying he plays music “for women who hates jazz.”
Because he mixes his jazz with pop and soul, and because the groove is so important to Upchurch, he insisted that a great number of people, particularly females, praise his music, but don’t necessarily like jazz.
“I didn’t come from that hardcore jazz school in the first place,” Upchurch commented. “My first inspiration was the blues. I rather get people up on the floor dancing than in their seats being quiet.”
Three songs on the album serve as examples of tunes that aren’t associated with jazz Mixed in among the originals and jazz standards on the 13-track cd are Natalie Cole’s “La Costa,” Jeffery Osborne & LTD’s “Back In Love Again,” and Steely Dan’s “Jack Of Speed.”
“That’s why I call this record, “Tell The Truth,” Upchurch explained. “This (music) is what I’ve been doing lately. It’s what I’ve been wanting to do, but never have been able to do it, because of different producers.”
There’s more truthfulness to his new release in the fact that the combo backing the guitarist is his working band. He said to hear what he’s been doing lately and he had to use the guys he’s been using lately.
Among the musicians in his band is drummer Vince Wilburn. His mother is the sister of Miles Davis, and Wilburn will go down in jazz history as the person who spurred Miles out of retirement in the 80’s.
The great trumpeter used Wilburn and a host of his friends, including Robert Irving III, to rehearse and tour for the albums “The Man With The Horn,” “Decoy,” and “You’re Under Arrest,” but some of the musicians, including Wilburn, were excluded from playing on the recordings. It’s called being bumped, and it is a lament of sidemen everywhere.
Upchurch is going through it now with his current bread-and-butter employer, Smith. He’s performed with the organist on and off for 20 years, yet, this year marked the first time in nearly a decade that he’s on a new album by Smith.
Producers have been using younger guitarists like Russell Malone and Mark Whitfield, and the end result is now promoters are asking Smith to bring the younger six-slingers instead of Upchurch. Whereas he used to do most of Smith’s dates, now he does a third.
“Of course that bothers me,” he exclaimed. “It’s an ego thing.
“But I did the same things to guys on my way up, it’s just the way of the world. I’m starting to get into that age category where if I don’t play my ass off, I can hang it up.”
Truthfully, he’s not ready.