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Willis Phillips’ story of the blues

John Willoughby: Greene Publishing, Inc.

Not many, if not anybody, in Madison can say they've played with blues legendaries like Fats Domino and Bo Diddley . . . But Madison County 84-year-old extraordinaire Willis Phillips can. Born a natural and beginning young, Phillips knows his way around a six-string noise machine and isn't planning on stopping anytime soon.

Around Madison, Phillips has been known for his smooth guitar playing at multiple venues such as the Senior Citizens Council of Madison County where he once played two guitars at the same time with one behind his head. Phillips has also played for area nursing homes, local churches and often, the prison.

Two months ago, Phillips played for the Make-A-Wish Foundation at an event in Monticello. Phillips was also donated the home of a late Madison resident in which he now teaches music lessons to aspiring students. Before his days in Madison, however, came a journey through the world of music he enjoys telling.

Born and raised in Mobile, Al., Phillips grew up in a household of gospel music, where he states his father, grandfather and great-grandfather played. Though he doesn't play through notes, he recalls when he started playing at the age of six when his mother sat him on the floor with her guitar. At the age of eight, Phillips began playing in front of a congregation at his father's church. At the age of twelve, “I was hard to beat,” said Phillips.

When Phillips reached the age of 16 in 1950, he left his home in Mobile, Al. and moved to New Orleans, La., where his grandmother lived. At the time, Phillips' father didn't know he had started to play the blues and two weeks after he moved to New Orleans, he began playing with rock and roll pioneer Fats Domino for approximately nine months. “I never told my parents,” said Phillips. “Not then.”

After spending time with Domino, Phillips met Ellas McDaniel and spent approximately two and a half years with him. McDaniel was later known to be Bo Diddley.

While playing one evening with famed Harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley was the act after Phillips and Williamson exited the stage. “He was young then,” said Phillips. “He kept his hair all fixed up, just like a lady.” However, Bo Diddley was lacking a guitar player when he hit the stage. “I can imitate everybody,” said Phillips who took the stage with Bo Diddley. “There ain't nobody can beat me on the guitar. I don't make no mistakes.”

Though he traveled with Bo Diddley on occasion, he did not enjoy it as one may think. “I don't fly,” laughed Phillips.

One accolade of which Phillips is certainly proud was when he shared the stage with Bo Diddley at the White House, in Washington, D.C., where he played for President Jimmy Carter around 1980.

Photo submitted
In January of 1980, Phillips received a certified letter from Daniel M. Chew, Director of Presidential Correspondence under President Jimmy Carter, thanking Phillips for his time after he performed at the White House with Bo Diddley.

For Phillips, the life of blues ended merely 43 years ago, right before moving to Madison. “I came up in the church,” said Phillips. “And I was scared of what I was playing.” Phillips continued to state that he's never smoked a cigarette or drank liquor and has never been sick.

Phillips quit playing the blues. However, he held onto his guitar for the purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Phillips moved to Madison approximately 37 years ago, but as he stated, he did not stay here. “I started preaching when I left them blues,” said Phillips. “I had a church in Mobile, Al. So I stayed in Mobile more than I stayed here.” Phillips is a field bishop with Grace Tabernacle Church, in Valdosta.

About one year ago, Phillips released his very own gospel CD with six songs on the album. Now living full-time in Madison County, playing and teaching for no charge, Phillips is the proud owner of two beautiful fender guitars, a Gibson guitar and a Gretsch guitar. Phillips also owns a harmonica, a fiddle and a Baldwin piano.

Greene Publishing, Inc. Photo by John Willoughby, July 30, 2018
Madison County resident and former guitar player for Bo Diddley and Fats Domino, Willis Phillips, enjoys the time spent with his music and instruments. To many it may seem practical, but to him, it's spiritual as he now uses it as a tool for ministry.

Phillips has three children: Telisha, Lotoya and Montinas Phillips; and is married to Geraldine Phillips. If you are interested in learning how to play the guitar and/or piano, Phillips invites you to learn at no cost to you! For more information, call Phillips at (850) 464-4937.

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