If the old saying is true, that you’re known by the company you keep, then Wesley Phillips ought to be one of the most famous musicians in the world. After all, this Broward-based singer and trumpet player has performed with some of the biggest legends in the biz — Michael Jackson, James Brown, and disco sensations Cameo chief among them. What’s even more remarkable is that his association with these stars began at an incredibly young age. By luck or simply by happenstance, Phillips has a career most musicians can only dream about.
As Phillips tells it, he was a 14-year-old Jacksonville marching band student when James Brown’s tour manager came to his school on a mission to recruit horn players for the Godfather of Soul’s concert appearance in his hometown. It seemed his brass section hadn’t turned up for the show and the tour manager was ordered to seek out some local high school horn players.
“I didn’t even know who James Brown was,” Phillips recalls. “I thought it was a school project of some sort, so after the show, I went home. Later on, they had to track me down and give me my paycheck. I had no idea I was actually getting paid!”
Phillips would go on to spend five years on and off with Brown throughout the mid-’70s. “They got his story entirely wrong,” he says of the recent biopic about Brown called Get On Up.
“They made him look like such a bad guy, and he wasn’t like that at all.” He adds that the one thing they didn’t mention in the movie was the fact that the singer was also a Golden Gloves champion, a talent he often used to his advantage. “Whenever one of his musicians hit a bum note, he’d offer them a choice,” he chuckles. “They could either pay a $15 fine or he’d hand them a pair of boxing gloves and they could box him for the money
His stint with Brown led him to Michael Jackson’s backing band in the late ’70s, including a credit on the Jacksons’ live album recorded during the group’s Triumph tour in 1981. “Michael would always talk in this really high voice,” he remembers. “But when he talked business, his voice would go down several octaves. He was a business genius, so much so that the business people were intimidated by him.”
In Phillips’ opinion, many of Michael’s problems could be attributed to those outside forces that tried to put themselves between him and his family. “He was a real Peter Pan,” Phillips maintains. “He never had a childhood. The people around him weren’t trustworthy, and in the end they sold him out.”
Contrary to the aloof image that Michael conveyed to the public, Phillips says that in person he was not only friendly and easy to talk to but a generous employer as well. He did seven tours with Jackson and says the singer was a really good guy and paid his musicians some of the highest salaries in the business. He describes the time Jackson took his band to Hawaii for what was supposed to be a three-week tour. After the first night, the singer treated them to a lavish dinner and then entertained them with a private show. “Suddenly the stage lights came on and there was Michael, singing and dancing just for us. Then he announced that the three-week tour of Hawaii was really a special gift for us, a three-week vacation at his expense.”
So did that make Jackson a tough taskmaster? Not necessarily Phillips says. “Michael would say, ‘If I need to tell you how to play something, I wouldn’t have hired you.’”
Phillips did seven tours with Jackson and was slated to do his European comeback tour, expressly titled This Is
Phillips also performed with Cameo, appearing on the group’s She’s Strange album. However, his major fascination these days is with the late Louis Armstrong, who he says was the first artist he ever witnessed in concert. “After seeing him perform, I learned how to do his song ‘What a Wonderful World’ when I was only 9.” In fact, Phillips can be found most Saturday nights entertaining the crowds with his Armstrong impression on the sidewalk in front of Fort Lauderdale’s Riverside Hotel.
But Phillips is mostly involved with a project called the Miami Salsa Soul Band, which he describes as a unique fusion of traditional cha-cha and merengue music as filtered through the lens of
It sounds ambitious. Then again, Phillips has always looked to the stars for inspiration.
Wesley Phillips & His Miami Salsa Soul Band perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, September 5, at Legends Lounge at NYY Steak, Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, 5550 NW 40th St., Coconut Creek. Admission is free. Go to http://seminolecoconutcreekcasino.com/