Bio - Philip Paul


The best biography of Philip Paul is an article Larry Nager wrote for the October 2009 issue of Cincinnati Magazine:


It’s Saturday night at the elegantly appointed Cricket Lounge in The Cincinnatian Hotel, and the city’s most important living musician is living through the proverbial gig from %*&#. Philip Paul’s brow is creased to the bone as he hovers intently over his drums, struggling to hold together his faltering trio. The piano player is the problem—an eleventh-hour sub for Billie Walker, the woman who ordinarily fronts the group. As the placebo pianist abuses the classic American songbook, even easygoing Ed Conley, Phil’s friend for more than 50 years, grimly white-knuckles the neck of his bass fiddle. A few tourists wander in for a cocktail or two, seemingly oblivious to the musical combat. Phil has seen his share of bad nights in his seven decades of keeping the beat, and this is just one more, another pothole in a musical marathon that started when FDR was president.

“We’ll get through it,” Phil says on break, mustering a grin as he stirs his Crown Royal and Diet Coke with a fancy Cricket swizzle stick. He’ll only have a couple in the course of the long night—five sets, running 6 to 11 p.m. At 84, he knows how to pace himself. Even with a good piano player, it’s a grueling gig few drummers half his age could handle. But Philip Paul is something special. Cincinnati has its household names—Peter Frampton, Bootsy Collins, Nick Lachey. It has its universally respected musical institutions—the CSO, the Pops, the Blue Wisp Big Band. But when it comes to impacting American music and culture, this quiet, unassuming octogenarian stands alone. “If someone were to try to isolate the single heartbeat of the early days of rock and roll, as it transitions from ‘race music’ to ‘rhythm & blues’ to whatever you want to call what early rock and roll is, that heartbeat is Philip,” says Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum president Terry Stewart.

As America struggles to find something—anything!—we can sell to the world, the one unqualified success continues to be our music. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, country, bluegrass—it all started in the U.S. And when modern popular music was created after World War II, the Cincinnati-based indie label King Records helped lead that musical Manhattan Project. From 1951 to 1965, Philip Paul played drums on hundreds of King sessions, helping create some of the most influential recordings of all time. The original versions of “The Twist” and “Fever”? That’s Phil. He also played on just about every Freddie King record, including his biggest hit, “Hide Away,” covered in 1966 by the young Eric Clapton and every generation of guitar heroes since. And when you hear Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home For Christmas,” that’s Phil, too. Stewart calls him “the thread that runs through so much of the important music of that period.” If ever there was a musician who was a living history lesson, it’s Phil Paul. Problem is, he hasn’t slowed down enough to tell it.

VISIT THE HOUSE in Evanston phil shares with his wife Juanita and stepdaughter Ramona and you’ll find a neat, working-class home cluttered with memories—family photos, old vinyl records, yellowing newspaper articles. That’s the only evidence of the dozens of hit recordings in which he played a key role. In a career that made so many others rich, Phil has very little to show for it.  He’s far from alone in that injustice. The history of American popular music is littered with the foot soldiers who created it and kept it going, studio musicians whose names never appeared on record labels or royalty checks, whose only payment was a small, one-time session fee. Phil is one of the last of the so-called Greatest Generation who birthed rock and roll, and though he has every reason to be bitter, he remains upbeat, his professional pride as fresh and crisp as his white tuxedo shirt. “I have tried to maintain a certain standard in my playing,” he drawls in his deep, gruff voice. “If I did something 10, 15 years ago, I’m supposed to be able to do that better now. I don’t mind if I’m playing with just a piano or a whole band...just so I’m playing music.”

I’ve never known anyone like Philip Paul, and I’ve been playing music for 41 years and writing about it for almost 30. I’ve done sound for Cab Calloway, helped repair the Clearwater sloop with Pete Seeger, ridden in James Brown’s limo, played Bill Monroe’s mandolin, interviewed Dizzy Gillespie, and written Albert King’s gravestone inscription. I’ve been lucky to know many great musicians and many great human beings in that time, but the two rarely intersect as completely as they do in this quiet, unassuming man.

After a lifetime playing everything from calypso to rock and roll, he’s finally getting long-overdue recognition. Earlier this year, Phil and Juanita, his wife and inseparable partner of 57 years, were honored at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in Cleveland. Part of the museum’s Songwriters to Soundmen series, the evening focused on Phil’s career at King, on the road, and in Cincinnati nightclubs. And in July, he performed a career retrospective at the CityFolk Festival in Dayton, part of a statewide, summer-long celebration of his work that included receiving the Ohio Heritage Fellowship, the state’s highest honor for traditional artists. ”I never thought this would happen,” Phil tells me, as he, Juanita, and I sit around their dining room table in Evanston. “I thought I would just go to my grave and then maybe at some point someone would mention King Records and someone would do some investigating.” He’s kind enough to credit me with helping start his revival, saying that after my articles about him began appearing in The Cincinnati Enquirer in the late ’90s, “it just seemed to take off from there.” We met after I’d returned from Memphis in late 1995 to become The Enquirer’s music critic. I’d originally come to town in 1978 for the live music scene, joining Katie Laur’s bluegrass band and going on to write for Ohio Magazine and the Cincinnati Post. I’d been fascinated with King Records since college, when I discovered that the Stanley Brothers and James Brown both recorded there. Between journalism and musical gigs, I’d met a lot of former King session guys and I’d heard rumors about Phil. His story sounded too good to be true—a guy who was part of the backbone of American music. When we finally met, I found out he was that and more: Philip Paul is one class act.

In early 2001, J Curve Records owner Dale Rabiner and musician/producer Pat Kelly were planning an album to benefit a local charity, the Inclusion Network. I suggested they make it a King Records tribute—a focus that could attract bigger names. A few months later, interviewing Peter Frampton, I gave him my King spiel. I casually mentioned to Frampton the planned King tribute and the possibility that he could record “Hide Away” (which, like every other Clapton-besotted British guitarist, he’d learned as a kid) with Freddie King’s drummer. Frampton didn’t need convincing. “It was a thrill to play with Philip Paul, especially knowing that, apart from ‘Hide Away,’ he played on numerous great blues records,” Frampton told me after the session. “It was truly an honor.” Phil represents more than the talent of King’s session players; he personifies the plight of that era’s faceless studio musicians. The recordings he played on may have changed the world, but that doesn’t pay the bills. So Juanita rents a chair at the Lafayette Beauty Salon on Montgomery Road, where she’s still doing hair as often as she can. And Phil packs his drums for gigs—Friday and Saturday nights at The Cincinnatian, plus the usual round of one-offs, playing for weddings, country clubs, receptions, all the cocktail occasions that have kept musicians eating for generations. Glamorous? Hardly. But that’s the life of a working drummer.

IT’S A LIFE he’s led since barely a teenager, accompanying his trumpet-playing father to house parties in his hometown, New York City. His father, Philip Paul Sr., born in St. Croix, worked construction by day and played in a band at night with his brothers, Fred, a saxophonist, and John, a drummer. “He’s the one I first saw play drums,” Phil says of Uncle John. “He fascinated me.” Phil became a fixture at those family band rehearsals when he was just 9 years old. He zeroed in on his uncle’s drumming, as the band worked up the Afro-Caribbean music that was all the rage in New York in the 1930s. Before long, Phil, known to his family as Sonny, was beating silverware on the dinner table, until his dad finally got the hint. “He would say, ‘Stop banging on that table, Sonny. If you wanna play drums, I’ll make arrangements,’” Phil recalls. “He went to Wurlitzer’s music store and they had a plan where you could buy a set of drums and you’d get 10 lessons to see if you were really interested or not.” By the time he turned 13, in 1939, Phil had found his life’s calling. “My father would take me around to these parties,” he says. “We’d start playing 11, 12 o’clock at night, and play until 5 o’clock in the morning.” What kid could resist that—playing music, making a few bucks, staying up all night, and being treated as an equal by your dad?

Growing up at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Phil was in the right place at the right time. Nightclubs and theaters were filled with jazz legends, and Phil caught the fever. “You know, it gets in your blood,” he says. “It was exciting.” He and a piano-playing friend named Allen Jackson were too young for the draft, and they became regulars at New York’s jazz spots. “We’d go to all the clubs,” he remembers. “We were so enthralled by the music.” Still, they were young. One night they split a pint of gin—Phil’s first taste of alcohol—and found themselves bounced to the curb at the Savoy Ballroom. “Walter Page, the bass player with [Count] Basie—I remember him helping me to stand up,” Phil says. “My father gave me the business for that. I didn’t have another drink until I was 19 or so.” Music remained his favorite high. With so many older musicians off to fight in World War II, serious, sober drummers were in demand. At 17, he was jamming after hours at the legendary Minton’s Playhouse, including a memorable night with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. “They played ‘Cherokee’ so fast I couldn’t keep up,” he says. “They told me to go home and practice. I did. And I came back and played with them.”

THE WAR CHANGED everything: bands got smaller, and stayed that way. And jazz divided like a paramecium: cerebral be-bop on one side; on the other, blues-based ballads and dance tunes—the music that would evolve into rhythm & blues and rock and roll. By the late 1940s, Phil was part of that change, playing in Buddy Johnson’s jump-blues big band, recording such classics as “Since I Fell For You.” It was a musical revolution, and it was taking hold far from the jazz meccas of New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and Kansas City, in towns where so-called “territory bands” held sway—places like Cincinnati, where Tiny Bradshaw led one of those new little bands. Phil was playing with Buddy Johnson at the Savoy when he met the man who would bring him to Cincinnati. “One night, we were alternating, Buddy Johnson on one bandstand, Tiny Bradshaw on the other,” he remembers. “And during one of the breaks Tiny Bradshaw came up to me and said his drummer, Eagle Eye Shields, was leaving in about six months, and he liked the way I played, and would I consider coming down to Cincinnati?” Bradshaw had the house band gig at the Cotton Club, black Cincinnati’s premier nightspot. Phil, barely out of his teens, went home to tell his parents. “They were totally against it. For one thing, they’d never heard of Cincinnati,” he recalls with a laugh. He wasn’t much more enthusiastic himself. “I intended to just come down, play an engagement at the Cotton Club, and go back to New York. I didn’t want to leave New York. Nobody wanted to leave New York.”

In Cincinnati, Phil played at the Cotton Club for six months, toured for a month, then returned to town to record. It was Phil’s first session at King Records. In keeping with the title of one new song, “Soft,” Phil used brushes, common in jazz but rare in R&B, where sticks were standard issue to create the heavy-handed one-AND, two-AND backbeat. The softer attack of brushes, followed by the swish of wire strands dancing over the snare head and cymbals, made the rhythm section a fluid, streamlined machine. “Soft” became a huge hit and Phil’s brushes became Bradshaw’s new sound. After that, says Phil, “I had to play brushes on every single tune that we recorded for at least three albums. We’d go out on the road and we’d play large ballrooms and I’d have to drive the band with brushes, which was very difficult.” As Phil settled into the Bradshaw organization, he noticed a pretty, petite, impeccably stylish woman. Juanita Snyder was best friends with the trombonist’s girlfriend. “She would always be around, but I wouldn’t say anything,” he recalls. “You know, when you see a beautiful woman you’re kind of cautious about how you approach her.” To hear Juanita tell it, the shy new kid was out of his league. “I never thought anything about him,” she says with a sly smile. “He was small. He was weighing about 127 pounds. I used to call him ‘little brother Phil.’” Happily single, Juanita enjoyed celebrity status as a former Cotton Club dancer. Cincinnati jazz great Frank Foster credits her legs, which even today retain a dancer’s shapeliness, with inspiring his composition for Count Basie, “Shiny Stockings.” Phil gradually overcame his shyness. “Finally, I decided to make the big move,” he says. “I called her and asked her for a date, take her to the movie. So we went to the movie and, bam! That was it. We were inseparable from that moment.” The couple married in 1952 and the Bradshaw band stayed busy on the road, the new Mrs. Paul often accompanying her husband. Married to a local girl, Phil resigned himself to Cincinnati. “The only thing that kept me here was Juanita,” he insists. “If it wasn’t for meeting her, I probably would have left.”

APART FROM BEING the world’s jazz capital, New York had a lot to recommend it for a young black man in the mid-20th century. “There was racism in New York, but you weren’t confronted by it,” Phil says. “To be honest with you, I didn’t know about racism until I came to Cincinnati.” In his adopted town, he learned, there were neighborhoods that were dangerous for him to visit and restaurants that were off-limits. Movie theaters and vaudeville houses were whites-only. So was Coney Island, which remained closed to blacks until the 1960s. And in those lawless Northern Kentucky Casinos, one law was ironclad—Jim Crow. Whites had luxurious spots like the Beverly Hills Country Club, the Lookout House, and the Glenn Rendezvous. African-American gamblers made do with rundown joints like the Rocket Club and the Sportsman’s Club.

But Phil did find an oasis where race wasn’t an issue. He began doing sessions for King Records when the band was off the road. The early ’50s were the heyday of Cincinnati’s fabled record label. With everything from business offices and studios to record pressing and shipping in one huge building in Evanston, King was the dominant independent label after World War II. Run by the mercurial Syd Nathan, a gruff, tough businessman, King topped the charts in both R&B and country music, expanding into rockabilly, doo-wop, bluegrass, and jazz. In 1954, Bradshaw suffered his first stroke, and Phil became more involved at King, where he was proving to be a versatile session musician. Nathan recognized that he had found himself an all-in-one drummer. “He approached me about being the session drummer for everybody,” Phil remembers. Naturally, he accepted. At King, Phil entered an organization that was decades ahead of its time, even by New York standards. Nathan’s right-hand man was an African-American, Henry Glover, a talented trumpeter who served as producer, talent scout, and any other role the situation required. As a songwriter, Glover’s best-known composition was the country standard “Blues Stay Away From Me,” cowritten with the Delmore Brothers, regulars on the Grand Ole Opry. And that was the essence of King: Not only was an African-American in an executive position, but he was producing country artists.

And it was often Phil who was drumming on those country sessions, working with Grandpa Jones, Cowboy Copas, and Bonnie Lou, among others. He was always treated very well, he asserts. “You’d go in the studio and stay all day and come out, and then you’d run into racial problems,” Phil says. “But never in the studio. Syd didn’t allow that. I remember him talking to somebody that was visiting, and he was saying, ‘I don’t give a you-know-what about race. I just want the best people working for me.’ A good friend of mine was the head of the shipping department. There were numerous Asian people, Jewish people. It was amazing.” Outside the former ice house at 1540 Brewster Avenue it was a different world. “Up on McMillan, I went into a restaurant one time with [white tenor saxophonist] Jimmy McGary, and they wouldn’t serve me,” he recalls. “They called me names and I had to leave.” But the King music community had their own code of conduct. As Phil remembers it, “Jimmy left too.”

THAT’S NOT TO say that the King culture was warm, fuzzy, or generous. Not with the penny-pinching, cigar-chomping Nathan at the helm. Stories of his leadership style are legion. He never talked when he could shout and when he didn’t like something, he’d let the musician know as bluntly and profanely as possible. That would include his biggest star, James Brown. When Brown first came to the label in 1956, Phil remembers Nathan hearing “Please Please Please” for the first time and responding, “What is that %*&#?”

“I’ve heard musicians say they didn’t like him,” Phil says of his old boss. “I don’t know why. If you did something wrong, he would tell you. So what? You should be able to take criticism. He was a great man with a vision. He was way ahead of his time.”  King became Phil’s home, and he was such an important part of the operation that Nathan convinced him and Juanita to buy a house in the neighborhood so he would be handy. Paul became a session musician—perhaps the ultimate session musician. He credits his early days in New York, playing West Indian music, as well as the jazz and blues of the swing era, with preparing him for work that ranged from Grandpa Jones’s banjo-driven country to Freddie King’s souped-up electric blues.  “That’s when all my experience came in—playing those different rhythms, playing with brushes,” he says. “I think that’s what has kept me working.”

The stars of King at the time lit up jukeboxes, among other things—singers like the flamboyant R&B veteran Wynonie Harris, the blues shouter behind “Good Rocking Tonight,” and Little Willie John, a soul music pioneer plagued by drug and alcohol problems who died in prison at 30. Phil has always considered himself a jazz musician, but his playing with Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, Albert King, and Smokey Smothers cements his place in blues history. He remembers Freddie  King very fondly—a Texas-born singer/guitarist who liked to party and gamble, but was all business on a recording session. “When he came to the studio, he’d be off in a corner and say, ‘Guys, this is what we’re gonna play today,’” Paul recalls. “So he’d play it, we just drifted in, whatever we felt fit into that, that’s what we did. If it sounded good to him, he’d say, ‘That’s it! Let’s record it.’   “That was some of the easiest recording I’ve ever done,” he continues. “They were all good musicians there...handpicked. We just knew how to approach it together.”

Freddie’s knack for creating catchy blues-based guitar pieces—often co-written with tragically underrated Chicago bluesman “Magic Sam” Maghett—resulted in some of the most memorable records on King, including “Hide Away.”  Phil had become such an integral part of King that, at one point, Syd paid for him to get drum lessons from a classical percussionist. It was a nice gesture, though Phil says most lessons were spent showing his teacher how to play jazz.

So, what is it about Phil Paul that makes him such a great session player? He’s only five-foot-seven and 140 pounds, but he’s built like a featherweight boxer, supplementing the exercise he gets from drumming (and hauling them around) with daily stomach crunches and stretches. And at 84, he’s managed to avoid arthritis. But it’s his temperament as much as anything that makes him a great sideman. On stage and off, he never shows off, never plays a beat simply to get attention. Phil always serves the song he’s playing and he’s as dependable as an atomic clock. That’s the golden rule for any session musician.  I got to see those skills firsthand in 2004, when I hired Phil to play on what would be Big Joe Duskin’s final album, Big Joe Jumps Again! Cincinnati Blues Session. Joe was by then in very poor health and we were cutting the record “live” in the sanctuary of the Monfort Heights United Methodist Church. Because the musicians (bassist Ed Conley filled out the trio) were playing together, and because Joe’s condition was so fragile, we needed a rhythm section that got it right every time. We recorded for three days. Phil never blew a take.

IN THE ’50s and ’60s, Phil divided his time between King sessions and club dates in the thriving nightspots that peppered Reading Road from Avondale to Roselawn and across the river, in the casinos owned by Northern Kentucky’s hillbilly godfather, Frank ‘Screw’ Andrews. Andrews ran the black numbers racket and loved blues and jazz. To hear Phil tell it, he and the other casino owners were good bosses. “I loved working over there,” Paul says. “If they respected you, if you had a reputation, they would pay you exactly what you wanted.” Phil’s gigs were at nightspots that are long gone—the Copa Lounge, the Sportsman’s Club, the Alibi, the Jai Lai Club—and the hours were exotic. “We’d start at 11 o’clock at night and work until 5 o’clock in the morning—very good money.” How good? A hundred bucks a night—big dough back then.

Those glory days came to an end in the mid-’60s, when a crackdown on organized crime shuttered the casinos. Meanwhile, rock and roll was pushing old-school blues and R&B off the charts. King still had one huge hitmaker, James Brown, but the Hardest Working Man in Show Business recorded with his road band. In 1965, the session work simply wasn’t there anymore. After almost 15 years and more than 350 recordings, Phil was ready for a change. He’d always considered himself a jazzman who played sessions for a living. It was time to go back to his first love. Working at the Copa in Covington, Phil met jazz pianist Roy Meriwether, who was looking for a drummer. It was the commercial peak of jazz, and Meriwether recorded for Columbia, whose roster boasted such greats as Dave Brubeck and Errol Garner. Paul was soon driving to Dayton to rehearse what would become the Roy Meriwether Trio’s Popcorn and Soul, an LP of jazzed-up movie themes. To tighten up before the recording sessions, the Meriwether trio played six nights a week at Club Nowhere in Fairborn. Let that sink in. Once upon a time, jazz was so popular that, not only could tiny Fairborn support a jazz club—one with an ironically nihilistic name at that—it supported it six nights a week.

Once the trio was ready, it was on to New York to record the album and start a national club tour. One night, performing onstage at the Hickory House in Manhattan, Phil felt a tug at his leg. He looked down: it was Duke Ellington. “I want you to play with me,” Ellington said. “It was an honor,” Phil recalls, “but I told his manager, ‘I just joined this group, we’re going on a tour after this. I can’t leave these guys now.’” He pauses and looks off. “Maybe I should have left. It would have changed my life. But all those guys are dead now. I don’t know if Juanita and I would have still been together.”

EVEN MORE THAN jazz, even more than music, Juanita remains the most enduring love of Phil’s life. After a few years and a couple albums with Meriwether, Phil returned to Cincinnati to spend more time with her, even if it meant living gig to gig. In the ’80s, with jazz’s popularity at a low point, he even found a straight job—compliance coordinator with the Council on Aging. Turning 69, he says, “I got that music itch again.” So he “retired” to play music full time. Today, despite health problems, Juanita still helps Phil scratch that itch. If he’s playing, chances are she’s there. Sometimes as his roadie. “The current set of drums I have, she could set ’em up,” he says. “I would carry the larger pieces in, I’d go park the car and when I’d come back, she would have all the covers off and have some of the drums already set up. “A lot of musicians, they don’t want their wives, their lady friends, to come on the gig,” he explains. “That’s the difference between us. I love to have her on the job.” “A lot of people say, ‘Don’t you get tired of sitting around waiting on him?’” Juanita says. “But I’ve always loved music.” Of course, she admits it’s not the music that keeps her in the audience. “I’ve got this wonderful man here.” For his part, Phil believes Juanita is the reason he’s still alive. “I don’t know how I’ve lasted so long,” he says. “All my peers are gone. Every one of them. That’s why I can’t repeat it enough: Coming down here and meeting Juanita and marrying her saved my life.”

They’ve been a team in their most recent project, working on the King revival in Evanston. Xavier University is leading the charge, and there are plans that call for a recording studio and a community arts center to be built near the old King Records building. Their dream is that the King legacy can help revive the downtrodden neighborhood that was once so tidy and full of life. And Phil has also started doing lectures, taking his oral history of rock and roll to Xavier. For now, though, he remains a working musician, donning his tux and packing his drums for evening gigs, the same way he did 70 years ago. “I don’t understand how I can still do this,” he says. “I might get a little bitter before I go to work. ‘I’m going down there to do all this work. What is it for?’ But once I sit down behind the drums, it’s all gone. I’ve got to perform.”

As a lifelong music geek, I’ve learned something from every musician I’ve ever met, interviewed, or played with. Often, they teach by bad example, showing you what not to do, how not to live. But Phil remains a true role model—a drummer whose dignity and ethics are as unwavering as his beat. When I was younger, music was records, instruments, hot licks. Phil taught me that when you follow it to its source, music is people. And he showed me that playing and loving music really can last a lifetime. For him, the beat goes on, and on. All we have to do is follow it.