It’s true, I have a rock ‘n roll hero.  He’ll be playing in Berwyn next Saturday, the 16th of May.  I’m all a twitter.  The following story may be a bit long for a blog, but I can’t help myself.



Backstage with the Beatles?  Lunch with Elvis?  Maybe a date with Tom Jones (hey, this story has to appeal to a wide audience)?  I had my own fantasy.


It began in early 1972 when I was managing a stereo store in a mall near Rochester, NY.  My roommate came home one night to tell me he had heard that Shawn Phillips was going to play at the Gold Nugget the following Saturday night.  A concert not to be missed.


So what?  Who is Shawn Phillips, and isn’t the Gold Nugget that pizza and beer joint where we saw Cheech and Chong last month?  Indeed it was and Shawn Phillips is supposedly a huge talent.  Let’s go.


What I heard and saw that night changed my life:  a voice that ignored octaves and soared.  Veins pulsed on his forehead and arms while he played the most powerful guitar/sitar/double neck electric music I had ever heard.  Wearing a black cape and with blond hair down to his, uh, belt.  Luckily I had foresight to set up my eight track recorder at home (I owned a beta too) since the show was being broadcast on the local college radio station.  I got to listen to this concert a thousand times.


Four years later, in 1976, Stacey and I heard that Shawn Phillips would be playing in our Wahington, D.C.neighborhood at the Cellar Door in Georgetown.  Whatta show.  Shawn Phillips alone with his nine guitars: acoustic, classical, electric, double neck electric, sitar, etc. playing a song written for each instrument.  And that voice.  This has got to be the most talented musician/songwriter in the world!  Sure wish I could meet him.


Then what happened to him?  For years I asked everybody I know (who’s over 45 and enjoys music) if they know what happened to him.  Most only vaguely remembered him, or not at all.  He wasn’t exactly Donovan (though he wrote some of Donovan’s songs).  Somebody remembered hearing that his scalp had been ripped off in Italy when his hair got caught in a boat propeller.  Ouch.  I wondered if he died.  Wouldn’t that suck?


Well, 30 years later, while looking at a potential site for a new restaurant in Richmond, VA, a good friend (and master pizza oven builder), Nabil Attie, suggested a woman artist he knew to help us paint the walls with awesome colors.  She lives in Charlottesville and he gave me her number.  I called.


“Hello, is this Diana Deiss?”


“Yes, is that you Shawn?”


“Shawn?  No, this is Jimmy Sneed, Nabil’s friend.”


“Oh, hi Jimmy.  I thought you were somebody else, a friend of mine named Shawn Phillips.”


For one of the few times in memory, I was at a loss for words.  I felt as though I’d been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat.  When I finally came to and caught my breath I sought confirmation.  “You mean Shawn Phillips, the legend?”


“I don’t know about that,” she said, “but he is a singer.”


“Do you really know him, really?  I mean, how well?”


“Jimmy, you know his big hit, The Ballad of Casey Deiss?


“Know it?  Hell, I can sing it.”


“I’m Diana Deiss.”




“So what happened to him?  Where is he?  Does he still perform?  How can I meet him?  Say something dammit.”


“Yes he still performs and I think he lives in San Antonio, Texas.  I’ll ask my daughter, they e-mail each other weekly.”


I’m shaking.  “Diana, listen to me.  I’m flying to San Antonio in two weeks to give a cooking demonstration at the Food Bank.  Do you think, I mean, could you, uh, uh.”


“I’ll call him right now,” she said as calmly as if making a reservation at a restaurant.


A couple of hours later my hostess buzzed me to say that there was a Shawn Phillips on the phone for me.  Not ‘A’ Shawn Phillips, THE Shawn Phillips.


“Jammie, how are ya?  This here’s Shaaaaawn Pheelips.”


Not!  Shawn has a voice like the finest of musical instruments, not a twang like Quick Draw MacGraw.  Is this some sort of a joke?


“Naw, it’s really me, Jammie.  I hear yer comin’ to Taxes.  Would ya lack to have dinner with my wife and me?”


Excuse me?  Would my wife like to win the $10 million lottery?  Would Madonna like to meet the Pope?  Would Clinton like to get [romanced]?  You betcha.


We met for dinner.  And what a moment.  Shawn’s a master story teller and his now ex-wife, Tassia, super nice, and smart.  But that twang, I can’t get over it.  How in the world did Diana think that we sound alike?  I’m confused.


“No, actually I can understand why she thought you sounded like Shawn,” said Tassia.  “There’s something in your voice….”


“It’s the tamber,” offers Shawn.  “We’ve got the same tamber.  I can hear it.”


So, there you have it.  A bona fide fantasy come true.  Except, I haven’t heard him perform in 30 years.  How’s the voice?  “Better than ever, Jammie.”


End of story.  Well, not quite.  Six years ago Stacey and I took a bike trip from Virginia to Las Vegas and back.  We stopped to say Hi to Shawn in Austin where he insisted that we stay with him and (new) wife Jules.  And he cooked for us!  Spaghetti with tomato sauce and lots of garlic.  So, he can sing and cook!


As for his musical credentials, I once asked him his three greatest professional accomplishments.


“Wail”, he drawled, “I taught Joni Mitchell to play the ghee-tar, I taught George Harrison to play the see-tar, and I turned the Moody Blues on to LSD”.  Not bad, eh?


He still plays gigs (South Africa, Lebanon, Canada, the States) and will be in the Chicagoland area (Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn) on May 16th.  I’m trembling at the thought.

tim·bre (tām’bər, tĭm’-)  n.   The combination of qualities of a sound that distinguishes it from other sounds of the same pitch and volume.


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