If he had to pick a number, guitarist Phil Upchurch estimates he has played on over 2,000 recordings. Based on the frequency with which his name arises, he's probably right. Asking him to recall some of those dates can be like asking a fisherman about a particular fish he caught 40 years ago.
“I'll just have to take your word for it,” he says in response to the details of a mid-'60s Oscar Brown Jr. record we describe. But some of his performances are better remembered than others: Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, Minnie Riperton's Come to My Garden and especially Muddy Waters' Electric Mud.
Upchurch got his start playing guitar around Chicago in the early 1960s. He had an instrumental radio hit called “You Can't Sit Down” that rose to #3 on the Billboard charts when the Dovells put lyrics to it in 1963. “I was very young,” recalls Upchurch. “I didn't have the confidence to go on my own. Between me not having the confidence and having a good paying job, I figured I'll just stay where I am.”
Staying where he was paid off when the Moonglows, featuring a young Marvin Gaye, got him some regular studio work at Chess Records — home to Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Following a stint in the army, Upchurch returned to Chess as a salaried session musician, adding guitar and bass anywhere he was needed.
In 1968, Marshall Chess, the enterprising son of label owner Leonard Chess, attempted to cash in on the blacklight generation, placing Muddy Waters in a tornado of psychedelic sounds that featured a wah-wahing guitar frontline including Roland Faulkner, Pete Cosey and Upchurch.
“We would get together and just pass around ideas,” says Upchurch. “'Why don't we do this?' [Marshall] wanted to bring Muddy up to date, to get him out there with the hippie crowd.” The result was one of the most curious additions to the Chess catalog.
Waters, strong-voiced yet leery, belts out classics like “Mannish Boy” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” as well as the Rolling Stones' “Let's Spend the Night Together,” awash in screeching, effect-driven guitars more befitting a Fillmore West musician than a 54-year-old bluesman from Mississippi. The album is a time-capsule of lysergic guitar pyrotechnics, far from Waters' rollicking Newport Jazz Festival set eight years prior.
What was Waters' impression? “He hated it,” says an amused Upchurch.
“He hated every second of it. We did one with Howlin' Wolf too. He didn't like the album either.” Although the album sold well, netting Waters' first appearance on the Billboard charts, he referred to the record as “dogshit.”
But the album was embraced by those it was aimed at and has gradually claimed its spot as a blues curiosity. Jimi Hendrix was known to blast it before shows and Chuck D has credited the album with getting him into traditional blues. Chuck D even assembled the living members of the band for a questionable re-recording for Martin Scorcese's Blues series.
Following his time at Chess, Upchurch went on to record a couple albums as a leader for Blue Thumb in the 1970s that would help define soul-jazz (Darkness, Darkness and Lovin' Feeling), eventually settling in Los Angeles 30 years ago.
Now in his early '70s, it appears Upchurch is ready for his own revival. “The greatest artists out there are doing their own music,” says Upchurch about his current project. “In the past I played songs that I wish that I had written. Now, I'm going to concentrate on being a true artist and play my own music.”
Electric Phil anyone?
Tonight, June 21, Upchurch brings his jazz trio to the LAX Jazz Club at the Crowne Plaza Hotel