TJI (This Just In): R.I.P. Brewer Phillips

Excerpt From:
The Boston Phoenix
September 10, 1999
News and Features

TJI (This Just In)
Brewer Phillips, 1925-1999
By Ted Drozdowski

Brewer Phillips was the last of the great Chicago barroom guitar players, still actively performing in the sawdust-floored juke joints of the Windy City until his death last week at the age of 74.  Phillips, who was scheduled to make his local debut as a bandleader at the Boston Blues Festival on September 25, died of natural causes; he was found alone in his apartment after a friend, guitarist Jimmie Lee Robinson, reported that he hadn’t heard from him since August 27.

Phillips was best known for his long-time partnership with the late slide-guitarist and singer Hound Dog Taylor.  Along with drummer Ted Harvey, Phillips played behind Taylor as the Houserockers from 1959 to 1975.  The three men led a ham for tips on Sunday afternoons at the club Florence’s for more than a decade.  Phillips served mostly as Taylor’s rhythmic foil, playing bass lines and shuffle patterns on his guitar, tossing in the occasional zesty solo, and sometimes stepping up front to sing.  In 1970 they were discovered by Bruce Iglauer, then a recent college graduate, who started Alligator Records in order to record them.  Taylor and the Houserockers made four albums for the blues label and toured the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Phillips was born in Coila, Mississippi.  He learned to play by listening to hot six-stringers from around his Delta home, such as Pat Hare and Willie Johnson; and in Memphis with help from his mentor Memphis Minnie.  In 1958 he moved to Chicago, and within a year began playing with Taylor.

Their relationship off-stage was as fiery as their performances.  They were notorious for fighting between liquor-fueled sets, even pulling knives.  In a May 1975 brawl, their mutual threats escalated until Taylor drew a pistol and shot Phillips in an arm and a leg.  Phillips pressed charges, but things changed when Taylor was diagnosed with inoperable cancer shortly thereafter.  Phillips forgave his friend during an emotional late-night hospital visit in which, it’s said, Taylor hugged Phillips so hard his fingernails dug into his back.  Two days later, Taylor died. 

Despite his history, Phillips did not record his first domestic solo album until 1995.  Homebrew, released the next year on the Delmark label, was one of 1996’s best blues CDs.  It won raves from critics and multiple nominations for Handy Awards, the blues’ equivalent of Grammys. The album showcased Phillips in an ensemble setting, sharing lead vocals with pianist Aaron Moore.  But Phillips’ versatility as a rough-hewn guitar ace came to the fore as he plied Latin rhythms, played swinging breaks reminiscent of T-Bone Walker and early B.B. King, and mimicked slide guitar with his string bending.

“It saddens me that he could die all along and sit there in his apartment.  It’s a lonely way to go,” said Greg Sarni, promoter of the Boston Blues Festival.  Sarni has contacted Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation about setting up a scholarship in Phillips’ name.  A memorial in his honor is planned for the festival.