for the love of Sam Phillips

14 Jul

I’ve said this before: There are not many things that I would say that I am an actual fan. By stating that I am a fan, I mean that even though I may recognize that an artist might put out something less than great, I don’t really care. I love and support that artist anyway.

Sam Phillips is one such artist for me. She started her musical career within the Contemporary Christian Music industry of the ’80s and was known as “Leslie” Phillips then. This was in the midst of Amy Grant’s heyday, but Leslie was edgier. Many referred to her as “the Christian Cindi Lauper” because, compared to Amy Grant, she was a little unusual.

She put out 3 records for her label. (I didn’t really like the first, but I kind of liked 2)Dancing with Danger and 3)Black and White in a Grey World) But, after those albums, she was frustrated. Her label kept trying to make her sing happy Christian songs where all the answers are given by the end of the 3.5 minutes of playing time. As I understand it, she was fighting for the position that life doesn’t always make sense and the answers are not always easy and God is just plain hard to understand sometimes. Obviously, she wanted her art to reflect that tension honestly.

The story as I understand it, is that Leslie’s label said they needed 2 more albums for her to fulfill her contract and then she could do whatever she wanted. Because of their frustration, they gave her a tiny budget for her next CD and introduced her to a relatively unknown producer by the name of T-Bone Burnett. The resulting album, one of my favorite all-time albums, was called The Turning.

T-Bone and Sam not only made a great album, but they got married, too. For the fifth CD, to fulfill her contract, they threw together a “Best Of” with some unreleased demos and a couple new songs, and Leslie walked away from the Christian music industry.

The Turning came out with little fan-fare because the suits didn’t expect it to do well. It was kind of dark, nebulous, and was made on a shoe-string budget. It spoke of longing, loss, uncertainty and doubt. Why pump money into promoting it?

The thing is, 20+ years later, The Turning is regarded as (one of a very few) artistic masterpieces ever to come out of the Christian music industry. I’ve seen it listed on All-Time Top 20 lists by Critics numerous times, both in the Christian music realm and mainstream publications. It’s artistic/poetic worth and integrity are virtually unquestionable by those who are knowledgeable of such things.

Just a couple of years after leaving the Christian industry, Leslie, now known as Sam Phillips, released her first of 5 Critically-Lauded releases on Virgin Records and has now released 2 CDs on Nonesuch Records. All of them produced by wonder-boy T-bone and all of which have made her the critics’ darling.

So, what does it mean when the local Family Christian Bookstore, while highlighting and marketing WOW Worship 2004, Jump 5, The Purpose Driven Life, and the Left Behind Books to death has dumped a number of copies of Leslie Phillips’, The Turning, into a bargain bin for $3 each?

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Posted by on July 14, 2004 in Uncategorized


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