Ricky Phillips of Styx: The Pavlovian Response

By Jeb Wright

After quitting college only months away from graduation, and moving to California to live in roach infested apartments, and working for cash under the table, bassist Ricky Phillips got his big break with the band The Babys.  From there, he went on to Modern English and then to Coverdale Page.  He’s now the bass player in Styx, having left behind his cushy lifestyle as a rock and roll producer in 2003 to return to the thunderous applause of the stage.

In the interview that follows, Phillips discuses why Styx continues to tour with REO Speedwagon, even adding Ted Nugent as an opening act for the second year in a row.  Despite the fact that the three bands are very different, musically, Phillips explains, in his opinion, just why it works so well.

We also travel back in time and learn how he had to be talked into auditioning for the band The Babys and what it was like to hang out with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. 

Basically, this is a just fun interview with your run of the mill, everyday, down to earth, outgoing rock star. 

Jeb: You’re back out with Uncle Ted and REO.  You guys have toured with them so much it is hard to believe.  No other two bands could do this as much as you guys and keep people flocking to see them.  Why does this work so well for REO and Styx?

Ricky: I have been asked that before and I still don’t know how to answer it.  The bands are absolutely nothing alike.  If you take it and judge it on face value of the music it does not make sense, but because these things happened and created these three different bands at the same time in the ‘70’s, I am talking about Ted, REO and Styx, these things all came out of the same batch that all happened at that time.  Somehow, they work together and they are a rock and roll format that people flock too.  We don’t understand.  There have been times where REO and Styx have been sick of touring together.  Ask them and they will say the same thing.  It is something that just works.  Ted works, as well, as Tommy played with Ted in Damn Yankees and I played on a couple of Ted’s records too.

Jeb: Don’t forget that REO’s Dave Amato played with Ted, too.

Ricky: I got Amato that gig with Ted.  Ted called me up and asked me…I always forget about this until Dave reminds me.  I had gotten this singer Freddie Fredrickson a job in Toto when Bobby Kimball left.  People started calling me asking me for referrals.  Ted’s manager, Doug Banker, called me and asked me who could sing for Ted.  I asked him if he was looking for another Derek St. Holmes, a singer guitar player.  I told him I knew this guy who was great.  That guy was Dave Amato. 

It was during the making of the Little Miss Dangerous record and Ted wasn‘t sure what he was going to do. He was even playing bass on the record.  He had a song that was going to be a single and a song that was going to be in a movie, so Ted called and asked me to play bass on those two songs.  I came in and he and Dave got on like a house on fire.  Ted ended up wanting to sing everything, but he wanted to have Dave in the band because he played well and they got along so good.  Dave might have sung a song or two, but he mostly played guitar.  He was hired to be the singer, but ended up being the second guitar player. 

Now Ted has St. Holmes back and he has the best band with him that I have ever heard him play with.  Ted even sounds better than I’ve ever heard him sound.  I’ve got to see Ted before where it was just loud and obnoxious.  This is absolutely delightful.  The band has great singers.  Greg smith and Derek together and even Ted do a great job on the vocals.  Ted steals the opening slot, he just hammers it.  We’ve been out with Kansas, 38 Special and many others, but Ted’s great. 

I really have great, great respect for Kansas and I love those guys and they are amazing.  What is different is that Ted is so loud and so proud and he really is a hell of an act to follow. 

Jeb: This slot does not give Ted enough time to boast his politics, which he can do on his headlining tours as people are there only to see him.  On this tour, he is keeping it in check which is great for the music fans of Nugent.  Ted literally plays his ass off the entire time and the set list he has is awesome.

Ricky: Personally, I am so sick of hearing it…I don’t care who it is.  I just say, “Shut up and play.”  When they play their songs it is great.  Derek, I think, is better than he was before.  He sings with such a blue eyed soul sound that it is great.   

Jeb: Going back to what you were saying, Nugent, Styx and REO were all different, but I had multiple albums by all three bands in my record collection.  When I go see this tour the bottom line is the songs.  There are so many hits in one evening.

Ricky: It really comes down to that.  When I was with the Babys, we would tour with Styx.  John Waite and I would listen to them and we would watch the band. Just when you thought you figured out who the lead singer was, another guy would sing the next song.  They had three lead singers, but you could, within just a second of a song starting, immediately know it was a Styx song when it came on the radio, no matter who the singer was.  They would do these songs that were in these wild time signatures and the tune would be disguised as a melodic pop song.  Then, you add these huge prog rock vocals like in “Lady” or “Fooling Yourself” and it is just over the top.  The songs were so well written and arranged. 

They used to do that Two for Tuesday on the radio.  I was driving in my car one time and I heard them play “Too Much Time on My Hands” and they followed it with “Snowblind.”  First of all, “Too Much Time on My Hands” is such a simple little song, but there is something so catchy about it.  I was a guy who loved Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and really heavy stuff.  I heard “Snowblind” and that song has the coolest vibe.  We hardly ever play it live, but we used to when I joined the band around ten years ago.  Those two songs really show the diversity of Styx’s music, yet both of those songs sound like Styx. 

Jeb: You had a great career with the Babys, Bad English, Coverdale Page and so on.  You had pretty much become a studio rat and somehow Styx coaxed you out of the easy life to join them and tour non-stop.  How did they do that?

Ricky: I think what they did is that they reminded me that I didn’t get into the music business to sit in a darkened studio for 14 hours, producing people and looking at a computer screen.  That was not where my love of music came from.  You forget hearing the roar of the crowd and getting that immediate Pavlovian response.  A lot of people like moving on because the road is hard and they don’t like getting little sleep and then having to get up and do interviews, or to get to sound check, or whatever it might be.  For me, I missed it.  Todd Sucherman, the drummer for Styx and I  met in the LA studio world.  Our two styles just really go well together and I was always frustrated that he was in Styx and I couldn’t work with him as much as I wanted too. 

Styx has turned out to be a band where I have been able to put more of myself into the music than any other band that I have ever played with.  When I first joined, I was putting a little bit too much into a song…I did, however, learn every part that Chuck Panozzo ever played before I tore it apart and reconstructed it. 

I was afraid that I was putting too much of myself into it.  One time we were playing a song and I really put a lot of myself into this part in a song and I saw JY give me a glance.  I thought I had pushed it too far.  At the end of the show, JY comes up and says, “Ricky, you know that part of that song you did where I gave you that glance?  Keep doing it.”  That gave me the green light that I was doing it with respect to the original and that I was not rewriting the part.  That is actually a pet peeve of mine.  I hate going to see a band and you wait for your favorite part to come up and the guy sings a different melody, or the guitarist changes the solo.  We don’t like to do that.  We pay great respect and allegiance to the original recording and what people are familiar with and then we can add or embellish.  We give everybody what they came to hear first and then we can start fucking with it.  James Young will also remind you if he doesn’t agree with what you’re doing too [laughter].

Jeb: Did you come in too cocky?  How did you find your place in Styx?

Ricky: I don’t know why, or how, this happened, because I know my parents probably yelled at me more for not doing things, then for praising me for doing things.  Somehow, I got a work ethic where I would rehearse and learn a song to the point that I knew the parts better than the artist themselves.  I go into everything that way and I always have.  I lived in LA for 27 years and time after time I would see these amazing players get a really big shot like I got with Styx.  They would go to the audition and then when they didn’t get the job, they were shocked.  They would go into an audition without learning the material because they figured the reason they got the call was that the band wanted them because of their name.  They would walk in and say, “How does this song go?”  All that does is dishonor the band that has invited you into their house for a great opportunity.  You have told them it was not even important enough for you to learn their material before you got there.  It happened year after year and I would hear about these great players who were cocky and who would say, “Well, they obviously want me.  Until I am getting paid I’m not doing nothing.”  I have never been that way.  To my own demise, I have never been about the money and, as corny as this may sound, it has always been about the music.  I have turned down great offers because I didn’t think that I could play that certain type of music, night after night.  I think back and there were lean times where I think maybe I should have done it.  Somehow, I had the strength to turn those things down and now, in retrospect, I am glad because now I don’t have to live those things down. 

Jeb: I know you get this question because everyone wants to know…will the fans get new music from Styx?

Ricky: JY and I were working on a song just last night.  We continue to write all of the time.  Here’s the thing, we have a stockpile of three quarter written stuff because we don’t want to completely finish the songs until we can get everyone’s input, because that is what really makes it special.  To actually go in and spend the money to do it the way we insist it be done, doesn’t warrant the money to do it.  Here is the frustration, most of the stations that would play a Styx song already have at least five Styx songs in their rotation and they don’t need another Styx song and they don’t want anymore.  We are not going to get on the radio.  It is a tough pill to swallow.  We’ve decided that a new album will happen when the planets align.  I have a feeling it may happen now because we’ve proven ourselves in this touring format. 

Things are good in Styx World.  The DVD of Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight did very well for us.  A new album may not monetarily afford us, but it may give us the spiritual opportunity to exercise the songwriting and recording part of our art, which is so huge and fulfilling.  As a producer, I miss those days of what I was doing.  To just have it only be songwriting and producing does not do it.  I would rather have it be included with the live performance.  To be as good as this band is live is scary.  We have to make it look easy. Things happen every night that the audience may not notice, but I notice.  We will do something, all together, that we have never done and I wonder how we just did that.  This is a band that really gets it and puts in the time and has the right attitude.  James and Tommy are in a good place in the band.  Tommy is the songwriter and James just knows when it is time to do what.  We all chime in with what we have.  We all have a different hat to offer.  We need to know when to speak up and when to shut up.  We do all of this and it somehow keeps pushing us forward.  We all get along really well because we have great respect for each other as people as we well as musicians.  We really do hang out together and crack up and laugh and watch crazy stuff on HBO together.  A lot of bands don’t do that. When you see us up on stage, you are seeing us just continuing our day and I think that is why we have so much fun up there.  Styx was not like that back in the day.  They really didn’t hang out together.  This band has progressed and JY has found a way to not make this the New Styx.  This is a continuation and it took a lot of years to get here.  A lot of the credit goes to JY. 

Jeb:  Going way back, did you quit school during your senior year of college to become a professional musician?

Ricky: Yeah, I did.  I was a psych major and I had a job waiting for me in Shasta County with the Probation Department.  I was working with hardcore juvenile delinquents.  I think I would have pretty good at it, but I would probably be an alcoholic now.  I realized that some kids just don’t get a good shot in life.  The adult figures that they could have learned from were the worst examples they could learn from.  That used to break me up.  They were defeated before they were even out of their teenage years.  At a certain point, I realized that my real passion was music.  I realized that before I made the step to work in the Probation Department, I needed to take this music thing as far as I could.  I slept in motel rooms across the country and played in bars where they were only five people there and I had to play four sets a night.  You basically kept playing because the guy is paying you. 

I was in a really, really good band, but everybody was really crazy and wild and they were getting thrown in jail and stuff.  I realized that there was a reason I got thrown into that band, and that was that I needed to toughen up.  I was living out of a suitcase and sleeping on couches with twenty borrowed dollars in my pocket.  As good as that band was, I needed to know what kind of people were out there.  It was really a graduate course in hard knocks.  It was good for me because I became able to roll with things and accept things when the touring was hard and the hours were long.  The life I have now is a lot better than seven guys in a motel room with two twin beds in it.  Anytime anybody complains that they have two twin beds in their room instead of a king I just have to smile. 

I remember talking to Eddie Van Halen when I first joined the Babys and we took a New Year’s Eve gig for them at the Whisky A Go Go because David Lee Roth had broken his foot and they couldn’t do it.  I think their first album had just gone double platinum.   He said, “We just bought our parents their dream house.”  What I didn’t know, and I found out later, was that  even after that huge success, he and Alex were still sharing a room while they were on the road.  It is all that they knew.  I thought that was great. 

At a certain point people can become greedy and selfish.  I don’t want to say greedy and selfish because there is a side to that I get.  It is important to have privacy on the road and it is important to be treated special.  I get it.  How can you go up on stage and do anything special if you are tired and it is your 30th show in a row?  You need that treatment in order to be the best you can be.  There is another side to it where people become the cocky rock star and I don’t like that at all.

Jeb: It is the line between deserving it and thinking you deserve it. 

Ricky: That is a really good way of putting it. 

Jeb: Did you audition for the Babys in a music store? with a bass off the shelf?

Ricky: That one is true and it is really worse than that.  I almost didn’t go at all.  I think anybody that has been really down and out and all of a sudden, an opportunity comes about, a lot of people will sabotage themselves and shoot themselves in the foot. 

I was living in a cockroach infested apartment and was getting paid a hundred dollars a week under the table from a music store.  I was like, “What happened to my life?”  I had come to LA and I slept on couches and I finally get enough money to get an apartment but the smell of cockroach spray was so strong it was hard to even sleep at night. 

I was working at this music store in Los Angeles and the soundman for the Babys came in the store and said, “I’ve been looking for you. You’ve got to come audition.”  I had heard every guy that came into the store telling me that they auditioned telling me “I think I got the job for the Babys.”  He said, “No man, I’ve been telling them about you.”  I told him, “I can’t.”  He left and brought John Waite over.  John introduces himself and says,” Come audition.”  I say, “I can’t man, I’m working.”  He says, “Can’t you just tell your boss that you’re going to an audition?”  I said, “I can’t do it.”  Finally, he says, “When is your day off?”  This was on a Tuesdays.  I said, “Thursday.”  He said, “Learn these songs and come over on Thursday.” 

Thursday came and I wasn’t going to go.  This woman named Polly Hill lived in my building. Apparently Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had shared an apartment with her at one time when Mick Fleetwood heard them in a rehearsal hall and wanted them to join Fleetwood Mac.  She told me, “I drove them and I’m going to drive you.”  She made me go.  I went to the music store.  I had a ’68 Telecaster bass, which is awesome and is the bass I recorded the Babys records with.  At the time, I was embarrassed by it because it wasn’t new.  We weren’t thinking vintage in those days.  So, I grabbed a Music Man bass with the price tag swinging off the headstock and walked across the street and went into the audition.  Jonathan Cain was there and he had just joined the band.  Jonathan, John and I sang, “Isn’t It Time” and they taught me “Head First” and “Run to Mexico.”   We played and sang together and they left the room and came back fifteen minutes later with their manager and said, “Will you join the band?”  I think when you’re presented opportunities, no matter how much sand gets kicked in your face, do the work because when the opportunity finally presents itself, you have to be ready and shine like a diamond.  If you do that, then doors start swinging open right, left and center and you look back over a thirty year career, like I have had, and you realize that you’ve had opportunity because of that, that most people never get. 

Jeb: Talk about the song you wrote for the band called “Union Jacks.” 

Ricky:  That was actually three songs that I had written and Waite said, “I have an idea for a mini rock opera and this would be perfect for that.”  We wrote this eighteen minute piece of music that was really fricking cool, but the record company wouldn’t let us do it because they said that is not what the Babys are about.  My three songs got whittled down to one song that was about five minutes long and it became the title song. 

Jeb: Would the Babys have had more success if they were not called the Babys?

Ricky: Maybe, because punk came in right at the sweet spot of our success and that didn’t help.  The cool thing that was coming in were guys called Rat Scabies and we’re called the Babys.  It probably didn’t help but, as a matter of fact, John Waite and I wanted to change the name.  He asked me what we should change it to and I said, “The Bastards” and Waite loved it.  John told the record company that the next album that came out we wanted to be called The Bastards.  There was, that very year, a television series on called The Bastard.  The record company tried to say that we could not be called that word.  We were like, “NBC just had a special called that.  What do you mean we can’t say it?” Nobody would have it.  Chrysalis Records was not going to back that up and they said that the Babys was our name and that would be our legacy.  There was a moment where we tried to break out of it. 

Jeb: You are kind of the Kevin Bacon of Rock and Roll.  You have played with so many famous people.

Ricky: It is kind of funny, but I will always be the side guy.  The only band that I was the original member in was Bad English. Everything else I have done has been from an invitation from the band, which is good.  I am happy with it, but it is funny how I just kind of look at my career…I get great fan mail and I get great accolades from other players who like the way I play.  I think that is one of the best things.  However, I am not the original guy, just like in Styx.  It is a funny place to be sometimes.  I am kind of like the red haired stepchild. 

Jeb: I will say in Styx, you really seamlessly came in. I don’t remember anyone going, “Oh we hate the new bass player.”  It didn’t happen.

Ricky: [laughter] Thanks man.  I will tell you that I did get one email from a guy who said, “I’m coming to see you in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 27th and you better not suck.”  I thought, “Well, okay I better not suck.”  He actually wrote back and said, “Okay, you didn’t suck.”  I think that was a compliment. 

Jeb: Talk about playing with Jimmy Page. 

Ricky: In a nutshell, it was awesome.  Denny Carmassi and I were staying in some condos in Tahoe.  Geffen Records put us there to be away from them and the press and anybody that could see us.  We worked for about four or five months, flying in and out.  The day I met Jimmy he said, “Thanks for doing this.”  David Coverdale had called me and said, “Jimmy and I are doing this project.  We may end up being a super group, but we are not really sure what we are going to do. We need somebody to help us woodshed the material.  Would you be willing to do that?”  Bad English had opened up for Whitesnake and that is where David had seen me.  I was flattered that he liked my playing enough to ask me to do this.  I showed up and Jimmy had a big smile and thanked me for doing what we did.  Denny and I would get up about 7 in the morning and have coffee and work till about nine in the morning on stuff Jimmy had given us the night before.  We would get to the studio about ten…it wasn’t really a studio, it was a place that we had rented and we had set up in.  Jimmy and Denny and I would work till about one o’clock and then we would go get a bite to eat.  David would come in about two and we would start working on his end of it, the vocals on top of what we had learned. We did this as an ongoing process and we let the material sort of morph itself into whatever was comfortable.   I would then go back to Los Angeles and go back to my studio and work on parts and bring it back.  We kept moving forward, but I never thought I was going to be going up to record the record because they were on the phone every day with guys like John Entwistle, who was my hero.  When they handed me my flights to go to Vancouver and start recording I was kind of shocked.  I was also delighted.

Jimmy and I would go out at night to clubs and I would ask him about the Yardbirds and he would tell me great stories of going out on the road on a bus that had no air conditioning or heat.  He would say there were four soul review bands on the tour and they were the token white English band on tour and they were touring around freezing their asses off.  Jeff Beck finally left and told him that he could have all of this.  Hearing it from Jimmy was just so great. 

A year later they were done with the overdubs and they told me to come up and do the video for “Pride and Joy.”  David pulled me aside said, “We are going to get together to do something live.”  Being sequestered and being away from everything we really became friends, which was great. 

Jeb:  I know you have to be professional, but I would have had to try to get Zeppelin IV signed by Jimmy. 

Ricky: Jimmy gave me this Zeppelin framed piece of art.  I can’t remember the artist, or how it came about, but there were only a few of them made.  He gave it to me and I asked him if he would sign it for me, so I didn’t take it home with me, and now, I kick myself for that.  Because the project moved around so much, I forgot it until the project was over and I thought, “Wait a minute, where did that go?” I have no idea where it is, or who ended up getting it.  I wish I still had it.