"Stu Who?" is one of the most appropriately titled books I have ever read, as despite a very extensive career as a film and TV composer, record producer, arranger, jazz pianist, A&R man… – you name it, if its part of the music business chances are he’s done at least a little of it – very few people outside the music industry have any idea who Stu Phillips is. Even film music aficionados probably only know him as the man who wrote the music for Battlestar Galactica, and just maybe recall his name from various other Glen A. Larson TV productions. The fact is Stu Phillips has written the music for two dozen movies and innumerable – though around an estimated 350 – TV episodes. He has had by most standards an extraordinarily successful career, though one of the reasons he remains little known is that the films he scored were almost all here-today, gone tomorrow B movies. That elusive break into A pictures never quite arrived, though the 1969 Sidney Lumet directed feature The Appointment came close – it starred Omar Sharif – with Phillips replacing two previous scores, the first by Michel Legrand, the second by John Barry. Only for the film to vanish, bar the very rare TV showing, into distribution limbo due to legal wranglings. Other Phillips scored movies such as Macon County Line (1974) were hits at the time but have since sunk into obscurity, while one film which was a flop now has a cult following, the score/songs from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) being released on CD to coincide with the publication of this book, and reviewed by Glen Aitken on FMOTW this month. Phillips also scored two films featuring two of today’s superstars, though back in 1966 Harrison Ford had only a very minor role in the James Coburn caper, Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round, while Jack Nicholson was just beginning the road to superstardom in the 1967 Biker flick, Hells Angels on Wheels.
Phillips work for television can be divided into two periods; the 1960’s, which included a lot of writing for The Donna Reed Show and The Monkees, as well as various specials, and the 1970’s-80’s, which mainly involved scoring episodes of Glen A. Larson TV show’s often imitations of far better feature films, titles ranging from The Six Million Dollar Man to Switch and Quincy, to Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century, Spiderman, BJ and the Bear, The Fall Guy, Knight Rider, Automan, Manimal, and The Highwayman. Phillips retired from such work in the late 1980’s, as he says, acknowledging that this TV material really wasn’t very good, that there was little or no satisfaction in writing the scores for episode after episode of car chases and the like; by this point he came to accept that scoring major features were a goal seemingly destined to never be fulfilled. Since "retirement" he has concentrated on enjoying time with his wife and family, travelling, playing tennis, painting, classical composition and of course writing this present book. However, it was never meant to be like this, and the subtitle - Forty Years of Navigating the Minefields of the Music Business – tells the rest of the story, for this isn’t just, or even mainly, a book about writing film and television music.
Stu Phillips originally wanted to be an arranger in the Morton Gould / David Rose mould, and his book follows his story from 1940’s New York to LA, via army service in the far east in the 1950’s, taking in everything from playing the piano in upmarket bars to working as accompanist for nightclub singers, leading a jazz trio and various other jazz bands, through to becoming a pop-MOR arranger and record producer before eventually breaking into TV and movies in the 1960’s. There are multi-million selling pop hits along the way –Phillips produced The Marcel’s recording of "Blue Moon" (as featured in An American Werewolf in London, among other films) – and many other landmark popular songs. Along the way he became fencing partner to Sammy Davis Jnr., produced Nina Simone, and wrote arrangements of Battlestar Galactica and The Twilight Zone for John Williams to conduct with The Boston Pops. Thus proving Williams at least was not concerned that while Galactica ripped off Star Wars wholesale, Phillips was simply a man doing a commendable job. His score was far better than the tedious show / movie ever deserved; I still recall the boredom of sitting through the 148 minute theatrical version of the pilot movie in the biggest cinema in Dorset, enduring the entire excitement free, characterless bore in Sensurround. Far more rewarding is Phillips re-recording of the score, which I reviewed for FMOTW here.
There are a lot of fascinating stories in "Stu Who?", including guest appearances from many famous, and not so famous but very influential names. For anyone who wants to know the ins and outs, the wheeling and dealing which goes on behind the scenes, the egos and the deceit, of the movie and record business, this is a good place to learn.
Though the production values are excellent the book does feel in a way like a home made volume, if only in the sense that it is clearly the author’s own work. There is no ghost writer or professional co-author here, and Stu talks to the reader directly in a manner which is refreshingly forthright, honest and sometimes charmingly innocent. He comes across as a nice man, afraid of appearing egotistical about his undoubted achievements, trying to pick a path between boastfulness and false modesty. It’s a difficult note to hit and he knows it, rightfully proud of what he has achieved, a little resentful of some of the things which didn’t go his way, and ruefully self-depreciating over some of his mistakes and almost-hits. Sometimes he grinds his axe in a most direct way unusual in print, taking Rhino Records to task for repeatedly failing to credit him on re-issues of records he has produced, while at other times always at pains to note who among the celebrities and famous artists he has known are the ones he considers the good guys.
The proof-reading is not all it could be, but then this is a fault of many books today, and most readers won’t be too concerned over the occasional mistake. The rough, ready and highly enthusiastic style (which comes with some "PG 13" discussion of the author’s early sex life which may embarrass his adored family) makes this an engaging book, and the tales told within are an education as the real nature of the record and movie business. This is more a volume about work and business than a personal autobiography, and there is more material about the worlds of jazz and pop records than about film and TV music, but it is still a highly recommended read for anyone interested in any of these fields. You will find out more here than in any number of perhaps more artfully written, officially approved biographies and autobiographies from big name publishers. "Stu Who?" is a labour of love written by a man who clearly loves music and the life he has led in the musical world. Its well worth $29.95 of anyone’s money. Order your copy today.