Tunesmith Friday Review

Harmony with strings

Guitarist Philips. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Guitarist Philips. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam  

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The name of Philips, the veteran guitarist, always figured during my discussions with Radha Vijayan (director of a Music school in Singapore) on those lovely guitar pieces of the film songs of the yore, every time we chat on FB. And it was during the rainy Deepavali week, I met 80-year-old Philips at his house in Beracah Street, off Secretariat Colony. He had spelt magic with his ten fingers in a western instrument, innovatively to record some of the immortal pieces. Settling down, as I sing some of the bits played by him, I could see his eyes glowing.

How was all this possible with no pioneers or peers when he started his career?

“I started playing guitar when I was 12” begins Philips, who hails from a family of musicians. His father, a post master, was also a violinist. Philips says he learnt the guitar, its basics and styles all by himself.

After two years of practice in a hollow acoustic guitar, Philips ventured into playing in films. Music director S. Rajeswara Rao, amazed at his talent, took him into his fold. Despite stout opposition from other music directors, at Gemini Studios, Rajeswara Rao did not budge. Rao thus laid the foundation for a long standing career in film music for Philips. Philips debuted as a guitarist in M.K. Radha ‘s film ‘Apoorva Sagodarargal’.

Soon Philips was getting offers from some of the leading music directors that included K.V. Mahadevan, Visvanathan – Ramamurthy, Sathyam and V. Kumar. His flair for the instrument earned him a special reputation in the field and at a very young age he was allowed to play the guitar portions of a song while scores would be kept ready for other instruments. Initially, for a few years it was his acoustic hollow guitar with which he created wonders.

Listening to American bands through records and radio, Philips went on to create his own version of Electric Guitar. He assembled it with the used items available from Moor Market.

“The old pick up fit in my hollow guitar sounded different when connected to the amplifier. It was a thrilling moment for me on hearing the sound that emanated from the small speaker. I found that the sound varied according to the position of the plectrum on the strings which enabled me innovate new tones.”

Philips composed music for about ten films for Salem Modern Theatres but not in his name and then returned to Madras and began to play for music directors as soloist. Noel Grant, ace drummer, was his close friend in M.S. Visvanathan’s group. Philips suggestions on rhythm patterns were further improvised by Noel, the result of which are the immortal melodies of yore.

He was toast of the music directors from Bombay such as Hemanth Kumar, Madan Mohan, Chithra Gupta and Ravi, who wanted Philips change base to Mumbai. “When I played for Hemanth Kumar’s ‘Miss Mary,’ he was so impressed that he wanted me to be with him always. He even wanted to adopt me as his son.”

On his knowledge of Western music theory, Philip said, “Despite my busy schedule in film recordings I kept reading the theory of Western music with more focus on its rudiments. I took more interest in the science of harmony. Applying whatever I learnt I have helped several music directors during re-recording. To date students of Western music, who want to learn harmony, come home with great enthusiasm but stop abruptly after a few classes because of my austerity towards doing the homework right.” Even some of the leading music directors have learnt the art of harmony from him.

It is interesting to note that Philips was one of the pioneers of forming a musician’s union with formidable rules such as prompt payment upon completion of a recording, compulsory off on Sundays and festival days. Philips recalls, from his memory, names of musicians who had worked with him for MSV- Noel Grant (drums), Mangalamurthy (accordion), Nanjappa (flute), Fobes (violin), Henry Daniel and Joseph Krishna, their sincerity and dedication in giving their best.

The song ‘Avalukenna’ (‘Server Sundaram’) features all these musicians. MSV during his heydays was a hard taskmaster who would leave no stone unturned till he gets what he wanted. During a particular recording, that started at 7 a.m., the work went on till next day morning. Philips pleaded with MSV to let him go but in vain. Finally, when it was pack up, Philips had to rush directly from the recording studio to the church where his wedding was to take place.

Later, Philips worked as an assistant to music director Sathyam. Gangai Amaren who always had a great respect for Philips had him as his assistant for several of his films.

Philips even at this age analyses various music software and keeps working on ‘Sibelius’ but all for personal satisfaction. “There is no end for learning” he says.

I signed off by singing ‘Oru Naal Yaaro’ (‘Major Chandrakanth’).

(This monthly column on celebrities connected to the music world features a tete-e-tete with guitarist Philips this time)

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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 6:16:00 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/tunesmith-column-guitarist-philips/article6639721.ece

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