Born 23 October 1931, Guthrie, Oklahoma
Singer / songwriter / saxophonist
Marvin Phillips is best remembered as one half of the R&B/doowop duo Marvin and Johnny and for his superb rocker "Have Mercy Miss Percy" (1956), which was credited to Long Tall Marvin. Phillips has always credited Louis Jordan as his principal musical influence, both as a singer and a sax player.
Born in Oklahoma, Phillips moved to Los Angeles in his teen years. He taught himself to play the saxophone by blowing along with records. By 1949 he was playing in the Richard Lewis band, which included another saxophone player, Emory Perry (born March 1, 1928, Sherman, Texas), who would later become Marvin's singing partner. In 1950, Phillips joined Three Dots & A Dash, an R&B styled vocal group that was part of Big Jay McNeely's orchestra. One of the other members was Jesse Belvin, who was the first lead vocalist of the group. After Belvin left over a money dispute, Phillips became the lead singer and he can be heard on three of the group's Imperial singles.
In 1952 Phillips and Belvin teamed up as Jesse and Marvin and became R&B's first successful duo when their "Dream Girl" (Specialty 447) hit # 2 on the R&B charts in early 1953. Duos were fairly common in country music, but black singers had traditionally worked in trios, quartets and larger groups. Marvin formed his own five-piece band, which he named Marvin Phillips and His Men From Mars. Their first release was "Wine Woogie", recorded at the same Specialty session as "Dream Girl". In February 1953 Phillips cut three solo sides for John Dolphin's Recorded in Hollywood label, after which he returned to Specialty. Following the success of "Dream Girl", Specialty boss Art Rupe wanted him to record with Jesse Belvin again, but Belvin had been drafted and was unavailable. Marvin then brought along a friend, singer-pianist Carl Green. Their first record, "Baby Doll" retained all the elements of the Jesse and Marvin sound and it went to # 9 on the R&B charts in December 1953. Phillips felt that "Marvin and Carl" didn't sound good and he came up with the name Marvin & Johnny. There would be several other Johnnys in the decade ahead, but Marvin Phillips, with his distinctive deep baritone, would always be Marvin.
Three 1954 Specialty singles were less successful and on July 13, 1954, Saul Bihari of Modern Records signed Marvin and Johnny away from Specialty. By then Carl Green had gone in other directions and he was replaced by Marvin's old buddy Emory Perry, who not only sang but also played the sax breaks. Perry became Marvin's longest running Johnny. Their first 45 for Modern coupled "Tick Tock" with "Cherry Pie". Both sides sold well ("Tick Tock" went to # 9 on the R&B charts) and changed Marvin & Johnny from a largely local to a nationally touring act. A remake of "Cherry Pie" by the white duo Skip & Flip would reach # 11 on the pop charts in 1960. Later Modern singles included "Sugar", "Ko Ko Mo" (a cover of a Gene and Eunice tune and a big pop hit for Perry Como) and "Butter Ball", but the duo had no more chart entries after "Tick Tock".
While still performing with Emory Perry as Marvin and Johnny, Phillips signed a separate contract as a solo artist with Modern in November 1955. Only two singles resulted from this new pact, the first one ("Wonderful, Wonderful One"/ "Yes I Do") credited to Marvin Phillips and the second one to Long Tall Marvin. That second single, "Have Mercy Miss Percy", released in June 1956, was a frantic rocker, with Kenny Battle blowing his lungs out on tenor sax. In Holland and Belgium the record was released on the Moonglow label, coupled with "Yama Yama Pretty Mama" by Richard Berry, another wild R&R number from the Modern catalogue.
After Modern, Marvin and Johnny recorded eight sides for Aladdin Records (1956-58). My favourite of these is "Yak Yak" (1957), with Plas Johnson on sax, Ernie Freeman on piano and Earl Palmer on drums. (But it had a poor review in Billboard - "Unimaginative wax".)
During the first half of the 1960s Phillips recorded occasionally with a number of other Johnnys (Willie Egan, Rufus Anderson, Bobby Sheen), with releases on Firefly, Swingin', Jamie, Felsted, Kent and Renco, but nothing clicked. By 1965 Marvin had retired from his active music career to take a job with the City of Los Angeles. Eventually he sold the performance rights to the name Marvin and Johnny to his nephew, Sheridan 'Rip' Spencer, a former member of the Valiants and Phil Spector's Alley Cats and Spencer has carried on the name with interchangeable Johnnys ever since. But on October 9, 1993 Marvin Phillips came out of retirement to perform with Spencer as Marvin and Johnny at an oldies concert at Hollywood's Greek Theater in front of 5,000 fans. The duo also undertook a trip to England in 1999, performing at the Rhythm Riot in Camber, Sussex, with great success.
Now in his eighties, Marvin Phillips is still living in Los Angeles, but he does no longer perform.
Discography by Marv Goldberg :
Acknowledgements : Jim Dawson, Richie Reicheg.
Dik, August 2014
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