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Phil with Fender Triple - O 2016Phil Manning must be one of the most underrated musicians in Australian music history. Along with his band mates from Chain and other legendary Australian acts like Dutch Tilders, Carson, The Foreday Riders, and The Aztecs to name a few, they pioneered an Antipodean form of the blues which carries on today through a new generation of blues aficionados. As testament to Phil’s standing in the blues community, he got to play alongside global greats such as Muddy Waters, Duster Bennet, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and so many others. Over the last few decades, Phil’s musical tastes have broadened to include folk, celtic and world music flavours in his music, with a leaning toward acoustic guitar. The Melbourne Guitar Show is honoured to include Phil as one of the featured performers this year. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Phil to discuss the past, present and the guitar show.

When did you first hear the blues Phil?
Well it’s a matter of what you want to call the blues. If you want to lump Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry in there … I heard those guys when I was about 15 or even earlier. But if you’re talking about the Chicago blues, I heard that when I was still at school. There was an American basketball coach came to our  local town. He brought a whole bunch of records with him. Also when I was 17, I went to arts school in Hobart and there was another American there named Bill Hicks. He had an amazing collection of Robert Johnson, Leadbelly … piles of wonderful stuff. About that time I really discovered Chicago blues. I used to work with with a harmonica player named Ian Beecroft and we’d go around to his place and drink red wine, listen to Buddy Guy and Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf.

Being part of Chain during a period where there were many great local blues artists such as Dutch Tilders and Brod Smith with Carson, you guys were pioneers of Australian blues. Do you think there was a distinct Australian blues sound?
It definitely has a distinct feel. What’s interesting is that blues is far more formulated than most people think. In our late teens, we just thought that most blues was jammed. We didn’t realise until we toured with Muddy Waters, how regulated the bands were. Even though it sounds loose and flowing, most of the time it is quite tightly arranged. We were far less arranged. We tended to take ideas and jam on them. Albert Collins, the great Texan guitar player … he heard us play and his comment was … “well, I can tell it’s blues but it ain’t blues like I ever heard it before.” So I think there is no doubt that blues has developed in its own way here. We didn’t get to see a lot of blues music live until we had careers ourselves because they just didn’t tour out here. Whereas the British musicians, the had a plethora of American blues players going through England and Europe. We tended to get our influences form listening to records. I guess all of that adds up to doing things differently, the same way that the British blues scene was nothing like the Chicago or Texan blues scenes. The English players, Clapton and Peter Green developed their own style and sound, virtually from the fact of living in a different country with a different culture. At the end of the day, it’s really the music of black Americans but because of the looseness of it, the amount of variety you can make out of very simple ideas, it has become a universal language for musicians. It’s amazing how pop styles come and go but the one thing that remains strong is the blues. I still get a thrill listening to the records I played when I was 16 or 17.

Chain recorded the Two of a Kind album with Pee Wee Madison and Mojo Buford from the Muddy Waters band. That was quite a coup recording with those guys back then wasn’t it? Did you learn anything from those guys?
I don’t know if we learned anything because we were too stoned. I mentioned before that there was a very strict discipline within Muddy’s band. Sam Lawhorn was his number one guitar player and Pee Wee Madison was like the second guitar player in the band. They got in the studio and they had a huge argument. Sam ended up getting drunk and going back to the motel. Pee Wee wrote Two of a Kind. The reason it came about was… we were hanging out in the dressing rooms and travelling together and one morning at 1 or 2 in the morning, Pee Wee knocked on the door and said I have written this song. He stood there in the hallway and played it to me and he said he really wanted to record it with Chain. We got onto Michael Gudinski and we went in and recorded. One side of the album is the stuff with Pee Wee and Mojo Buford and then the other side is a full side version of How To Set Fire To An Elephant. In both of those albums I tended to feature very little. I was very much a rhythm role. On the Elephant side we had Sleepy Lawrie playing lead and on the other side the emphasis was on the Chicago guys.

I want to throw some names at you. Could you briefly tell me what the connection was and a little about the experience … Bo Diddley?
We had a ten minute rehearsal with him then went on stage that night for an hour and a half and it was just sensational. He was a great guy, a really, really lovely human being. He was fun. One night when we were backing him, he put his guitar down, kicked the drummer off and played the drums and he was a fantastic drummer.

That makes sense though, with his percussive guitar style …
It really does.

Freddie King?
I really didn’t have much to do with Freddie. He tended to keep to himself but it was a great tour. It was a good tour, it had Hound Dog Taylor, Alexis Corner,  Duster Bennet, Freddie King of course, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

What about Muddy Waters … did you have much to do with him?
I had quite a bit to do with all of them actually. There’s not much you can say about Muddy other than he was the man! He was a fantastic, great performer and really nice man. He gave me a lecture one night about how I should look after myself. It was like your grandfather talking to you.

Albert Collins?
He was fantastic. Once again, just really nice people. What was interesting and a real shock was that Albert had one guy who was white and he played two saxes at once. He played with Chain once. So he had this one white guy in the band because when they played parts of the south, it made it easier to get motels and hire vehicles. This was in the early 1980s and that staggered me.

You’re known as both an acoustic and electric guitarist. Usually a guitarist specialises in one of those. Do you have periods where you just feel like playing acoustic or electric for months on end where one interests you a lot more?
It gets a bit like that. Sometimes I will go for ages without playing electric guitar. Apart from doing Chain occasionally … we still do short tours. Apart from that, the only other time I play electric is when I’m just jamming and having fun. When we were touring heavily with Chain, I didn’t get to do any acoustic stuff at all. Because I love playing acoustic, it was frustrating. Then I became an acoustic player, didn’t play much electric and it now has balanced itself out.

You’ve been a Strat guy for a long time, what else have you played?
I’ve had many guitars over the years. Both Fender and Gibson but since 1988 I have been a Fender Australia artist. I have a cheap Gretsch electric, a Clapton model Strat, which I got in ’88 and a Mexican Powerhouse Strat, which I use for slide but because I’ve been playing  acoustic more, I haven’t really worried about electrics as much. I had the Phil Manning Maton made for me back in the 70s. The original prototype … I changed the pickups in it and did a couple of other things to it. I gave that to my son for his 21st.

What about amps?
Fender Deville, Fender Cyberchamp and a Fender Ultralight, which is main one I use for electric. They only made them for a year but it is light and great for travel.

Your main acoustic?
It’s a Fender Paramount series 000. It’s a new series of Fender acoustics, mid range prices, mahogany back sides and neck, spruce face, single cutaway onboard Fishman pickup system and tuner. I’ve never really liked Fender acoustics that much in the past. Until recently I was a Guild endorsee but Fender sold Guild. Anyway they brought out this new model and it is dynamite. Every time I pick it up it feels brand new.

You’re playing the Melbourne Guitar Show this year …
On the Saturday I will be doing a solo spot at 12.15 and then at 1.15 we do this big thing which is being hosted by Nick Charles and will feature Jimi Hocking, Geoff Achison, Sam See, Shannon Bourne and myself. A bit of a round robin, doing our own songs and then we’ll do some songs together.

The stage manager at the guitar show will be Shannon Sullivan. You played with his dad Barry in Chain. What are your memories of ‘Big Goose’ (as they called him) and his bass playing?
He was such a great bass player, ridiculous how good he was. The one I love to tell the most is the time we were doing a session at Armstrong Studios. During a take he missed one note. It was a really, really complicated Tamla Motown feel with a lot of chords. Barry missed one note but apart from that, it was a perfect take. We said, we will get you to drop it in. So Barry went into the studio and they ran the tape again. They stopped the tape and said, come on Barry, play along and he said … I was. What he played was so perfect that they couldn’t even hear that he was playing over it. Matt Taylor and I hadn’t played with Barry for many years and he came to one of our shows, a couple of years before he died. He sat in on one song and it was unbelievably different. He was incredibly original. He was a guitar player and not that great but when he went on to bass, he absolutely shone.

Your current album is Checkmate Moon, which was recorded quite a few years ago … is there a new one coming?
I am writing at the moment, very slowly. I have about 40 or 50 partly written songs. Once I get them sorted it will happen fairly quickly. I am not a pure blues artist. I mix country with blues and world music and it all comes out somehow. Trying to get an album that works as a collection of pieces is an important part of the process. I put them into some sort of position where they create a picture. One thing I  wouldn’t mind doing is getting together with a great bunch of musicians and doing an electric album. I’m almost semi-retired now, not that I ever would. I enjoy paying too much but you don’t want to do mile after mile up the highway.

Apart from the Melbourne Guitar Show, what else do you have coming up?
I play the last weekend of July at the Echuca Blues Festival … playing Saturday and Sunday at various venues. One of the venues is the Campaspe Library, one of favourite gigs. Just me playing to whoever turns up at the library. It’s a bit like playing in a lounge room. Later in the year, I have the Wangaratta Blues and Jazz Festival with Chris Wilson and James Southwell and then the Sydney Blues Festival.

Melbourne Guitar Show ticket info here

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