Blow by Blow with Phil Chen

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL Observer senior writer

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

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THE 17th staging of Tribute To The Greats takes place July 26 at the Chinese Benevolent Association in St Andrew. Dubbed 'The Chinese Connection', it salutes the contribution of the Chinese to Jamaica's popular music. Today, the Jamaica Observer presents the third in a six-part series on some of the recipients.

During a 1978 recording session with rock singer Rod Stewart, Jamaican bassist Phil Chen says he was unable to come up with lines to a song Warner Bros were banking on to be a big hit.

It all came together when he listened to the theme song from a popular television show.

"I was listening to Lone Ranger an' Tonto an' sey 'hmmm'. I jus' mek a few changes an' dat's how the bass line for Do Ya Think I'm Sexy came 'bout," he said.

Do Ya Think I'm Sexy is one of the many hit songs Chen has played in a remarkable career. Though his resume includes sessions and tours with Stewart, Jeff Beck, The Doors, The Eurythmics, Robin Gibb, Jackson Browne, Eddie Van Halen and Pete Townsend, he is largely unknown to Jamaicans.

In an interview with the Jamaica Observer last week, he acknowledged this anonymity.

"People don't know mi because I left Jamaica so long ago. People who do know mi go back to my days with the Vagabonds or with Rod," said Chen.

The teenaged Chen was fascinated with ska while at St George's College in the early 1960s. He was also intrigued by the progressive grooves of Carlos Malcolm and the Afro Jamaicans.

Chen joined the Vagabonds as a guitarist shortly after leaving St George's. His cousin, Colston Chen, was leader and bass player for the band, a ska unit that played Kingston's club scene.

In 1964, the Vagabonds were offered an opportunity to travel to Britain where ska was catching on among British youth and its growing Caribbean population. Vocalists Jimmy James and Count Prince Miller were part of the band which found getting regular gigs tough when they landed.

After six months, Coulston Chen returned to Jamaica and Chen took over bass duties. He said the Vagabonds' fortunes changed after some advice from Peter Meaden, who was managing hot rock band The Who at the time.

"He said drop this ska thing an' do some soul 'cause that's what the people love here. So, we started doing songs by Bobby Blue Bland, Curtis Mayfield and Ben E King an' things started to look up," Chen recalled.

Through regular shows with the Vagabonds, Chen began rubbing shoulders with big names in rock. His reputation grew after leaving the band and one of the musicians he met was Beck, a talented guitarist with a massive reputation in Britain and the United States.

"He was looking for musicians for this album he was recording an' he used to see me playing in clubs along with drummer Richard Bailey. That's how wi did the album," said Chen.

The 'album' was 1975's Blow by Blow, arguably the most acclaimed fusion work in pop music. Chen and Bailey, a Trinidadian, played on most of its nine songs.

"We never knew it was going to be that big, it really opened doors for mi in the rock world. I remember meeting Eddie Van Halen years after an' the first thing he said to me was 'You played on Blow by Blow'."

It was through Blow by Blow that Stewart contacted Chen to play on his Foot Loose & Fancy Free album. That was followed by the Blondes Have More Fun set which became a monster seller on the strength of Do Ya Think I'm Sexy. He toured with Stewart for five years, playing on songs like Passion and Hot Legs, which are also among the singer's biggest hits.

Increased studio work in the US saw Chen relocating there in the early 1980s. Now in his late 60s, he is still in demand, playing regularly on the US west coast with guitarist Robbie Krieger of The Doors.

Chen says he has not been to Jamaica in 25 years but maintains ties to his roots by playing and recording mento and ska. Three years ago, he played on singer Suzanne Couch's tribute album to Desmond Dekker.

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