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A Tribute To My Musical Influences

For those who have found themselves enjoying the music I create, there may be some interest in the musical influences that I consider to have had the greatest impact on my writing. Or maybe there’s no such interest…but I want to pay tribute to those folks anyway!

Phil Keaggy

Phil Keaggy is known primarily for his guitar playing…and deservedly so…he is among the most innovative guitarists in the world. And I’m not alone in saying that: a number of years ago, the readers of Guitar Player magazine voted him the world’s top pop guitarist a few times. There are also many legends about which guitar heroes admire him or were influenced by him. It doesn’t really matter that most of the legends are probably not true. I think the real testimony here is that the legends persist. Anyway, while Phil’s guitar work has touched me very, very deeply over the years, I am not a serious guitarist…and his true influence on me comes from another area of his music…his songwriting.
I have to say that Phil has probably influenced me more than any other writer I’ve ever heard. I don’t love everything he’s ever written….but, I don’t love everything that ANYONE has written, either! What I have absorbed from my many years of listening to Phil’s music is his absolute brilliant creativity. I believe he has written more beautiful musical passages than anyone else I’ve heard. His incredible sense of melody is so powerful…it seems so intuitive….that I believe that’s what has touched me and stayed with me as I developed as a writer. He always seems to have something fresh and unexpected as he writes…and this is what I consciously try to bring to my music. I don’t see any purpose in re-writing something that’s been written before. I’m sure I do (as my buddy Steve Bashaw sez: “There are only so many mathematically possible combinations of notes…and most are very unappealing!)…but I am always looking to stay fresh and creative. This is Phil’s great musical legacy in my life.

I must say another thing about Phil. His sense of “connectedness” musically also stays with me. He has “stayed true” to the music that flows inside them. I’ve seen him grow as a musician, but I’ve never known him to sacrifice his own unique musical voice. And that is to his credit…if not always to his commercial success.

Lastly, Phil is one of the sweetest souls I’ve ever known. I met him in 1975 when he and his lovely wife, Bernadette, allowed me…an almost 18-year-old radio guy, to come to Phil’s house and interview him. It was subsequently featured as a cover story in Harmony magazine (partially transcribed here)…the only trade publication of its day for the “Jesus Music” industry. Phil continued to tolerate my occasional intrusions in his life for a number of years thereafter….including inviting me backstage a number of times during concerts. He is truly a humble, gentle man….a great example of “character”. I think anyone who knows Phil would say that they have been impacted as much by his sweet spirit as his music. He is a class act.

Web Site:

Phil has recorded scads of albums over the years. His two-disc Time (1995) retrospective covers most of his greatest recorded moments. But some other nuggets are worth noting. Phil’s first album, What a Day! (1973) was recorded with Phil playing all the instruments, locked in a motion picture recording studio for 6 days with engineer Gary Hedden. It’s a beautiful expression of one man’s musical gifts (also was recently remastered and re-released, and sounds even better). Glass Harp Live at Carnegie Hall (1971) is a stunning album from a power rock trio. I gotta tell you…I’d-a hated to be The Kinks that night and have to follow THAT act!! The never-before-released album finally came out on CD in the 90s…although Phil had given me a copy on tape some 20 years before. If you like rock guitar, you need to hear the album…and remember when it was recorded. Phil was only 21 at the time! Phil has recorded many instrumental albums…I haven’t even heard some of the most recent ones. The ones I love and recommend strongly: The Master and The Musician (1978) is an amazing collection of Old English and gentle acoustic guitar melodies with additional instrumentation. The Wind and the Wheat (1987) is beautiful acoustic and light electric stuff…and features one of Phil’s greatest most inspiring musical moments: “March of the Clouds”! And Beyond Nature (1991) features what I believe is Phil’s most stunning composition…an incredible acoustic guitar piece called “County Down”. If you love beautiful instrumental music, you MUST hear this song at least ONCE in your life!

Burt Bacharach

Burt Bacharach’s music was so much a part of my youth in the 60s and 70s that it’s hard to overstate his impact. And although many of the old records don’t hold up to contemporary scrutiny, the songs most certainly do. Freshness, creativity, sophisticated melodies, the strong connection between lyrical imagery and “the hook”…that’s what Bacharach means to me. My son Matt and I had the pleasure of catching him in concert with the Columbus Symphony recently. What a musical powerhouse he is…and still going strong!

Web Site:

A House Is Not A Home, Alfie, Always Somethin’ There To Remind Me, Arthur’s Theme, Casino Royale Theme, Close To You, Do You Know The Way To San Jose?, God Give Me Strength, I Say A Little Prayer, Look Of Love, One Less Bell To Answer, Promises Promises, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, That’s What Friends Are For, This Guy’s in Love With You, What The World Needs Now Is Love, Wishin’ & Hopin’…need I say more?? 😉

David Benoit

I discovered the magical music of David Benoit in the late Eighties when I took a chance and bought an album called “Every Step of the Way.” It was filled with great instrumental music…jazz-tinged pop or pop-infused jazz, I guess. What a find! After that, I ended up buying a few of his older releases and most of the ones that have been released since. David plays piano, but he’s a marvelous composer and arranger as well. He has strong roots in jazz, but such strong pop sensibilities that he appeals even to those who don’t normally tend to embrace jazz. He has certainly influenced my piano playing, but again, he’s another one who continues to surprise me with fresh, sophisticated sounds. I love his remarkable sense of melody. Over the last few years, his albums have sounds more “samey” to me. I think this is always a danger when listening too much to one artist. He still just slays me with a lot of the featured piano pieces on his album, however. And I continue to be blown away by what I would term his “musical intelligence”. He has such a command of a variety of styles. He’s just flat GOOD.

Web Site:

You are really safe with most of his albums…the early stuff is not as interesting to me personally, but definitely everything after Every Step of the Way is quite good. My favorite album of his, though, is Letter to Evan. Such beautiful music! I love it all, but the theme from “On Golden Pond” and “Looking Over Eastlake” are as beautiful as any music I’ve ever heard.

Paul McCartney

What is there to say that hasn’t been said about Paul McCartney as a writer? I’m not that knowledgeable about which songs Paul took the lead on and which ones John did. There are some who claim that he was a thief…that his work was almost totally derivative. I’m not really old enough to have judged that back then…all I know is that I find him quite unique among songwriters… espcially in his love of strong melodic hooks. That’s the impact he’s had on me.

Web Site: Paul McCartney

MY RECOMMENDED MOMENTS from Paul McCartney & The Beatles:
Maybe I’m Amazed, Fool on the Hill, Daytripper, Yesterday, Michelle, Eleanor Rigby, Norwegian Wood…and about a billion others! 😉

Russ Freeman & The Rippingtons

You know, everyone needs a favorite band…and for quite awhile, when asked, my answer has been The Rippingtons. I first discovered the band back in the 80s when I was on a camping trips with some friends. I was up late on a Saturday night and a local jazz station played The Ripps’ album “Kilimanjaro” in its entirety. I was so blown away that I dragged the family along to the record store on the way home from the camping trip!
I have seen the Ripps in concert a couple times…always impressive. I’ve even exchanged email with their former sax player, Jeff Kashiwa…and sent him a copy of a song I wrote for the band. He indicated that he liked it and was going to play it for them…so I was completely honored at that privilege.
The Rippingtons are very fresh and exciting. At their best, they are as good a band as I’ve ever heard!
Sadly, they don’t seem to be at their best much anymore. This is probably a function of the market as much as anything else. Smooth jazz music (the only genre where they are likely to be found) is an embarrassment of musical pablum. And from what I’ve heard in the last few years, Russ hasn’t felt the need to go beyond what is required to make a living.
I long for the good ol’ days. Russ Freeman is a monster on both guitar and as a musician. I dearly love their best work.

Web Site: Rippingtons.

MY RECOMMENDED MOMENTS from The Rippingtons:
My favorite of their songs is Song of the Sirens (originally from Kilimanjaro…), but you absolutely MUST heard their album, Live in LA. It is certainly one of the most exciting live albums I’ve ever heard. Killler stuff!


It was my pleasure to listen to about an album and a half of Honeytree’s (Nancy Henigbaum) music again earlier this week…and I think I had forgotten how powerfully she had influenced me back in the mid-70s. At that time, I was still in the process of discovering Christian music (other than the hymns I had grown up with). Larry Norman and Phil Keaggy were very influential for me musically at that time, but this soft-spoken young lady from Ft. Wayne, Indiana touched me so deeply with the “personal-ness” of her music. She was willing to expose her own self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy…but then she would turn and embrace Christ and proclaim that he had accepted her…and even treasured her. So…very much on that level, Nancy set a wonderful example for me of being publicly vulnerable. There is no question as to the impact that this had on many of my songs. But, there was more to Nancy than her lyrics: She had such a sweet sense of melody and was willing…even as a guitar-based singer/songwriter…to include many, many styles in her writing. From big-band swing to bossa nova to…yep, sorry…even a little disco (!), she made it her own. And her music was so memorable…I haven’t heard it for years and realized this week how clearly every nuance was still with me. I don’t think I had seen until that moment just HOW memorable much of the music was. VERY beautiful stuff. Nancy is still around today, married and based in Nashville. She and I have even communicated recently and I was honored to send her my albums to listen to.

Web Site:

Lovely Jesus (Here I Am), Broadmoor Song, Thief, One Sweet Word

Randy Stonehill

Randy Stonehill has been around since the very early 70s…and I guess I discovered him around ’74. I helped bring him to Columbus for a concert in ’75. He’s one of the funniest and most energetic concert performers I’ve ever seen. Interestingly, though, Randy juxtaposed his humor with some of the most tender songs of love and compassion I’ve ever heard. He has a great “groove” (which I wish I could duplicate…) and sees the importance of fun and rhythm in music…especially live music. What a wonderfully gifted performer! Randy is still singing and playing 25 years after I first met him.

Web Site:

MY RECOMMENDED MOMENTS from Randy Stonehill:
Welcome to Paradise and The Sky is Falling are both VERY strong albums!

Tom Howard

I discovered Tom Howard back in the 70s as well. He influenced me as a composer of sophisticated, accessible pop music. I have owned all his albums beginning with “View from the Bridge” in about ’75. His first solo piano album and the last one I own (“Beyond the Barriers”, I think it’s called…) are absolutely beautiful. But I feel that his very best is “The Hidden Passage” by The Tom Howard Ensemble, from the mid 80s. Incredibly beautiful, sophisticated music. His arranging skills are so tasty. Unfortunately, I can’t find a legit site for him on the web. Tom passed from this life at the end of January, 2010. I had a chance to briefly connect with him on Facebook in the year or so before that, and was able to express my appreciation for his wonderful music.

I don’t really know how you go wrong with Tom Howard. Every album I’m aware of is strong…but “The Hidden Passage” would be my all-time favorite of his. It appears to be completely out-of-print at this point, but I found it available as a download here.

Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love)

I first met Bill Mallonee and his delightful wife Brenda in 1998. I had heard one song by Vigilantes of Love at that point: “Welcome to Struggleville”. I thought it was nice, but I wasn’t overwhelmed. But I soon began to discover what tens of thousands before me had experienced…the man is a true poet, storyteller and lyrical genius. Now, I respect Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen…but, for me, their music doesn’t live up to their lyrical punch. And, Bruce Cockburn, the only other guy in a similar class who comes to mind, is so over-the-top politically and so devoted to imagery-that-I-can’t-relate-to that he only occasionally connects deeply with me. But Bill is so deep and so well-read that I find that as I read and learn and grow in life, I am still discovering things he sang about long before. And his music, while it runs in similar and limited themes sometimes (whose doesn’t??), certainly matches and complements the timbre of the lyrics.
I have to say one more thing about Bill as a writer. While he freely admits that he struggles with clinical depression, and while he will often let his discontent and righteous anger loose as a weapon in his songs, his weapon is designed to heal, not crush. He is a deeply committed Christian….something that probably holds him back in terms of popularity…but it truly is his definition and reason for being. This kind of class and integrity is a rare thing these days…and should be honored.
If you have never experienced Vigilantes of Love, and if you yearn for well-written singer/songwriter stuff (especially delivered with the punch of a band behind it), you must give this guy a listen. He is a unique voice who speaks with the authority of an Old Testament prophet in the midst of a culture who seems to get distracted and then lost on the way to the refrigerator. And, speaking personally, he and his wife are delightful, compassionate, dedicated “real” people.

Web Site:

MY RECOMMENDED MOMENTS from Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love:
Far and away the best thing I can recommend is to buy Slow Dark Train. It’s a deep and compelling album, filled with lyrical power and very solidly appealing music. I love other songs of Bill’s…but I would start first with this album.

I may add more to this page in the future as I recall others who have affected me…but I hope you enjoyed (and benefited from) my little exercise in giving-credit-where-credit-is-due. 😉

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