+ By Tom Levine + Photos by Larry Melton
It was not surprising that the Greg Phillips Trio closed out the show at Rams Head On Stage during a recent benefit for the Annapolis Musicians Fund for Musicians (AMFM). Following nearly a dozen other local acts that each performed two songs, Phillips took the stage and was clearly in charge. While accompanied by two solid musicians—Brian Goddard on bass and Bryan Ewald on guitar—Phillips’ drumming was front and center. About a minute or so into “Moby Dick,” the drum solo began. For nearly five minutes, the audience was mesmerized. His playing was pleasingly aggressive, his sticks a blur. This was not a sideshow about fast drumming—it was a fully realized piece of music. Everything in Phillips’ drum set, the bass, high hat, snare, and cymbals, was in play. He used them to not just drive the beat, but provide texture and tonality.
Phillips comes from a large family, the youngest of three daughters and five sons. His mother, Anna, emigrated from Panama and was a concert pianist. George Sr., his father, was born in Tobago, and was a psychiatrist and the superintendent of Crownsville State Hospital. They lived on the hospital campus in an old mansion—a great perk for a family of ten.
Growing up, the house was alive with music. Phillips’ parents were accomplished singers and brought their rich Latin American and Caribbean musical heritages to Maryland. All of the children learned to play instruments. Phillips took up the flute in middle school, but his heart was somewhere else. He taught himself to drum using pots, pans, and tabletops as snares, cymbals, and high hats. When he acquired a proper drum set, Phillips and his brothers started playing together. The venue was the living room, and the audience was whoever had come for dinner.
It wasn’t long before Phillips and his brothers, George Jr., Lloyd, Ernesto, and Orlando, formed a gigging band. JR and the Royals played for house parties and local high schools during the 1970s, covering songs by groups such as The Temptations and Kool & the Gang. The band featured horns, keyboards, the Royalettes singing backup, and ten-year-old Phillips on drums. It was soon renamed Licyndianna, a tribute to sisters Lisa, Cynthia, and Diane, and mother Anna.
Music was a great refuge for a shy teenager, and during his teens, Phillips took over the family turntable. He listened to everything he could get his hands on, from calypso to classical, but he fell hard for straight-edged fusion jazz by artists like Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke, and fell even harder for 1970s English rock bands like Genesis and Yes.
In the late 1970s, Lloyd left the band, and Renee Diggs, a dynamic lead singer, and Kayode Adeyemo, a childhood friend and keyboard player, joined. When Ernesto and Greg heard a Guyanese friend refer to a Phillips screwdriver as a starpoint, they knew that they had found the new name for their evolving R&B band.
By 1980, Starpoint was taking off. The band signed with Elektra/Asylum Records, and was putting out hit albums and playing arenas, opening for the Isley Brothers and Luther Vandross by the middle of the decade. Their songs landed in the top 10 on the R&B charts, and when, in 1985, “Object of My Desire” hit 25th place on the Billboard 100, they were given their gold records just before taking the stage at Madison Square Garden.
It was a great ride, and when it wound down in 1990, Phillips was poised for a musical career that took him around the world, touring with artists such as Najee and Angela Bofill. He always returned to Annapolis, and over the years he’s backed nearly every local musician and hired many of them for his own duos and trios. His drumming remains as passionate and sharp as it was 30 years ago.
When Starpoint first took off, Phillips was just the little brother, accomplished but not yet confident. He still gets chills remembering a drum solo at the Capital Centre in the mid-1980s. As he played, he looked up into the rafters and saw s image on the jumbo screen—a close-up shot—and then saw himself shedding the skin of a shy teenager. He realized that he owned the moment, the stage, and the crowd, and knew that he was a musician. █