Thursday, November 10, 2016

Phil Keaggy-- I've Just Begun... Again

Phil Keaggy will be returning to Salisbury on Nov. 26

by Bob Wingate

In the late 60’s, two teenage musicians jammed on stage at a popular night club, each taking their turns churning out impressive licks on their electric guitars.  One of the players was Joe Walsh, who would later become lead guitarist for the Eagles.  The other was Phil Keaggy.

Both of their bands, Walsh’s “James Gang” and Keaggy’s power rock trio “Glass Harp”, were based in northeast Ohio, and they played shows together quite often, which afforded them opportunities for improvisational, no-holds-barred jamming.   Joe and Phil quickly became good friends and fans of each other’s music.   Later, Joe Walsh was quoted as saying, “I heard Phil play and said, ‘I’m not as good as I thought.’”



Phil Keaggy was born in March 1951, the ninth of ten children.  A bizarre accident on his parents' farm at age four resulted in losing the middle finger on his right hand (a physical challenge he shares with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead).   It did not seem to affect his guitar playing, as he grew up with nine fingers, and didn’t begin his lifelong pursuit of the instrument until age ten.  When young Phil requested a set of drums for Christmas, his father couldn’t afford them, and instead brought home a Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar.  He immediately dove in, his older brother helping him learn his first chords.  His passion for guitar took off a year or so later when a local friend bought Phil a 1962 Fender Stratocaster, and he began spending hours playing scales and solos from his favorite tunes, soon was playing for students in the school cafeteria, and joined his first band at age thirteen.

Keaggy confesses that he never was really wired to be a rock ‘n’ roller.  He can trade licks with anyone, but his musical roots go far deeper. As a young kid, his musical influences included not only rock legends, but also English and Irish folk, and Spanish flavored music, classical greats such as Brahms and Ravel, movie soundtracks, and jazz greats such as Pat Metheny and Wes Montgomery.  Of course, he was also listening to popular artists such as the Everly Brothers, Elvis, and Chuck Berry.   Throw in a dose of California surf music for good measure.  But nothing would serve to influence his music more than the arrival of The Beatles in America in early 1964.  All of these influences and others, in addition to Keaggy’s own creativity and curiosity,  contributed to making him the eclectic artist that he is today.

In 1968, the power trio “Glass Harp” was formed with fellow musician and school chum, drummer John Sferra.  Later, bass player Dan Pecchio was added to the group.   The band entered and won an area “Battle of the Bands”, which helped raise awareness of their talent.  After hearing one of the band’s demos, Grammy Award-winning producer Lewis Merenstein, who had just released Van Morrison’s popular Moondance album, made a special visit to Ohio to hear the band play “live” and immediately offered them a contract and three-album record deal with Decca Records, the same label that had rejected The Beatles six years before.   During the fall of 1970, they went into Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York City to record their first self-titled album. 

Over the next two years, Keaggy and Glass Harp would record two more albums and tour extensively throughout the Northeast, opening for such big acts as Chicago, Yes, Traffic, Humble Pie, Iron Butterfly, Alice Cooper, and Grand Funk Railroad.  During this time, both Keaggy and the group achieved notoriety regionally and nationwide as one of the premier guitarists and “jam bands”.  The pinnacle for the trio came in November 1971, when Glass Harp shared the stage with The Kinks, playing to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall in New York City.  


On Valentine’s Day 1970, Phil Keaggy was to experience a transformation that would change his life and music forever.  He and his band were on the road, playing a gig at a college in Maryland.   In his hotel room, he experimented with taking LSD and during this time, he learned of a terrible accident in which some members of his family were in a head-on collision, leaving his mom in critical condition.   Phil headed home to Ohio, hoping for the best, only to have her pass away after just a few days.   He and his family were devastated by this experience, but his older sister, who had recently become a Christian, helped to comfort them and offer hope by sharing her faith.     A few days later, Phil attended a church with her and made a decision to accept Christ into his life.

The 70’s were to continue to be a topsy-turvy decade for Keaggy.   Even with the amazing success and recognition of his band, and many musician friends that he enjoyed and collaborated with, he continually became more and more disillusioned with the rock-n-roll lifestyle.   By the summer of 1972, Phil Keaggy decided to leave Glass Harp and embark on a new, exciting personal and musical journey.   He joined a Christian community in upstate New York, and in 1973 met his wife Bernadette, and released his first solo album, “What A Day”.  He says that as a young musician, he was bold and daring, playing all of the instruments and singing all of the vocals.  He was also trying to emulate Paul McCartney, who did the same on his first solo release.   The recording was completed in an amazing ten days.

Between 1975 and 1978, Phil and his wife experienced the death of five children through a series of premature and stillbirths, and a miscarriage.   Facing a recording deadline, he says, “It was a time when I had no words to say.”   The resulting album, “Master and the Musician,” became his first of many instrumental guitar albums, which have become one of his hallmarks and legacies.    Over half of his solo releases are instrumental projects.   Phil says, “Music is a fascinating and spiritual thing, that touches and moves the soul.”



Keaggy is considered one of the pioneers of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), recording for several Christian record companies throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.   In 2002, he made a decision to become an Indie artist, and separated from his national record company.   Now Phil records and engineers his own albums, and markets them through his own website and concerts.   Amazingly, Keaggy has never learned to read music.  Orchestral arrangers and transcriptionists have been available over the years to capture and translate Phil’s music to the written page.

Over his career, Phil has released over 50 solo albums, several band albums, and hundreds of collaborations with other musicians, including such legendary artists as Mark Farner (Grand Funk); Kerry Livgren (Kansas);  Nedra Ross  (The Ronettes); and Mickey Dolenz (The Monkees).  Speaking of legendary artists, Phil Keaggy experienced a lifetime dream when he was invited to perform at the wedding of Laura Eastman, who is Paul McCartney’s sister-in-law, in 1991.  During this time, they met and Phil was able to present the gift of a special acoustic guitar to Paul from him and his guitar maker.

Phil Keaggy jamming with Beatle Paul McCartney, 1991

has earned many accolades throughout his illustrious career, including Grammy nominations and several Gospel Music Association Dove awards.  Guitar Player Magazine recognized Phil as one of the Top Three Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitarists in their annual Readers’ Poll.  In early 1997, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame recognized Phil and Glass Harp in their “Cleveland Rocks” exhibit, and the band was invited to give a special performance.  In 2007, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and named to Rolling Stone’s list of the 25 Most Underrated Guitarists of All Time.  In 2014 he was named the Greatest Christian Rock Guitarist, topping a list of 100 guitar players.  Phil is grateful for his music career, but also muses, “I’ve been married 43 years. I have three beautiful grown children.  And I wouldn’t trade that for any success or accolade in the world.”  He thanks God for not only his career, but for who he is as a person and musician, and says, “I am a creative and spiritual person-- and I’m still under construction.”

While Keaggy plays an occasional band date or a special reunion concert with his old trio Glass Harp, he appreciates his audiences, and enjoys acoustic shows because he feels that he can communicate with fans more easily, and has the artistic freedom to “pull-out-of-the-hat” whatever songs he feels apply or are appropriate in a particular concert situation.  He jokes that he has a song list, but it is seven pages long, spanning a period of 45 years.

Last year’s show at Lee Street Theatre was a sell-out performance, and his phenomenal guitar playing was such a crowd pleaser that it prompted a return invitation to Salisbury.   Ticket sales are good and another sell-out show is expected this year. 

Phil Keaggy turned 65 this year, and while looking back on an illustrious career, feels he still has much to look forward to in the years to come.   He just released a brand new album, “All At Once,” and looks forward to sharing these tunes in his concerts.  He wants to continue playing and performing “…as long as (he) has breath…”   Content to take it one day at a time, he wishes to enjoy wherever his life and music lead him next.   As one of Keaggy’s songs reflects, “Each day at a time, whatever life demands, I’ve just begun.”

Display In Box : Tickets are NOW on sale for the PHIL KEAGGY show on November 26 at 7:30 pm at Lee Street Theatre.  You may order your tickets online at or by calling 704-310-5507.   The performance will be in the Tom & Martha Smith Event Center, at Lee Street Theatre and Performing Arts Center, 329 N. Lee Street, Salisbury NC 28144.

Author Tag :  BOB WINGATE is a concert promoter, guitar instructor, and free lance writer—living in Salisbury. He has also attended over 25 Phil Keaggy shows.

Photos were obtained from Internet source (Google).. except for Concert Photo by Tripp Edwards.. (below) from the 2015 Lee Street show. 

Phil Keaggy performs @ Lee Street Theatre, Feb. 2015