Phil Upchurch/Tennyson Stephens 
(Kudu - 1974)

Even if Upchurch/Tennyson is your introduction to the musical universe of Phil Upchurch, it’s by no means the first time you’ve ever heard this multi-talented and multi-musical guitarist and bassist.

For many years, there was hardly a record that came out of Chicago that wasn’t stamped with the sound of Phil Upchurch. Odell Brown, Willie Dixon, Richard Evans, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Albert King, Ramsey Lewis, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, the Staple Singers, the Soulful Strings and Muddy Waters have all benefited from “the Chicago sound” of Phil Upchurch.

He’d started out as a session man for Chicago’s Vee Jay label in the mid-1950s and managed to score a chart hit under his own name with 1960’s “You Can’t Sit Down.” (revived later by sax man and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who performed Upchurch’s song at his 1993 inauguration). Upchurch next recorded two albums (You Can’t Sit Down and Twist) for the United Artists label, before becoming the house guitarist/bassist for the Argo/Cadet label – Chicago’s primary source for jazz and blues in the 1960s.

Another Upchurch album appeared on the Milestone label in 1967 (Feelin’ Blue), before the guitarist/bassist waxed two of his own sides for the Cadet label in 1969 (featuring the prominent contributions of Donnie Hathaway). But, by this point, Phil Upchurch’s talents were in such high demand, that he often traveled to New York City and Los Angeles to add his talents to other high-profile gigs.

Next, he waxed the first of two fine and funky dates for the outré-hip Blue Thumb Label: 1972’s exploratory Darkness, Darkness and 1973’s funky Lovin’ Feeling. These remain, perhaps, the finest showcases for the Phil Upchurch sound.

Then, superstar guitarist George Benson was passing through Chicago on tour in 1974. Phil and George first met in the early sixties while playing on the same bill in Washington, DC. Phil was with Dee Clark and George was with Jack McDuff’s group, which played a cover of Upchurch’s “You Can’t Sit Down.” George later found out it was Phil’s tune and they instantly became musical soulmates. The two guitarists stayed in touch and during George’s 1974 visit, Benson asked Upchurch to contribute something to his next album.

The album, Bad Benson (CTI), featured Phil’s tunes "Full Compass" and "No Sooner Said Than Done" plus an enlightening arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Producer Creed Taylor was impressed enough to offer Phil Upchurch his own recording opportunity for CTI Records.

But Upchurch insisted on featuring the vocal talents of Tennyson Stephens, the keyboard player who’d replaced Donny Hathaway in Upchurch’s band for the 1973 Blue Thumb album, Lovin’ Feeling.

For this occasion, Upchurch wanted to record a mostly R&B album, which, of course, was good by producer Creed Taylor. Taylor rightly plotted it out on his soul-jazz subsidiary, Kudu Records, and called the record Upchurch/Tennyson, even though the surnames of both leaders cleverly spelled “us” when stacked vertically – as it was on the back cover of the original album.

According to Upchurch, “it’s not a guitar feature album.” And, indeed, it is not. Despite the fact that Tennyson Stephens is a fine keyboard player, he is given the lion’s share of solo spots featuring his talents as a vocalist (on five of the nine tracks). Upchurch simply does what he does best here: he supports the main man.

The main man, Tennyson Stephens, possesses a rich, soulful voice with many of the warm, sensual qualities of the day’s most popular male vocal stylists, including Billy Paul, Bill Withers and Jerry Butler (whose band Stephens had once played in). Tennyson is featured on five of the album’s nine tracks, including his own “In Common” and the album’s single, Ralph MacDonald and William Salter’s “You Got Style.”

He sounds best on the suggestive, erotic funk of “Don’t I Know You?,” charms the snake of Upchurch’s most sinewy playing with the acid-jazz goodie, “Evil,” and delivers an uptown take on Ralph MacDonald/William Salter’s great “I Wanted It Too” – which Roberta Flack had just recorded with Bob James and Ralph MacDonald for her hit album Feel Like Makin’ Love (Atlantic). Bob James would later produce a superlative version of “I Wanted It Too” for Richard Tee’s 1978 solo debut, Strokin' (Tappan Zee).

The rest of the record favors the instrumental side of Upchurch’s talents. In the album’s best-known tune, a cover of Rufus And Chaka Khan’s 1974 hit “Tell Me Something Good,” Upchurch shares frontline duties with David Sanborn (Upchurch would go onto record with Ms. Khan for the singer’s 1978 solo debut, “Chaka,” and reunite with Sanborn for the sax player’s 1996 disc Songs From The Night Before).

The album’s jazziest tracks find Upchurch sharing the spotlight with CTI house pianist and arranger, Bob James – who was shortly due to find solo success of his own.

“Ave Maria,” another of one of the “jazzed-up” classics exclusive to Creed Taylor productions, features one of Bob James’s most delicate arrangements. The vocalists carry the melody, while Upchurch provides an intoxicating rhythmic groove on acoustic guitar, which beautifully highlights the arranger’s signature solo on electric piano.

Likewise, the Bob James original, “South Side Morning,” is a little known song with a sound the composer would popularize as his own on later Tappan Zee recordings.

“Black Gold” is from the pen of legendary session man, arranger and former Upchurch associate from the Chicago days, Charles Stepney. Upchurch first recorded the tune on his 1969 Cadet album Upchurch and still performs it to this day (a recent version appears on Upchurch’s 1999 CD, Rhapsody & Blues). Here, Upchurch shares melody chores with Bob James (on synthesizer), and scores his boldest moment on the entire disc with his vibrant, voluptuous solo.

After Upchurch/Tennyson, the two leaders returned to active studio work, playing together only occasionally, as on Natalie Cole’s Unpredictable (1977).

Throughout the 1970s, Upchurch kept a busy recording and touring schedule with George Benson and can be heard on Benson’s two biggest hits, Breezin' (1976) and Weekend In L.A. (1977).  He eventually left Chicago for California and became a fixture in the studios, recording with Whitney Houston, Minnie Ripperton, Julio Iglesias, Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Sheena Easton, Quincy Jones, Earl Klugh, Najee, Stanley Turrentine, Cannonball Adderley, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Smith and many, many others. His next record, Phil Upchurch (Marlin), didn’t appear until 1978. With one side produced by guitarist John Tropea and the other side produced by Benson, the record was a return to form of the soulful guitar groove he’d laid down prior to Upchurch/Tennyson.

Today, Upchurch records as much as ever (for the JAM, Pro Arte, Ichiban, Ridgetop and Go Jazz labels), performing frequently throughout the world with his own band, with Red Holloway’s combo and, often, as part of organ legend Jimmy Smith’s group. After doing more studio work in the seventies, Tennyson Stephens relocated to Honolulu, where he has become a popular fixture on the local club circuit and produces, arranges and plays on a variety of Hawaiian jazz records.

But for a brief moment in 1974, these two souls converged for Upchurch/Tennyson, a soulful reflection of jazz and a jazzy meditation on soul – and, perhaps, its two leaders most enduring work.

Douglas Payne
May 2001