Received some sad news this week.
Phillip James Ehret has died at his home in Las Vegas.
If that name doesn’t ring a bell, I’m not surprised. It’s been well over twenty years since “Phil James” was synonymous with big band music and ballroom dancing throughout South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.
Our paths first crossed in 1968 after I piled my wife and two young daughters into our old Pontiac and headed east from Pierre where I’d spent two years working at the Red Owl grocery store during the day and three nights a week playing drums with organist Grace Lex at the Lariat Lounge.
My wife and I were just kids ourselves at the time and it really didn’t make financial sense to leave a steady job for a bunch of blue sky..but we were homesick as hell. I was about broke and the 70 bucks a week Urvig Bootery in Brookings paid me for selling shoes was barely enough to keep is in groceries.
That’s when I got the call from Phil who was just back from a stint in the Navy and looking to start a musical combo. Phil had acquired a brand new Hammond X77 organ and looking for a drummer to work some gigs he’d already booked. Somehow he’d heard that I’d played with Grace whose style was not unlike his own. (Think Lawrence Welk, Jimmy Darrel or Lenny Dee”
Well, I wasn’t about to commit to anything on the phone so he invited me over to his folks’ house in Elkton for an audition. I’ll never forget the sound I heard coming from inside as I walked up to the door. It was as if JoAnn Castle or Big Tiny Little Jr. had also stopped by to play a little ragtime piano. The door was open so I went on through the house into a parlor area where I saw Phil sitting at the keyboard of an old upright piano banging out a wonderful rendition of “Music, Music, Music.” When the song ended, we exchanged greetings and I begged him to do another. It was amazing to watch his left hand swing back and forth attacking just the right lower notes with such confidence and authority while the fingers of his right had were a blur pounding out the up tempo melody Honky Tonk style. “Baby face..you’ve got the cutest little baby face..”
“Did you bring your drums along?” Phil asked. “You bet, they’re in the trunk.” “Well, set ‘em up in the living room, let’s try a few tunes.” There sat his beautiful instrument humming away with two Leslie Speaker cabinets parked behind. No sooner had I put the last cymbal on the stand than Phil asked if I knew the Jimmy Darrel version of “Party Doll.” I said I thought so and thus began a three hour concert right there in the house which, by this time, had filled with family members and neighbors all wanting to hear these two young guys performing THEIR kind of music; foxtrots, polkas and waltzes. Phil’s parents, Charlie and Erma, had literally rolled back the carpet for dancing and the living room was filled with laughter and the aroma of cigarette smoke and cocktails. Charlie had invited the owner of the Knotty Pine just outside of Elkton to come over and listen which led to our being booked at the steakhouse once a month. I only made about 30 bucks..but it sure helped pay the bills. Phil and I played together for about a year when I had the chance to move to Sioux Falls and took it. I found music gigs throughout the 70’s; first working with county bands, then forming my own group which played 6 nights a week for years at the “Red Lantern” located just South of KELO. Phil, meanwhile, had also moved to Sioux Falls and teamed up with big band drummer, Johnny Soyer.
When Johnny and Phil split up he gave me a call wondering if I could fill in on drums for a while. “For a while” turned out to be 8 years performing together at every antler club(Elks/ Moose lodges) and ballroom in the area. That period was, for me, both wonderful and not so great. On the plus side; I’d never known audiences more passionate about dancing and how much they appreciated our musical style. Linda and I made lifelong friends with many of those who followed “Phil James” wherever we played. On the downside, that big Hammond organ was built for the home..not to be hauled around in a bumpy trailer through all kinds of weather or carried up and down stairs at various clubs. The Watertown Elks was the worst. The ballroom was on the fourth floor and while Elks officials always promised to have help available to carry our equipment more often than not we ended up toting it all ourselves. One night after the job while we were tearing down, the decorative but spindly chrome legs on the organ started to lean over and with a sickening crack the whole thing collapsed like a cheap lawn chair and we ended up loading the rest of the instrument into the trailer like a casket. Eventually, he just left the dolly carts permanently strapped to each end of the organ.
Phil and I drove thousands of miles through all kinds of climates in his 1976 Cadillac Coupe Deville pulling that trailer; then thousands more in a later model Caddie he bought after the first one pooped out.
I missed playing rock and roll, pop and jazz songs but always said the style of music didn’t matter as long as the crowd was having a good time and, boy, did they ever with Phil at the organ especially when he’d make that Hammond deliver like a full orchestra on numbers such as “Moonlight Serenade” where he’d slide the palm of his left hand up the lower keyboard creating a resounding beautiful arpeggio meeting up with the right hand on the upper register for a dramatic Liberace flourish. Then we’d slip into a bouncy fox trot as he’d dazzle the folks even more with a rendition of “Alley Cat” or “Elmer’s Tune” in which he’d play bass pedals with his feet, harmony with his left hand and bang out the melody with his right on a piano which we put a microphone on and slid up close to the organ. We were always at the mercy of the house pianos being in tune and some were not.. but it only gave a more “Honky Tonk” sound.
Phil was not only a fine musician but an excellent cook. In fact, one of the reasons we played in Mitchell so often was because he went to culinary school there and eventually became head chef at the Mitchell Elks.
But, as gifted as Phil was, he had one demon that held him back; alcohol. I’m no teetotaler, but Phil could be hard core and it affected his playing. One night, after we’d played the same song three times in a row, I’d had enough and, instead of putting my drums and sound system back in the trailer; I squeezed it all into the trunk of my car and said adios. A few weeks later, he called to tell me he’d been to Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota and asked me to come back which I did and we never sounded better…for a few months. The monkey found its way back to his back and I never knew which Phil was going to show up. Finally, in 1988 we parted for good. Our final gig was at the country club in Huron. It was one of our best ever. That was the last time I saw Phil James. He eventually moved to Las Vegas where I’d heard he was working in the food industry. I don’t know if he ever played another dance or not. I sure hope so ..just as I wish he could have been as happy himself as he made so many thousands of people who just couldn’t keep off the dance floor whenever he’d crank that big old X77 up for a rousing version of “Bubbles In The Wine.”
R.I.P. My Friend.