Boyle Heights kids used to hang out there by the hour, testing the marimbas and eyeing the Fender guitars. Louie Perez and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos were among the future stars who’d drop by. English, Japanese and Spanish harmonized in a background chorus of chatter. Payment was accepted in pesos.
And no matter how long you stayed, or how much money you had, or didn’t, no one ever told you to beat it.
From the late 1930s through the 1980s, Phillips Music Co. wasn’t simply a place to buy instruments and check out the latest vinyl offerings in Latin jazz, classical, rock, Cuban mambo and Yiddish swing. It also was a kind of community living room, says Josh Kun, a USC associate professor of journalism, the bricks-and-mortar embodiment of “this mythic, utopian, Jewish-Mexican-Japanese” enclave that marked time before and after World War II to a klezmer-mariachi-taiko beat.
“Boyle Heights is the poster neighborhood for deep community in Los Angeles, and of the possibility of working it out, finding a way to live side by side and speak each other’s language,” Kun says.
Saturday evening at California Plaza, a tri-lingual crew of musicians and storytellers will try to reanimate that idyllic era with a multimedia program dubbed “A Night at the Phillips Music Company.”
Part of the Grand Performances annual summer series of free concerts and performances, the program will bring together more than a half-dozen performers and bands, many with Eastside roots, among them Little Willie G., Ollin, Rubén Guevara and the Eastside Luvers, members of the group Hiroshima, La Santa Cecilia and Ceci Bastida.
Spoken-word tributes by Marisela Norte, Rubén Martinez, USC historian George Sanchez and others will augment the music, along with big-screen projections of video clips and rare photos of the store and its environs in the heart of the former Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez Boulevard).
Besides evoking a historic community, the program also will tip its vintage felt fedora to Bill Phillips, the beloved founder-owner of the legendary emporium, who lived a screenplay-worthy life and died in 1995 at 85.
According to one of his sons, Allan Phillips, Bill Phillips grew up in a Jewish family in Rochester, N.Y., and was something of a family rebel. He ran away from home and joined the U.S. Navy to avoid being sent to a juvenile home.
“The miracle of the Navy in 1925 is they taught him music,” says Allan Phillips, an L.A. psychiatrist. “He somehow ended up in the music academy in the Navy and learned to be a bandleader. At one point, he was the bandleader on a submarine.”
“We have a great photo of Bill Phillips in the Navy with a sombrero on, playing marimba,” Kun confirms. “So music was in him.”
After falling in love with the West Coast during one tour of duty, Phillips decided to settle in L.A. When three Boyle Heights music stores closed in quick succession in the mid-1930s, Phillips spotted a void and opened his shop, which sold appliances and other household goods in addition to musical instruments and records.
Phillips even gave a rent-free section of the store to his close friend Kenji Taniguchi to sell sporting goods, until Taniguchi was able to open his store down the street.
Small in-store recording booths were used by musicians for cutting demo records, and by others for recording audio postales to send to loved ones, perhaps back in Mexico, Japan or Europe.
Phillips, a percussionist and vibes player, also offered free musical lessons — up to a point. “Bill liked to say that if you bought an instrument, he was capable of giving you 10 lessons, but after 10 he can’t help you anymore because he doesn’t know enough,” Kun says.
Several musicians participating in Saturday night’s gathering have warm reminiscences of the store and its welcoming, even indulgent atmosphere.
“You couldn’t jump on the drum set, but you could definitely shake things around. I remember playing the vibes a little bit every time,” says Randy Rodarte, who’ll perform with his twin brother, Scott, in their band Ollin.
“The way it was set up, you could get lost in a corner,” Rodarte continues. “Because he had huge racks of sticks and mallets. You could grab a book and just sit somewhere and just go through it. It was cool.”
Guevara recalls going into the store around 1984 and asking whether Phillips could donate a set of drums and a bass for the music school he hoped to start — and being mildly surprised when his request was met. Today, as a respected music educator and musicologist himself, Guevara feels part of a community-assistance tradition that Phillips inspired in others.
After Phillips retired in 1990, his building passed through various hands and is now a discount store. Scott Rodarte says that Ollin will perform its klezmer-mariachi-punk signature song “Boyle Heights Boogie” Saturday night as a tribute to the barrio and the spirit of a man attuned to its singular music.
“It’s a song about staying in the neighborhood,” Rodarte says, “and making it a good place to live.”