14. The Turning – Leslie Phillips

THE TURNING

Leslie Phillips

In 1981 I was shopping at a local Christian bookstore and stumbled upon a compilation of primarily local Christian artist on A&S Records – the Maranatha Music rock  imprint that a year later would give us John Mehler’s amazing “Bow and Arrow” album. The compilation contained several artists, many associated with Calvary Chapel, but one would stick out the most.

It was the female rocker Leslie Phillips who was originally much more Pat Benatar than the Cindy Lauper image her later record company would thrust upon her. Though the Penatar comparison is not accurate in 1981 there was a real lack of comparable artist in the music world as rock music was still primarily dominated by men, Heart and Fleetwood Mac not withstanding.

But she seemed to disappear as quickly as she showed up and the next time her familiar voice was heard my me was on Mark Heard’s seminal, “Victims of the Age” album a year or so later. She ended up singing background vocals on the song, “Heart of Hearts,” which would appear on her debut album and serve as her first single.

The most “rock” of her first three albums, “Beyond Saturday Night” was a great record that suffered from some questionable mixing. Perhaps it was the record company that forced the keyboards so high in the mix and pulled the guitars so far back as not to offend evangelical ears, but that did not hide what wonderful songs the album included. Highlights from the album are; Bring Me Through, Gina, I’m Finding, Hourglass and the previously mentioned cover of Mark Heard’s “Heart of Hearts.”

Phillips’ sophomore project, “Dancing With Danger” featured much better production but a much less controlled vocal styling that helped Phillips gain recognition as a Christian Cindy Lauper. Though the content of the songs remained strong and authentic, the musical expression never matched the quality of the lyrics.And all this was despite having a literal “who’s who” playing on the record including Dan Huff, Nathan East, John Andrew Schreiner, Jeff Lams, Russ Taff, Matthew Ward and more.

It is the only Phillips’ album that sounds intensely dated today with constant boppy keyboards and pseudo 80’s dance numbers. The real standout are the ballads”Strength of My Life” and “By My Spirit.” “Powder Room Politics” can be skipped altogether along with the final DeGarmo and Key influenced, “Here He Comes With My Heart.”

“Black and White in a Grey World” was an improvement over the previous as the screeching vocals were toned way down and the musical expressions were much more “earthy” and acoustic. But what was lacking from the first album was a more “questioning” sort of aspect. BWGW was so adamant about having the “answers” that the authenticity seemed to be lacking despite a vastly improved musical package. Here again the ballads were superior with “Your Kindness” being a classic.

The live concerts that were in support of this album told a radically different story. there was transparency and vulnerability in the concerts performance that he album sorely lacked. In fact, it was with this tour that chinks in the CCM queen began to show. There were comments by Leslie from on stage regarding the dangers on intimacy that takes place during the recording process and how we need to guard our hearts. This was a far cry from “Powder Room Politics.”

But what would happen two years later would literally rock the CCM world. I was managing Maranatha Village at the time and we put together a large in store event featuring several artists that would play later that evening at a Christian Music night at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park. One of those artists was Leslie Phillips and she was there to promote the album, “The Turning,” which was to come out several weeks later.

She arrived at the store with a signed poster for me and with T-Bone Burnett in tow. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor I introduced myself and begged Burnett for an interview. I had heard that he was producing the project but would have never thought he would come to my store. What a genuinely nice and warm gentleman. I still have that poster signed by both of them. My wife and I would actually sit next them at a U2 concert at Anaheim Stadium and he was kind enough to remember meeting previously. One a side note, Nicolas Cage sat in front of us at that same concert.

But what changed everything was not the event at our store but rather the infamous concert that took place later that night. Leslie bounced out on stage with a very short mini skirt, twirling around on stage in a manner that many in the audience found offensive. Her band was comprised of Burnett, David Miner and a handful of other musical stalwarts. I was in the front row as her and T-Bone’s guest. She played primarily only songs from the upcoming album and the audience felt alienated and actually began yelling out songs from her catalog.

It was plainly clear that she had no intention in bringing her past with her in the new musical and lyrical direction. I don’t recall if Leslie cut her set short but it didn’t really matter. I could feel quite a bit of movement behind me and realized that more than a handful had walked out under protest. Many left hurling insults and accusations and insults at her as they left. The show became quite famous and I believe the second set was canceled. I would write a review for “Newsound Magazine” about the night.

The funny thing the concert hall could hold, at the very most, about 500 people and I have met at least 5,000 that claim to have been there and stayed through the entire set. Since I actually could turn around and count how many people remained (which was less than 50) I know someone is lying!

What was missed about that night was that in a few weeks one of the greatest albums in Christian music was to be released. CCM listed in amongst its Top 10 of all time. “The Turning” would turn Christian music on its head. And it would also be the last album that would bear the name “Leslie” Phillips. She would soon love her record company, marry T-Bone Burnett and set out on a musical venture under the name Sam Phillips. Under that name she would release several amazing records worth discovering. (The Turning would later be released under the “Sam” moniker).

The album starts with simply Leslie and T-Bone played acoustic guitar performing a cover of T-Bone Burnett’s “River of Love.” This haunting and beautiful version is, dare I say, superior to Burnett’s own version. This song also points to the transparency and authenticity the listener should expect from the rest of the album.

I had to run before I knew how to crawl
The first step was hard but I have had trouble with them all
But now the night grows darker and the day grows dim
‘Cause I know I never will see you again
And I almost made you happy

There’s a river of love that runs through all time
There’s a river of fire that burns with no light
The flame is the pain of dreams gone up in smoke
From the lies we deny and breathe until we choke
There’s a river of love that runs through all time

“Love Is Not Lost” is the first real rock song on the album. As the first upbeat song on the album it also showed the obvious change in vocal direction from previous records. Gone completely is any connection to the high-pitched squeaky voice of any previous release and a more mature, breathy and controlled arrived. There is a level of confidence in this record that was also absent from the previous releases. Here she takes the normal “boy meets girl” scenario and plays it out with a much more optimistic twist.

I meet you
And you cut my heart
You shake my ideals
Until they fall apart
Have I lost it all if
I hope for something more
Than feeling fatalistic pain
And if true love
never did exist
How could we know its name

Don’t give up now
Love is not lost

The title track follows with a much more autobiographical feel to it. The struggles of turning and changes in one’s life can bring the danger of also having it change you. Phillips cries out in hope that the changes before her will not change who she ultimately is.

The turning from light to shadows
From burning to indifference
The turning of heart to granite
Of steel hopes to molten fear

And when it turns on me
Don’t let it turn on me

Again here it’s Burnett’s amazing arrangement and guitar playing that truly shine.

“Libera Me” was the first single and was a huge success despite the controversy. Here Phillips cries out for freedom from those things that have held her down, whether they be internal or external forces.
And I don’t know all the truth
from the lying
but I know that I need you
’cause I am dying
from bein’ held by hell
in this cell of blinding fear.

Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Libera, libere, liberame
from this dark dream
to a life stream.
Libera, libera, liberame
from this bruised soul
living half whole.
Libera, libera, liberame

“Carry You” is sung from God’s point of view as He shows His love for His own by carrying them through their darkest hours. “Beating Heart” would point toward the direction that the listener would find on the first two “Sam Phillips” releases. Here the singer does not have all the answers that seemed so obvious on the previous release.

“Expectations” deals directly with those expectations placed upon her within the music industry by both the label and the fans. This song is vocally the closest to anything Leslie did previously but is held together by a great T-Bone Burnett arrangement.

Let me pull down on your high ideals
To sweet earth honest and wide
Tumble with me in an undoubted craze
Don’t hold back the tide

You might get caught in sweet captivation
If you let your mind take this aberration
Loosen the pressure you choked me with
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe

You lock me up with your accusations
You lock me up with your accusations
You lock me up

On “Down” Phillips directly addresses the struggles over faith and the potential spiral she faces. But she discovers that these deeply held convictions that guilted her into acting a saying certain things were not truth.

Cut to the heart I am opened up
Like a wound
Shattered convictions I thought
Were reflecting you
Cut to the heart I am opened up
Like a wound
Shattered convictions I thought
Were reflecting you

“Answers Don’t Come Easy” follows perfectly the previous song. The struggles admitted to above do not find answers here but rather the realization that not having the answers is OK.

I can wait
It’s enough to know you can hear me now
Oh I can wait
It’s enough to feel so near you now
And when answers don’t come easy
I can wait

The album finishes with the nearly worshipful “God Is Watching You,” a song you can still occasionally hear on Christian radio. Sung in a sing and response form with Leslie and T-Bone (and friends) the song is the glimmer of hope in the darkened world of The Turning. It is a beautiful expression of God’s care of those that belong to Him.

When your life’s about to start – God is watching you
When you have a shattered heart – God is watching you
When you’re a slave and when you’re freed – God is watching you
When what you call love’s really need – God is watching you
God is watching you
God is watching you

Phillips’ career has had its ups and downs as had her personal life. But for this one sliver in time in which the public was privy to the inner turmoil and struggles of an artist seeking their true form, Phillips created a masterpiece that stands throughout time and is the brilliant example of what can be accomplished when a gifted artist is free to create.

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13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ted Patterson on February 24, 2010 at 12:46 am

    One of my favorites of hers….along with the Indescribable Wow. Anyways, Dave was right about the “mass exodus” out of that concert hall. I was higher up and was shocked at how the people just poured out of the place. Great concert from start to finish (I was really 1 of the 50 !!)

    Reply

  2. By the time The Turning came out, I had pretty much given up on Leslie Phillips – not my style… I remember reading The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington’s list of his top albums of the year and being shocked to see The Turning on it. He commented that it was a shame that more people wouldn’t hear this because it was a “Christian” album. I went out and bought a copy and was awestruck how good it was! It remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Steve on February 24, 2010 at 4:59 am

    You’re absolutely right, Kevin. Her first couple of albums had some nice songs…Dancing With Danger was fun…but this one blew the doors off (and gave an indication that she wasn’t going to play the CCM game!). Great songs that all hung together in a great album. Libera Me is fantastic.

    Lyrically speaking, I’d put this album up against anything in Christian music…ever.

    Reply

  4. One of my favorite memories regarding Leslie Phillips is when I was working night shift at a convenience store. Someone came in and bought a condom, and as I reached over to get it for them, I noticed that Leslie Phillips was singing “God is watching you.”

    I have no idea if the customer realized it, but I couldn’t help but smile.

    Reply

    • Posted by Steve Stewart on July 29, 2014 at 2:24 am

      I’m sorry. I guess I don’t understand. Are you saying the God disapproves of condoms? ‘Of sex?

      God is watching you every time you have sexual relations. Does the condom make the difference?

      Reply

  5. Love this album, and every one of her albums since then. If the CCM machine didn’t want Sam, and couldn’t make a space for Steve Taylor, and if Terry Taylor and Ojo and Mike Roe and Derri/Steve were struggling for recording contracts, then its easy to see how the CCM industry has gone to Hell I mean “Nashville” (thanks, Terry) since the late 80s. The only new CCM-related music I buy/ listen to any more is Switchfoot, Jars, and when one of the old legends does something new.

    Reply

  6. I liked Leslie’s earlier album, but thought this one was somewhat boring. I really hate it that she tossed away her CCM career to make albums very few people listen to now. Oddly enough, I saw one of her secular concerts a few years back. It was mostly the CCM crowd there to see her.

    Reply

    • Posted by Steve on November 26, 2011 at 12:01 am

      Yes, MacArthur, she did toss away her CCM career, and from what I’ve seen and read she hasn’t regretted it one bit. As soon as she broke out of the cute-song mode, she was on the outs with the Christian music industry (and I call it an “industry” intentionally). Most people I’ve spoken with disagree with your assessment of The Turning and her later music (she’s had enough success to keep going, and seems happy doing music she wants to do). Of course, it would be boring if we all agreed, wouldn’t it?

      Reply

      • Posted by Steve Stewart on July 29, 2014 at 2:44 am

        Spot on! I couldn’t agree with you more.

        I’ve watched Sam (or “Leslie”) grow personally, artistically and spiritually from her first album through her latest.

        It’s disappointing and odd to see so many mistake her turning (pun intended) as a mistake or a failing, or a falling.

        “The Turning” marked a stand she made in her life. It took strength and self-awareness. She knew what she was doing. She was being honest.

        As for “losing” a CCM career. Is a CCM career really the driving incentive for any authentic artist? I hope not.

    • Posted by Ecron Muss on July 28, 2012 at 10:43 am

      I think “tossed” implies carelessness. It seems to me her move out of CCM was a careful and deliberate one. You also imply that a lot of people listen to the old CCM albums, which again I’m not sure is true.

      Reply

  7. Posted by David on December 12, 2011 at 1:59 am

    I believe her decision to go on stage in a mini-skirt was a bad one. Immodest. It seems she spiralled down after that.

    Reply

  8. The Turning was a big answer to me being a Junior in High School when it came out..

    Reply

  9. Posted by Ecron Muss on July 28, 2012 at 10:28 am

    **Corrections”
    I think the line about “love the record company” should be “leave”.
    “The Turning would late be released” should be “rereleased”.

    The lyric quote: “And when it turns on me, Don’t let it turn on me”
    should be: “And when it turns on me, Don’t let it turn me”
    VERY important distinction!

    Great article!

    Reply

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