More Than Judy Garland: My Conversation with Stevie Phillips

This article was originally posted on The Vinyl Vortex. This original article and others by Gabe Crawford can be found here. Follow Gabe Crawford on Twitter for all his music musings @gabecrawford and @thevinylvortex.

It is not a secret to many of my friends and family, especially my mom, that I am slightly fascinated with musicians and performers. Some may even say that “slightly” is an understatement or some may just flatly tell you how annoying I am when I start spewing facts about random artists.

Now I can tell you some really odd things about random musicians. Did you know that Kiss was the first band ever signed to the Casablanca record label?? Did you know Adele wrote “Turning Tables” with Ryan Tedder who is from Oklahoma and I’m from Oklahoma?? Did you know that Madonna has to have her dressing room fumigated after each concert to make sure nobody sells her tissues?

I think I just annoyed myself.

One of my favorite artists to study is Judy Garland. I have literally been a fan for nearly my whole life. I saw “The Judy Garland Christmas Special” on Nick at Night when I was 4 and the rest is history.

41olfurhcl-_sx326_bo1204203200_-2So naturally as I went to pick out a book to read after my recent move to New York state, I decided to pick out another book about Garland. My choice was Judy & Liza & Freddie & David & Sue & Me by Stevie Phillips. Phillips is a very successful former agent of many of music and films biggest stars. She got her start with Garland and she had loads of success with Liza Minnelli. Not to mention she also worked with David Bowie, Robert Redford, Al Pacino, and Hollywood’s “super agent” Sue Mengers. Basically this book couldn’t be more up my alley.

This book left my mind loaded with new knowledge. I was taken aback by Phillips candor over her workings with Garland and Minnelli. Her career fascinated me to no end. So to make a long story short or to prevent a short story from being long, I got in contact with Phillips and asked her if I could interview her. To my delight, she obliged.

I hope that my interview with Phillips will serve as a teaser to her book.  I fully encourage you to read this book. It will leave you with so much more than what Garland’s favorite wine was. I have included all links to purchase this book at the end of this article.

To start off the interview, I wanted to basically ask Phillips, how she survived the fickle world of show business. Once you read this book, you will see that her path was one less traveled.

Well. There are two things I have to respond to in answer to your question. One is my upbringing, my loneliness as a child. My parents were both in retail as you read in the book. They were gone from before I woke up in the morning until after I went to bed at night…

Movies were my best babysitter…If I had to name my favorite picture I would have to say at the time it was Meet Me In St. Louis…I wanted to be Ester Smith. I wanted her family. I wanted to have a crush on the boy next door. I wanted that life. A paradox in my life was that of Esther Smith, the role that Judy played in the picture turned out to be nothing like the real Judy. That was what it was…

Now, the second answer to that question is, Judy became the prism of which I viewed my life. I wrote that also. She taught me, not because she was a mentor, she was anything else but. I had to survive and help her to survive. I learned how not to fold.

This is one of the major themes of the book, how not to fold. Phillips first began her career has Garland’s “shadow.” She followed Garland everywhere she went as she embarked on a tour in hope to revive her career. Garland had signed with Phillips’ bosses, Freddie Fields and David Begelman. She became to know all of Garland’s idiosyncracies and erratic habits. She often cites this as one of her biggest challenges, but proves that nothing can stop ambition and drive.

I entered my life in show business with the ambition born out of my loneliness and was not going to let Judy or any other name stop me. 

It was a humongous amount of drive, but finally Judy Garland was Judy Garland up there on the screen, but in the living room Judy Garland was just another human being and not a very nice one by any means.

Now I have a huge amount of respect for musical icons and Garland is at the top. I imagine that if I met Garland today, I would stop dead in my tracks. I was immediately taken aback by Phillips’ candor. She was very honest in her book, but that wasn’t just in writing. She began to lay everything out just the way she saw it.

As I did research for this book, I found many positive and negative reviews. There was harsh criticism coming from Garland’s die-hard fan base that Phillips was tainting her legacy. Although I would consider myself somewhat in this base, I took a different approach. This memoir actually made me a bigger fan of Garland’s. Phillips humanized Garland and her troubled life. Garland isn’t a myth.

I am grateful that you said that. You are not the first to say that and I appreciate that criticism. I have looked on Amazon and at some of the criticism I have gotten. Some of it is really, really hard to take. I looked at it and thought to myself, ‘Whoa, I’m sorry I made that person so unhappy.’ Mostly, the worst of the criticism came from people who found it very presumptuous of me to criticize her [Judy Garland] at all. That her legacy should be left intact. Her legacy is a great one and perhaps all those critics are correct. I’m not going to imagine that I know more than they. They are entitled to their opinions and it is what it is. Judy was a real person and it was the realness of her life that informed mine. So why would I pretend that she was anything else

Phillips’ book chronicles many of Garland’s mishaps that Phillips ultimately had to manage. This included putting out many fires and she means this both literally and figuratively. Some may think that Phillips has a grim view on Garland, but that simply isn’t so. Garland had become a victim of addiction through her surroundings and her own making. Although Phillips had many times with Garland that were completely scary, like Garland chasing her with a knife, this isn’t what she holds on to, nor does she blame Garland.

Sometimes what remains in my mind about her is absolutely terrific. I still think, without a doubt, she is certainly one of the finest performers that this country has ever produced. She was amazing. She woud get out there on the stage and I would not care how much havoc she had brought in my life. She would perform and it would all go away. It was just extraordinary to watch her. At the same time there is the other part that is mean and nasty and I don’t blame her. How do you blame somebody for having a disease? Addiction is a disease and it’s a terrible disease and she was terribly afflicted and there were times when I swear if I could have put her through a brick wall I would have done it, but I never wanted less then to save her. I got angry, but in the end I wish I could have changed the addiction. I wish I could have changed the things that made me angry. It made me angry that she suffered. It made me angry that she did the things she did that she could not control.

Her addiction defined her. It cut her off from understanding that she had other options. She never recognized that the poor choices were hers…

I wanted her to be able to perform. Not just so that my bosses would make the money, not just so I would earn my salary, but because she was magnificent on the stage. I wanted to see her career go on.

Even though Phillips may have had these awful experiences with
Garland, the end resulted in who she became as an agent and, more importantly, a person. Would Phillips give Garland any thanks?

I am absolutely grateful to her. No question about it. She taught me how not to fold…I went through some seriously scary, seriously challenging events with her and discovered in the process how strong I was, that I could be confident of my intelligence. I owe her. I am grateful for all of that.

phillips_stevie__c_daryl_edelstein_2After Phillips finished being Garland’s shadow, she had proved to her bosses that she had what it took to hold the real power in show business. This eventually led to her representing Liza Minnelli in her career’s most formative years.

The fact that I survived was an indication to my two bosses that I was dependable, that I could be counted upon. Of course it was the gateway to representing Liza. My success with Liza opened doors for me in other areas..Certainly the most important thing that I learned besides surviving was what I learned from my real mentor, Freddie Fields, which was like in all businesses, not just show business, the business belongs in the hands that sign the clients. And I became a client signer.

Now Phillips was signing the clients and Minnelli became one of the biggest stars she represented. Although their history is far from just an agent and a client, they were connected by Garland.

I felt a connection to Judy, but mostly I felt sorry for Liza. Judy abandoned Liza. I’m not saying Judy didn’t care for Liza. Judy had genuine affection for her children, but that didn’t make her a great mother. There is no doubt in my mind she loved them, but her life was affected by the addictions and the pressures put on her that she couldn’t handle and it was hard under those circumstances to be the mother of all mothers.

When Garland left to record her TV show in California, Liza did not move with her. Phillips quickly became the most stable figure in Minnelli’s life and guided the foundation of her career. She was Minnelli’s agent when Minnelli won an Academy Award for Cabaret followed by her legendary concert for television Liza With a “Z”. In addition to guiding Minnelli’s career, Phillips lent her home to Minnelli through many of these formative years. She even hosted Minnelli’s wedding in her apartment. Sadly, Minnelli and Phillips severed ways due to a personnel decision made by Minnelli and they don’t have a relationship today.

By this time in our conversation and while reading the book, the legends that Phillips wrote and spoke about became second. I began to resonate with Phillips’ story in a different way. Her book no longer belonged in the “Music” section at Barnes and Noble, it now belonged in the inspirational section.

I quickly realized that Phillips is everything I want to see in myself. The tenacity she portrays during her trials with Garland, Minnelli, and in her personal life is nothing short of an education. Phillips taught me to never fold and to always keep moving, no matter the setbacks that life throws at you. If you keep moving and keep your eyes on your ambition, then success is inevitable.

As I briefly told Phillips of some of my ambitions, she even starting giving me advice.

A lot of people have opportunities; they just don’t see them. Opportunity comes knocking on the door and people don’t recognize it. When you see a chance to do something, however little sense it may make, if you feel that it’s going to lead you down a road that is exciting, take the chance! There is nothing as exciting as change and a lot of people are scared of it.  A lot of people don’t see opportunity when it comes and slams them in the face.

So in the end, this book wasn’t just about Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, or Robert Redford. Although, I did learn a lot of new facts to annoy my friends with. When I asked her why she wrote the book, this just backed up my reasoning.

I think it’s because I thought I had wonderful stories to tell. I think it’s because I felt that people could benefit, could learn something from the stories I had to tell. They were such wonderful stories that were worth telling….

These stories were definitely worth telling for they are not just historical, they are impactful. Phillips’ life needed to be secured in the books and she cemented it in. Even today she is still working on projects and talks about producing more musicals on Broadway, something we weren’t even able to touch on in our interview.

It’s been a hell of a ride, Gabe. I have had a wonderful career and the fact that I am still trying to create it amuses me.

Not only did I learn about some of my favorite musicians through Phillips, but I also learned valuable life lessons from real world experience. This is not a book I can only read once. Phillips has given me more than history; she has shared the wisdom she gained from these experiences. I only hope to emulate half of what she was able to portray and I hope this is not our last encounter.

Lastly, I wanted to leave you with what Phillips would say to Garland today if she was still alive. These are profound words that many of us need to live by today. She speaks of this not because she is a puritan; she assured me she is far from it. So what would  Stevie Phillips say to Judy Garland today?

Stop drinking. 

I just hope Phillips doesn’t mean coffee. I would sure love to have another conversation with her over a pumpkin spice latte this fall and learn some new facts to annoy my mom with. Ohh, the dreams of a music aficionado.

Purchase the book on Amazon here.

Purchase the book on Barnes and Noble here.


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