"Dude, this is like tap dancing," Sam Phillips says. "This is like spoons, like handbone. This is the blues, man; it goes way back. I'm not the only one that can do this."
Phillips isn't just talking with his hands; he's talking about his hands, which, when he waggles them correctly in the air, produce machine-gun slaps, pops, and clicks. He tilts his head down slightly and closes his eyes when he plays. "I think this is an ancient art form. Musicologists think that the first percussionists made sounds by slapping their bodies, like handbone."
The lifetime West Sider's technique evolved from slapping congas as a 12-year-old. Trying to keep up with his older brother, he'd play until his hands bled. "My hands would swell up, so I started doing these techniques to build up my hands." Soon after, he learned he was able to shake his empty hands to make a range of noises that sound like a drum kit. It looks as if he's playing air drums, but the sounds are no fantasy.
"The first time I played my hands, I was out on the street, talking to some people, and I just did it," he recalls. "People used to put me down for doing this. They probably thought I was a freak."
Phillips currently mans the traditional drum kit for local outfits the Joe Average Band and the Sultans of Bing, both of which will perform this weekend. But his hand shtick rarely emerges during concerts. "It's all loud," he says of their concerts. "People are busy with everything else that is going on. My hand percussion is a street art."
But he does see the air drums as his ticket out of the bar scene, which he describes as a tiring, dead-end road. His quest for the big break has led to TV gigs on Real TV, The Arsenio Hall Show, Germany's Helmut Schmidt Show, and a variety show on Japanese TV. He will also be featured on an upcoming episode of WB's Maximum Exposure, and he recently turned down an opportunity to appear on The Tonight Show, because they were "looking for guys that knock their heads up against the wall to make sounds."
"Besides that, they called me a manualist. A manualist is a person who makes music with body parts," he says, never clarifying how that definition excludes him. "The only person that ever called me a manualist was Fred Griffith."
While Phillips works to advance his brand of hand percussion as a legitimate art form, he's not selfish about it -- he encourages others to elevate the technique with him.
"I know young kids that can do this, and they're good, too," he says. Like his boss's partner's son, or a girl who plays with a sideways technique down by Lake Erie. "I told her, 'This is a lost art form.'"