Interview: Phil Manning

Marcus Singletary: Describe your early years.

Phil Manning: It was pretty balanced. We were a typical family. I grew up in Devonport, Tasmania, which is the little island right at the bottom of Australia. We used to fish there all the time. Dad had been in the Air Force during the Second World War, and he went on to own his own radio/TV repair shop. I went to art school, and was going to be an art teacher. But, by that stage, all I wanted to do was play music.

Marcus Singletary: What was the first guitar that you ever owned?

Phil Manning: It was an acoustic Hoyer Broadway - an F-hole acoustic with a couple pick-ups mounted on a scratch plate - and I still have it. It was falling to pieces, and I had to strip it and use tape to put it back together.

Marcus Singletary: Tell us about your early experiences in music.

Phil Manning: I did eight years of classical piano, which I developed a passionate hatred for! I wanted to get a guitar when I was fifteen, and I had to talk my parents into letting me give up piano. I was able to do some part-time work in my father s shop, and gradually pay off a guitar. I formed a little band with some school friends, then read in a magazine that Tony Worsley's guitarist, Vince Melouney, left to join the Bee Gees. I went and said I'd like to apply for the guitar position. I borrowed a guitar off one of the bands on the bill, and two days later, I was in Melbourne. I was eighteen!

It was 1966. For some reason, we always had this notion that we were years behind the American and British pop scenes, and the Australian recording industry, at that time, was not very good at reproducing electric bands. I'm being rather kind there. Some of the early Australian rock singles sound absolutely awful. They sound like they were recorded in the bathtub! By about 1969 or 1970, the studios were really starting to get it together, and the recording industry really blossomed thereafter.

interview pic

Marcus Singletary: When you started playing guitar, what was on the radio?

Phil Manning: When I got my first guitar, I'm pretty sure that was about the time the Beatles had "I Saw Her Standing There" as a hit. Later, with all the sort of various trends that happened, I did some cross-dating, and discovered we were only a couple of weeks behind in a lot of things - like when Hendrix put out "Hey, Joe." It came to a radio station, when I was on tour, and the DJ said, "you might be interested in this." They weren't interested in playing it here, but they got a record anyway. That was two weeks before it was released in England.

Marcus Singletary: Who were some of the artists that you would call influences?

Phil Manning: I was a typical Sixties kid. We always had Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley records, because my sister was into that. She was a bit older than me. Then, along came the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and that changed everything. Reading articles about them led me to Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Gradually, that led me to find out about Muddy Waters, so it's a whole thing of discovery that took me back to the 1920s acoustic Delta people.

Marcus Singletary: When did you start touring?

Phil Manning: Within a very few years of taking up guitar, and having those influences, I was actually touring around Australia with the same people - Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Freddie King, Hound Dog Taylor. Here, in Australia, by being regarded as a blues player, there was a time where there were really only a couple of us who claimed to be blues musicians. As a result, whenever any of the greats came out here, I got to be the support act.

Marcus Singletary: What did you learn from listening to the classic blues recordings?

Phil Manning: As an Australian who didn't have the American or black experience, listening to the blues and trying to emulate it was sort of nigh impossible, really. The main thing I learned, over time, was to stop trying to emulate, and just do my own thing. When I actually reached that conclusion, I had a much happier time in music. One of the realizations, of course, was that, with all these wonderful blues acts - and not only blues acts, but all sorts of people like Roy Buchanan - none of them were the same. Everyone had their own peculiarities and style and, after awhile, you sort of accept that you can't be anyone else. You just have to be yourself.

Marcus Singletary: Did guys like Eric Clapton and Peter Green get the blues right?

Phil Manning: I absolutely love Clapton and Peter Green! There's always this debate on whether white people play the blues properly - which I think is a lot of bunkum. People are people. But, at the same time, I don't have the black experience, and neither did Clapton nor Green. Once again, both emulated people like Freddie, Albert, and B.B. King, in their youth. Of course, they developed their own style, within that. If it hadn't been for John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers' "Beano" album, featuring Eric Clapton, I doubt there would be as many blues-influenced players as there are. It was exciting and energetic and, in my case, led me to discover Freddie King. When I heard the Clapton rendition of Freddie King's "Hideaway," it sort of encouraged me to go and find the original. The whole thing is just a voyage of discovery, and there are these really big markers, along the road. Eric Clapton is definitely one of them.

Marcus Singletary: Describe joining Chain.

Phil Manning: A band from Perth came across to Melbourne, and they had a guitarist named Dave Hole, who later signed to Alligator Records. Dave decided he didn't want to be in the band anymore, so I joined them. We came back to Melbourne as the pop band The Beaten Tracks but, in that period of being away, we realized that the Melbourne scene had changed. It was an era where you had bands like Traffic and The Band and their album Music from Big Pink. Music had gone from being dominated by pop bands to being dominated by progressive, underground groups. The singer we had was a good pop artist, but couldn't go where we wanted to go, so we got Wendy Seddington, rehearsed for a week, and sat around and asked, "what are we going to name the band?" In the end, she just turned around and said, "call the band Chain!" After that, we were Chain.

Marcus Singletary: The most successful Chain album was "Toward The Blues".

Phil Manning: Yes. After we got Matt Taylor as a singer, we ended up going through Sydney and recording the single "Black and Blue." It just became really huge. It was astounding, with such a dirge single. We became big, and the record company deemed that we could do an album. We set our live gear up, and spread it out more as we got into the recording. We were having trouble getting it together, and really we weren't getting anywhere. We just didn't quite get it. Then, suddenly, everything felt right, and we knocked the whole album over! After we finished, I went back and added a couple guitar overdubs, the bassist duplicated his bass part on guitar to add thickness to the sound, and that was it. We went back and mixed it in a day. It all came together, and we basically went back to gigging.

Marcus Singletary: But you wouldn't call Chain a blues band?

Phil Manning: We're known as an "Australian blues band." When we toured with Albert Collins, he actually said to us, "it's not like any blues I've heard before." But, I can recognize that it's got blues in it. Growing up here, we had the picture in our minds that it was sort of a jamming form of music. But, on the first Muddy Waters tour, we realized that it's a really disciplined form. Muddy is the bandleader, and you do what Muddy says. So, that was actually a bit of a revelation, because we were sort of a loose band. At one stage, we had sophisticated arrangements but, later, we all started taking acid and smoking dope. All that sort of stuff that was the done thing, at the time. It evolved into much looser jamming, where we would take an idea, and basically just jam it until it started to take a form of its own. This would eventually become an arrangement.

Marcus Singletary: Have you heard the Manfred Mann cover version of "Black and Blue?"

Phil Manning: I have a copy somewhere. We did a show with Deep Purple, Free, and Manfred Mann's Earth Band. That's where they heard it. We knew their guitarist, Mick Rogers. He was in a band in Melbourne called Procession. So, they recorded it.

Marcus Singletary: Why did you eventually leave the band?

Phil Manning: I was going in an acoustic direction, and was absolutely getting tired of being in a van with people on the road the entire time. I wanted to explore the more acoustic side of my nature. But it was just the wrong time for acoustic music here. The scene became very heavy, and I was very much out on a limb. Music always changes. There's always some sort of trend, and there's always something new on the horizon, whether you like it or not. I recorded my first solo album over at Channel 9 Studios - the end result of leaving the band. I should have done a full-on guitar album, though. I had a big name around the country, as an electric blues player, and I missed the boat a bit on that one. It got great reviews, but didn't have a radio-friendly single on it and you needed a single to launch an album and get it off the ground, in those days.

Marcus Singletary: Later, you turned towards acoustic blues for the appropriately titled "It's Blues".

Phil Manning: I was still smoking dope, and I just went into the studio with a guitar and a bottle of wine and played about an hour-long set. I then went back, after a break, and recorded the whole set again. It's a pretty rough album, although well recorded, but it sold bucketloads, and got a fair amount of airplay. We just picked the best bits. The guitar was miked, and I also ran it through a pickup and amp.

Marcus Singletary: What guitars have you been using, since then?

Phil Manning: At first, I was a Fender Australia artist. Then, Fender started distributing Guild here, and I became a Guild artist. So, with my solo shows, I'm currently with Guild. I have a top of the line Guild D55 that is absolutely gorgeous! But I don't take that to gigs. The main one I use there is a Guild made in China, which is not at all expensive.

Marcus Singletary: What do you feel your greatest musical achievement has been?

Phil Manning: I would sum it up with a quote that came from Rolling Stone, which said that Chain had been unafraid to admit our Australianness. It comes out in the songs. In Chain, Matt Taylor tends to be the lyricist, and has been one of the main songwriters. I've written a lot, and I tend to come up with guitar riffs and progressions. But, in our solo careers, we sort of always tried to use our direct life experience. So, I don't write about Mississippi, because I've never been there. But I've been to Cumbria, and I've been to lots of great Australian-sounding names! One would never think of using Australian places and experiences, but I think that's something I've certainly offered.

Marcus Singletary: Will you perform forever?

Phil Manning: My wife and I are pretty settled on that. She's an artist, and I do my albums. We're going to spend a few months working hard, then go off to Southeast Asia. Life changes. I don't really have a great need to feel I have to succeed, above all else, anymore. I'm quite happy with my position in the music industry in Australia, and delighted I have that position. The one thing I do have that I'll never lose is the fact that I love playing guitar. That will continue, so hopefully, I'll get to do lots more albums, and have lots of holidays in between. We're never going to get wealthy, but we're lucky we get to make lifestyle choices, and the obvious thing that gets in the way of playing forever is death! So, as long as my health holds out, I'll continue to play for as long as I can.

interview picture
Guitarist Phil Manning began playing music back when the Fab Four were the kings of the road, and has been considered one of blues' crown jewels ever since. In the age of Aquarius, he joined the progressive rock band Chain, whom he provided with searing fretwork that linked familiar inspirations (his influences include Eric Clapton, the King triumvirate, and Muddy Waters) with more obscure, colloquial roots (the group incorporated images from Down Under into its regionalized lyricism.) These talents were lauded by music critics, and then minted by Manfred Mann, who covered the straight-ahead blues tune "Black and Blue" on his 1973 album Messin'. On his own, Manning has toured with many of his idols, as well as such icons as Robert Cray, Bo Diddley, and Joe Satriani. Here, he provides proof that blues music continues to thrive as an internationally-spoken language.

Marcus Singletary, who recently conducted this interview with Manning, is a musician, musicologist, and media personality based in Los Angeles, CA. He currently hosts the Far Out Flavors pop culture podcast. Visit for more information, and follow him on Twitter - @IAmSingletary.