While many of us were inspired to pick up a bass or guitar after seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Phil Orsi was already cutting 45s, long before that fateful Sunday. Growing up not far from Chess Records and Record Row on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Phil was inspired by some of his blues and soul musical heroes, including Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, who would visit his parents’ Italian store on the South Side of Chicago.
Phil was also inspired by the Rock and Roll and Doo Wop of the late ‘50’s that he was hearing on the radio that his Grandmother gave him. By the late 50’s, Phil was playing guitar, however due to a serious accident which affected his fretting hand, he switched to bass.
Phil’s first bass was a gold and white Danelectro Longhorn, but in November 1960, he went to the Chicago Music Cooperative, and bought a 1960 Fender Jazz Bass with a hard-shell case for $227.00, which he still owns.
During the early 60’s, Phil played with the Don Caron Orchestra, backing various national recording artists who came through Chicago, including Dion and The Marvelettes. He also had a band, The Uni-Beats, and their first record, “Someone New”, was released in 1961. True to his love of Doo Wop, he had The Sheppards, a Chicago vocal group, as background singers.
After the Uni-Beats, his next band was Phil Orsi and the Little Kings. The band had a run from 1961-1964; playing all of the hot clubs in Chicago including The Peppermint Lounge, Whisky A Go-Go, The Scene, and others.
Phil and the Little Kings released many records and his love for the music he grew up on, never left him. Some of the band’s early to mid-60’s releases were great covers: “Sorry” I Ran All the Way Home,” (The Impalas), “Stay” (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs), “Don’t You Just Know It” (Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns), “California Sun” (The Rivieras) and “C’mon Everybody” (Eddie Cochran).
Phil also wrote some of the songs released as 45s, including “Someone New,” “Oh My Darling” and “Whoever He May Be.” Stay, Sorry and Whoever He May Be” were released on the USA record label, which gained notoriety a few years later when The Buckinghams had a No. 1 national hit with “Kind of a Drag” on that label. By the mid-60’s Phil was part of The Thunderbirds.
That collective was an in-demand act, and they regularly opened for many of the British Invasion groups, including the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Dave Clark 5, Moody Blues and Chad and Jeremy. They also worked with the Beach Boys and Tommy James and the Shondells. Like the Little Kings, the Thunderbirds also released a string of 45s on local Chicago labels. At this point, the band had that classic mid-60’s Garage Band sound. Check out “Your Ma Said You Cried.”
After The Thunderbirds, Phil reformed the Little Kings and they had a run until 1970, and released a 45, “Loving on Borrowed Time”, which became a “Northern Soul” classic.
From 1970-1985, Phil was part of a horn band, Happiness Is, which released another “Northern Soul” classic, “Love is Slipping Away,” which was a rearranged remake of the 45 previously released with The
Little Kings. Phil continued playing regularly until 1992, a music career spanning over 30 years.