Phillip Randolph McDonald was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Everyone in his mother’s family of five girls and three boys played music on either piano or guitar. He recalled that “some were more accomplished than others.” That included his Uncle Don and Uncle Jack, both of whom played for money in honky tonks when he was a kid. “I guess that makes them professional,” said McDonald, who cites his grandfather, the Rev. William Wilson as a key inspiration for his own musical aspirations. “He played mandolin, piano, guitar and fiddle,” explained Phil.
At an early age, McDonald gravitated to the electric bass guitar, and by the age of 17 had been asked to join iconic rock and roll and soul vocalist Mitch Ryder’s band. The bassist credited both Ryder and legendary Motown and Philadelphia International Records’ session bassist Bob Babbitt (Funk Brothers) as the two most important musicians he’d studied under. “Their influences have stayed with me for the rest of my life,” said Phil.
Since then he’s worked alongside, Bob Seger, Bruce Hornsby, Little Feat vocalist Shaun Murphy and Eric Clapton, as well as such lesser known but exceptionally talented players as Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s guitarist Paul Warren and drummer Jimmy Hunter and Iggy Pop’s saxman John Harden. Phil moved to Savannah “to leave winter behind,” and since arriving he has become a visible member of the area music scene through his longstanding gig holding down the low-end with the 12-member show and dance band The Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love featuring the Bonaventure Horns.
Phil and his wife Faith have five children. He encouraged anyone interested in his live performances to follow The Sapphire Bullets on Facebook. He also noted that the photo he submitted to accompany this interview is his “First and only selfie.”
What’s the first record you recall hearing that made you want to play in –or record with– a band? “The Yardbirds’ ‘For Your Love’ in 1965.”
One movie that never fails to make you laugh out loud? “‘Being There,’ with Peter Sellers.”
How old were you when you played your first paying gig, and where was it? “I played a frat party at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at the age of 14.”
Three LPs that everyone should hear at least once in their life? “Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue,’ Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ and The Allman Brothers Band’s live album ‘At Fillmore East.’”
One musical artist whose work you adore which might surprise most folks that only know you from your own gigs? “Pink.”
True or false: Honey tastes great on fried chicken. “False.”
The single biggest misconception people seem to have about professional musicians? Probably that we don't really work for a living, we just play.”
The most recent book you’ve read? “I had to read ‘1984’ again. I’d thought it was fiction.”
If you could sing like any established vocalist in the world, who would you choose to sound like? “Aretha Franklin.”
What’s the trickiest part of mastering the electric bass guitar? “Learning to listen.”
Would you rather hang loose at the beach or in the mountains? “Mountains with a beach… Think Table Rock State Park, S.C.”
Name both the best and worst things about being a working musician in this area. “The best part is the musicians. The worst part is the gigs.”
Ice cream or sorbet? “Both.”
Ever been in a fistfight? “Never been in a fight. Seems pointless to me.”
The single most useful piece of advice any other musician ever gave you? “‘Play the same thing every time.’ I learned that from John Siomis, drummer for Mitch Ryder and Peter Frampton.”
Favorite instrument you’ve ever owned? “A 1959 Fender Precision Bass I purchased in 1969. It’s refinished in black.”
Would you rather ride a motorcycle or drive a boat? “Boat. It’s hard to fish on a motorcycle.”
One song you’ll never tire of performing? “‘Peg’ by Steely Dan.”
The Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love have been around for decades now. What’s the secret to keeping a band together for such a long period of time? “No crying.”
The very first thing you’d do as Mayor of Savannah? “Close Broughton to Bay Streets to all vehicular traffic.”
Each week, 20 Questions features a different noteworthy figure of the local arts community in a quick Q&A session curated by veteran writer Jim Reed. Read more at dosavannah.com.