Another favorite 45 that’s been getting spin-time at the WCF headquarters is Samy Phillip’s “I Wonder Freely/Magic Fly (for Jordana” (Infinite 2002) from 1964, with its swinging garage-soul groove, gruff, snotty vocals, and blaring Dylanish harmonica. I managed to track down Phillip last year and sat down to lunch with him at his favorite Boyle Heights Mexican restaurant. I brought along my good friend, artist Jan Steward, who’d known the musician back in the mid-60s but hadn’t seen him since.
Turns out Samy Phillip is not Samy Phillip at all. His real name is Hirth Martinez and some of you may recognize his name from a couple of Robbie Robertson-produced LPs from the mid-70s. But the story starts about a decade earlier in East Los Angeles where young Martinez honed his chops by playing jazz and RnB piano and guitar with guys that’d go on to form successful groups like Thee Midniters, the Blendells, and the Premiers (you can listen to an informative podcast about Martinez’s legacy on Mark Guerrero’s Chicano Music Chronicles here).
Martinez put together his own combo sometime in ’63 and throughout 1964-65 the group played the Classic Cat in Hollywood. Though he was already an accomplished musician and had performed at lots of East L.A. dances, he hadn’t been old enough to really play in real show-biz clubs before that. The Classic Cat was a topless club with live entertainment located at 8844 Sunset Boulevard at Larrabee, right in the heart of the Sunset Strip. The Cat drew all sorts of celebrities from movie stars like Bob Crane and Robert Conrad to musicians like Dino Valenti and Jim Morrison, who apparently liked to hang out at the pool table. Around this time Martinez’s group also played at the Chez, which was next door to P.J.’s in West Hollywood at Santa Monica and Crescent Heights Blvd.
Sometime during this period Martinez decided to record and release his own songs so he started his own imprint. “Infinite was just a label I started myself to put out my own songs,” Martinez explained. “I think the first Infinity labels were black and then they turned to a green color.” The label on the first release was minus the definitive “infinity” symbol of its successors.
Infinite’s first release was Samy Phillip himself doing “When I Say I Love You, I Mean It, and I Don’t Change My Mind” (Infinite 2001). Some of you might remember this ‘un from its inclusion on Boulders #2. A great snotty frat punker with harmonica, its twangy guitar really grooves but its Martinez’s strong vocals that really make this a classic with memorable lines like “It’s a fact that nuts like that are cheaper by the bunch.” The flip, “Baby, I Love You Today,” is somewhat tamer but also worthy.
Infinity’s second release was another Phillip release, the amazing and aforementioned “I Wonder Freely” backed by “Magic Fly (for Jordana)” (Infinite 2002). While we’ve already discussed the geen’ qualities of the topside, the Donovan-esque flip is pretty interesting as well.
“’Magic Fly’ was a song I wrote for my baby cousin, Jordana,” Martinez explained. “She was staying at my house and was having trouble going to sleep so I was telling her a story about a magic fly that could talk and I made up a little song about it for her. Later her parents would tell her, ‘It’s okay you can go to sleep now, there’s the magic fly!’”
This one was apparently the only Infinity release to come in a black and white picture sleeve. Martinez drew the cover art for the record himself. “I did the little drawing of myself for the sleeve. I always had my hair combed down in the front and wore these round dark glasses. That was my look. And boots, we all wore boots back then.”
It’s a little unclear exactly who is playing what on these releases. Martinez leaves it vague. “I had a group that backed me on those records. Sometimes Richie Frost from the Crickets and sometimes Jim Troxell on drums.” Troxell of course would go on to be Curt Boettcher and Steve Clark’s main drummer, showing his stuff on Tommy Roe’s It’s Now Winter’s Day, the Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar album, Bobby Jameson’s Color Him In, etc. Martinez sometimes apparently had some of Thee Midniters themselves behind him as well and when I asked Midniters’ leader Jimmy Espinoza about Martinez he had nothing but compliments for his friend. On “I Wonder Freely” it was George Domaine on drums, Benny Lopez on bass, Martinez on piano, and Danny Diaz guitar. “Those records were recorded in a real primitive studio on Rollins Dr. in East L.A. I think Del Casher was the engineer,” Martinez recalled. While Casher is most known for inventing the wah-wah pedal that Vox marketed he also played guitar for Frank Zappa in an early Mothers of Invention incarnation in ’66 and was the brains behind the notorious pre-psych “Space Boy” recording from ’64. Casher explained it all in a Vintage Guitar magazine interview in ’97. “Frank Zappa came by one day, said he’d heard about me, and said he wanted to record something for a singer who had a song about a Russian cosmonaut who was lost in space (chuckles). In those days he wasn’t a guitar player, so he asked me to play guitar and bass, laying down tracks using the Ecco-Fonic to get the spacey sounds, while he played on a snare drum I had in the studio. I think this was one of the first recordings Frank did when he arrived in L.A. He was very pleasant, and he looked as weird as the sounds we created, but boy, was he talented! When he played the drum, I knew something great was going on, and we enjoyed that session so much he asked me to join his new group. I politely declined because my studio schedule was beginning to happen. Later, he formed the Mothers of Invention, and he asked me to play at several of his concerts while he and his manager were getting a record deal together; it was an interesting experience. Frank employed me to perform with him on the David Susskind TV show featuring a ‘Freak Out’ concert.”
It was no accident that the Samy Phillip records sound a lot like Dylan. “Hanging around other musicians it was the same everywhere,” Martinez told me. “Everyday was all Dylan all the time in Hollywood and New York.” To most of the musicians it was a great relief, Martinez figured. “He freed the songwriter to write longer songs and the lyrics didn’t have to make sense.” Interestingly “ I Wonder Freely” was written for a Dylan-type character for a Las Vegas show. “I wrote 45-minute lounge shows for a friend’s dance company. There were three girl dancers and a trio of musicians, Johnny Larkin AKA ‘Scatman’ on piano, and then keyboard and drums.”
Martinez’s first big break in the music biz however came when was his friends Thee Midniters chose his song “Evil Love” as the follow up to their hit “Land of 1000 Dances.” Credited to Samy Phillip, “Evil Love” originally graced the A-side of Chattahoochee 684 when it was released in mid-1965 but DJs began flipping the record over and playing the other side, an instrumental (loosely based on the Rolling Stones’ “2120 South Michigan Avenue”) called “Whittier Boulevard.” Locally “Whittier Boulevard” was huge—ping-ponging around the top ten at KRLA for a few months. Nationally it rose up on the Billboards to #127. Chattahoochee eventually repressed the record with the titles flipped.
The tune’s a great one, and somewhat atypical of the East L.A. sound. “Jazzy chord changes and odd (for pop) structure without easily demarcated verses and bridges” are counterbalanced by staccato guitar, Farfisa organ, and an impressive break and hook. Apparently Martinez hid behind the name Samy Phillip (his dad’s first name) on his attorney’s advice to avoid paying some of his old agents that were coming after him to collect their cut of gigs they didn’t even book him on!
Infinite kept on going for a little while. The third Infinite release was Phillip doing “What is This Feeling?/It’s Showtime” (Infinite 2003). The top is a rockin’ gospel kinda number while the flip is a freaky, almost Kim Fowley-style downer, beat-jazz recital. The fourth was Jo and Jim’s “They Day We Both Knew/A Fairly Tale” (Infinity 2004). “She was a singer and her husband Jim Richardson was a sax player who played flute on this.”
Eventually Martinez got drafted and was sent away for a few years. Upon returning to civilian life he jumped right back on the music biz bandwagon, He toured the country and kept on performing with big names like John Lee Hooker and was even there when Gabor Szabo got busted in Boston. This was when Martinez and my friend Jan Steward’s paths crossed. Steward’s home in Los Feliz was ground central for the East-West collaborations that were happening at the time with jazz and rock players and visiting Indian musicians. Steward entertained everyone from Mike Seeger and John Cage to Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ravi Shankar, and Aashish Khan at her home and even played sarod with bassist Bill Plummer in the Cosmic Brotherhood. Martinez mixed freely in this ethno-jazz scene and became especially tight with vibe player Lynn Blessing.
In 1969 Martinez played on Lynn Blessing’s solo LP Sunset Painter. Fresh out of the Cosmic Brotherhood and the Advancement, Blessing had just hooked a deal with Epic Records. “The group had Wolfgang Meltz (on bass) who was in the Cosmic Brotherhood too,” Martinez remembers. “Jim Gordon was the drummer and Jim Keltner too, he was playing jazz stuff more before he started doing rock.” Sneaky Pete Kleinow is also featured on the record which features several creatively arranged covers such as the Byrds’ “Child of the Universe.” Martinez penned one of the tunes on the LP, though not my fave, “Where There is Grass,” an incredible arrangement that sounds like something off the Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers. Again Martinez had to hide his identity. “On Lynn’s LP I go by the name Robert Hirth because there was another agent after me,” he explained matter-of-factly, though one begins to wonder if there was something more to this story. Like the Cosmic Brotherhood, Blessing’s was a working band, at least temporarily. “I think we played some shows with that group at Shelley’s (Manne Hole) on Cahuenga.” From there Martinez began working on movie scores for David Carradine. “I got $1500 maybe $2000 to make a score,” he figured. The process was not entirely satisfying however as “everybody was so stoned all the time.”
Martinez’s real big break however came about through a chance encounter at a music store. “I was at Norm’s Guitar one day and Dylan came in to buy a guitar. Norm was like, give him a tape of your songs! But I was too nervous and embarrassed so I hid in the back room and Norm gave it to him. When I got home Robbie Robertson had already called me and said lets make a record.” The rest is history and outside the scope of this forum, but let’s just say Martinez has enjoyed a fulfilling musical career since then. For the intrepid music buyer, all the Infinity sides are available on an out-of-print CD called Teenage Hirth issued by Japan’s Coconut Grove in 2010. If you want to know more about Martinez please visit hirthmartinez.com.
Thanks to Hirth Martinez, Jan Steward, Jimmy Espinoza, and all the other bloggers I gathered info and images from!