I believe we can all agree that 2020 has not been the year we anticipated. In fact, it’s been pretty bad so far, and the punches keep coming. The Central New York Celtic music community received a heartfelt loss when we lost a dear friend, Steve Phillips, a member of Celtic rock band The Elders. The Elders have been an annual fixture in Central New York for years.
Steve’s musical career began many years ago as a member of The Rainmakers. With chart-topping hits, they toured worldwide throughout the ’80s and ’90s. His career was a lifetime of music reaching worldwide, however, it was after he left The Rainmakers and began working with The Elders that our paths would cross.
I first began working with Steve in August of 2007 after I saw him play at the Great American Irish Festival in Frankfort, NY. I was beyond impressed with this band and their ability to make the audience feel as though they were family. After the show, I had this hair-brained idea of asking them to play a fundraising concert to establish a scholarship in memory of a friend who had just passed away. I’ll never forget the first conversation I had with Steve, who was extremely approachable and willing to work to make this show happen. For the next five years, we would work together closely to bring music to the Central New York region for a good cause.
This however would not be the end of our working relationship because as the band grew, so did my career in music journalism and photography, and they would become an important part of my growth. To say I have captured thousands of photographs of this band over the years is an understatement. Working together with Steve, we would share images to be used in promotional items, album art, and social media posts. I would be one of the first to receive a new album to review, and although I tried to remain unbiased, every review was glowing as their music progressed and grew along with the times.
Steve was not only a member of the band, his musical abilities were far-reaching. He wrote, played numerous instruments, and produced and arranged music for not only the band but a multitude of clients over the years in his studio, Big Time Music Productions. His dedication to a perfect product was spot on. I can recall one time in particular. We were on tour in Ireland. They had just finished playing and we all were hanging out in the pub. Although Steve was with us, he was focused on completing a project for his friends “the sisters.” He was making tiny adjustments in a recording they made and he was fussing about making sure it was perfect for them. I’m certain they loved it, and I’m certain it was perfect. How do I know? That was just how Steve did things.
Although his talents were numerous and his contributions great in the field of music, it was his character that shone through the most. After several years of wishing and wanting to join the band as they toured Ireland, I was finally able to join them in both 2016 and 2018 as the band and busloads of fans and family toured the emerald isle. It was here I would meet his beautiful wife, Becky, his sister-in-law Sherilyn, niece Danielle, and his son, Elliott. This family was a ray of sunshine. Just like Steve, they made you feel as though you too were family. They were like a family of hugs. Their energy was positive and widespread. It was here I saw the driving force of Steve’s passions. He loved music, he loved his causes and to make his voice heard, but it was his family that he loved and cherished beyond all else. It made my heart smile.
As I relive moments in my memory of Steve over the years, the one thing that is in every moment, his smile. He had a smile and wit and mischievous side that made him so endearing to everyone who met him. It was Steve who introduced me to Jameson Irish Whiskey. Thank you, my friend. See what I mean about mischievous?! He was always willing to welcome anyone and everyone on stage that would fit; at times entire choirs and dancers all at the same time. He even invited me once to just jump on stage and sing along. I wish I was brave enough to attempt it. I asked him later, “What were you thinking, you’ve never even heard me sing!” He said, “Wouldn’t that have been so much fun?” I’m so sad now that I didn’t. As a photographer, I would perfect over the years the timing of their signature jump shot, and it would be Steve who would capture the most air and most unique poses throughout the years. Thank you Steve for making my job always so much fun.
Steve was very private and humble, and when I learned that he was not well and suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, my heart ached. We had an ongoing joke about their music that streamed on various media outlets. I asked him once about how much they made on it, as I was working on an article about musicians copyrighting digitally streamed music, and he said they got rich on it, about three cents per play. So every once in a while I would screenshot the album art and send it to him telling him I was contributing to his wealth. In July I sent him what would be my last message and joke. Little did I know he would succumb a few weeks later to complications from contracting COVID-19. I just knew something wasn’t right at the time and that I needed to reach out to say hello and let him know I was thinking of him. I didn’t want him to know I knew he was ill, but I wanted him to know I cared. His response with a laugh and short message back to me, I will cherish always.
When writing an article, a journalist needs to keep it third person and factual. I apologize. I could not do that here. My friendship with Steve was personal. This is true not only of myself but hundreds and hundreds of people who made a similar personal connection. He just knew how to make everyone feel as though they were important.
His legacy will live on as a musician through his work and through his wife and children. Below please find the obituary shared recently by his family. It is the perfect tribute to a man who made a difference to so many.
Fare Thee Well Elder Steve
Remembering Stephen Phillips January 4, 1960 – September 29, 2020
Steve was born to Constance D & Philip K Phillips, the middle of five children. In his youth, Steve was a playful and ornery sibling, building go-cars, riding bikes, and playing in the creek. During his young adulthood, his curious and adventurous spirit transmuted into a love for art of all kinds. He was a skilled painter, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and engineer/producer. His joy for writing and playing music would become a lifelong career. He touched countless hearts performing with Kansas City bands Steve, Bob & Rich, The Rainmakers, and The Elders. His authentic and unassuming nature made him friends wherever he traveled. Steve was known for his many passions: history, politics, social justice issues, the environment, and for making amazing buckwheat pancakes.
Despite his public recognition, he embodied a humble and appreciative attitude towards his successes. Steve was most proud of the loves in his life: His wife, Rebecca, and their three children, Zac, AnnaLea, and Elliott, who all carry Steve’s trademark chin dimple and many other of his greatest qualities. Being young at heart, he had a deep and playful connection with his four grandchildren.
Steve knew all year that he was on borrowed time, but he was very private and did not want to bring attention to his suffering. He was dedicated to living with dignity and grace as he bravely approached his death. He died at home in the loving care of his beloved wife and children. Even as his body returns to the earth, his spirit will continue to live on through his descendants, through his musical legacy, and through his love for his fans, friends and family. Rest in peace brother Steve.
In lieu of flowers, Steve wishes donations be made in his memory to some of his favorite charities:
Fare thee well my friend. Every birthday, a day we shared each year, I will raise a shot of Jameson to you in your memory. I’ll smile at all the times we laughed, the music you shared with us, and the memories we made over the years. It was just like you to humbly leave us in true Irish fashion — with an Irish goodbye, slipping silently away so not to make a fuss. Love always to you, your family and bandmates. Your smile will always shine in our hearts.
Feel no guilt in laughter, he’d know how much you care.
Feel no sorrow in a smile that he is not here to share.
You cannot grieve forever; he would not want you to.
He’d hope that you could carry on the way you always do.
So, talk about the good times and the way you showed you cared,
The days you spent together, all the happiness you shared.
Let memories surround you, a word someone may say
Will suddenly recapture a time, an hour, a day,
That brings him back as clearly as though he were still here,
And fills you with the feeling that he is always near.
For if you keep those moments, you will never be apart
And he will live forever locked safely within your heart.