On a damp Friday night in December at Harpoon Henry's seafood grill in the Dana Point harbor district, Phil Shane is chatting up the late dinner crowd in the lounge, who are bundled up in sweaters sipping Chardonnay and eating mahi-mahi. In his hand is Phil's signature drink, the Hot Damn, a short glass of cinnamon schnapps on the rocks, which he'll use to toast the audience throughout the night, provoking the eponymous call-and-response that's familiar to Phil Shane regulars.
It's Phil Shane night in Orange County–something of an institutional event that has been occurring for some 40 years since Shane's arrival as a fresh-faced 23-year-old rockabilly crooner from Tupelo, Mississippi. He had set out for SoCal in 1972 in search of Disneyland. Two days after pulling into Anaheim, he walked into the Jolly Roger on Harbor Boulevard and booked his first West Coast job. He's been working here ever since.
But come next month, Phil Shane and his wife/manager/seamstress/co-songwriter/co-conspirator Michlene are leaving OC for Gallatin, Tennessee, a small town about half an hour northeast of Nashville.
The new year will be a change of pace for the Shanes. After a dozen or so years of grinding, playing upward of 250 dates per year, splitting time between Orange County and Las Vegas over the past decade, Phil (64) and Michlene (“younger”) opted to change tack and slow things down and to pursue other avenues. “By October of , I had booked all of 2013,” Michlene says. “If we're going to do this and do this, we're not going to have an opportunity to do what we wanted to do, which is get out there and do the songwriting–in the same room at the same time.”
It might surprise you to learn that original music is a longtime passion for someone like Shane, who made a reputation for himself as almost purely a barroom entertainer. He's best known for his immense song vocabulary, which he estimates at 2,000. His look composites Wayne Newton, Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond, and standing at 5-foot-3, he could just as much claim Prince. Conceptually, on paper, Shane's a guy singing karaoke, '70s Vegas-style–mostly classic rock and country songs. Call it whatever you want; he owns it.
“There's only one Phil Shane,” says Alex Hernandez, owner of Alex's Bar in Long Beach. “The ultimate lounge singer. He transcends every subgenre of music fan we have as far as audience goes.”
As far as this set in Dana Point goes, it's mostly 50- and 60-something affluent men with Burl Ives goatees and GILF-y wives. The place felt a little stuffy as Phil queued up the opening guitar riff for Roy Orbison's “Pretty Woman.” But by the start of the second verse, all 70-plus folks sitting around the lounge were clapping to the backbeat, fresh drinks in hand, and jotting down requests for him.
The next night in Huntington Beach, the crowd might be 30 years younger.
“You get a pretty eclectic mix, you know,” says Hernandez, who has been booking Shane for most of his 14 years running the venue. “His hardcore regulars range in age from, like, 50 to 70, 80 even, and the punkers love him, the hipster kids come out and love him. It's probably the broadest demographic out of anyone who performs at our spot.”
A set highlight comes when Shane sings Tom Jones' "Delilah,” in which he injects a chant of "You bitch! You slut! You whore!” into the chorus and churns his pelvis as erotically as a 64-year-old man could possibly hope to. It's a big hit with the regulars, which makes it easier to laugh at.
"I've seen the show a million times. He puts everything out there every time he's onstage, and you can't help but love it,” says Mike Yoder, a Costa Mesa video artist and longtime Shane regular. He mainly attends Shane's monthly gigs at La Cave. "His looks, his dancing and everything else–it's almost kind of funny. And he has a sense of humor about his music.”
La Cave promoter Dave Scott has been booking Shane for 10 years. He tells a story about how he met his wife through Phil; she was a backup singer for the Hot Damns, his backing band when he booked larger venues. "I asked her to dance, and she said no,” Scott remembers. "But she loved Phil, so I told her he would be back[at La Cave] next week, so she came back, and that was it.”
Shane sang Presley's “Can't Help Falling In Love” at their wedding.
Coincidentally, the same song is significant in Shane's own marriage. Michlene has managed Phil Shane since 1988. Shane, then married to his first wife, caught her eye after singing that song, which sparked a professional relationship that would eventually blossom into their marriage of 19 years and counting. “I never was a really big Elvis fan. But I watched him do it, and it was, 'Okay, I like Elvis,'” she recalls.
Shane will be the first to tell you he owes much of his success to Michlene's guidance and entrepreneurial prowess. “I'm not good at booking myself,” he says. “I had to be pushed by her. For years, I did a standup show. I didn't have the jackets, all that kind of stuff. And it worked–I'd switch my jackets up during the show, and people flocked to the lounge.”
The jackets were Michlene's idea–and her creation. She sewed him a jacket for his Elvis set, a black sequined waistcoat for Neil Diamond, and a third jacket they call the “oldies jacket.” Shane became her full-time everything by the early '90s. “It's a shame I didn't have her pushing me along when I was 20 years old,” he says. The night they met, she told him he'd be doing bigger things the next year, he recalls. “I wondered what she meant,” he says and laughs. “She's done so much for me, and we really work well together.”
Last year, Shane and Michlene decided to leave Orange County for the range life. They sold their house in Huntington Beach, bought one outside Nashville, and started looking for contacts in the songwriting business. They enlisted an agent. They plan on working part-time doing the Phil Shane “One Man Legend” shows to pay the bills, along with writing new music together–with Shane putting music to Michlene's lyrics.
Ultimately, his goal is to write and showcase tunes to sell to younger acts coming up in Nashville. “I hope to sell a song to somebody and make a hit out of it–I'd love that,” he says. “I'm way past the recording thing. Nobody past 30 years old is gonna have a hit starting out. You gotta be young and fresh.”
As the evening progresses, requests for Phil Shane originals surface, including one for a tune called “Love On the Internet.” It's a catchy number penned by the duo back in 1999 before either had an Internet connection. There's an elaborate line of crowd participation, and it's obvious people know the tune. It's then you can see the direction of Phil's career. “I'm looking forward to the times when I can get up in the morning and have a cup of coffee and set out on the porch for awhile and think of ideas for a tune,” Phil says. “We've never had that opportunity.”
Phil Shane's Farewell Show (featuring 13-piece backing band the Philenium Falcons!) at Alex's Bar is on Sunday, Dec. 22, 9 p.m. Free. For full details, click here.