Phil Ochs Biography

19 December 1940, El Paso, Texas, USA, d. 9 April 1976, Far Rockaway, New York, USA. A superior singer-songwriter, particularly adept at the topical song, Phil Ochs began his career at Ohio State University. He initially performed in a folk-singing duo, the Sundowners, before moving to New York, where he joined the radical Greenwich Village enclave. Ochs’ early work was inspired by Woody Guthrie, Bob Gibson and Tom Paxton, and its political nature led to his involvement with the Broadside magazine movement. The singer was signed to the prestigious Elektra Records label, and through his initial work was hailed as a major new talent. He achieved popular acclaim when Joan Baez took one of his compositions, ‘There But For Fortune’, into the pop charts. Ochs’ own version later appeared on his In Concert, the artist’s bestselling set which also featured the evocative ‘When I’m Gone’ and the wry ‘Love Me I’m A Liberal’. Ochs’ move to A&M Records in 1967 signalled a new phase in his career. Pleasures Of The Harbor, which included the ambitious ‘Crucifixion’, emphasized a greater use of orchestration, as well as an increasingly rock-based perspective. He remained a lyrical songwriter; his sense of melody was undiminished, but as the decade’s causes grew increasingly blurred, so the singer became disillusioned.

Although Rehearsals For Retirement documented the political travails of a bitter 1968, the sardonically titled Phil Ochs Greatest Hits showed an imaginative performer bereft of focus. He donned a gold lamé suit in a misguided effort to ‘wed Elvis Presley to the politics of Che Guevara’, but his in-concert rock ‘n’ roll medleys were roundly booed by an audience expecting overt social comment. This period is documented on the controversial Gunfight At Carnegie Hall. Ochs’ later years were marked by tragedy. He was attacked during a tour of Africa and an attempted strangulation permanently impaired his singing voice. Beset by a chronic songwriting block, Ochs sought solace in alcohol and although a rally/concert in aid of Chile, An Evening With Salvador Allende, succeeded through his considerable entreaties, he later succumbed to schizophrenia. Phil Ochs was found hanged at his sister’s home on 9 April 1976. One of the finest performers of his generation, he was considered, at least for a short time, Bob Dylan’s greatest rival.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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