Singer-songwriter from Milton plays it cool

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Singer, songwriter and composer Phil Swann said when he comes home to visit in his hometown of Milton, he has to have two things."I have to get a Stewart's hot dog and a Gino's pizza," he said. Neither is available in his part of the world, Southern California.Just thinking about the hot dogs, he said, reminded him of home: "Maybe I could get a truckload FedExed out here."Like a lot of West Virginia expatriates, the 50-year-old said he gets home a couple of times a year, but it's never really enough."My folks still live there," he said. "My brother still lives there, and I've got a sister who lives in Huntington."He still has deep ties to West Virginia, though his musical career has taken him far away. These days, he makes his home in Los Angeles and he's never been busier. At the moment, he's balancing a wide variety of musical projects including the off-Broadway opening of his musical, "Play it Cool," a recently released jazz album, "Stale Scotch and Cheap Cigars," plus work on a third play, which revolves around the two-year courtship of Ronald and Nancy Reagan."Which isn't even political," he said. "They fell in love long before Ronald Reagan got really interested in politics. No, this is a Hollywood love story and it's very exciting. Nobody has done anything about it."And this play, along with the production of the other and the CD are in addition to his regular job teaching songwriting at the UCLA extension in Los Angeles.Phil Swann got his start like a lot of young musicians singing in church.He said, "I was the annoying little kid who sang all the songs in church and sang at the American Legion."Growing up, he learned to play the piano and was a fixture at local talent shows and school plays. He started writing songs, he said, when he was a teenager. "I started like everybody else," he said. "I was trying to impress girls."Between his junior and senior years in high school, he took a role in the annual summer production of "Hatfields & McCoys" in Beckley."That's where I got bitten by the theater bug," he said. "I spent the whole summer in Beckley singing and dancing."Swann also met veteran performers from New York doing summer stock.
"And I thought, wow, that looks like a fun way to make a living."So, Swann auditioned for and was accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, so right after high school he moved to New York City.
"I can only imagine what went through my folks' minds, leaving their son at what amounted to a flophouse apartment off of Madison Avenue and 32nd Street."To help make ends meet, he took a job at Macy's in Manhattan, not because he wanted to work in retail, but because it sounded familiar."It was the only job I could think to do because of the movies and the Thanksgiving Day parade."Six months later, however, a friend heard him singing and playing the piano, and asked him, "How come you know all those World War I and World War II songs?"
Swann told him about singing for the American Legion and singing with his dad and brother in a barbershop quartet.The friend offered to help him get a job at the restaurant he worked at in the East Village singing and playing the piano for $50 a night."I was all over that," he laughed.After college, Swann hit the road, played around the country and spent some time in Nashville, but eventually wound up in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. He supported himself playing piano and with small acting jobs."I did little things on 'Knots Landing,' 'Heaven Can Wait' and 'Days of Our Lives,'" he said. "On 'Days,' I had a recurring character named Sam the piano player."Through the 1990s, he wrote songs through Southern Cow Music, then joined DreamWorks SKG in 2000. He also got married.In 2005, DreamWorks was sold. After 2005, he published a novel, "The Mozart Conspiracy." He was approached by a friend, Ron West, to help develop a new take on "Romeo and Juliet."Swann asked his friend, "Isn't that 'West Side Story'?"The show, "The People Versus Friar Lawrence: The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet," ran for summers in Chicago and played in several other cities. It also launched a new phase of Swann's career.There have been other plays since then and other successes, but he's very proud of the new one, "Play it Cool.""It was just the most thrilling thing," he said. "A while back, I was walking on 42nd Street in New York, where I lived for three years, back when it was Hell's Kitchen and not Disneyland. I saw one of my playbills for 'Play it Cool,' and it was just very emotional for me.""Play it Cool" is playing at the Acorn Theater on Theater Row in New York City.Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.
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