The Phantom Blues Band has backed Taj Mahal for about forever, and as first-call L.A. session cats, played behind lots of other greats, from Bonnie Raitt and Etta James to Joe Cocker and Bob Marley. After years behind Taj, they began to release their own albums, and that’s told below.
The kicker is that their new release Blues for Breakfast is on Little Village, a unique non-profit record company that seeks out music that might not otherwise be heard—which is not a problem for the Phantoms. The real reason that Little Village is presenting this collection is that all proceeds will go to a music school named for the Phantom’s late keyboardist, a much-beloved man named Mike Finnigan.
The band asked veteran Los Angeles music maven Bill Bentley to tell the story:
For all his considerable musical talents, Taj Mahal has always been shrewd. And smart. In the early 1990s he knew he’d assembled something special in his backing band. He dubbed his secret weapon the Phantom Blues Band.
After helping Taj win two Grammys and gain three other nominations, the band members realized they could stand on their own. The Phantom Blues Band began assembling what would become Out Of The Shadows in 2006, an album that stretched the band and won raves at every turn.
The Phantom Blues Band - drummer Tony Braunagel, bassist/singer Larry Fulcher, guitarist/singer Johnny Lee Schell, saxophonists Joe Sublett, trumpeter Darrell Leonard and keyboardist/singer Mike Finnigan – has been a resilient unit. At various times, its members have backed just about every marquis band you can name, but they continued to support Taj when he needed them.
On its own, Phantom has recorded Out Of The Shadows and Footprints in 2007 for Delta Groove and Inside Out in 2012 and Still Cookin’ in 2020, both for VizzTone. Album after album featured the same musicians, although at one point Les Lovitt replaced Leonard on trumpet.
It’s a rather remarkable testimonial that these guys who are first-call sidemen for people such as Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Robert Cray, Eric Burdon, Bob Marley among others always seem to come back to their nest with the Phantom Blues Band. Unusual allegiance and true camaraderie come to mind as character traits.
So it was especially painful during the pandemic shadow in 2020 when Finnigan was diagnosed with cancer. Finnigan held his own place in the music industry. Through the years, he played on hundreds of records and thousands of shows with artists as varied as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He made it through the Still Cookin’ album, but succumbed to his illness in August 2021.
The Phantom Blues Band wasn’t going to let that knock them out. They recruited veteran Jim Pugh on keyboards (Etta James, Robert Cray, Chris Isaak) and immediately set about to produce an album in tribute to the fallen Finnigan.
Schell and Fulcher handle most of the vocals on the new album, which is scheduled for a July 4th release on Pugh’s Little Village record label. The band invited two of its long-time musical companions – Bonnie Raitt and Curtis Salgado – to pitch in on the effort.
As a tribute to Finnigan, proceeds from the new CD will be donated to the Mike Finnigan School of Music at the Stiefel Theater in Salina, Kansas. It is surely an honor Finnigan, a native of Kansas, would smile at.
The members of the Phantom Blues Band can take plenty of pride from their aggregated musical experiences, but they know this project is something special.
Of course, Taj Mahal could have probably told you that they could do this long ago. He believed in them first.
Information on the music school: https://www.stiefeltheatre.org/school-of-music
Little Village: www.littlevillagefoundation.com