The Genius Of Jim Phillips
[Jim competing at Seaside Heights, NJ. See below for article from Competition Surf.]
Jim Phillips is an underground shaping sprite who has built surfboards in most US states that have an ocean shoreline. His teen years were spent surfing and shaping in Hawaii, doing ding repair at the famous Hobie shop and furthering his self taught operation. He encountered Hawaiian waterman and innovator George Downing, who was Hobie’s original dealer before the flagship opened on Kapiolani. George had a shop nearby and was an early design influence on Jim who says, "George’s big wave guns back then looked like contemporary guns do now with low wide points and pulled templates." Island living wouldn’t last forever and his father, an Air Force Major, was relocated to the East Coast.
In 1965, Jim got a job shaping for Micris Surfboards, a short-lived, Long Island based company owned by TWA pilot Lou Evangelist, who eventually hired New York shaper Bob “Hawk” Hawkins. (Hawk had been making boards under his own label since 1962 and also shaped for Bunger.) When things slowed down at Micris, Jim interviewed for a job with pioneering New York shaper John Hannon but was told, “Hannon shapers are highly skilled and come within 1/16th of an inch in their accuracy." He wasn’t hired and it was cold sleeping in the Micris factory. He moved to New Jersey where he met shaper, Carl “Tinker” West of Challenger Eastern Surfboards, another important influence on his developing career. Tinker was a California expat with a degree in physics from Cal Tech whose design lineage came from Simmons and Velzy. He was also an early concert promoter known for his portable sound systems which helped launch Bruce Springsteen's career. Springsteen was working in his Challenger factory finning and pin-lining boards. Jim would surf with Bruce in Belmar and go see The Boss perform in Asbury, just another chapter in his unbelievable legacy.
Jim has a habit of being in the right place at the right time during key developments in surfboard design history. After surfing Rincon one day in the late '60s, he bumped into Denny Aaberg (guitarist of Farm and co-writer of Big Wednesday with John Milius) who told him to stick around because his brother Kemp was picking up Bob McTavish and Steve Bigler from the airport. Jim did and witnessed the two shredding their 8ft V bottoms and realized surfing had changed forever. In the early '70s, Jim found himself in San Diego working for Bill Bahne when Mike Hynson started doing his first down-railed production boards and was exposed firsthand to what would become the modern rail.
Serendipitous encounters like these informed Jim's forward-thinking design aesthetic, and it's also how he earned his nickname -- "The Genius" -- coined by Rhode Island pioneer Peter "Pan" Panagiotis. Jim had been visiting RI steadily since 1965 for contests and met former business partner Charlie Phillips (no relation to Jim) where they opened a shop which sold Phillips surfboards and Italian ten speed bicycles. (Charlie later became a successful jeweler and retired from the surfboard industry.) Pilgrim Surf + Supply owner Chris Gentile’s uncle Lou Mazza, an early RI surfer, was the full-time sander for Phillips surfboards from 1967-1968. Jim’s Rhode Island connection is also how he met Phil Cusano, a Hobie team rider and somewhat of a dark prince in New York surf culture. Cusano was known for hustling out-of- towners and Long Beach locals alike, famously stealing a surfboard the night after he sold it to a guy. Phil's involvement with heroin, similar to that of fellow New York legend Rick Rasmussen, contributed to both their downfalls. Jim encountered The Raz at a contest in Ormond Beach, Florida during the mid '70s. The conditions had diminished and Rick, knowing Jim owned a factory in Ft. Lauderdale called Daily Joy, wanted to make a board for his heat the following day. Jim wasn't about to drive three hours nor give Rick the keys to his factory, so instead he suggested that Raz try his 7'10" "shortboard noserider." The Raz agreed and went on to win the contest on a Jim Phillips shape.
This interview was conducted over the phone in early March and many tales were told, some of which are too incriminating and scandalous for this forum. We tried to focus on the New York / New Jersey ones.
Mike Machemer: When did you first learn to shape?
Jim Phillips: I started building my first boards in Hawaii in 1961-62. I first surfed in Waikiki on rental boards, and later at Barber's Point Officer’s beach where I had to share rentals with my brother and sister. I wanted a board for myself, but custom boards were $125-$150, a lot more than parents spent on sporting items back then. My father came home a week or so later with a surfboard kit from the Pearl Harbor Navy exchange and told me, "We'll make one." He had experience with fiberglass and resins. The board came out pretty darn good for a first timer and when school pals saw it, they wanted a board for themselves, as their parents wouldn't spring for a high price custom. By the time I graduated high school in '64, I had built just under thirty boards. They got better with each one I built, but I still needed someone to show me where I was making my mistakes. The summer of '64 I got hired by Dick Metz at the Hobie shop on Kapiolani St. in Honolulu, I was the ding repairman and earning about sixty bucks a day, a load of money for an 18-year-old. But that summer was not, 'the endless summer,' and by September my father's tour of duty was over in Hawaii. I had a job and a place I could move into, but today young people don't realize that 18 was not the age of majority, but 21 rather, and the Major's word was law. I was moving with the family to god-awful Dover, Delaware; land-locked, no car, no driver's license, winter on the way and my surfboard still in transit from Hawaii. I got a job with a home remodeling company making $1.25 an hour, working outside every day, snow and rain. The next spring I went to work for a local Hobie shop in Ocean City, Maryland but it didn't last past the 4th of July. I didn't get along with one of the owners and was fired. After packing up my belongings and driving back to Dover, my dad was getting ready to leave for Cape Cod to start his retirement home. This was when I began my exploration of the northeast surfing scene.
[A young Jim: "Cape May, NJ, early May 1966, my mother took the ferry over from Delaware to see me compete, I think it was the only contest either of my parents were to attend."]
[The Genius surfing the Belmar Open in 1966. Photo via Jim Phillips website.]
MM: Didn’t you shape in New York during the '60s?
JP: It would’ve been the summer of 1965. We owned property on Cape Cod and my dad and I spent his leave time in New England framing a house. When fall came, my parents went back to Delaware and I stayed up in New England working as a correspondent for Surfing East magazine. Carl Hermann the photo director/art editor calls me up one day and says, “We have this advertiser Lou Evangelist, he’s got a factory in Greenlawn, Long Island and he’s building boards but has no one to work for him.” I was in Worcester, Massachusetts hanging with some chicks I’d met at the beach and said, "Ok, I’m headed to New York." Carl Hermann came out the next morning and there I was in my Rambler Wagon sleeping in his driveway. He took me over and introduced me to Lou and I instantly became the shaper/glasser/fin guy/glosser/polisher. I did everything (Bob Hawkins wouldn't start working at Micris for another year). I worked up until about Christmas of that year, business was nonexistent in 1965 during the winter. I had no money and was sleeping in the Greenlawn factory, eating Philadelphia cream cheese and crackers and could sometimes get a hard roll and cup of coffee on credit at a nearby store. I called my mom and dad to see if there was any chance of me moving back home. Before setting out on my own, my dad had said to me, "Son, before you go out to set the world on fire, don't slam the door too hard behind you, you might find you need to come back for matches." So, I went back to Dover but in spring, Lou called and said he had a new factory in Islip and in March I headed off to Long Island and started working for him again. Really soon I could see there were problems, Lou was a TWA pilot, in the throes of getting divorced and drinking quite a bit, I could read the writing on the wall. I had been going to New Jersey for contests and started shaping for surf shops during the weekend events. After one particular contest I came back with more money than I left with and went over and told Lou, “I really appreciate you letting me work for you, but I feel a move to New Jersey will be in my best interest.” I was still really inexperienced, I couldn’t find my ass in the dark with both hands and I was giving it my best shot. I was running around to all the Long Island breaks and started meeting a lot of the people. This was the opportunity to get the locals on my shapes and created a nice pool of new customers. I‘d go to contests in New Jersey and surf Rockaway and Breezy Point on the way back. I remember one time surfing these three to five foot waves in Rockaway, breaking off this one jetty with another wooden one next to it. Just unreal waves but you had to kind of take off behind the jetty and we’re riding these big boards with no leashes. My friend Tony Villar and I would go surf Lido Beach too and sleep in the weeds out there, got to Ditch Plains a couple of times but it was far.
MM: Was Phil Cusano around?
JP: Phil was one of my buddies, I think I met him for the first time up in Rhode Island where he had run away with the Junior Men’s prize. The Grand Prix of surfing was going on and I went to most of the contests, Phil and I would see one another at the different venues and later when I’d go back to Long Island we’d hook up and go surfing. From what I understand, Phil got hooked on narcotics and was involved in a heroin related robbery that spun out of control. I don’t know whether he spent his life in prison or what but I’ve heard Phil’s dead. Prior to all that he'd been cool as shit, a really likeable young guy and it was a bummer to hear he’d gone to the dark side. He told me his dad was Dutch Schultz’s bodyguard. At the time I was running with Phil I hadn’t even smoked herb, I was pretty innocent, a Bergen County socialite later made me do it. The power of the “P.”
MM: You moved to New Jersey after Long Island?
JP: I went to work for Bob Rible in Belmar, his shop was on the corner of 12th avenue and Ocean Blvd. I’d just won a contest at Seaside Heights the weekend before and got second in the Belmar event so right away I had tons of work, as much as I could do. Getting toward fall of 1966 one of my buddies Louie Shite, who rode for 'Tinker,' Carl West of Challenger Eastern Surfboards, would come by and see me all the time, feeding me info on how Tinker went about shaping surfboards. I had taught myself in Hawaii, and none of the manufacturers, which was pretty much Surfboards Hawaii and Inter-Island, would let you into the factory to see what was going on. I was teaching myself by error and trial, rather than trial and error. Louie said Tinker wanted to talk, I’d already run into him at a social gathering one night and he yanked the rug out from under me, saying what a kook I was and would never work for him. I went over to the factory with great trepidation on how he was going to rip me apart again. Tinker had about fifty or sixty Clark blanks lined up along the wall and said, “Pick out a blank you like. I want you to shape a board.” I laid the blank down and started drawing the outline out and he went, "What in the fuck are you doing?" His method of dealing with people was reverse engineering, he’d come down hard, strip you away and later on show his kindness, “Where have you got the wide spot?” “In the middle,” I responded and he says, "Why do you have it in the middle?" and I say “Well, it’s the middle of the board” and he says, "Where do you stand up?" "On the tail," I muttered. "You want the wide spot and bulk up out in front of you." "Uh, well I never looked at it like that." Tinker told me to draw the wide spot six inches behind center so I did that and then ten minutes later he was tearing me a new asshole - "You got a twist in the blank, you’ve got a lump in the rail." It took me two days to shape that board and when he was satisfied, he let it go into the glass shop. He kept me on and let me shape for him the rest of the summer, two boards a day. The next year he amped it up to shaping three boards a day. That was my first meeting with someone who really knew what was going on. Tinker was the best machine shaper I had ever seen and still to this day, is one of the best people with a planer in his hands that I’ve ever run into.
[Jim competing at Belmar, NJ. See below for article from Competition Surf.]
MM: He’s originally from California?
JP: Yeah, Tinker was from the South Bay Area and is a bona fide genius. He was a physics major, went to college with Bob Simmons and I guess got a lot of his design knowledge from him but he also worked for Wardy, Hobie and Velzy. He was partners with Frank McLeary and Bill Bahne who owned the Challenger factory in San Diego. He could do anything; weld it, wire it, drill it, machine it, he could rebuild engines, and he was an electrical engineer for Wiley electronics in El Segundo designing missile guidance systems. He built Ike and Tina Turner’s sound system; he built James Cotton’s sound system, completely built and rigged the Boston Pops’ sound system, after Katrina he went to New Orleans and did that concert down there but, like most of us, when he first started making surfboards it really grabbed him by the butt. By the winter of 1967, I'd driven a real wedge between Tinker and me and we parted ways.
MM: What happened?
JP: Things at Challenger Eastern slowed down in the winter and Gene Cottrell, who was shaping for Surfboards East, called me. He had more work than he could handle and I started doing some some of it which pissed Tinker off. A couple of years went by and I was at a wedding in Rhode Island for one of Tinker’s sanders and me and my pals were out cruising around burning one between the wedding ceremony and dinner. We came to a stop sign and there’s a guy running across the street toward me. I looked closely and see its Tinker and put my hand up to wave at him but he’s already at my window shoving his hand through. He grabs me by the back of the head pulls me through the open window and punches me in the eye saying, "You’re gonna beat my ass, huh? You’re gonna burn my factory down?" then punches me in the eye again, "You’re gonna rat me to the cops?" and punches me again. I said, "Hey, can’t we talk about this?" and he says, "Phillips you’ve already done your talking." I got a lesson real fast in cashing a check with my ass that my mouth had written. Here I was, twenty two years-old, strong and young and here was this guy who was forty years-old kicking my ass. That was a wakeup call. Forty years later we’re back to being on great friendly terms.
MM: Was Springsteen hanging around with you guys?
JP: Bruce was a local musician and we’d go to the Hullaballoo and the Stone Pony in Asbury to watch him play with his little bands. I had no real grasp on what Tinker was up to at the time but he had this one band the Salvation Navy and then Doctor Zoom and the Sonic Boom. Doctor Zoom’s band was one of Bruce’s very first club bands. Bruce hung around the factory and did a few hot coats, glassing fins and stuff like that. He’d surfed in Belmar.
Jim's Seaside win covered in Competition Surf...
Then Jim's second place in Belmar, also covered in the same issue of Competition Surf, Fall of 1966...
MM: Tell me about the photos from these NJ contests. (Pictured above.)
JP: The magazines at the time did a whole series on the New Jersey surf wars and Dean Ward and I were coming up head to head in all these contests. We traded off first and second places but Dean had a lot more firsts. He was originally from Manhattan Beach, California and worked for Greg Noll. I think he was hiding out from the draft in New Jersey like a lot of people were and he and I became good pals. He wound up working at Surfboards East. I remember this one contest in Stone Harbor where Dean found a weed place and got me loaded before going out for our heat. I spent most of it watching the seagulls.
In those contest photos I’m wearing a quarter inch beavertail wetsuit that you could barely move in. I had a White Stag two-piece suit like that when I was living in Rhode Island. I was surfing one brutally cold February day and had to take a leak while I was out in the water. So I let the beaver tail go and all of a sudden had this burning sensation, it’s pinching my penis. I’m grabbing at the front of the wetsuit trying to fix it and finally it lets loose. It burned like hell all day long and the next morning I got up and peed out a bloody gummy worm. I’d popped a blood vessel and during the night it had clotted. The old wetsuits were torture. You’d jump off your board and water would shoot up between the jacket and pants. It was primitive surfing for sure. We’d have wetsuit parties the night before a swell with wetsuit rubber and pantyhose to fix the gussets with. We had this really good weatherman on Channel 2 out of Providence, he wasn’t doing surf reports but gave detailed enough weather reports that we’d get an idea of when a southeast swell was coming. You had to have your gear fully water tight, one pin hole and your session was over in about four minutes, you'd have to give it up and go in.
- Words by Mike Machemer, Archival photos pulled from Competition Surf, Fall 1966 issue
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