"The words just flowed through my mind so quickly and easily," he says. "I wrote the whole song right in front of her so quickly, she was shocked." Phillips later recorded the song at Lake Charles' Goldband Studios, with just one microphone for him and one for the rest of the band. All the elements came together for a genuinely strange and beautiful piece of music. Four members of the Creole swamp pop band Cookie and the Cupcakes provided music, and the vocal trio the Twilights sang backup. But it was that eerie, lovely image that came to Phil on the porch love as a great sea, an undeniable force of nature sung in his stately, swelling tenor with a slight Creole accent that created a classic.
Unfortunately, the song's road to fame was as rocky as the music was powerful, and Phillips never made much money from the song in spite of its success. Last month, the German label Bear Family released the first-ever LP collection of Phillips' songs, including many previously unreleased cuts, some of which were recorded this year.
"The reason an LP was never released on me before was because of bad management," Phillips says. "George Khoury was a horrible manager who was more interested in promoting himself than me. I had actually recorded an album with Mercury Records, but it was never released."
Khoury was the Lake Charles record-store owner who put out "Sea of Love" on his own small label and leased it to Mercury Records for national distribution when orders flowed in and he thought the song could be a hit. According to Phillips, Khoury also cut himself a big slice of the song's revenue early on. Without Phillips' knowledge, Khoury added his own name to the song as a co-writer. He also took a large cut before passing on the rest, Phillips says.
"A great friend of mine, Clyde Otis, who worked for Mercury Records, informed me that he'd sent a check to Khoury in the amount of $50,000 from the first big sales of 'Sea of Love,' Phil says. "I was supposed to get $20,000 out of that $50,000 and because of his deal with Mercury, Khoury was supposed to get $30,000. When Khoury got the $50,000 check, he only gave me $6,800 and kept the rest for himself. When I confronted him about it, he held it against me." Their relationship became adversarial. Troubles spread to Phillips' relationship with Mercury, which didn't release the album but also didn't let him out of his contract, Phillips says.
Two years after "Sea of Love" hit No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts, Phillips was working as a janitor at a radio station, where he later became a DJ. The song itself has endured, becoming the title of an 1989 Al Pacino film, and the 1984 cover version by Robert Plant's Honeydrippers hit No. 3. Most recently, a version sung by Cat Power was the soundtrack for a pivotal moment during the Oscar-winning film Juno.
"I think 'Sea of Love' is the type of song that always seems new when you hear it," Phillips says. "I was blessed to have written a classic. Classics transcend time. It's a simple song that relays an intense message of love, and love is always around."