PHIL OCHS, December 19, 1940-April 9, 1976

In many ways, Phil Ochs was a victim of Bob Dylan’s critical and commercial success in the 1960s. He gained little solace from the fact that many considered him second only to Dylan as a writer of political polemics within the New York City folk scene. After all, Dylan had applied his prodigious composing skills to virtually the entire spectrum of American popular song—including love laments, talking blues, protest anthems, surrealistic free verse, country ballads, and straight-ahead rockers, whereas he had chosen to specialize in anti-establishment diatribes framed within an urban folk vernacular. Furthermore, as Dylan reached far beyond his localized counterculture roots to achieve the status of a popular culture icon, Ochs would become increasingly marginalized by the new musical trends he seemed unable to adapt to.

Ochs attended military school in Virginia and pursued a journalism degree at Ohio State University before deciding to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter. After a brief stint with the Singing Socialists (later known as the Sundowners), he ended up in New York City as a solo performer. His first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing (Elektra 7/269; 1964), caused a sensation within the East Coast folk scene. His strident commentaries on topical issues, most notably his criticism of the Vietnam War effort (e.g., "Draft Dodger Rag"), in the next LP, I Ain’t a’ Marchin’ Anymore (Elektra 7/287; 1965), further advanced his celebrity.

The failure to produce a mass anthem with universally appealing imagery such as Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind," considerably slowed the upward trajectory of Ochs’ career. Following a couple of uneven albums—Phil Ochs in Concert (Elektra 7/310; 1966) and Pleasures of the Harbor (A&M 4133; 1967)—he shifted his base of operations to Los Angeles. The recordings produced there—Tape from California (A&M 4148; 1968), Rehearsals for Retirement (A&M 4181; 1969), Greatest Hits (all new recordings; A&M 4253; 1970), and Gunfight at Carnegie Hall (A&M 9010; recorded April 1970; released 1975 only in Canada)—featured session musicians in order to achieve a slicker, more rock-oriented sound (including orchestral arrangements).

Living in Africa and London during the early 1970s, Ochs returned to New York in 1974 to record the protest song, "Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon" (A&M) and organize a concert protesting the U.S.-instigated military junta in Chile. Following his suicide by hanging, brother Michael Ochs compiled an anthology release, Chords of Fame (A&M 4599; 1976). Now remembered primarily for his seminal mid-1960s protest recordings, he is well represented by CD compilations (many featuring previously unavailable material) and reissues of his original albums.

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