Thousands of bluegrass and gospel music fans and stars of those musical styles knew Earl Phillips from his decades of being part of The Lewis Family group of Lincolnton, Ga.
His wife, Janis, and son, Lewis, and brothers and sisters-in-law are inductees into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, Gospel Music Hall of Fame and International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
Phillips, who died Monday night, Aug. 1, at his home at the age of 79, didn’t appear in the group’s publicity photos and didn’t sing on the group’s recordings.
But for more than 40 years the banking executive handled their business affairs and staffed their merchandise sales table at the appearances of The Lewis Family and later of the reformulated group The Lewis Tradition.
And often he would take the stage to tongue-in-cheek sing Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone with his internationally famous family. Phillips’ only contribution to the performance was to jump in and sing with a serious face the words “miss me when I’m gone” in a very deep voice, always drawing laughs from the audiences.
Visitation for Phillips will be 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3, at Rees Funeral Home in Lincolnton with the funeral at 4 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4, at Hephzibah Baptist Church off U.S. 378/Washington Highway on Hephzibah Church Road in Lincolnton.
Phillips grew up in Lyons, Ga., and served in the U.S. Army at Fort Riley, Kan., and in Korea. He met The Lewis Family by booking them for a show in Lyons after seeing them on their WJBF-TV weekly program and also because he wanted to get to know the family’s vocalist Janis Lewis.
That plan worked out pretty good since they fell in love and were married for 52 years. Their only child, Lewis, became a banjo-playing prodigy (taught by his uncle Little Roy Lewis) who appeared on television with Dolly Parton and Carol Burnett at the age of 5 with Parton attempting to play Lewis’ banjo.
Phillips worked with The People’s Bank in Lyons for five years and joined Augusta Federal Savings & Loan in 1964; becoming a vice president in 1970. He continued with the firm when it merged with Fulton Federal in 1982. He retired from First Union bank in 1995.
Throughout this time, Phillips traveled on weekends with the performing family throughout the nation, into Canada and on cruise ships including being at such renowned venues as the Lincoln Center in New York City, the Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tenn.
Bluegrass and gospel music stars alike loved Phillips for his easy-going personality, his always huge smile, his sharp wit in telling stories and his love of their music.
The Lewis Family disbanded in 2009, which resulted in the formation of two other groups: The Lewis Tradition, which includes Janis and Lewis Phillips, and The Little Roy & Lizzy Show featuring Little Roy Lewis and Lizzy Long.