Phil Lynott was an Irish singer-songwriter best known for founding the rock group Thin Lizzy. The 70s and 80s were arguably the biggest decades for rock, and in the UK at least, Thin Lizzy joined the likes of Led Zeppelin, Queen and AC/DC as massive stars. Although frontman Phil Lynott played with other bands, none came close to the fame and success of Thin Lizzy.
He was born Philip Parris Lynott at Hallam Hospital in West Bromwich, England on the 20th of August 1949. His mother, Philomena Lynott, was a trainee nurse from Dublin. His father, Cecil Parris, was an immigrant from Georgetown in British Guiana. Cecil boarded a ship intending to travel to New York. He didn’t know it was headed to the UK first.
He mistakenly disembarked in Liverpool and ended up in Birmingham selling hats for a living. The pair met at a dance in Birmingham. Philomena later admitted she wasn’t in love with Cecil and agreed to date him after being harassed by racists objecting to her dancing with Cecil, a black man. Cecil rescued her, and the pair went on a few dates. The pair parted on good terms, and Philomena was horrified to discover she was pregnant.
She was no longer allowed to continue her nurse training, and following Phil’s birth, she was forced to live in a home for unwed mothers. Although she was strongly encouraged to give Phil up and adoption had even been arranged, Philomena refused. Luckily for her, Phil and all the Thin Lizzy lovers out there, Cecil heard about her situation and came to rescue her. It was hard to find someone who would take in an unwed mother, so Philomena and Phil experienced harrowing times for a few years.
In those years, Philomena gave birth to Phil’s siblings, a sister called Jeanette and a son named James. Tragically, Phil never met them as Philomena gave them both up for adoption. At the time of his death, Phil knew he had a sister but never found out about his brother. When he was four years old, Phil moved to Ireland to live with his grandparents. However, he and his mother stayed in contact and remained very close throughout his childhood.
Although he experienced some racism, he was so likeable that he escaped relatively unscathed. He was a subject of fascination on his first day at Christian Brothers School in Crumlin, Dublin. To Phil’s confusion, his new classmates lined up in the playground wanting to touch his hair. None of them had ever seen an Afro, and they were actually jealous as he wouldn’t need to comb it. Over time his fun personality shone through, and he became a popular boy.
He attended Armagh Road Catholic Boys School, followed by Clogher Road technical college. He dreamed of becoming an architect rather than a musician, but in 1967 he apprenticed as a fitter and turner at the Tonge and Taggart foundry. Phil hated the job and quit after a few weeks following a discussion with his mother. He had already begun singing with a local rock group called the Black Eagles. He adored music and loved Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley in particular. The Black Eagles broke up in 1966, and he was recruited into the Irish rock band Skid Row.
He was tall, thin and striking and seemed perfect as a frontman. However, the other members didn’t feel his singing was up to scratch, and he was asked to leave the band. Founding member Bush Shiels, who had invited him to join the band, then taught him to play bass as he appeared to have no future as a singer. Phil created a band with a school friend and named it Orphanage.
Then, in 1970, the magic happened. Phil met a guitarist from Belfast called Eric Bell. That was the moment Thin Lizzy was born. In spite of Skid Row’s low opinion of his vocal talents, Phil became the lead singer, the bassist, and the band’s chief songwriter. They managed to get a recording contract fairly quickly with Decca, and following a move to London, they released Thin Lizzy, their first album, in April 1971.
Unfortunately, neither that first album nor the subsequent albums (Shades of a blue orphanage, Vagabonds of the western world and Fighting) sold particularly well. It seemed they might have hit the big time in 1972. They were touring with Slade, who had already had several big hits. Decca chose to release Whiskey In The Jar and the same time, which shot to number 6 in the UK charts and number 1 in Ireland. The band were not impressed with their label’s decision to release this song as they felt it didn’t represent the music they made. Their next single returned to their usual sound and once again sold poorly.
It took another three years for the band to write another hit. While far from ideal, at least it gave the band, particularly Phil, the chance to perfect their performance. They often played as a support act, and the audiences they faced were indifferent at best. They had to do a lot to win the crowd over. It helped Phil, who was a shy boy while growing up, become the dynamic and charming frontman beloved by his fans.
During this time, Phil also worked hard to develop his musical ability and found the power and soul in his voice. He was intelligent enough to realise that media support was key to a band’s success. He began to network in earnest and developed contacts in the music business and among journalists. This initiative helped to drive the band’s success in later years.
In 1973, Eric Bell left the band and was replaced by another of his countrymen, Gary Moore. Eric felt the band was not allowing him to make the kind of music he believed in, and he even walked off stage during a performance in Belfast. Finally, he was persuaded to finish the set but quit for good the next day.
Gary Moore stepped into the breach long enough for Thin Lizzy to complete their tour. Unfortunately, he left the band in April 1974 due to health worries as well as friction between himself and Phil over control of the band. After mulling the situation over, Phil decided that it was an excellent time to expand the band’s guitars and replace him with two guitarists. He held auditions, and in the end, Brian Roberston from Glasgow and Scott Gorham from California were selected.
They proved to be excellent choices as the whole band gelled and worked well together. With a revamped guitar section in place, they finally completed the Jailbreak album and released it in 1976. The album included one of Thin Lizzy’s biggest hits, The Boys Are Back In Town, and sold well. It reached number 5 in Canada, 10 in the UK and 18 in the USA.
Around this time, Thin Lizzy was invited to tour America with Queen, who were at the height of their fame. It was a great learning opportunity for Phil as he observed first-hand how Queen planned and executed their spectacular shows. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only thing he learned. He was sucked into the rock n roll lifestyle and embraced drink, drugs and groupies in abundance.
He also insisted on living the rock star lifestyle with expensive hotels and limousines even though his income would have been nowhere close to Queen’s at the time. Although he poked fun at himself at times, he embodied the image of a 70s rock icon. He revelled in his fame.
Even though he spent many years away, Phil was intensely proud of being Irish and was attracted to Celtic mythology. He used it as inspiration for his songs, particularly Roisín Dubh and Emerald. Thin Lizzy built up a huge following in Ireland long before they were successful anywhere else.
In 1977 they played one of their best and most memorable concerts at a rock festival in Dublin. The crowd worshipped them as one of their own, and they played all their classics, including Cowboy Song, Dancing In The Moonlight and Rosalie.
Over the years that followed, Thin Lizzy fortunes were mixed. They released the album Bad Reputation in late 1977, and it reached number 4 in the UK. However, punk was coming to the fore, and the press was less enthusiastic. The band still had plenty of fans in the industry, though, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Phil also forged relationships with up-and-coming musicians and acted like a mentor to them, the biggest being U2.
Their last major success came in 1978 when they released the double album Live and Dangerous, which they recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1976. Phil was at his dynamic and charismatic best, and the energy and power of the performance made it spellbinding.
Sadly, this was the pinnacle of their success, and it was followed by a steady decline. They continued to tour, and Phil tried in vain to break America, which had always been his ultimate goal. Band members changed regularly, and in frustration, Phil tried striking out on his own In addition to his work with the band. In April 1980, he released Solo in Soho, but it was not particularly successful, only reaching number 28 in the UK.
Around this time, Phil married Caroline Crowther, who was the daughter of British comedian Leslie Crowther. They had been dating for several years, and had two daughters together called Sarah and Cathleen. Phil also had a son named Macdaragh in 1968 who, like Phil’s siblings, had been put up for adoption. The marriage lasted till 1984 when Phil’s womanising and increasing drug use took too great a toll.
It seems that Phil’s drug use was not just part and parcel of a rock n roll lifestyle. Despite his fame, he remained the shy boy he had once been and insults still hurt him very deeply. Drugs were a way of coping with his pain. However, as often happens, the drugs produced a marked change in his personality. Phil was always known as a polite, charming and witty man who was wonderful to spend time with.
Over time he became more irritable and mercurial and flew into rages often. He was often irrational and took his anger and frustration out on other members of the band. By 1983 the situation was irretrievable, and the band split up after a final farewell tour.
It marked a turning point for Phil. With no band and no family following his divorce, he became depressed. He started to drink heavily and continued to abuse drugs. Friends tried to intervene, but he appeared in denial at the seriousness of his situation. Finally, on Christmas Day in 1985, Phil overdosed in his home in London. He was rushed to hospital but died ten days later. He was buried in Sutton, County Dublin, not far from the home where he had lived with Caroline and his children. A sad end for a sweet and charming boy whose passion and talent burned so bright.