2009-12-18 / Community

Rockaway's Fingerless Pianist

By Celine Anderson

Pianist David Phillips. Photo originally appeared in Jet Magazine, October 30, 2000. Pianist David Phillips. Photo originally appeared in Jet Magazine, October 30, 2000. When first meeting David Phillips, the last thing you'd expect him to say is, "I'm a recording pianist." There is just one little detail that would make people doubt his sincerity or his musical abilities. Phillips has no fingers.

All of Phillips' fingers, excluding his thumbs, were amputated following a bout of severe frostbite in 1996. While walking a familiar route, Phillips got caught in a snowstorm without gloves. "I walked along the Southern State Parkway into Queens," Phillips re - called. "When I walked into a diner I ordered something hot to drink. Then I realized I couldn't feel my fingers." By the time Phillips was sent to Cornell University Hospital, the damage was already done. Gangrene had affected each of his fingers, forcing doctors to amputate.

Though doctors told Phillips he would never be able to play piano again, he refused to give up on his love of music. Losing his fingers hardly even slowed him down. While in physical therapy, he worked out a way to keep playing without the benefit of fingers to press the keys. "I actually play better than I did when I had fingers," he said, though he doesn't like to boast, instead relying on his music to speak for itself.

Phillips was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn, one of five children. His father, a Long Island Rail Road worker, died when Phillips was 5 years old. When he was 6 years old, his mother tried to encourage him to take piano or drum lessons. He refused. It took another six years for fate to intervene and for Phillips to become hooked on the keys. "I was tricked into it," he said. "One Christmas my mother bought my sister an electric organ. After seeing how much she liked it, I wanted to learn."

Phillips got serious and taught himself how to play. He spent years playing music on the side, earning his living in other arenas. He even spent some time in a group called Siamese, where he sang and played keyboard. When the group broke up, he started out on his own.

Phillips now lives in the Bedford- Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, near the studio where his upcoming CD, "Part 3," is being recorded. "It's like another phase in my life since everything I've been through," he said of the album. He is also in the process of writing a novel entitled "Hold On." "It gives advice on what I've learned from my years in the music business to other things I've learned in life," the musician says of the premise of the novel.

Phillips hopes to use his tragedy to impact the lives of others. "What's most important is that I inspire people," he said. A feat easily accomplished by a fingerless pianist with a song in his heart and a story to tell.

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