Beneath a tin shed during a hot summer in Melbourne, Australia, a bespectacled, middle-aged man sits on a stool before a small crowd. He pairs a white shirt and shoes with black slacks, looking every inch the kind of unremarkable guy you’d pass on the street without giving him a second glance. Today, though, the cameras are trained on him, as are the eyes of the 20-strong production crew. He’s here to play music, and he’s traveled thousands of miles to do so. His name is Gerry Phillips, and his music follows him wherever he goes, because his instruments are a part of him.
His task on this December morning in 2007 is to perform the “Infernal Galop” from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, a rousing, bouncy number most associated with images of high-kicking can-can girls. To complicate matters, however, he has been asked to play a different version—one he hears for the first time only a few minutes before filming begins.
The cameras roll, and as the string introduction plays out for a few bars, he applies a touch of baby powder to his hands before passing the tiny bottle off to a stagehand. Three times he squeezes his hands together, smiling slightly when they produce a sound best described as flatulent.
And then he’s off, the muscles and tendons in his mighty hands rapidly contracting and relaxing with a dexterity that approaches the sublime. A microphone underneath his shirt captures the space between his palms filling with air and being emptied just as quickly. Against a kitsch living room backdrop, this unlikely musician works that temporary vacuum to deftly perform the “Infernal Galop” in a style few have ever heard. The music that he makes is so surprising, so breathtaking, that some in attendance cannot stop themselves from laughing. Nobody plays music like Gerry Phillips, a man whose hands have been heard around the world.
After one final, triumphant note, the crowd breaks into applause, and even Phillips seems surprised to nail it on his first attempt. “Wow,” he says softly, returning his instruments to his lap. Off-camera, someone says, “All right!” An onscreen tagline appears: “Exceptionally average.”
Even eight years later, Kristian Jamieson remembers this day well, because he’s the one who booked Phillips to fly around the world and appear in an advertising campaign. Jamieson, now 41, is creative director at a communications agency named Marilyn & Sons. His client was Pacific Brands, and the product was Dunlop Volley, a popular but unremarkable brand of Australian footwear. “We wrote the line ‘exceptionally average’ because the campaign was based on being brutally honest about the product,” Jamieson recalls. “But at the time, everyone was wearing them, from hipsters to tradesmen.”
Nobody plays music like Gerry Phillips, a man whose hands have been heard around the world.
The original concept developed by Marilyn & Sons was for the camera to slowly pan from someone’s head to their feet in a single shot. “But halfway down, we wanted them to be doing something amazing,” Jamieson says. “So we started Googling people who can do crazy things with their hands, and we came across Gerry playing this ridiculous music.” At that point Phillips had been posting videos for a year. To date, his YouTube account has amassed 24 million views across more than 170 videos. Impressively, virtually all of his videos are shot in a single take: There are no edits, and if he flubs a note, he starts over. And he’s covered a broad range of musical styles, from the classic heavy metal of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” (3.4 million views) and the Super Mario Bros. theme (2.6 million views) to ’80s pop hits like A-ha’s “Take On Me” (947,000 views) and the tricky instrumental piece “Classical Gas” (153,000 views).
In 2007, though, Phillips was just getting started. The Marilyn & Sons creatives basically stumbled upon him: “It was late at night, we’d had a few beers; the whole studio was killing ourselves laughing at what he could do. We pitched it to the CEO of Pacific Brands, and they loved it.”
“We had to keep reshooting because people kept laughing,” recalls Jamieson. “We had to have silence on the set; there were a couple of young kids on the crew who we had to kick out of the studio. You could even hear the client—an American—struggling to keep it in all day.” Melbourne’s summer humidity meant Phillips had to change costumes regularly throughout the day to avoid visible sweat stains. Baby powder was a necessity, too, to keep his hands dry.
Five versions were shot on that day in the tin shed, and three made it to air. The other two 30-second spots saw Phillips performing Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and “The Mexican Hat Dance.” (He also performed some AC/DC riffs, as well as the whole guitar solo from “Stairway to Heaven,” but those were never released: as to the former, the band wouldn’t allow it, and the latter track would’ve cost “a million dollars” to use, according to Jamieson.)
Jamieson remembers that day fondly. “Without a doubt, it’s our favorite campaign,” he says. It worked, too: By the end of its run, which also included billboard, print, and cinema ads, the Volley had become the highest-selling shoe in the country. “Even eight hours later, when we were doing the final tracks, we were still laughing,” he says. “It’s not just funny; it’s amazing. He’s a talented dude. He was ripping out guitar solos that he’d never heard before; he’d just listen to it a couple of times, then rip it out, note-for-note. We just couldn’t believe how good he was.”
On a particularly cold winter’s afternoon in 1914 in Traverse City, Michigan, a boy named Cecil Dill was walking home from school. His hands were cold, and since he had no mittens, he began pressing them together to produce some warmth. It didn’t work, so he squeezed them tightly and was surprised to hear that this act allowed him to achieve a few different sounds. Intrigued, he began squeezing every day, until before long, he could play “Yankee Doodle” clear through, using only his hands.
Dill might not have been the world’s first hand musician, but he was the first to demonstrate it before a camera for a newsreel in late 1933. His talent remained a one-off pop culture oddity until 1972, when an attorney from Grand Rapids, Michigan, named John Twomey appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and introduced himself as a “manualist.” (This was the first recorded use of the term in a musical context, as manualism is also known as a classroom method for educating deaf students using sign language.) Twomey’s Facebook profile, last active in 2010, notes that “Twomey himself created, developed and named his bizarre musical art form during the mid-20th Century.”
Footage of Twomey’s first appearance cannot be found online, but a follow-up performance in 1974 shows Carson introducing him as “America’s premier manualist,” and across 10 minutes, the attorney proves himself an impeccable showman, cracking wise with a straight face and demonstrating his talent by playing the “Colonel Bogey March” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Twomey even grasps Carson’s hand to produce sounds, perplexing the host, who can’t manage it himself. As Twomey walks off to wild applause, Carson says, “That is the nuttiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Gerry Phillips saw Twomey’s performance, too. “I thought I’d invented it, until 1974, when I saw a guy on Johnny Carson that could play,” he says from his home in Troy, Michigan—coincidentally, the same state where both Cecil Dill and John Twomey began squeezing their hands together. Phillips’s first encounter with this odd talent was at a children’s birthday party, when a frustrated photographer made a noise with his hands to try to shut the kids up. It had the opposite effect on 9-year-old Gerry, who has been making his hand-noises ever since.
He uploaded his first video on Sept. 14, 2006, under the username “Gunecologist,” which is apt, since he works at White’s Gun Shop in Waterford, Michigan, a store his father bought in 1972. His first upload was a two-minute performance that he titled, in lower case, “manualist plays joy on his hands.” The description is equally spare: “my name is gerry (jerry) phillips and i have been playing music on my hands for 38 years!” He sports a bushy mustache, a gold chain, and a sly smile while he sits on a floral couch, bouncing to the beat for couple of bars before enthusiastically reprising the song. A pair of speakers are set atop the couch behind him, and he wears a wireless microphone attached to a wristband to record audio.
“That song is in everyone’s head as the ‘Wedding Song,’” says Phillips, now 55. “I thought I did very good with it. I said, ‘OK, let’s keep going here, and see if you can get some people watching you.’”
Slowly, at first, the comments began to trickle in. “That is beyond weird…totally amazing, but weird. How did you learn you could do this?” wrote a user named SeraphsWings. “I’m blown away, that is truly a virtuoso performance,” wrote dlbear. They weren’t all positive, however. “You’re pretty skilled at that. But I can’t shake the feeling that you (literaly) have too much time on your hands,” wrote WouterJ on Phillips’s version of “Till There Was You” by the Beatles.
Over time, his recordings became more complex. Posted in March 2007, “Linus and Lucy (Peanuts Theme)” shows Phillips multitracking, and the result is a curious symphony of sound. His take on The Legend of Zelda theme relied on two Digitech guitar pedals—a whammy and a synth wah—to produce some extraordinary tones. That April he published “a manualist’s tutorial or how to handfart!,” which marked the first time he’d had spoken to the camera. “I don’t know what else to tell you except try, and try, and try,” he said near the end of the five-minute video. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years. It didn’t take that long to be this good; I was this good when I was 13 or 14.” Despite clearly showing how Phillips uses his huge hands to make sounds, though, he left a lot of the intricacies of his craft up to the viewers’ imaginations. “This tutorial wasn’t overly ‘handy’,” noted one commenter.
That single dose of thalidomide was enough to shape her son’s anatomy in strange and unexpected ways, enlarging his hands while stunting his growth.
In 1959, when Phillips was in the womb, his mother used a drug thought to be a safe sedative for pregnant women. She hadn’t slept in several days, and only took it once, but that single dose of thalidomide was enough to shape her son’s anatomy in strange and unexpected ways. Thalidomide enlarged his hands while stunting his growth: His three older brothers are all around six-foot-two, whereas the youngest Phillips son is only five-foot-seven. “That’s why people can’t hold the notes and do the things I can do,” says Phillips. “Their hands aren’t even shaped like mine.” He got off lightly compared to other thalidomide babies, some of whom suffered extreme birth defects, such as an Australian girl born without limbs.
Phillips’s big break came in late August 2007, nearly a year after his first YouTube upload, when he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in a segment named “Internet Talent Showcase.” He performed an edited version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was the fifth video he ever uploaded. The audience loved it, and when he took a seat beside Kimmel, the host asked, “Do you have magic hands?” Phillips replied with a smile, “No, I’ve just got big, nasty-looking hands. They work well.”
The Kimmel performance led to a string of opportunities: trips to perform for television shows in Germany, England, and Japan, as well as the Australian shoe shoot. In October 2008, he was invited to perform on stage with the California Guitar Trio, where he reprised “Bohemian Rhapsody” before a live audience. There was laughter at first, but once the crowd realized the depth of Phillips’s skill, and how he wasn’t dropping a single note, an enthralled silence became a standing ovation before the song was finished. The band leader introduced him as a “YouTube sensation and Australian media star,” and together the trio and the manualist took a bow. In the YouTube video description, Phillips described this performance as “the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on!”
When speaking with him, though, one can’t help but notice how often Phillips speaks in the past tense. It’s been nearly five years since his last upload: “Pinball Wizard” by the Who, on Dec. 5, 2010 (23,000 views). “Right now, I’m not doing that much,” he says. The world’s best manualist is in semi-retirement.“I don’t plan on making any more videos for YouTube unless I find something that really makes me want to do it,” he says with a shrug. “How much more fame would it bring me?”
The last television show he appeared on was You Have Been Warned; recently, the team from Outrageous Acts of Science dropped by his house to film. He regularly receives requests from talent shows around the world, and he’s done children’s television and morning radio. But he says he’s turned down more opportunities than he’s accepted. “The offers still come in,” he says. “I’m just waiting for the right ones now that will make me happy, and that I’m interested in.” What he’s never done before is perform in front of a huge crowd. He would love to perform his manualism alongside the original musician at a big concert somewhere; several times, he mentions Brian May of Queen in this context.
“All I wanted, I got—except for one thing, and that’s to have 20,000 people in front of me.”
“It took a lot of my time,” he says of his four years creating content for YouTube and getting global attention. “I’d stay up ’til 3am practicing, making videos on Sundays; sometimes, I’d put two out on the one day. That was a lot of work for a lot of years. I was dedicated to it, and all I wanted, I got—except for one thing, and that’s to have 20,000 people in front of me.”
Away from the spotlight, he lives a quiet life working at White’s Gun Shop, owned by his 86-year-old father, Paul. (Despite being ill in recent years, the elder Phillips still likes to work 60-hour weeks at the shop he bought in 1972.) Gerry Phillips says that his parents were always supportive of his manualism and never found the habit annoying. “My father is a lot more thrilled about this than I am,” says Phillips. “It’s normal to me, because I’ve been doing it all my life.”
He lives in a well-furnished, single-level suburban home with three dogs and Liz, his wife of 19 years. “I think it’s great that he does what he does,” Liz says over Skype, while Gerry sits on the couch behind her. “I’m not a musically inclined person. At the beginning, I thought, ‘He’s getting a lot of attention for hand-farting!’ But the more I read the comments, I realized, ‘Wow, people that play instruments think it’s really cool!’ I’ve gone and Googled manualists: They’re not even close to what he can do.”
In hindsight, Kristian Jamieson sees his meeting with Phillips in that hot tin shed eight years ago a little differently. At that time, in late 2007, “I think he thought he was on the cusp of something potentially pretty big, and it never really happened,” Jamieson says. “I don’t think he’s very good at making things happen, either. Every now and then, over the years, I’ve Googled him to see if anything big has grown out of it, or if he’s managed to forge some sort of celebrity status. I don’t think he has.”
Despite his abundant talent, Phillips has chosen to sit back and let the offers come to him. He made the initial effort to film himself and upload the footage to YouTube, and he managed his community well by responding to comments and considering song requests. In 2015, he’s still swift to respond to media requests sent to him via YouTube, but as far as pitching himself? Forget it. “It’s always been someone contacting me,” says Phillips. “I’ve never contacted anybody.”
Entertainment is a cutthroat business, and Phillips has no interest in playing what he sees as a demeaning game of fame-chasing, like appearing on a show like America’s Got Talent to be judged by someone like Howie Mandel, for example. (“I don’t find him very funny,” Phillips says.) He’s had plenty of fame, he says, and what he most appreciates is the praise from musicians whose work he’s covered. And there’s still that dream of performing with a band in front of 20,000 people. Just one song, even.
At least one fan would like to see the world’s foremost manualist get his due respect. “He’s a charming, quiet American with an incredible gift and talent,” says Jamieson. “I hope somewhere along the line, he gets the kudos he deserves. He needs an agent, or a manager: someone to try and get him out there. I just hope he gets his 15 minutes. He’s only had five minutes. He deserves another 10.”
Andrew McMillen is a freelance journalist and author based in Brisbane, Australia.
Illustration by J. Longo | Photographs by Gerry Phillips