Upchurch started his career working with the Kool Gents, the Dells, and the Spaniels before going on to work with Curtis Mayfield, Otis Rush, and Jimmy Reed. (His association with Kool Gents member Dee Clark would continue, including playing guitar on Clark's 1961 solo hit "Raindrops".) He then returned to Chicago to play and record with Woody Herman, Stan Getz, Groove Holmes, B.B. King, and Dizzy Gillespie.
In 1961, his record "You Can't Sit Down" by the Philip Upchurch Combo sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc. "You Can't Sit Down, Part 2" peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard charts in the US. And he released first album. In the 1960s he toured with Oscar Brown, appearing on the 1965 live album, Mr. Oscar Brown, Jr. Goes to Washington. In the mid-'60s he was house guitarist of Chess Records and he played with The Dells, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Gene Chandler. He also played with John Lee Hooker, Grover Washington, Jr. and Cannonball Adderley. Upchurch was part of a group called the Soulful Strings during the 1960s, prior to working with Rotary Connection on Chess's Cadet label.
In the 1970s he worked with Donny Hathaway, Harvey Mason, Ramsey Lewis, Quincy Jones and led his own quartet with Tennyson Stephens. He met Bob Krasnow and Tommy LiPuma, the founders of Blue Thumb Records, and he released "Darkness Darkness". Upchurch played on Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and "The Ghetto". He also played guitar on Hathaway's "Live" album (1972). In the mid 1970s and 1980s, he performed with George Benson, Mose Allison, Gary Burton, Lenny Breau, Joe Williams, Chaka Kahn, Natalie Cole, Carmen McRae, Cat Stevens, David Sanborn, and Michael Jackson. In the 1990s he worked with Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff.
His son is the drummer, Sean Rickman. His wife, his seventh, is the actress Sonya Maddox.
- You Can't Sit Down, Part Two (Boyd/United Artists #UAL-3162 mono and #UAS-6162 stereo, 1961)
- The Big Hit Dances: The Twist... (United Artists #UAL-3175 mono and #UAS-6175 stereo, 1962)
- Feeling Blue: The Phil Upchurch Guitar Sound (Milestone #9010; OJC #1100, 1967)
- Upchurch (Cadet/Chess #LPS-826, 1969) with Donny Hathaway on piano.
- The Way I Feel (Cadet/Chess/GRT #LPS-840, 1970)
- Darkness, Darkness (Blue Thumb #BTS-6005, 1972)
- Lovin' Feeling (Blue Thumb #BTS-59, 1973)
- Upchurch/Tennyson with Tennyson Stephens (Kudu/CTI #KU-22, 1975)
- Phil Upchurch (Marlin/T.K. Productions #MAR-2209, 1978) produced by John Tropea and George Benson.
- Free & Easy (JAM/Jazz America Marketing #007, 1982)
- Revelation (JAM #011, 1982)
- Name of the Game (JAM #018, 1983)
- Companions with Jimmy Witherspoon (JAM #021, 1984) issued as Paladin/Virgin #PAL-4 for UK market.
- Phil Upchurch Presents L.A. Jazz Quintet (Pro Arte/Intersound #631, 1986) with Brandon Fields, Bobby Lyle, Brian Bromberg, Harvey Mason.
- Dolphin Dance (Sound Service #6177, 1987)
- Midnite Blue (Electric Bird/King #KICJ-53, 1991) compilation of JAM material.
- All I Want (Ichiban #ICH-1127, 1991)
- Whatever Happened To The Blues (Ridgetop/Bean Bag/Go Jazz #55566, 1992) issued as Go Jazz #VBR-2066 for Germany market.
- Love Is Strange (Ridgetop/Bean Bag/Go Jazz #55552; Go Jazz #6012, 1995)
- Rhapsody & Blues (Go Jazz #6035, 1999)
- Tell the Truth! (Evidence #22222, 2001) produced by Carla Olson.
- Impressions Of Curtis Mayfield by Jazz Soul Seven (BFM Jazz/Varese Sarabande #62413, 2012) produced by Brian Brinkerhoff; co-produced and arranged by Phil Upchurch; featuring Terri Lyne Carrington, Russ Ferrante, Master Henry Gibson, Bob Hurst, Wallace Roney, Phil Upchurch, Ernie Watts.
With the Soulful Strings
- Paint It Black (Cadet/Chess #LPS-776, 1966)
- Groovin' with the Soulful Strings (Cadet/Chess #LPS-796, 1967)
- Another Exposure (Cadet/Chess #LPS-805, 1968)
- The Magic of Christmas (Cadet/Chess #LPS-814, 1968)
- Back by Demand: The Soulful Strings in Concert (Cadet/Chess #LPS-820, 1969)
- String Fever (Cadet/Chess #LPS-834, 1969)
- Play Gamble-Huff (Cadet/Chess/GRT #LPS-846, 1971)
- The Best of the Soulful Strings (Cadet/Chess/GRT #2CA-50022, 1972) compilation/2-LP set
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With George Benson
With Stan Getz
With Dizzy Gillespie
- The Real Thing (Perception, 1969)
With Donny Hathaway
- Live (Atco, 1972)
With Red Holloway
- Standing Room Only (Chiaroscuro, 2000)
With Hubert Laws
- The Chicago Theme (CTI, 1974)
With Ramsey Lewis
- Them Changes (Cadet, 1970)
With Jack McDuff
With Carmen McRae
- Fine and Mellow [live] (Concord, 1987)
With Ben Sidran
- Don't Let Go (Blue Thumb, 1974)
- Feather, Leonard & Gitler, Ira The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz Oxford University Press US, 2007 ISBN 0-19-532000-X
- Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 140. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
- Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles. 12th edition, 2009, p. 1013.
- Phil Upchurch page via soulwalking.com
- Phil Upchurch, "Companions" - Jam Records, 1984