POP MUSIC’S MOST REVERED SESSION AND TOURING
KEYBOARDIST ON A LIFE REFLECTED IN MUSIC
by Jon Regen
“IF YOU HAVE TO DO THE SAME THING NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, THIS IS THE THING TO DO,” legendary keyboardist Greg Phillinganes says of Cirque du Soleil’s massive
new Michael Jackson: The Immortal tour, for which he’s musical director. “The music
here has parameters, but there’s freedom inside of those parameters. That keeps things
exciting, and all of us from feeling like tape recorders every night.”
From work with Stevie Wonder while still in
his teens, to tours and recordings with Quincy
Jones, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and Toto,
Phillinganes’ massive discography reads like a
“Who’s Who” of pop music, encompassing four
decades. From jazz piano parts to levitating synth
leads, Phillinganes can and does cover it all. By
some metrics, he’s the most prolifi c and hired
“sideman” (in his case, the term seems absurdly
diminutive) ever. Between the gigs he gets and
his superhuman chops and photographic musical
memory, he’s truly the keyboard player we all
aspire to be.
Scroll past the video player for our full interview from the July 2012 issue.
How did you get your musical start?
I got introduced to music at the age of two, in my
hometown of Detroit. My next-door neighbors
had a piano in their basement, and I’d go there and spend long periods of time playing by ear.
When my Mom finally found out where I was
going and what I was doing for hours on end, she
very sweetly decided to go downtown to a
store called Grinnell’s and buy me a beautiful,
ornate upright piano. It was huge, but
then again, everything is when you’re two
years old! I climbed onto that thing, and
from that point forward, it became my new
Did you take formal piano lessons?
Yes, at around six. They became a constant in
my life. I started with an entry-level instructor,
then graduated to a more intermediate
one. But soon into my studies with her, I started
paying less and less attention to what she
was teaching me. I just always wanted to do my own thing. Sensing that I needed discipline
more than anything else, my Mom managed to
hook me up with a wonderful teacher named
Misha Kotler, who was the pianist for the Detroit
Symphony. He was a no-nonsense Russian
Jewish guy who could crack a pane of glass
with one finger. He was a complete badass, and
he cooled my attitude out immediately. I studied
with him well into my teens.
What kinds of things were you studying
I was studying technique and classical repertoire.
He taught me a certain way of playing that I still
use to this day: a sense of evenness where your
wrists aren’t loose or moving up and down. It’s a
totally linear way of playing, where there’s even
movement in both hands so your wrists stay
perfectly still. Misha would take two fi ngers and
weigh them down on my wrists to keep them
from moving. He instilled a sense of dexterity
and defi nition in my playing. If I’m known for my
speed and precision, it’s probably due to Misha
more than anything else.
Besides your classical studies, what were
you listening to at that time?
Well, this was the early 1970s. I was in high
school and got introduced to jazz by one of
my best friends, Kamau Kenyatta. We’d go to
his house after school and listen to everybody.
From horn players like John Coltrane and Sidney
Bechet, to bass players, to drummers like
Art Blakey, and everyone in between. And of
course, we listened to the keyboard players:
Herbie, Chick, Monk, and on and on. We learned
how to decipher the diff erences between each
player. Kamau was brilliant. He was like another
teacher to me, and the person responsible for
me understanding jazz. I was also a pop head,
digging everything from the Beatles and the Rolling
Stones to all of the Motown and Stax stuff .
From Creedence Clearwater Revival and Crosby,
Stills and Nash, to Marvin Gaye and the Temptations—
I just absorbed it all.
What keyboards did you have at that time?
I was mostly playing Fender Rhodes, but I didn’t have my own at the time so I borrowed one from
another guy in my band. Th en in 1974, a band
member made the mistake of lending me his ARP
Odyssey for the entire summer. I plugged that thing
in and from that point, I don’t remember going
outside. I literally ate and slept with it. My poor
neighbors had to contend with a constant stream of
alien noises emanating from my bedroom!
When did you know you wanted to play keyboards
for a living?
A pivotal moment was when I was eight years old
and saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Th at sealed the
deal for me, as did the Monkees and the Jackson 5.
But the real answer to that question? Stevie Wonder.
In fact, your “big break” was with Stevie.
What was that like?
Do you know that saying “God fulfi lls your
dreams because He gives them to you in the fi rst
place?” It’s true. All my life I loved everything
Stevie Wonder did, and had posters of him on my
walls. When I was 18, a good buddy who was the drummer in one of the bands I was in, was asked
to audition for Stevie. I was thrilled for him. But
to show you the kind of friend he was, he insisted
that I record some things onto a cassette for him
to take to Stevie. I obliged, and he left the next
day for the audition. Days passed—what felt
like an eternity—and one morning, he called me
and said, “Stevie wants to see you in New York.”
Needless to say, I was more than a little excited!
The day I was scheduled to fl y to New York, I
was asked to stop by Stevie’s house in Detroit and
pick up one of his brothers to take with me to the
airport. Now, everybody knew where Stevie Wonder
lived, but here I was, actually in his house. So
we fl ew to New York, and I eventually went to the
studio, the original Hit Factory. I waited on pins
and needles, trying to keep my cool. After what
seemed like hours, the elevator doors opened and
Stevie came bobbing out. We shook hands and
talked, and he told me he liked my sound. Th is
was one of the single greatest moments of my life.
Th en he started teaching me a new song of his,
while I tried to hang on as best as I could!
The next day, I met the rest of the band for
the formal audition. After the audition was over,
I was in the car with Stevie. He said, “How does
it feel to be a member of Wonderlove?” That
was the name of his band. Now, I’d heard stories
about how Stevie could be a practical joker,
so I asked him, “Are you serious?” And he said,
“Of course.” So I said, “Would you mind telling
my Mom that?” I figured, he’s not gonna joke
around with Mom! And he said, “Sure.” So when
we got back to the studio, I dialed my house
and gave him the phone. My Mom picked up,
and the first voice she heard was Stevie Wonder
telling her he wanted her son to be in his
band! This was a month before I turned 19,
and a month before Stevie turned 25. That’s
how young he still was. I ended up staying with
Stevie for almost four years.
Did your drummer friend get the gig?
Actually, no, but there’s a good ending to the
story. He ended up playing with [jazz vibraphonist]
Roy Ayers, and later, countless other famous
musicians. His name is Ricky Lawson. [Lawson
has since become an acclaimed drummer and played
with Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston,
Steely Dan, and others. —Ed.]
What kinds of keyboards were you using
with Stevie at that time?
I played everything Stevie played. In a typical
show, Wonderlove would play for about 20 minutes
before Stevie came out. But the keyboard
player got to sit in his spot, right in the front and
center. I played Rhodes, Clavinet, and a bunch of
synths. Only Stevie played the voice box, though.
Was Stevie Wonder the first artist that you
appeared with on record?
Actually, the first was a Roy Ayers album called
Everybody Loves the Sunshine, released in 1976.
Then Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life came out,
and I ended up playing on “Isn’t She Lovely,”
“Saturn,” “Contusion,” and “Joy Inside My Tears.”
So Stevie was the gig that changed everything
I like to say I went to U of W: the University of
Wonder. Back then, we’d rehearse for hours, and
Stevie would play all kinds of things. He’d weave
in and out of reggae, jazz, country, Beatles,
classical—everything. He helped me hone in on
the essence of each genre of music. Th e thought
was, “Well, he plays keyboards, so if you do
the same thing, how good must you be?” From
there, I think word got out about the consistency of what I do, so I got to branch out and do other
gigs and sessions.
Were there other pivotal figures in your musical
Quincy Jones. The first time I met him, I was still
in school. I played hooky just to go meet him in
downtown Detroit. But the funny thing about
Quincy is, he reme mbers things like that. I met
him again later after I’d moved to Los Angeles.
I had a roommate, who was also a keyboardist,
named Mark Johnson, who had started working
with Quincy on a project for the Brothers Johnson.
[No relation. —Ed.] He told Quincy about
me, and I started working with him from that
Was Quincy your entry point into working
with Michael Jackson?
Yes, but before Quincy started producing Michael’s
solo albums, a buddy of mine named
Bobby Colomby called me one day and asked
me, “How do you feel about arranging?” Now,
even though I’d done some, I was still a bit
timid about my abilities. Bobby said to me, “You
should do more arranging.” And I replied, “Well,
I don’t know.” He then replied, “Let me put it
this way. You will do more arranging. And here’s
who you’re going to do it with!” Th e next thing
I knew, I was in a room with the Jackson brothers,
doing rhythm arrangements for the Destiny
album. Th e fi rst song I worked on was “Blame It
on the Boogie.”
How did your work with Michael Jackson
develop after that?
I had worked on the Jackson 5’s Triumph album
after Destiny. After that, Quincy asked me to be
involved in Michael’s solo album Off the Wall. I
played on virtually all of that album, and things
just took off from there.
Then recording with Michael Jackson led
I’ll never forget the way Michael asked me to tour
with him. We were working on the Bad album,
and from time to time he’d say, “Um, you really
enjoy performing, right?” And I’d say, “Yeah.
It’s great.” I didn’t really think anything of it.
Time would pass, and he’d say to me, “Um, you
like performing live, right?” I’d reply, “Yeah, it’s
great.” More time would pass, and he’d then say
to me, “Um, you really like live audiences, right?”
Th is went on and on, until it fi nally dawned on
me. I said to him, “You want me to tour with
you, don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah.” Th e next
thing I knew, I was the musical director for the
Bad tour, which was huge.
Michael did something really sweet for me that
I’ll never forget. The running joke at that time was
that I was a famous keyboard player but I didn’t
own a Rhodes of my own. After we fi nished the
Destiny album, I was at home minding my own
business when my doorbell rang. A guy driving a
white truck asked me, “Are you Greg Phillinganes? I
have something for you.” He opened the truck and
took out a giant case with a Rhodes Suitcase model
in it. Attached was a note from Michael: “I knew
you didn’t have one of these so I thought you’d like
one.” I still have that Rhodes, and I recently had it
completely redone. It sounds amazing.
How did you wind up musical director of the
A few years ago, John McClain from the Jackson
estate called me and said, “You’re doing
this,” and that was pretty much it. I’d turned
down other Michael Jackson tribute shows
because I thought they weren’t of the quality
they needed to be. But when I learned that
the Immortal was sanctioned by Michael’s
estate and involved Cirque du Soleil, I wholeheartedly
signed on. I think it’s the next best
thing to Michael doing his own tour. Michael was actually a huge fan of Cirque, and had
seen all of their shows.
Jamie King, the show’s director, brought Kevin
Antunes on board as music designer. Jamie and
Kevin had worked together on many productions,
including shows for Rihanna and Madonna, and
this time, Kevin had the enviable job of going
through all of Michael’s original Sony master
tapes. He ultimately assembled them into what
we now have as our show. [See page 22 for Kevin’s
personal account of this process. —Ed.]
On our cover, it says you’re the guy musicians
want to be. What advice do you have for them?
First, every music has its own groove. Th at’s
something I learned from Ray Charles. Quincy
Jones played everything from bebop to Bar
Mitzvahs. So always keep an open mind about
musical styles. It not only enhances your musicality,
it makes you more culturally connected to
Greg Recalls Great Musical Moments
On James Ingram’s “One Hundred Ways”:
One of the greatest compliments Quincy
Jones ever gave me was that to this day,
this is one of his favorite solos. I recorded
it at something like three in the morning.
I was asleep under the piano during the
session, and someone woke me up and said, “Hey, it’s your
turn.” Quincy said, “Right, you’re gonna play a solo.” And
this was the fi rst thing that came out of me. Quincy loves it
because it was basically my subconscious mind at work.
On Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly: I’d heard horror stories about how demanding
Donald could be, but working with him
was an absolute thrill. The fi rst song I played
on was “I.G.Y.” Donald had a drum machine
he called Wendel [A one-of-a-kind digital
sampler/sequencer developed by engineer
Roger Nichols. —Ed.] and we started recording
with just Wendel and myself. I was playing Rhodes, and the
song was so hauntingly beautiful, I actually remember messing
up intentionally, just so I could go back and play it again. At
the end of “Maxine,” I was so taken with the song, I felt compelled
to blaze all over the last set of chords on the ending on
piano. I just couldn’t help myself. Donald also taught me how to
conceptualize playing an upright bass part on a synthesizer by
telling me, “Take a breath between every note.”
On Eric Clapton: I’ll never forget playing
and singing things like
“Layla,” “White Room,”
and “In the Air Tonight”
with Eric, Phil Collins,
and Nathan East. We played Madison Square Garden, the
Forum, and other arenas around the world and just slayed
it. It was an absolute thrill for me. I think Nate and I really
brought a new dimension to Eric’s sound, adding elements
of Jazz and Gospel at just the right moments. We played
classic Clapton tunes like “Crossroads” and “Badge,” but in
a completely fresh and updated way.
On Herbie Hancock: I’d produced a couple of tracks off
Herbie’s album Possibilities, including
his remake of “I Just Called To Say I
Love You.” Herbie was upstairs playing
the Fazioli grand, while I was in
the control room saying, “Yeah, can
we try that again?” It was surreal and
beautiful at the same time. But then
to be called and asked not just to be his side keyboardist,
but also sing in the show with him? It was ridiculous. Night
after night, his playing was jaw-dropping. One thing that
amazed me was that Herbie actually still practices.
“I’m a Korg artist, and
on the Immortal tour I’m
using the Kronos and the
M3. I like the sounds on
the Kronos, and I fi nd it
to be a step up from the
OASYS, which I got a lot
of mileage out of touring
with Herbie Hancock,”
says Greg Phillinganes.
“There’s very little outboard
gear on this tour.
Just about all of the sounds I’m using are in the four keyboards you see:
the two Korgs, as well as a Roland Fantom-G7 and V-Synth GT. My keyboard
tech Brian Girard did a brilliant job of assembling sounds. I use the
set list function on the Kronos to line up the elements for every song, and
I can step through it in order. The Kronos controls program changes for
the other three keyboards. As musicians, we love to talk about the latest
gear, but I’ve always believed that it’s not the keyboard you play, it’s what
you do with it. People are always surprised that when it comes to synths,
99 percent of the time I use stock sounds. I love to spend time going
through the sound banks in a given keyboard, playing little snippets based
on the character of each sound.”
“Kevin Antunes, our music
designer, spent months
crafting the Immortal
soundtrack,” says Greg
Rule, former Keyboard
Editor in Chief and now
audio programmer for the
Cirque du Soleil Immortal
tour. “It’s a fresh take on
Michael Jackson’s work, including remixes, medleys, and mash-ups. After
Kevin’s soundtrack was complete, I came on for the transition to the live
setup, along with the band. Together, Kevin and Greg Phillinganes determined
which parts would be played live, and which would be handled by my
playback rig. This was amazing—like living an episode of VH1 Classic Albums
as we analyzed Michael’s multitrack sessions.”
“The primary function of my rig is to deliver M.J.’s lead vocal,” Rule continues.
“I also send time code to sync the music to video and lighting. I have
three Apple Mac Pro towers with internal SSD drives and RME DSPe MADI
audio cards, plus a pair of RME MADI Bridge switchers and a Rosendahl
Nanosync HD master word clock. As with every other tour I’ve done, MOTU
Digital Performer is the trusted software centerpiece. RME TotalMix runs in
the background. DP is triggered in sync on all computers by a MIDI transport
box custom-built by J.L. Cooper. The rig can send up to 64 channels of digital
audio, and is patched into a MADI ring that connects to the DiGiCo SD7
mixers at the front-of-house and monitor positions. This tour is my fi rst foray
into MADI audio, and the rig has been fantastic.”
“I’ve had the privilege of touring with some incredible musicians,” Rule
says, “but none have been quite like Greg Phillinganes. Onstage, he’s the
leader, the guru, the musical genius. His brain-to-fi nger translation is lightning
fast. Someone will call out a random song title, TV theme, or jingle, and
Greg just plays it immediately, fully voiced. The man is a living legend.”