“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 prolific 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.
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 best friend.
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 with him?
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 fingers and weigh them down on my wrists to keep them from moving. He instilled a sense of dexterity and definition 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 differences 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. Then 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. That 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 fulfills your dreams because He gives them to you in the first 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 fly 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 flew 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. Then 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 for you?
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. The 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 ascent?
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 remembers 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 point forward.
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!” The next thing I knew, I was in a room with the Jackson brothers, doing rhythm arrangements for the Destiny album. Th e first 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 to touring?
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?” This went on and on, until it finally dawned on me. I said to him, “You want me to tour with you, don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah.” The 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 finished 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 Immortal show?
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 the world
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 first 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 first 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.”