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Q&A with Greg Phillinganes
His work with the Jacksons spans thirty years
As a session keyboardist and arranger, Greg Phillinganes’s work with the Jacksons spans thirty years. He played on all of Michael Jackson’s solo albums, including “Off the Wall,” “Bad,” and 1982’s iconic “Thriller,” and served as musical director for the late pop star’s “Bad” and “Dangerous” tours. He serves in the same capacity for Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour,” set to play Philips Arena June 29 to July 1.
A lot of this show remains cloaked in mystery. What can you reveal about we might expect? Expect a very high quality show with a lot of the familiar elements of Cirque as far as dancers and acrobats but with no clowns and no fake Michael. You will definitely feel Michael in the room though.
How do you set about achieving that, given that Michael Jackson was one of the most electrifying live performers in pop music history? This show started out with the vision of Jamie King, who is the writer and director of the show. Jamie had a direct working connection with Michael, starting out as a dancer for him (on Jackson’s 1992 “Dangerous” tour) and then as a choreographer and now he produces all the megaconcert tours for artists including Madonna and Rihanna. He brought along Kevin Antunes who serves as the show’s musical designer. Thanks to Sony Music’s assistance, Kevin had the enviable job of going through all of Michael’s original recordings and creating specific arrangements based on Jamie’s ideas.
You’ve spent more than three decades playing on various Jackson recordings from the Jacksons’ 1978 “Destiny” album to Michael’s 2009 posthumous recording “This Is It.” What made you and Michael such solid collaborators? I was first brought on to work as an arranger for Michael and his brothers on the “Destiny” album. There was a kinship, a mutual respect, but most of all, it was fun. One night after a session on the album, I talked most of the brothers into going to Magic Mountain, an amusement park outside of L.A. with me. No security guards, no cops, it was just us. But this was early, early on when they were making the transition from Motown to [CBS Records].
In the early 1980s, when you were in the studio with producer Quincy Jones and Michael creating “Thriller,” were you aware the material had the potential to have the kind of cultural impact it ended up making? No. You can’t ever know that. It’s just impossible. And yet, maybe Steve Jobs knew he was going to revolutionize the world when he created the iPhone. You can’t go into a studio to create music thinking that you’re going to change the world. Having thoughts like that can actually get in the way of the creative process. All you can hope is that if you create something that gets you excited, a whole lot of other people will feel the same way. Quincy and Michael just wanted the best songs possible for the album. That was the goal when we went in, and it ended up becoming the game-changing event it was.
When casual music fans ask you to point out one specific Greg Phillinganes musical moment on the “Thriller” album, which of your many contributions do you point them to? Probably the title track “Thriller” written by Rod Temperton. There are just layers and layers of keyboards on that. There’s so much ear candy on that song. I did the synth bass part, those high-pitched synth parts, I did the Rhodes [keyboard] part and even did the pipe organ that Vincent Price does his rap over. It was crazy! When I listen to it now, I just think about all the fun we had creating all those layers in the studio.
You bring a lot of credibility and a personal connection to Michael to this Cirque production. What elements of Michael the musician were you able to hardwire into this show, given that history you shared? Understanding his musicality because I was directly involved in it at the time the music in the show was being created. And because we use the original recordings in the show, I end up accompanying myself each night. I was also able to bring in a lot of the musicians from those sessions to play on the tour as well in order to give the show that authenticity.
Your original Michael Jackson session work from the seventies, eighties, and nineties accompanies you on this tour? How wild is it to have your recorded self back up the live you each night? It doesn’t suck. It feels like I’m in the studio every night. We literally have everything there but Michael. We don’t have him there physically but we have him metaphysically. That’s not a word I use often. You definitely feel him and you see him too on all the video screens. It’s a reminder of how great his artistry is and the massive impact he had on the world.
If Michael had the opportunity to see this Cirque show, what would he say to you about it? I truly believe he DOES get to see it every night. I totally believe he’s checking it out. He would like it. He was a fan of Cirque. He had been to their headquarters in Montreal on a couple of occasions. The last time he was there, he lost his mind in the costume wing. They couldn’t pull him out of there! He had seen all the shows and in later years, he brought the kids too. He was in talks with Cirque reps to do a collaboration, so I think he would be really pleased with this.
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR JUNE 2012 ISSUE
Photograph by OSA Images/©2011 Cirque-Jackson I.P., LLC