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Phil Collins tapes Motown for latest -- and last? -- solo album
Motown music meant — and means — a lot to Phil Collins.
So much, in fact, that the multi-threat musician and occasional actor pulled himself out of what he considered a retirement following his band Genesis’ 2007 reunion tour to make “Going Back,” an R&B covers album that came out in mid-September and is dominated by Motown songs.
“If this record hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be doing anything now,” explains Collins, 59, who’s sold more than 250 albums worldwide during his career — and is one of only three artists to sell more than 100 million on his own and with a band (Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson are the others). “I kind of decided ... in 2007 that I would stay around home more and be there for (sons) Nicholas and Matthew, who are 9 and 5 now.”
But, he adds, “this is the stuff I listened to when I was growing up. Take away the Beatles, and this was the other side of my record collection. I basically wanted to sing these songs but have never been in a situation where I was able to, apart from being in a school band. Joining Genesis at the young age of 19, we never played anybody else’s songs.
“So I guess it’s always been something I’ve wanted to do. There are a lot of memories in some of these songs for me.”
“Going Back” — which topped the general European chart as well as those in the U.K. and the Netherlands — isn’t the first time the thrice-divorced father of five has showcased those influences, of course. He nodded to Motown with brassy, soulful original material such as Genesis’ “No Reply at All” and his own “I Missed Again” and “Sussudio” and recorded a hit 1982 cover of the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” And he topped the charts in 1988 with “Two Hearts,” a song Collins co-wrote with Motown songwriting great Lamont Dozier.
But he genuinely enjoyed immersing himself even deeper into the genre on “Going Back.”
“They’re very musical records,” explains Collins, who joined Dozier in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when Genesis was inducted in March. “The musicians on the records were very hip, so that side of it always appealed to me. There was a sound you could identify with straightaway, because it was the same players in the same studio with the same engineers and sometimes the same songwriters.
“So there was some kind of magic that was there on the better bunch of songs. They weren’t all great songs, but there was certainly a huge amount of great material.”
Collins was able to avail himself of some of those players, too, bringing in members of Motown’s famed Funk Brothers studio crew — bassist Bob Babbitt and guitarists Eddie “Chank” Willis and Ray Monette — on most of the tracks and for the subsequent series of live shows he staged to preview the album during the summer.
“I just had to ask,” he says, still sounding awestruck by the experience. “It turned out they were all really up for the idea, and it was great (to) be around and listen to some of the anecdotes — ‘Oh yeah, I remember this one,’ or ‘There was another part on this track that you couldn’t hear on the record, but I used to play this ... ’
“There was lots of storytelling, and it was great to have those guys that played it the first time around. And then if they’d smile when you finished a track, you could tell we succeeded in some respect in doing what I set out to do.”
And then there was the moment the 74-year-old Willis listened to the basic track for the Four Tops’ “Standing in the Shadows of Love” before adding his part. “He turned to me and said, ‘Who played drums on this?’” Collins recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, I did.’ And he said, ‘Damn good, man. Damn good!’ And to me, just to have that moment made everything worthwhile.”
Playing at all, in fact, was particularly rewarding for Collins on the project. He’s long suffered from severe nerve damage that’s worsened in recent years, hampering his ability to play drums and hastening his decision to bow out of the music industry. And getting behind the kit for “Going Back,” he says, was nothing less than “a struggle.”
“As I sit here, I can’t feel the ends of my fingers on my left hand,” he explains. “(‘Going Back’) was the first time I ever tried to play drums since the Genesis reunion. It was frustrating because the first time I did it a stick flew out of my hand, and then I realized I had to tape the stick to my hand because I didn’t have enough strength in my fingers to grip them.”
Collins wound up doing his drum tracks over the course of a couple of sessions and employing studio technology to piece together the performances. He says that he’s “still glad I did it rather than getting somebody else in” and refuses to bemoan his fate.
“It bothers me a lot less than people think it probably would,” he explains. “I’m adjusted to the idea that I may never play again like that, the way I used to. And I jump back to my big band and things like that when I think, ‘Man, I can just not do that now.’
“So I’ve got used to this. It’s been like this for two or three years now. And how it affects other aspects of real life is more daunting than just playing the music, you know?”
Collins did perform a handful of shows during the summer to preview “Going Back,” with a DVD, “Going Back — Live at the Roseland Ballroom,” coming on Nov. 2. But he considers his live performing time and probably his recording career over.
“I’m certainly proud of the things I’ve done,” says Collins, who’s won seven Grammy Awards and notched 20 Top 40 hits — the most Top 40 entries of any artist during the ’80s, including the ubiquitous “In the Air Tonight” — and has also acted and composed music for both the movie and Broadway versions of Walt Disney’s “Tarzan.” “I’ve pushed my particular envelope wider than a lot of people probably remember. There’s always going to be some things you wish you’d done differently, but in general I’m very proud of what I’ve done and there’s not a lot I haven’t tried.”
And while there was certainly a Phil Collins burnout during the ’80s — “I just had wonderful opportunities to do different things, and I just sort of said ‘yes’ to everything. But I could see how I was annoying,” he says with a laugh — time has been good to Collins’ legacy. Even rappers, he notes, are sampling his music, which he takes as a sign of welcome respect.
“Ironically, just as I’m about to put it all to bed, as it were, there’s actually kind of a reassessment,” says Collins, who’s currently writing a book about his large collection of Alamo and Texas Revolution artifacts for publication in 2012.
“Maybe it’s because I haven’t done an album in eight years. I don’t know why, but it’s refreshing for that to happen near what I consider the end of what I want to do.”
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