Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features drummer Chester Thompson.
When Chester Thompson joined Genesis as a drummer for the Wind and Wuthering tour in 1977, he had every reason to think it would be a short-term gig. He’d recently wrapped up stints with Frank Zappa and Weather Report that lasted about two years each, and Genesis’ previous touring drummer, Bill Bruford, bailed after just four months on the road.
But not only did Thompson stick with Genesis all the way through their Turn It On Again reunion tour of 2007 — Collins also brought him over to his solo career in 1981 and used him for nearly all of his tours between 1981 and 2010. During this time, the drummer somehow also found time to tour with Santana and the Bee Gees and maintain a solo career. In recent years, he’s taught at Belmont University in his adopted hometown of Nashville and toured with the Chester Thompson Trio.
Thompson called up Rolling Stone to explain how he rose out of the Baltimore housing projects, his early days with Frank Zappa and Weather Report, the ups and downs of life as a Genesis member who never played on the studio albums, and why he hasn’t spoken to Phil Collins once in the past 10 years.
How has your Covid year gone?
Well, it’s been quiet. We’ve been healthy, fortunately. Just trying to make the best use of the time. I managed to get 11 songs tracked with my own band in L.A. because we decided a while back not to just sit around. It’s going very well.
Did you work remotely?
Yeah. I’ve got a studio here. They’ve got a studio. We’ve been swapping ideas back and forth, writing and tracking.
Are you still teaching?
I no longer teach at the university, but I have taken on some private students. I’ve done some teaching, not a lot, but at the moment I have a handful of private students at a school. They are like 15 feet away and everyone is wearing masks. We’re just dealing with Covid.
I want to go back here and talk about your life. What was the first music you remember hearing as a child that really struck you?
Goodness. Oh, boy. Well, let’s see. I grew up in Baltimore and it was back in the days of AM radio. I think the first song that really stuck in my head was “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” I have no idea whose version it was. It was a vocal version. And of course, my mom loved music. We had a bunch of 78s. There was quite a bit of Louis Jordan. “Beans and Corn Bread” was probably my favorite Louis Jordan tune. I also had an older brother in the military. He’d come home and always put on some Billie Holiday.
How about pop music?
I probably heard more Elvis than anything in the Fifties. By the time I was eight or so, maybe a little older, you started hearing some Motown. By then, radio was getting pretty segregated. When I was old enough to get my own transistor radio, that was huge. That is when we actually had soul music stations. They hadn’t been renamed R&B.
I grew up in the projects, so in the summer there would be people outside playing music. That’s where you started hearing Motown and stuff. Somebody would have their radio on the outside.
Did you see any concerts in your younger years?
The very first live concert I saw was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. We had a theater like the Apollo. I don’t know if they were connected owner-wise, but there was a whole circuit of those theaters. It was the RKO [Proctor’s Theatre] in Newark, the Arcada Theater in Chicago, the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, and the Howard Theatre in D.C.
When I was 13 and able to go on my own, I pretty much went every other week. I saw everybody in those days. The very first one, and I had to beg my older brother to take me, was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. I still remember that.
Who did you see after that?
Oh, goodness. I saw James Brown, an early Motown revue, Sam Cooke, Chuck Jackson, Jerry Butler, the Impressions, Sam and Dave, all the Stax artists. It was a lot. The only person I didn’t see was probably Otis Redding.
Man, what an education to see all those people in their prime.
I’d always be checking out the rhythm section because some of them brought their own rhythm section. I started playing clubs at 13. I was pretty well into music and so I started going to every single show.
Were drums your first love as an instrument?
Yeah, apparently so. According to my mother, even before I can remember, she mentioned getting a toy drum and me standing on the front steps and playing as people listened. I have no memory of that whatsoever. For me, I thought it was fifth or sixth grade. But she once gave me a letter that I wrote in fourth grade that pretty much outlined my whole career. It pretty much broke me up. It’s one of those “What Will You Be” letters. I read it and just wept because most of it had happened by that point.
Who were some of your drumming heroes as a teenager?
Max Roach and Art Blakey were first. And then it was Louis Hayes and Elvin Jones.
When did you start doing professional gigs?
It started with some frat parties. An adult who lived in the projects where I grew up was named O’Donel Levy. He’s passed away now, but we were in about 10 or 12 bands together growing up. I started with those frat parties, bars, and little dives. And then I got into better clubs around Baltimore. I played every weekend from eighth grade until I graduated high school.
Playing in bars must have really sharpened your skills.
Yeah. I was playing with adults. I was never in a teenage band. Basically, I had to jump right into the deep end. I was taking lessons from a friend of my brother’s who was a jazz player by choice. He had done all the R&B and soul stuff, but at that point in his life he just really dove into jazz. My first drum lessons were in jazz. He’d teach me how to play along with albums and where to put the fill and how to sing along with the melody and not get lost in the solos and how to make it swing. It was pretty valuable stuff.
How did you wind up touring with Ben E. King in 1969?
That was my first real, name person I worked with. That happened because of O’Donel Levy. He ended up with a recording contract. We went up to New York to record. [Alarza] Lee Collins was the bass player on the session. It turned out he was Ben E. King’s musical director. There was a short tour coming up and he reached out to me. We just did a short tour of Canada and that was that.
Soon after that, I wound up touring with [jazz organist] Jack McDuff. After a year with him, I spent some time in Boston with a keyboard player named Webster Lewis, who was phenomenal. He was a great writer and arranger. He passed away [in 2002]. After that, I went back to Baltimore to a community college for a couple of years.
What did you study?
Music education. It was really interesting because I never considered that I might learn to play other instruments. But if you’re a music-ed student, you need to learn a different instrument group every semester. I kind of fell in love with the flute. It became my second instrument, but it’s still for my pleasure. I don’t do gigs on it or anything. When I was about to transfer to a four-year school, I got the audition with [Frank] Zappa.
How much did you know about his music before the audition?
Well, immediately after McDuff, I spent about six months in Boston. I got to be friends with some guys that managed an audio store. I’d hang out with these guys and they’d play all sorts of crazy stuff I’d never heard before. Some of it was Frank. It wasn’t his most intense stuff, but fortunately I knew who he was and that it was going to be good stuff.
When the audition came, I was absolutely up for it. He flew me out to L.A. and liked my playing and we immediately started rehearsing.
Were you intimidated when you walked into that rehearsal space?
Not the first day. That was just rhythm section, [keyboardist] George Duke, [bassist] Tom Fowler. Napoleon Murphy Brock was auditioning at the same time for vocals and saxophone. Frank was playing guitar. My audition consisted just of jamming. I met him the night before at his house. He asked me if I read [music] and he showed me a chart and asked me if I could learn it by the next day.
It scared the pants off me. [Laughs] There was no way I could learn it by the next day. It was something called “Kung Fu.” Unfortunately, it never got released. It was an incredibly difficult piece of music that we actually nailed in the studio. We did it at Ike Turner’s studio, Bolic Sound. Unfortunately, somehow Ike or his people lost the master tape. Frank never stepped foot in there again, of course.
What were your early impressions of Frank? What was he like?
Well, he was a little different from me. First of all, I arrived in California straight out of the hood in Baltimore. George and Napoleon were from San Jose and were living in Hawaii when Frank offered them the audition. In my mind, these guys were almost hippies compared to what I was used to. I was wide-eyed and paying attention and had no idea what was going on.
We played songs and that was that. A couple of days later, he brought the whole band in. That was Ralph Humphrey on drums. I was the second drummer. We started playing the whole deal, the real stuff in the book. I was seriously intimidated.
You did well enough that he hired you.
Well, I didn’t sleep. Basically, we rehearsed eight hours a day, 40 hours a week. That was my introduction to that. After rehearsal, I’d go back to the hotel, go to sleep, wake up at 3 a.m., practice for a couple of hours, go back to sleep, wake up, have breakfast, and do it again. That was every night. It was the only way to work that stuff.
Ralph Humphrey was very helpful that whole time because I had been getting into odd times, but not at the level Frank was doing it. Frank was doing time within time. We wouldn’t just play a song in five. He would have subdivisions within a bar. He might have some fives and sevens instead of triplets, things like that. It was a real wake-up call.
The amount of music he made in that time is just remarkable. So many songs, so many albums, so many concerts.
Oh, yeah. He was brilliant. There was no getting around it. His work ethic was just phenomenal. We’d do eight-hour rehearsals. He’d then go off to a studio and work on whatever he had in the can. I don’t know when he slept.
He liked having a big band onstage, too.
Yeah. When I worked with him, the core of the group was Napoleon on saxophone and singing, Bruce Fowler on trombone, Tom Fowler on bass, [percussionist] Ruth Underwood, George ,and Frank.
One tour, he bumped it up by bringing in this guy, Jeff Simmons. He was a guitarist that was comic relief, almost. He made Frank laugh and a big part of those days was humor. George shared with me that [violinist] Jean-Luc [Ponty] didn’t enjoy it so much because he couldn’t stand being silly. If you were in Frank’s band, you had to be willing to be silly. You couldn’t take yourself that seriously.
Tell me about recording One Size Fits All.
That was amazing. We did most of the tracking up at Caribou Ranch in Colorado. It was interesting because Tom Fowler, our bass player, had broken his hand on tour. We were playing touch football one day and Napoleon had the ball and was running past Tom, and Tom reached out and tagged him. A little bit later he goes, “Man, I think I broke my finger.” We all went, “Come on. Get out of here.”
Turns out, he went to the hospital and he really had broken his finger. We had this other guy jump in. Man, what a wacky period. His name was Birdlegs [James Youman]. He would be onstage. Frank had a blackboard onstage with all the note names on it. Tom Fowler would stand onstage with a pointer and would point to the notes he was supposed to play. [Laughs]
We basically tracked it with no bass. The guy had a great feel, but he wasn’t a real reader. That wasn’t going to work. I did most of my tracks like “Inca Roads” with George on piano. And Caribou Ranch was magical. We were like 9,000 feet above sea level in Colorado. I had to use oxygen tanks after every take. I was totally gasping for air. The studio had tanks in the studio since they dealt with it all the time.
This is the same time that Chicago and Elton John are recording there.
Exactly. The manager of Chicago [Jim Guercio] supposedly bought it as a tax write-off. Unfortunately, it really took off, so I don’t think it worked as a tax write-off. It was pretty profitable.
Captain Beefheart plays harmonica on the album. Did you get to meet him?
Yeah. Several times. At one point, he toured with us. What a nice man, Don Van Vliet. He was a different kind of guy, but what a nice, gentle kind of person.
How was Frank as a bandleader? Was he demanding?
No. If you did your part, it was fun. You couldn’t be less than what you were supposed to be. But I was fortunate. I worked with him during a really happy period in his life. He hung out with the band after the shows and stuff. We laughed a lot. Basically, he tried to come up with stuff the band couldn’t play, and we always managed to pull it off. He was happy.
Why did you leave?
He canceled a tour and was honest about it. He got a film-editing machine and wanted to really dig in and learn how to use it, which he did. But since I had been in his band and on the road so much, I hadn’t had time to do any networking or meet many people in L.A.
Suddenly, I’m there with no income. [Weather Report bassist] Alphonso [Johnson] had been a friend for years. We go way back. They were in town and Alphonso said, “The guys are in town. Why don’t you come and jam with the band?” I said, “Man, I’d love to, but I don’t really want to audition.”
He’d mentioned that they’d been through a few drummers that year. I go down there and jam with the band. And of course, there was another drummer there and it was an audition. We went back and forth. The other guy called himself Sonship, Woody Theus. He was a phenomenal player — oh, my goodness. Somehow, they offered me the gig. They were starting rehearsals the next week for a new tour and that happened to be my favorite band at the time.
That was that. I called Frank immediately and he wasn’t happy about it, but he knew that my background was more jazz and stuff. He got it. We crossed paths several times [after that] and there were never any weird vibes about it or anything. I always thought he was a pretty good friend to me.
How did you grow as a drummer during your time in Weather Report?
I’ve said half-jokingly that with Frank, I learned how to play all the notes, all the subdivisions. With Weather Report, I had to learn which ones to leave out. The worst thing you could do in Weather Report was play the exact same thing you played the night before.
What happened when Jaco Pastorius came in on bass and Alphonso Johnson left?
[Sighs] That’s a whole drama I’m not crazy about. Basically, Alphonso left during the Christmas break [of 1975]. They had promised him membership in the band. In the meantime, the few months before, they went with different management, the same people that managed Earth, Wind, and Fire. In fact, we wound up doing a tour opening for them.
They have a game plan that was a whole lot different scenario than anything Weather Report had experienced. The new managers were like, “Absolutely not. The band stays like it is.” Alphonso had been there three years. He was pretty disappointed. In the meantime, he’d gotten a solo record deal.
Unknown to me, he quit over the Christmas holidays. I had gone back to Baltimore. I got back to L.A. and I called them up and said, “When are we going back in the studio?” They were like, “Well, you don’t need to go back in.” I was like, “What’s going on here?”
Turns out they had hired Jaco. They assumed I was going with Alphonso. If you know the history, Joe [Zawinul] and Wayne [Shorter] were real good friends. That’s what they did when they left their gigs with Miles [Davis] and Cannonball [Adderley] to start Weather Report. They assumed we were starting a new band like they did.
What happened from there?
I called Joe and was like, “I just got this message from Wayne saying not to come to the studio. What’s going on?” He said, “Didn’t you quit the band?” I said, “No, what are you talking about?” “Didn’t you quit with Alphonso?” I go, “Alphonso quit? What are you talking about?”
It got awkward. In the meantime, they had brought in [drummer] Narada Michael Walden. He played beautifully on that ballad “Cannon Ball.” I had already tracked most of Black Market. If you listen to the title track, there are two different drummers on two different days of recording. It’s me in the beginning and then in the middle of the tune, when it goes into the bridge with the swing feel, you hear a completely different ambience, different drum sound, different everything.
They just edited in that other day of his recording. Unfortunately, they gave him the credit and didn’t put my name on there. But the opening fill, all of that, is me.
Then it got weird because they got comfortable with two drummers playing. We go in the studio with Jaco, and Alphonso’s feel and Jaco’s feel are radically different. Alphonso and I had a real swing thing between us, real 16th, triplet bass feel, which is really the core of the whole funk thing. Everything wasn’t that, but a lot of the tunes went that way.
I’d have to say, I don’t think Jaco was too comfortable with that. I’ve never heard anything he did that had that particular feel to it. He was a virtuoso, no question, but most of his stuff was straight 16ths. Boy, we got in rehearsal and it was like oil and water.
They said to me, “You’re playing it wrong.” But the manager had gone out of his way to call me before we took the Christmas break since they were so happy with the tracks we’d done. He said, “I just thought you should know that.” So, of course, I went on doing what I did. Had they said, “We’re going to change the feel a bit,” I would have been fine with that.
But it got very political and it just got ugly. I’ve crossed paths with Joe many times since and he even apologized at one point for the way it all went down, but I didn’t have a problem with it. I said to those guys, “I don’t care if you use another drummer on parts of the album. You guys have always done that. How about if I come in and play some percussion along with Alex [Acuña]?” But it was uncomfortable.
How was your experience in the Pointer Sisters’ touring band after that?
That was incredible! Oh, my goodness. This is before they had hits, but they did have “Yes We Can Can.” In those days, they were doing pretty much doing all Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross stuff. And so we were doing “Salt Peanuts” at like 200 miles an hour. They were doing “Cloudburst” and all that stuff.
It was amazing. The rhythm sections at several of the gigs had big bands. They’d add horn sections and stuff. It was really cool.
They’re such great singers.
They were amazing. I’m still pretty good friends with the only two that are left, Ruth and Anita.
How much did you know about prog-rock bands like Yes, King Crimson …
[Laughs] Not very much. I was playing in the San Francisco production of The Wiz back then. That’s where I met my wife. It was about to move to Chicago and I was kind of wondering, “Why haven’t I got my contract yet?”
Turns out it was purely a union thing. In San Francisco, they have a minimum on these shows. It was a different situation in Chicago. Had they brought me, they would have had to pay another musician just to sit there. I didn’t find out any of this until later, but the timing was amazing. I found out I wasn’t going to Chicago and then Phil [Collins] called me himself, basically offering the Genesis gig.
How did he know you?
He had seen what turned out to be my last Weather Report concert, but he was very familiar with the Zappa stuff. The very first day of rehearsal he said to me, “How do you play that lick?” It was a thing that Ralph Humphrey and I did on the end of [Frank Zappa’s] “Trouble Every Day.” It was this double drum lick that Phil wanted to learn, and it did wind up in a Genesis song, a live version anyway.
Did you take a crash course in Genesis before you went in?
They sent over some cassettes. I was leaving straight from San Francisco. And even though I listened to the cassettes, I didn’t get a real feel for what was going on before I got there. Unfortunately, they never really had to change drummers before. They brought in Bill Bruford for that one tour [in 1976], but it was a fairly short tour. Apparently Phil and Bill grew up near each other and knew each other fairly well. It was kind of like asking your buddy to come cover your band because suddenly you’re doing something different.
Bill knew that world. He didn’t know all the tunes, but obviously he was pretty familiar with the whole prog-rock thing. They didn’t find out until pretty late in the game that Bill wasn’t going to do the next tour. They kind of assumed that he would. By the time they reached out to me, they allowed 10 days for rehearsal and it was a two-and-a-half–hour show. Basically, after the first day, I was like, “The only way this is going to work is if you give me a list of which tunes you want to go over the next day — I’ll have them ready.”
Basically, I literally transcribed everything Phil played on those early prog-rock albums. I’d come in and read it down the next day, which was pretty new to them because none of them read [music] at all. They felt that was pretty interesting, but it was the only way we got through it. It was another situation of me not getting any sleep since I was up all night writing charts.
Did they audition you?
No. When Phil called, the first thing he said was, “There’s no audition. I’ve already played stuff for the guys. If you want the gig, it’s yours.”
How was it for you culturally? For lack of a better word, they are really, really British.
Oh, my goodness!
And they’d never had an American in their ranks.
Right. And much less, a black American. [Laughs] Culturally, we were on opposite sides of the world. It was quite an adjustment for me. It was the biggest adjustment I’ve ever had to make, musically and culturally.
How did you manage to bridge that gap culturally?
I just basically kept my mouth shut and my eyes open. [Laughs] It’s interesting, I probably absorbed more of their culture than they did anything I grew up with because I was really uncomfortable. The very first tour was a tour of England. You have four guys with British accents [Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Steve Hackett], and there was tour management and a couple of other guys, all with British accents.
Every night after the show we’d hang out. It was really disturbing because for the first two weeks. I could not follow a single conversation. I was okay one-on-one, but they speak much, much faster than we do. There were all these conversations going back and forth that I’d try to track. I could track one guy, kind of, but then somebody else would jump in. It was a weird, lonely feeling to be in the room with people that supposedly speak the same language and not be able to understand what was going on.
When Daryl Stuermer joined in 1978, did you have a compatriot that was a little more like you?
Well, yeah. And I’d known Daryl for years. He was part of a band in Milwaukee that played a place that was the place to stop and jam when you were on tour. There was a lady with the band I kind of had a crush on and we were very much in touch. And so, we had met and played together on a few occasions.
It’s an interesting gig musically speaking. Much of the show is just you playing drums, but during a lot of the instrumental breaks, Phil would come back and play along with you. Was that a challenge for you?
Not at all. Phil and I locked way easier than Ralph Humphrey and I did. Ralph and I had to watch each other like hawks and really listen carefully. Phil and I, from the very first rehearsal when he sat down and we started jamming together, we just locked. It was just there.
And Phil and I had a lot of the same roots. He was into a lot of the American jazz drummers. The difference being I wasn’t so much into the English drummers, like Keith Moon, and he was. But he still had that American stuff; it was a big part of his background, and we just hit it off immediately.
You guys did a drum duet at that first Genesis show in 1977 and it never left the set list after that.
The first couple of years, I pretty much put it together. Even though he played with Brand X, he was not comfortable with soloing. It’s not something he did. But he’d get more comfortable with it and be really involved with putting it together. In the latter years, he had a pretty clear picture. Before one tour, we sat there and listened to all the previous tours and everything we did. We picked what we wanted from them and made something new.
A couple of the “Drum Duets” were released as singles in several places in South America and some countries in Europe, which is kind of cool.
After 1978, this must have felt like a long-term gig.
I still thought it would just be a couple of tours. I certainly never dreamed it would go on and on like it did.
At the very beginning, did they make it clear that you’d be playing on the tours but not the albums, because Phil does all his own drumming?
Well, after the first tour they were like, “We’re going to bring you in for the next album.” Phil was all for it. Oh, and this blew my mind. Those early prog-rock records? Phil double-tracked all the drum parts. He actually went over everything and duplicated it, put everything down twice. And he put down some intense, complicated stuff. He actually double-tracked all that stuff.
That blew me away. He said, “I double-track everything anyway, so it would be great if we could just do it together.” But they all live very close together and they always had a set writing period where they’d be like, “Okay, from blank to blank, we’re writing.” They would each do that, come back with what they had and basically it was just too easy to go, “OK, let’s put this down.” And that’s what they did.
This is before they had their own studio. When they did, they’d literally call each other up and go, “Let’s go do it.” And so that never happened, basically.
It must have been interesting to watch them evolve from …And Then There Were Three… to Duke to Abacab and see them embrace New Wave to some degree and change up their sound.
It was amazing stuff, absolutely. At the same time, it was a little weird investing that much time in something you were never going to be a part of. I’ve still got pretty mixed feelings about it.
I imagine it was frustrating.
It didn’t frustrate me so much that I didn’t do it. It’s just that on tour, Daryl and I both would sometimes get dragged to a media thing. We’d just sit in a side room because all they really wanted was the three guys. And then it got to be a little more honest. At one point, we discussed it and it was like, “If we don’t really need to be there, you guys are fine to go and do what you’re doing.” [Laughs]
I never went in under any pretense of thinking it was going to be anything other than what it was. And I’d been doing it long enough at that point that I didn’t have any expectations beyond knowing, “I’m here to do what he did [on the records].” When we played together, it was like he was the guy and I’m there as the backup, to support him. It was never a competition where I thought it should be me. None of that.
It was a rare thing where the lead singer of a band is also the drummer.
Exactly. And he’s that good at them both.
When you heard he was going solo, did you think it would work out for him?
I didn’t know until later. I don’t know if I had an expectation one way or the other. I certainly wasn’t surprised that he was successful. The guy’s work ethic … he just worked. He put everything into it.
Do you recall first hearing “In the Air Tonight”?
Yeah. He played us the demo on the way to a gig before it had drums on it. It was this whole haunting thing that was really cool. You could hear that it was something special. And then he added the drums and it was like, “Forget about it.” We were all in the car going to the first show in Japan. He basically played us these tunes he’d come up with. That stood out more than anything.
Do you recall much from the reunion show with Peter Gabriel in 1982 at Milton Keynes Bowl?
[Laughs] That was fun. I guess they were never able to release it because Peter is pretty spontaneous and it drove the sound engineer crazy. They went over all the details in soundcheck and we rehearsed the day before. But they set up mics around the stage where he said he was going to be. Come the day of the show, Peter was wherever he was at the moment, which wasn’t where he said he’d be the day before. Unfortunately, they never had enough of his clear vocals to release it, or anything.
I’ve heard lots of audiences tapes, but it’s pouring rain and none of them sound great.
All of the above. But doing it was really fun. The reason we were doing it was to raise money for Peter since he went broke doing his first WOMAD show. They were all good friends to the point where they said, “Let’s do this.” So the vibe was great.
How were the Phil solo tours? It was definitely different musically since the band was much bigger with horns and backup singers.
It was a much bigger band. Even though Daryl and I weren’t technically in the band [Genesis], we toured as the band. But with Phil, you’re one of a cast of thousands. It wasn’t the same kind of luxury and stuff, which is fine. Genesis was very balanced. There was no leader. Everybody had a say.
The first Phil solo tour was kind of a drag. He only truly related to drums. And so the horns would make a mistake and he’d turn around and look at me. [Laughs] He figured it out pretty quickly. But on that first tour I’d be like, “Come on, man. That ain’t me.” But basically, for 14 years he’d tour every other year and Genesis would tour in the off years.
Was it hard on your marriage that you were never home?
We learned how to deal with it. My wife had her own career when we met. She’d been on the road for three years straight and she got it. The cool thing was my family came out on the road a lot. Genesis, as soon as they could afford it, started chartering planes for tours. And initially, that was so families could travel. It was not at all unusual for all the families to be on tour together.
If you weren’t busy enough with Genesis tours and Phil Collins tours, you joined Santana in 1984?
[Laughs] Yeah. Santana had actually asked me to play in his band right before the call came from Phil. Bill Graham and I could just never agree on the money. He kept trying to get me to take less than what I was already making. I said, “Man, I can’t do that. I’m just not going to do that.”
It came up again [in 1984] and it was just great. It was perfect timing and what a fun tour. They really enjoy life and love to laugh.
This was the European stadium tour with Bob Dylan. Did you watch Bob’s show a lot?
I watched it a couple of times, but Bob hung out with us the whole time. His guys weren’t fun, so he hung out in our tent the whole time before the show.
How was that?
It was great. He’s sort of a quiet guy. I’m sure if you spent time with him one-on-one it would be different. But he just enjoyed being around us since we were so lively and fun. We always opened and usually left afterwards, though Carlos sometimes came out with Bob and I stayed to watch two or three times. Other than that, I’d go back to the hotel.
The peak of Genesis on a commercial level was the Invisible Touch period. You did four sold-out nights at Wembley Stadium. What’s it like to walk onto that stage and see just an ocean of people going insane?
Here’s the crazy thing, man. It’s amazing what you can get used to. The first few stadiums, it’s like, “Oh, my goodness!” And then it starts feeling normal. I remember doing an arena after doing stadiums and it felt like an intimate club. Again, as humans, we adapt.
And again, if you weren’t busy enough, you joined the Bee Gees for a tour in 1989.
Yeah. Their manager was someone I knew from L.A. We had worked on a couple of things together. He called up and said, “Would you be up for doing a tour with these guys?” He explained what was going on and stuff. I was like, “Yeah. Why not?” And I gotta tell you, man, Barry Gibb might have been one of the most professional people I’ve worked with in my life. The guy was brilliant, amazing.
It was a fun tour. Playing that stuff from the Seventies was full of charge. That stuff smokes. But they had so many new tunes they were promoting. In Europe, everyone in the audience knew all of their catalog. They had some really nice material they were promoting at the time [from their album One]. They were great writers.
That was their first tour in 10 years. It was a huge deal.
Yeah. And they had great songs. The band was really good. It was fun. It was really cool. They were really nice, cool people to work with.
You didn’t finish the tour, though.
The Australia leg got added later and they wound up doing a film of the tour. After I left, Robin got really ticked at me. And Maurice too, actually. That’s because it was getting close to time to go back out with Phil. I was like, “Man, I’ve got to have some time with my family. I can’t be gone the whole time. I can’t do that.”
It ended up being a little awkward since they were going to be down there for seven weeks. As it turned out, I wound up doing a little, brief drum-clinic tour down there in Australia. I was there just a week and I actually ran across them in Sydney. [Laughs] They were like, “How could you be down here doing this and not our tour?” I was like, “I’m just here a few days.” But I was really trying to be mindful of family time.
On the We Can’t Dance tour in 1992, did you sense that Phil wasn’t going to continue with Genesis after it?
I didn’t really get it. I didn’t really know what was happening in the background. It was sort of weird, though. After Invisible Touch, I remember their conversations where they agreed to take five years off. I thought, “That probably isn’t a great idea.” But it had gotten to the point where the front row at the L.A. Forum was all Hollywood celebrities as opposed to your fans. They’re just sitting there like, “Impress me.” It really annoyed them that they reached “event” status as opposed to just playing to fans.
So they took some time off. The We Can’t Dance thing was a very different vibe. I guess life had happened in between. Phil was not sure family-wise and he hasn’t had the easiest of times there. I think some of that might have something to do with it. But I was pretty surprised when he left. I didn’t see it coming.
The news that he left didn’t come out until 1996 or so.
Exactly. But I had let him know on the last Genesis tour that I was going to take a break from doing his tours since I thought he was going to keep doing the same every-year-in-between thing. I think he got a little annoyed since I had done an interview and they asked which I enjoyed [Genesis or Collins solo] more. I wasn’t enough of a diplomat to just say, “Oh, everything is wonderful.” The Genesis stuff was more musically challenging and interesting to me. I never really toured with an R&B band, but I’d played it all my life. Phil was very shocked and surprised and annoyed that I didn’t say that his stuff was more fun.
During that same conversation, I said to him, “As a matter of fact, I need to take a break from doing both. I can’t be gone that much at this point.” That’s when Ricky [Lawson] wound up doing [the Phil solo tours of the mid-Nineties]. But I did wind up coming back in 1999. My wife and I went down to see his big band in Birmingham. First thing out of his mouth was, “Would you come back to the band?” It was perfect timing. By then, my son was starting college. He was already going on tour in summers between school.
What happened with the Calling All Stations period with Genesis? Did they talk to you about being a part of that?
No. In fact, I had called. I had a conversation with Mike Rutherford, not knowing what they were going to be doing. And he just totally shot down the idea of doing anything. He said they were going to be doing something totally different and they weren’t interested. [Ed. note: They chose instead to record with drummers Nir Zidkyahu and Nick D’Virgilio. Zidkyahu was used on the tour.]
I was kind of surprised that Daryl wasn’t doing it, either. He had proven to be really close friends with those guys and I never related culturally, so there was always this gap between us. I mean, there was mutual respect and stuff, but there was never, like, a friendship.
I love the Tokyo Tapes show you did with Steve Hackett and all the prog guys in 1996. Was that fun?
That was fun, but it was a one-off. Steve and I always stayed pretty good friends. I did one of his solo albums and we had been pretty good friends. He told me what he had in mind. By then, I had heard a lot of the prog-rock stuff and was very interested to play with those guys. It just turned out to be a one-off, but fortunately we recorded and videotaped it.
When Phil said that his 2004 tour was going to be his last one, did you believe him?
[Laughs] Umm … I didn’t really think it was going to be the end. But what a great tour and what a great band. I didn’t know, but he did step back for quite a while. And even though I’m not doing it anymore, I’m glad that he decided to go back to work.
How was the 2007 Genesis tour? Did it surprise you that they called you back? It had been years.
No. It didn’t surprise me. I mean, as a matter of fact, the seed got planted on Phil’s tour at the end of 2005. We were playing London near the end and the guys all came down. It was Phil’s gig, obviously. But they asked Daryl and I to come to this little room on the side. They were having a little congratulations party for Tony [Smith] to celebrate 30 years of management or something.
Daryl and I came back. And I have to say, as much as I always felt separate and apart from the whole thing, seeing everyone together was an amazing and surprising feeling. It made me realize that it really was a band. I was never going to be a full partner, but there’s no denying it was a band. We were out there hitting it together and there’s something about that.
And I’ll never forget. There were pictures taken and all that. The five of us lined up for a picture. Phil jokingly said, “Well, we’re all together. When’s the tour?” And Tony Smith’s eye lighted up like I’d rarely seen. Oh, my goodness.
He was smelling the money.
Oh, my goodness! They had presented him with this amazing gift. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was based on holograph technology. It was this huge frame of all their albums. It was really brilliant. But the next thing I know, they started having meetings. Several times we were on Phil’s tour in 2005 and they had meetings about how to put this tour together.
At one point, they were talking about going out with Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett.
Right. Exactly. I don’t know details of what happened with that, but I think Peter was busy putting something else together. When it happened, we got together in New York for two weeks to just play and see if they wanted to do it. Those two weeks, man, I don’t think we ever laughed that much all the years we’d been together. It was non-stop laughing every day.
And the tour was that way too. Man, it was fun. Everyone had gotten over themselves by then and it was just really fun from top to bottom. I don’t know what they might have been going through behind the scenes, but our time together was just great.
You were still able to pack stadiums.
Right. And so when he quit again at the end of that, I think there was a shock. As a matter of fact, we had already been told what dates to hold for 2008. I saw online that Phil said in some interview he was quitting the band. I checked with the manager. I said, “Tony, in view of what Phil said in this interview, I guess I don’t need to hold these dates any more?” He said, “What are you talking about? I’ll get back to you.” Sure enough, he got back and said, “You were right. He’s gone.”
Were the dates in Australia and other markets you didn’t hit the first time?
Yeah. It was going to be South America too. I knew it was in the works. And that was the end of that. And then I ended up doing Phil’s Motown thing and that didn’t go well. [Ed. note: Collins did a four-city tour in June and July 2010 to promote his Motown covers record Going Back.]
Why didn’t it go well?
Well, basically, I hadn’t prepared in as much detail as I usually did. Part of that was no matter how well I prepared, he always made some pretty intense changes. And I grew up with that Motown stuff, so I think maybe I took it for granted. But Phil being Phil, he detailed every single fill, every single detail of every single song. I hadn’t done that.
When we got to rehearsal, I didn’t know about the stuff that was going on in Phil’s life. I had no idea. I just knew that he was a radically different person than I’d ever known.
One day, he got pretty frustrated with me and literally cussed me out in front of everybody. He told me that I sounded like crap and all that. The vibe just changed. It was just different. We didn’t do a lot of shows, but at the very last show [at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 1st, 2010], he wasn’t the happiest he’d ever been.
At one point on that show, I was supposed to play a backbeat to go into the last tune. He turned around and stared at me. I started thinking, “Now what did I do?” And so I kind of froze. Fortunately, the bass player [Bob Babbitt] stepped in and started the tune. And at the end of the show, he just went off. I was like, “Man, when you turned around and looked, it threw me off.”
We normally had a lot of eye contact at shows. During that particular run, there was none, ever. When he turned around, it just freaked me out because I was already nervous since I didn’t know what was going to come next. It had been intense the whole time. It was not fun.
Since then, I was pretty upset. But I’m over it now. I wish him nothing but the best. And I think it’s a fantastic opportunity that his son gets to play with him because his son drummed backstage when he was five. We all knew he was going to be a great player. You knew it at five years old.
Has Phil talked to you at all in the past 10 years?
No. Not at all. Not at all. And it’s fine. Again, I’ve got no grudge. It took me a while to get over it, but I really wish him well. Again, I think it’s fantastic that he’s playing with his son. I wish I could afford my son. [Laughs] If I could have him, I’d be touring with him right now. He’s just turned into this monster musician.
Do you talk to Daryl still?
Yeah. We aren’t, like, chums, but we stay in touch. The keyboard player, Brad Cole, lives in Nashville. I’m always very aware of what’s going on.
Phil wrote in his book that he had a major drinking problem in that time period. His marriage was falling apart.
I wasn’t aware of any of that. I was just thinking, “What in the heck is going on here?”
I imagine one day you guys will speak again.
I’m fine either way. I don’t think he’s holding a grudge. I have no idea. [Laughs] But I’ve really been enjoying my life. And to be honest, my whole career has been about playing different kinds of music. I’m always looking for the new thing, the next thing to me. Part of me is not disappointed that I’m not playing those same tunes again after 30 years. [Laughs]
Yeah. You’ve played “Take Me Home” hundreds of times.
Well, probably. [Laughs] Again, I’m loving what I’m doing with my band. There’s quite a music community here in Nashville, man. I got to play some really cool stuff. There’s a great jazz community, too. I’ve never not played jazz. That’s where I started. And I don’t want to ever only play one thing. It’s very rewarding and I’m involved with an organization here called the Nashville Jazz Workshop. I’m not 100 percent involved, but it’s really interesting, the stuff that happens here.
You taught for years at the college level. That must have been a very satisfying experience.
It really was. After 20 years, it was enough. I felt like I needed to work on my playing. Man, I still love to play. Still love to practice. I’m just really enjoying life.
As far as teaching, I only took that gig because my son was going to that school. The drum instructor left and I’d gotten to know the head of the department. He asked if I’d consider coming in. I’d always wanted to teach myself. I thought, “Why not?” I had no idea I was going to fall in love with teaching.
Are you hoping to be back onstage soon?
Well, yeah. Absolutely. Who knows what that’s going to look like at this point. I’ve done tours of my own with my jazz trio. We did European tour in a van. Man, it was wonderful. It was really awesome.
Do you think if Genesis come to America, you’d want to go see the show?
Probably not. I might. I don’t know. I didn’t see Phil’s tour. I know people were caravanning from here to see it, but it was still a little too raw at that point. But at this point … I’d be curious to see it. I have no idea where they would play. I know they are planning a European portion.
And goodness, the emails I get! It’s interesting to see people’s perception of what they think it is as opposed to the way it really was. Like I said, it was never a band in that sense. But to a lot of the fans, I guess they feel like it is. It’s very nice to get that stuff, but at the same time, because I’ve moved on, it’s taking me back and forcing me to deal with it again.
What are your goals over the next few years?
I don’t think that far ahead. I guess I should. Basically, I want to keep putting things out. This new thing I’ve been working on with my friends in L.A., it’s [bassist] Pee Wee Hill and [keyboardist] Michiko Hill, his wife. They are phenomenal musicians. Her daughter was this quiet little kid, but she’s turned into this monster artist named Judith Hill. She was with Michael Jackson and was actually working with Prince when he passed. She scored one of Spike Lee’s movie.
Man, what a phenomenal singer and piano player. Her parents are now in her band. In between, we’re doing this project. We played together a lot in L.A. between Genesis tours and stuff. I’m pretty excited about this project with them.
I’ve done a couple of jazz trio albums that I really enjoyed. The last solo thing I did ventured a little outside that format. I’m constantly writing, constantly trying new stuff. I’d love to do my own tours. At the same time, there are artists I’d love to play with as well. But at this point in life, if I could do my own stuff, I’d really love that.
I just love the adventure of life. The way my life has gone down, I can’t say that I planned any of it. I mean, I know what I hoped for. When my mom showed me that letter I wrote in fourth grade where I had outlined … I hadn’t done everything in that letter, but so much of it had already happened it kind of blew me away. I guess I had clarity of what I hoped to accomplish
But at this point in my life, I’m not owed anything. I’m grateful. I’m really grateful and I’m just excited to see what comes next.