Behind the keyboard: Greg Phillinganes on making it in the music industry

“For a song of this calibre and a voice singing a standard like this, what would help is if you were able to set it up,” Greg Phillinganes says, stepping towards young pianist Tiffany Strachan and her keyboard.

“You want to have more of a set-up. Not anything elaborate, but something like…” Phillinganes moves closer and puts his arms around the young pianist to demonstrate how she could play the song differently. When the band starts up again, Strachan takes his note and plays the new chords perfectly while Phillinganes sits behind his Korg Kronos and adds decorative harmonies.

Was it as intimidating as it seemed? “No, it wasn’t,” Strachan says. “To me, this was a chat between musician and musician.”

As a music director, producer and keyboard player, Phillinganes has learned a few things about genres and authenticity in his 40-year career. During his two days at Ryerson in January, he left lasting impressions on young artists and industry personnel sharing what he’s experienced in the music business.

Phillinganes’ career began at 19 when he joined Stevie Wonder’s band, Wonderlove. He says, “The main thing I took away from working with [Wonder] was how to identify, understand and translate the essence of each musical genre.” Phillinganes has also worked with the likes of Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and more recently, Bruno Mars and Kanye West.

On the Thursday evening, the Detroit-born keyboardist conducted a master class in the Ryerson Theatre before an audience of Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) students. Pianist Tiffany Strachan and singer Aliyah El-Amin, both students at Branksome Hall high school in Toronto, were one of two sets of young musicians chosen through Ryerson’s School of Performance for this master class. Strachan and El-Amin’s band first performed jazz standard and then an original pop piece.

Strachan says afterwards that Phillinganes’ advice as the best she’s ever received in her musical career so far.

El-Amin’s says that her greatest takeaway is Phillinganes’ undying passion for music. “The fact that he was able to make a career out of something that he was most passionate about is really inspiring to me. It was an honour to work with him,” she says.

After the performances, audience members ask Phillinganes about discovering new tastes. “Spotify—it’s all there. Just pick a genre and go,” he says, encouraging artists to listen to all kinds of music and become immersed in those genres and cultures in order to grow

“Don’t stick to one thing, don’t just keep it hip-hop or whatever. Listen to the influences they came from. Listen to everything: classical, world music, gospel, jazz, reggae, Latin, everything. It’s only going to expand your music, too,” he says.

The next day, for a lecture as part of the FCAD Talks series, Phillinganes shares experiences with the FCAD community members, artists and industry personnel who were invited by the Music Den in the Transmedia Zone. Between tour footage and short performances on his keyboard, Phillinganes speaks mainly about humility, authenticity and musicianship.

One the greatest things he’s ever learned is to “always remain humble.”

“You’ll be down as sure as you’ll be up. And when you’re down, that’s when you find out what you’re made of. Anybody can do up, it’s the valleys where you’ll find what you’re about,” he says.

“The making of a star is unpredictable in the music industry. It’s not replicable or something that there’s any formula to,” says Noah Schwartz, a member of the Music Den steering committee.

In Phillinganes’ case, he attempted a solo career after he was well-established as a session musician and music director. He has worked with Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Aretha Franklin, all of whom supported him. Michael Jackson wrote the song that Phillinganes used as his debut single, “Behind the Mask.”

“He didn’t have a successful solo career and because of that, most regular people will never know his name. However, he’s incredibly successful, happy and has had longevity in the music industry that most never see,” says Schwartz.

The best part of his job is knowing he made an artist happy, Phillinganes says. “When I put the right band together for the right artist doing the right song, there’s nothing like it, man.” He tells artists that his job is to made them feel like they’re lounging in the finest automobile they could be in—as comfortable and well-supported as possible.

“By staying up with all genres and all types of music he’s been able to have an over four-decade career,” Schwartz says. “That’s rare.”