CM – Greg, I wanted to start out by asking you who were your early influences?

GA – As a teenager, I was drawn to composing and arranging for my high school jazz band, which was a big band.  In that era – the late ‘60’s – there was Blood, Sweat & tears and Chicago and I’d go and see them at the Fillmore West.  They’d do four nights, Thursday through Sunday.  And I was very influenced by that. 

In the day, everyone was learning how to play guitar.  And here were these two bands featuring horns and I was drawn to that.  That gave me a real incentive, where I thought I should go.  I even went to the lengths of getting backstage at the gigs and meeting the guys and to this day I’m still good friends with some of the guys who were in that band (Chicago) and that was 40 years ago. 

But Lewis Soloff of Blood, Sweat & Tears and Lee the trumpet player and Jimmy Pankow from Chicago.  It’s kind of funny – we run into each other in the supermarket (laughs).  They live in the same area. 

But that was the first thing.  My parents were very encouraging of me being a musician and they could see that’s where I really wanted to go with my life plan and so they encouraged me.  My mother was a musician and so was my father – a very liberal arts surrounding in the home. 

In High school I used to play in bands and grew a moustache and faked my age and got a phony ID and played clubs you know.  I would cross paths with this band Tower of Power.  They had just changed their name from The Motowns to Tower of Power and I’d say hi to Mimi or to Doc and maybe once in a while we’d play a club or something like that.  When I got out of high school they called me and said ‘we have an opening.  Somebody’s left the band, would you like to join the band?’ 

I was going to go to college.  I went over and auditioned and the band was just getting on its feet.  The first record was closing in and they hadn’t done the horns yet…


CM – Was this ‘East Bay Grease’?

GA – Yeah – ‘East Bay Grease’ so I joined the band and that was 1970.  And so I was with the band for 25 years.  I had a great time with the band and we made 14 records together.  I was pretty much the arranger for the band.


CM – I knew about your tenure with Tower of Power and I knew from my early days of listening to this kind of music what an influential band they were.  I still think ‘Only So Much Oil in the Ground’ is one of the most fantastic records I’ve ever heard…

GA – (laughs) Yeah, kinda before its time.


CM – … and I couldn’t help wondering when you started out with Tower of Power did you realise the kind of legacy you were creating?

GA – You really don’t know what kind of an impact the things you’re doing are going to have.  At the time we were a very musical group and you really couldn’t fake it.  You had to be a player to be in the horn section.  You don’t know what you’re doing until you look back and see what kind of a trail you’ve left.  You know, I’m proud of the statement that the band made.  I don’t know if the band will ever get nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Maybe it will.

You try to do the best you can and leave a legacy.


CM – Greg, I hope you don’t think this is a dumb question.  I wanted to ask how you’d describe the task of a horn arranger.  That’s how you’re known by so many of the artists you’ve worked with.

GA – You know, I think I have the ability to be a chameleon – to change my colours to fit the artist that I’ve written for over the last thirty five years.  Obviously they came to hire the horn section because of what the horn section did, that style that I would write for, and they would very often just tell me ‘go for it – whatever you do, do it – and put it on this track for us’. 

Or they would say ‘this is what I’m looking for’.  It’s an introduction to working with a certain artist that has ideas.  They want them fleshed out.  It goes both ways: I relished the challenge of providing what they were looking for and giving part of myself to them and sharing it with them.

I’ve worked with so many people and so many giant artists.  It’s really been a pretty rich tapestry and I’ve participated in some pretty big albums.


CM – Definitely!  Earlier Greg, you mentioned the 25-year tenure that you had with Tower of Power, which came to a close in ’95 when your first solo CD was released.  ‘Smooth Operator’ was probably the song from that release that people remember best – did the success of that tune, on radio particularly, convince you that going out on your own was the right thing to do at that stage?

GA – You kind of have to back up a little bit.  I was coming to the end of my tenure with Tower of Power.  I was at a turning point and needed to do something else.  I didn’t have a solo career in mind whatsoever.  When we weren’t on the road, I was in the studio so much doing session work for other people.  We were in Germany with two weeks left before returning home and I gave the band my notice. 

I got a call from Epic Records – they’d heard the news.  They said ‘we’d hate to see you go so we’d like to offer you the chance to make your own records’..   Smooth Jazz was coming around so they asked did I want to do an instrumental jazz album.  So I said ‘I’ll try that’ so I did it and I had great success with ‘Smooth Operator’..  It was number one for five weeks. 

It was easy for me to move into that situation.   I was always the guy who stood down on the left as you look at the stage.  Suddenly I have to become the ‘lead singer’ or the featured person but I transitioned into it pretty easily and I was doing real good until one day Epic stopped funding this sort of music. 

So, I started to make another record using my own money.  I have a friend in Seattle, Paul McVicar, and he and I started Ripa Records.  We used our own money, pressed the records, took it to radio and ‘Roadhouse’ was the second single – it was doing really good.  Blue Note saw the potential and ran with it and bought us out, but I wasn’t typical of the straight ahead jazz artists they were looking for at that time.. 

Blue Note didn’t renew my option in the end so another company came along and offered me a deal.


CM – This was 215 right?

GA – Yeah – so they paid for the recording and I could get in the studio and do what I thought needed to be done.  For the latest CD, we came back as Ripa Records to release ‘Cool to the Touch’.


CM – It’s getting heavy rotation in my CD player Greg – it really is.

GA – As far as smooth jazz radio in the US, we used to have to have about 46 stations.  There’s 11 now.  Internet radio is the new thing.  I was very happy with ‘Cool to the Touch’ but it suffered from this shrinking of radio exposure.  So we kind of had to reinvent – I think that’s the key to staying on top and not getting stale.

So… this new band East Bay Soul, we did a show a couple of nights ago in Mission Viejo, California, for an independent radio station that plays my music all the time.  So, despite the economic situation, I’m an optimist. 

This band is going to have a vocalist, there will be a full list of songs that will have a vocalist and the rest will be instrumental jazz and R&B and it’s going to be me.  We’re coming along great with the new songs and I’m really looking forward to getting into the studio again and recording this new stuff. 

We’ve got some really hip stuff, which is going to be different from what you hear on the radio.  I don’t even listen to the radio that much any more.


CM – You mentioned the vocal tracks that are going to be on the album, who will you be working with?

GA We'll have Tom Bowes, Darryl Walker, Sean Holt and Lee Thornburg.


CM – You headlined at Berks this year?

GA – Yes, and we did real well.  The concept of the band has been embraced so enthusiastically.  It’s really cool.  We did this show for KSBR in Mission Viejo – it was their ‘Birthday Bash’, a fundraiser because they’re non-profit.  This was their 20th anniversary of doing it.  They take bands who are headliners in their own right and put together little groups right there on the day.  You usually don’t know who you’re going to be playing with. 

So, I pick something easy for the people to play because they’re sight-reading whatever they’re given.  So I bring ‘Smooth Operator’ – I’ll be assigned a drummer, a piano player, a bass player and a guitar player and they’ll listen to that on a CD and we get up there and fly by the seat of our pants.  In turn I’ll get up there and back another artist… 

This year they invited East Bay Soul to play three songs as a group.  I wanted to do one song with a vocalist and Lee Thornburg, the lead trumpet player in the group, also sings so we did the old Howard Tate number ‘Stop’..  And the audience loved it – it’s music that plays itself. 

I can’t wait to get in the studio and get this thing on record.  I think it’s gonna do OK.  All the traditional ways of doing business have gone.  I sell CD’s at the gigs, I sell downloads, whatever needs to be done I have to do it.  My wife Andrea is my manager, the best I’ve ever had.  Our model is working well.  Radio now is the internet.


CM – Well, about a week ago I started up my own small internet radio station and I’ve noticed how people are graduating toward the funkier side of what I play. 

GA – One example of that is Brian Culbertson’s latest record.


CM – Thank you!!!

GA – I arranged an old Tower of Power tune ‘You’ve Got to Funkifize’.  He’s gone back, it’s like retro.  Which is great – it’s a great record.  I’m so happy that someone’s going back there – I’ve been there my whole life.  Brian called me and said ‘I want you to do this because you did it the best then and you still do it the best now and I’d like you do it how you did it for Tower of Power’.  I got the arrangement and dusted it off and that’s basically it.  The framework is the same.  I take it as a compliment that it survived the test of time.


CM – This is an influential session to have been involved in because Brian personified the smooth jazz format for several years and I don’t know if he’s turning listeners’ tastes around or he’s just being very quick to react but it seemed to me like he did it at exactly the right time… 

GA – It’s interesting – it’s like he bucked the trend.  I admire him, he’s a fine musician and he makes great records.


CM – Greg, I mentioned this huge list of people you’ve worked with, which includes Chicago as you mentioned earlier, I know you’ve worked with Ray Charles, with Elton John, with Santana – people like that.  Is there anyone who you haven’t had the chance to work with yet, in any capacity, that you’d like to? 

GA – That’s a good question – you could ask it about people who are alive and dead.  I wished I could have worked with Frank Sinatra – I was too young.  Once person I worked with recently – I’ve worked with the greats and I say this humbly – was Céline Dion.  Here in the US, the Grammy nominations are the past, they’re announced at 4.30 am on the west coast and 7.30 am on the east coast. 

This year, CBS back in November decided to do a prime time show at 9 pm and announce the nominations.  So, Greg Phillanganes an old buddy of mine called me and said ‘hey, what are you doing next Tuesday?’  I said ‘well, nothing’.  He said ‘you wanna play your horn?’  I said ‘sure what have you got?’  He’s been playing with Toto so I figured it was a session for them. 

We’re old buddies and he’s a real kidder so he said ‘do you want to back a singer?’  I said ‘sure’.  He said ‘you wanna do a TV show?’  I said ‘sure’.  He said ‘do you want to play a little flugelhorn behind Céline Dion?’  I said ‘you bet man!’

I’ve always admired her chops and she’s an unbelievably great singer.  She was going to do an old Janis Ian song ‘At Seventeen’.  Céline’s known for her dramatic arrangements.  So I had to go to the Staples Center which is where the Lakers play – a 19,000 seat arena.  The night before the TV show she was playing at the Staples Center so I went to the soundcheck and we rehearsed the song and it was so not Céline – it was so simple.

I just played a real simple flugelhorn solo, and then she went on to continue her soundcheck.  This arena is empty, I’m standing like 5 feet from her and she goes through the ‘Titanic’ song – ‘My Heart Will Go On’ – and she’s singing that song like that arena is full of people.  She is delivering the goods man!

She is the real deal and she is one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with.  She is so giving – it was thrilling to work with her.  She said ‘I’ve always wanted to work with you’.


CM – How cool is that???

GA – Yeah.  So I figured there could be a future in that.  Of course she’s finished her huge tour.  She may not do anything for the next couple of years but it would be a thrill working with her again.  She is the last big name I’ve worked with and she really ranks with the best – I can’t think of anyone who could top her.

I’ve worked with the Stones, the Eurythmics and Dionne Warwick – all real nice – but Céline really left a lasting impression on me.


CM – So apart from any project that may get off the ground with her, and apart from the recording – and inevitable touring – that you’ll do with East Bay Soul, is there anything else you want to talk about right now?

GA – One thing I like to do, whether I’m touring with my own 7-piece band or with East bay Soul, is to go into the town the day before at the request of the promoter or of a music school or high school which is in the community and do a music clinic.  I really enjoy doing that because I think it’s something that’s important to give back and to share your experience.

Not that I’m a motivational speaker but I speak to kids who, some of them, are going to go on to be professional musicians.  Some are playing in a school band just for the experience and there’s a broad spectrum between those two levels.

I speak about music as being a language – it’s just like Spanish or French or Greek or Chinese – it’s music and we speak the language.  The more accomplished musician you are, the better linguist you are, in musical terms.  I try to say it’s an art.  It’s proven that kids who take music in school are better in math, they’re better in communication, they’re better in English.  It rounds out the person’s life.

You don’t have to be professional.  If you read French or you read English or you read Greek or you read music – the better you read, the better you can converse.  Music is a conversation, especially in jazz.  It’s a conversation that you share with someone and that’s what makes it ad lib.  It’s off-the-cuff, it’s a conversation. 

I try to convey that to the students.  I don’t give a masterclass on how to play the trumpet.  I can show them things that I know.  I can do an arranging class and get down to the brass tacks but I find that the communication thing really hits everybody at every level.

You can give e people little ‘do’s and don’ts’ for those wanting to be musicians.  Try and stay away from drugs and don’t get in with the wrong crowd – tough thing to do because it’s just the nature of the beast.   I get through to people.

Then we have a jam session; the host of the clinic will supply a drum kit and a keyboard and a couple of amps and all the kids have been encouraged to bring their instruments and we play a blues or something.  They get up there and they just love it.


CM – I bet that’s fantastic!

GA – I do a solo and it just opens up – it’s amazing to see.


CM – Very rewarding…

GA – Yes.  I was going to go to college and I joined Tower of Power instead and I thought to myself OK I can go to college for five years and try to do what I’m being offered right now.

And I made a living out of it.  I mean, why do you join a band?  To travel and meet girls…  So I did what I did and I don’t look back with any regrets.  I didn’t have any teacher to teach me how to write music – I just did it on my own.  I experimented with my high school jazz band and made mistakes and went back to the drawing board.

I didn’t study with any great composer.  I’ve studied great composers and arrangers like Quincy Jones, who I’ve worked with, Nelson Riddle who wrote for Frank Sinatra.  I have my own sound.

I just want to give back to the community – I want to share a little of my knowledge and it’s one thing I really enjoy.


CM – Greg, do you know when the East Bay Soul record is likely to be finished?

GA – It’s going to be released mid-September.


CM – I really hope that I’m one of the first people on this side of the Atlantic to hear it.  I heard some clips on the website and I just can’t wait to have that in my CD player.

GA – I’ll put you on the list right now.

We’re going to do things a little differently because the business has changed.  Right now I’m the record company; I pay for the sessions, I pay for the studio time.  I pay for the CD’s themselves, I pay for the artwork and I pay to check them into the suitcase to take them to the next town… I sell them at the shows. 

In the past, it’s been the status quo to pay for independent radio promotion, but the record didn’t chart.  When you’re the record company, you’re the financier.  This time we’re spending on the recording and we’re going to go with internet radio and all the new trends.

We’ve been embraced by internet radio and it’s the future.  Those broadcasters follow their own path.  Where are you, by the way?


CM – Manchester.

GA – I’d love to get to Europe, I’d love to do my thing there.  When I was with Tower of Power we played the Nice Jazz Festival two years in a row, North Sea, JVC Jazz in London, and Montreux.  Those were great times because you’re so accepted.  It’s hard to get over there now.  We try to get on the festivals over there but it’s a tough sell you know.

I’m all about music you know, whether it’s my 7-piece band or my 10-piece, it’s about delivering the goods.  A few nights ago, our mini-set, we nailed it.  If I could get people to see that and embrace it I could take it around the world.


CM – It would be fantastic to see you and either of those two line-ups in Europe and definitely in the UK one day soon Greg. 

GA – Yeah.  My father’s side of the family is British and I have lots of family living in the outskirts of London, and Surrey.  It’s close to my heart – I hope I can meet you one of these days in Manchester.


CM – Well, I hope we can keep in touch and I can’t wait to play the new record on my station.

GA – We’ll release a single 6 weeks before the new record comes out. Whatever we have, you’ll be on the list.


CM – Greg, I can’t wait for September.

GA – Me too Chris, I’m anxious to get it out.  I’ll look forward to reading this interview in print to see what I said (laughs).


CM – Greg, it’s been a pleasure for me.

GA– Me too Chris.  Like you said, let’s keep in touch.




Photography by Bettie Grace Miner
 © 2009