Guitarist for the CBS Orchestra, session and touring guitarist.
Felicia chats with us about her musical background, experiences and latest music projects.
September 27, 2004
Guitarhoo!: Where were you born?
Felicia Collins: I was born in Jackson Tennessee and brought home to The Bronx two months later.
G!: Growing up were there other musicians in the family?
FC: My mother’s sister and my father’s sister were both jazz and Rythm&Blues singers.
G!: At what age did you pick up the guitar?
FC: Probably around three – same time as when I saw my Aunt Barbara perform with Bo Diddly. However, I’m sure that first guitar was probably plastic with a wind-up music box or something in it!
G!: haha… Cool! Was and is the guitar the sole instrument you play?
FC: At first it was. When I heard Fencewalk by Mandrill, I started playing drums.
G!: Cool! Are you a schooled player or did you wear out the vinyl copping licks from your favorite musicians?
FC: I was never formally instructed. When I was ten or eleven, a friend in my hood taught me the pentatonic scale.I got a years of mileage from that one lesson 🙂 I do recall wearing out the Breezin’ album by George Benson.
G!: Who are some of your musical heros and influences?
FC: Included on that list is Stevie Wonder, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown, Mandrill, Larry LeVan, Jef Lee Johnson, KRS 1, The Roots, Luminous Flux
G!: When you moved to New York City and played clubs with your band “The Take”, how can you compare the club circuit back then to what it is like now, in the Big Apple?
FC: Actually that was only one of a few bands I played with when I started out as a guitar-player in New York. All that band ever did was rehearse! I couldn’t tell you what playing in clubs was like.
G!: oh, ok… What kind of music was “The Take” playing?
FC: I don’t remember. The cat who put the band together was quite a dexterous keyboard player who had assembled these parts-driven songs that I got sick of rehearsing. I think we were the guy’s hobby or something. The next band was a better situation for me. They were more involved and improvisational. I’ve always been blessed to be in situations with better musicians than I. That band was called Mirage. I met them at my first rehearsal with them and the next day we were in concert at City College for a Latin Festival with Tito Puente. AND we got paid.
G!: Excellent! At that time you became friends with producer and artist Nile Rodgers and you were offered studio work. What were some of the sessions you were involved with at that stage?
FC: Nile used to tell people that I sounded like him. When people started calling me into the studio at first, it would be because Nile couldn’t and he steered them my way. After that they just kept calling me back. Jellybean was the first and hired me to play on just about everything. I met Whitney Houston in the studio with Jellybean. The song was Love Will Save The Day.
G!: That’s cool! Were you required to read at some of those sessions or were you allowed to fly by the seat of your pants, so to speak?
FC: Producers always let me start off finding a part. Most of that stuff was funk or dance groove so I loved it. I could think of parts forever and super quickly. That was a good thing since I didn’t read at all at the time.
G!: From that point, in 1985, you were then invited to play with the Thompson Twins on their world tour. How was that whole experience?
FC: A wonderful affirmation. They were so much fun. I travelled the world for the first time. I was blessed to have my first tour set a high standard.
G!: And from there you were offered to record and tour with Al Jarreau. I take it things were developing rather quickly in your career. Was it overwhelming or did you adapt quickly and revel in the excitement of it all?
FC: You got it! I was just doing what I did all the time anyway. Only this time it was for famous people. Al’s band was comprised of the most amazing musicians and I was so proud to play with them. His was a first class gig.
G!: You’ve performed and recorded with Al Jarreau for many years. Are you given a lot of creative freedom on your guitar parts and did you partake in arrangements and/or the songwriting?
FC: Yeah I guess I did. I recall suggesting a cut off his then new record to open the show. It sounded perfect to me ’cause of its relentless drive and it was called ” Way To Your Heart.” Neil Larsen, the keyboard player and MD was worried that Rickey Minor’s bass wouldn’t sound enough like the record because the record had a keyboard bass. I said, “well aren’t you a keyboard player?” He just got this big grin on his face. Believe me there’s nothing done on keys that Neil Larsen can’t play. That’s just word. Rickey played the synth hits with one of those strap-on keyboards. N’Dea Davenport was in the band too at that time and she and Rickey were always down to kick some choreography with me. Vonda (Shepard) was hangin’ right with us. Al was always encouraging me to step out front. He was so secure that he had no problem letting the band stretch out. He has so much fun with his music and shares it so readily.
G!: Right on! Nile Rodgers, Philippe Saisse and yourself recorded an album “Outloud” in 1987, which had received critical acclaim for it’s artistry but the record company re-called it from stores and shelved it indefinitely. What was that all about?
FC: Who knows? Are you sure about that critical acclaim? The record started off funky. The first couple of cuts we did were bangin’. I’ll never forget the day I came to the studio and they played this turgid demo for me. I was informed that a Warner Bros. big wig wanted us to record the drivel. The big wig was always forcing this guy’s songs on peoples’ records. With that as the lead off single no wonder it was extradited and locked up! Working with Nile everyday like that was one of my most wonderful experiences. Basically, he was sharing his heyday with us and it was great. The absolute largest ballers were on his jock then. I would love for the three of us to express freely like a brand new mother without concern for commercial manipulation. I KNOW it would be funky.
G!: You’ve played a number of different styles with the many artists you’ve worked with over the years. Which style would you say comes most naturally to you and which style do you find most challenging?
FC: What comes most naturally is funk rhythm. What I find the most challenging to play is the stuff I just can’t stand to hear, so I’d rather not identify it.
G!: What does your current live rig consist of?
FC: On the Late Show set I play Hamer electric guitars as well as some vintage guitars. Currently on the floor is a Moreley wah and a Real Tube going through a V-series Crate 30 watt amp.
G!: When you improvise a solo what is running through your mind?
FC: I doubt if it’s always the same thing.
G!: You’ve played at the White House for President Clinton, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the Save the Music Foundation. How did that come about and what was that experience like?
FC: Paul Shaffer is often called upon to direct a show with us as the band for the event. I love when we do those gigs with a whole bunch-a stars that we back up. I’d worked with most of them already, like Sheryl (Crow ) and B.B. King. It was the first time working with N-Sync. I ‘d done a lot of shows with Lenny Kravitz, but that was my first time meeting his dad. He’s a great dad. The most exciting was meeting the President and the First Lady. She came up onto the stage after the show was over and as I was putting my guitar in the case she introduced herself to me. She is so magnetic and so lovely in person. You can see the kindness in her eyes. She told me that she and her husband think I’m an excellent musician. I was thrilled as she indicated to the White House Staff Photographer ( who is Black woman wearing all her little afrocentric gear) to take a pic of us together. Moments later, the President and I were speaking. He said I was a great guitar player and his wife thinks so too. He said, “We were watching you practically the whole time.” Then he said, “Your hair is awesome” We took some great pictures which I got him to sign just the other day at Letterman. I was surprised to see how cool the White House staff was – so diverse and smart and understanding.
G!: That’s awesome! You’re also a kick ass vocalist. Did singing come naturally to you or did you have to work at it?
FC: Well, thank you. Actually the answer to both parts of the question is yes. In the early 90’s, nodes were discovered on my vocal chords. What used to come naturally returned only after working at it.
G!: Do you have any special vocal warm-ups?
FC: Just basic before singing. However, my speaking voice is the culprit in my case. So the special techniques are put into practice when I speak. For instance my chords are at risk if I don’t speak at a high enough pitch.
G!: Who do you site as your favorite vocalists?
FC: Chaka Khan, Nancy Wilson, Rahsaan Patterson, Faith Evans, Sam Moore, Luther, Dinah Washington, Take 6, and Mikey Jackson.
G!: How did you get the gig in the CBS Orchestra (Late Show with David Letterman Band)?
FC: I slept with Ed Sullivan. That’s what he had to do to get me to come on the show.
G!: hahaha… Your repertoire of songs in the CBS orchestra must be huge, how many songs do you figure you perform in a season?
G!: Wild! Does Paul Shaffer mostly write the set list or do the band members have some input?
FC: Paul is mostly responsible for the set each show. Sometimes band members will have something in mind.
G!: What is the procedure the band takes to prepare for a show?
FC: We get to the studio around 2:30 on a normal schedule. I’ll go over whatever prepared music I have and check my gear. I’ll use the time before rehearsal to get clothing down to wardrobe to be pressed or whatever. I encounter many of our guest as I’m bopping around. We’re required to be onstage and suited up on schedule. Each of has a copy of the rundown ( of the show du joir) and we’ll start with constructing music for the scripted segments. Featured bits that require theme music to open and close the bit. Or accompaniment for some activity. The play-ons for guest are settled upon quickly in most cases. The whole band has suggestions each day. It’s mad fun to put a song to a guest and try to make it relevant to the title of their latest work or something that is known about them. One time that sticks out in my mind is when First Lady Barbara Bush came on the show. I wanted to play In The Bush by Musique. Of course, Paul knew of the song and thought it was hilarious to play that. I was glad that I remembered the parts to teach it to the band. I never played in cover bands before this one. I must have listened really intently to the music that I heard ’cause I can recall the bass lines, horn parts, hi-hat, the key…everything. I never dreamed that one day someone would need that!
G!: That’s cool! With the many guest musicians who’ve played the show with you, which ones are most memorable to you?
FC: Okay, are you ready? Warren Zevon, Sheila E., James Brown, Dolly Parton, Big Boi, Rod Stewart, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Most recently, Snoop with Warren G and Nate Dogg. After our first run thru with Snoop, he stated to the band that it was an honor to be working with us musicians and thanked us for putting up with him while we did our thing. He was so regular and so lovable. They all were.
G!: Great! I guess with the show being recorded live, there is little room for mistakes. Were there any musical bloopers that got caught on tape?
FC: Not really. We’re like snipers in that respect.
G!: haha.. Do you ever have to turn down touring gigs due to the show schedule, or do you get leave time?
FC: My reason for turning down touring gigs would be soley from the utter lack of desire to do so. I toured as a backing musician from 22 to 29. I loved it but I was done. Now on leave time I prefer going to Memphis to record a record at Sun Studio with Billy Bob Thornton.
G!: What does your rig consist of for the show?
FC: Whatever I can stand getting scratched, broken, or ruined. No, there’s an answer to that in a previous question.
G!: What is the stupidest human trick you have seen on the show?
FC: It has to be when three dudes walked onstage with an 8 ft. long wooden plank. Two of them held it up on either end while the third one ran through it.
G!: Do you ever feel like having an east coast / west coast guitarist showdown with Kevin Eubanks (guitarist from Jay Leno’s Tonight Show Band) haha?
FC: No. There may have been other things to cross my mind involving me and that fine man.
G!: You’re in a unique position as a guitarist as you have steady working gigs with the Letterman show, record sessions and touring gigs. Do you find it all hectic or do you have a comfortable balance of work and private life time?
FC: Letterman and his veteran staff have it down. There is hardly any editing. The show is taped in real time so you won’t hear ” take 3″ or “cut!” Our taping schedule takes a few hours out of the day. There’s time to do other things. I see the “comfortable balance” when I compare that to how much I got paid to unknowingly prepare myself to pull off this kind of job.
Felicia with the Anarchists Of Colour Playas
G!: At present you have a number of projects on the go. What can you tell us about “the Anarchists of Colour”?
FC: That refers to a group of melanated rock musicians in New York City who are a disgrace to their stereotype! It was a good idea that one of the singers had. I produced it and used my band members. My friends Steve and Chris were enthusiastic to bring to their club, The Cutting Room. The show featured the music of Skunk Anansie, Jimi Hendrix, Mother’s Finest, Living Colour, Chuck Berry, Lenny K., to name a few. The performers were phenomenal. It was a hit with the crowd and a good night was had by all.
G!: Your band “360”?
FC: That was a power trio that came about when I was invited to perform at the NAMM show. When I found out that Anton Fig and Will Lee ( Letterman’s drummer and bassplayer) would already be in L.A. I asked them if they would be my band. We performed three songs including Cult Of Personality. They were both a bit surprised when I sang the lyrics while playing the entire guitar arrangement. It felt so natural to be out front. By some divine orchestration I found the drummer and bassist that I always wanted for my own band. Since they were the first cats that I played with after I was finished with school, I felt I’d come full circle. So I called us 360. Our birthdays are on the 3rd, 6th and 10th and we were all born in the 60’s. That was Teddy Williams on bass and Dwayne Perdue on drums. Eventually we were joined by Bette Sussman, keyboard player from Whitney’s band, and Kathryn Russell who sings with everybody. She was my secret weapon because, with us she played mandolin, guitar, keys, and melodica.
Felicia live in the clubz with Bitchslapp.
G!: That’s wild! And your current band “Bitchslapp”?
FC: Well, the rocker in me needed a place. I saw more venues all over downtown that were completely welcoming as long as I threw down with some real-deal, loud-assed rock and roll. I put together a different line-up of cats who are rockers. Bitchslapp was a great name to barge onto the scene. I mean we just bum rushed the s—. It was great. All the other bands come to see us. I think the really good bands were glad ’cause we raised the bar a bit and that was fine with them. Bitchslapp, of course, isn’t a name that can go everywhere I go. Bitchslapp is Felicia Collins & The Life these days.
G!: Do you have any record projects or tours lined up in 2004?
FC: The next record will be of our live gigs. We have plenty of versions. I just have to narrow it down.
G!: Which artists would you like to work with whom you haven’t already?
FC: If it’s simply a matter if working with them, then the “yet to” list is rather short.
G!: Why do you feel Blues and Funk music has survived the test of time?
FC: Because it is just like the Black people from whom it originated – a life force. The People have stood the times of tests.
G!: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of music?
FC: I like day-long bike trips. My newest pastime is playing videogames online with my brothers. I write screenplays and fiction novels. I chisel life-size statues out of stone. I’m a test pilot and a vampire enthusiast.
G!: Do you have any advice you would like to pass onto aspiring musicians?
FC: If you wait for it to be perfect you will squander your best chance.
G!: Thanks for chatting with us Felicia. You’re an awesome musician! We all look forward to your future projects!
FC: You’re welcome. It’s so nice to meet you.
Interview © 2004 Guitarhoo!