Show And Studio

Charles Collins: Up Close

by Bruce Nixon

Charles CollinsThings really started happening for Charles Collins when Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson pulled him out of Dionne Warwick’s road band in 1971. 


“It really got me into the studio,” Collins says. “They really hadn’t started doing their own records. But they were in the studio as producers, and they knew me from working in Dionne’s band. Ralph MacDonald recommended me. I suddenly became the hottest drummer in the city. If Ashford and Simpson used you, it was very cool.”

Anyone who’s ever been within earshot of a radio has probably heard Charles Collins at work. Balancing roots that come from rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Collins plays a clean style that is tasteful and precise, and powerful without being overpowering. He is among the most popular session players in studios around New York and Philadelphia.

By the mid-’70s, Collins had moved to Central Jersey and was working on virtually every important session in Philly for Ken Gamble and Leon Huff—the producer/ arranger/songwriting team that runs the Philadelphia International label— and then commuting back to New York to record for producer Thom Bell.

In 1978, he hooked up with rocker Tim Curry, whose recording career was beginning to take off after an appearance in The Rocky Horror Show. Collins has toured regularly with Curry, and played on all of his albums. But he’s also done commercials and movie soundtracks, ballet and Broadway plays, television work and scores for industrial films.

“Studio work is like working for yourself,” Collins explains. “It’s also how popular you are, and there’s a lot of luck involved—apart from doing the job once you’ve got the job. You get a reputation for playing on hit records and producers can be pretty superstitious about that. It costs a lot of money to go into the studio, so they want to go in with somebody who’s had a lot of experience. There’s a whole language you’ve got to learn in the studio, so experience is what counts. They trust you. They know what kind of job they’ll get from you.

“I think of myself as a song player,” he adds. “I like to know the melody. I hum the melody while I read the chart. I think that makes a difference in terms of style. Other drummers might play too much and it’s hard to write around them; hard to put words down on top of them. One of the reasons I got work in Philadelphia was because I could play songs, and still fill in the gaps in an arrangement— do something different for four or eight bars that would still fit in. And I’m in the pocket. I play right on the time. If they call for a roll or a big, flashy intro, I can do it. But I like to play right in the groove with the bass, guitar and piano. I don’t like to come out of the pocket too much. But you have to be tasty. Don’t do something just to do it, just because you have the physical ability to do it. I’d like to be known as a melodic drummer. I stay right on the snapping snare and bass, but I guess that’s ’cause I come from Chicago and was Detroit influenced. Hot, but not busy.”

Charles Collins was born in Mississippi, and brought to Chicago while he was still quite young. By the time he reached high school, he was playing in bar bands and studying with Walter Dyatt, a local teacher. A freelance producer heard the young drummer and hired him to do his first sessions, with Gene Chandler and, later, the Chi-Lites.

“I didn’t understand recording,” he recalls. “Even though there was more money in it, I got off playing clubs. I’d rather have made $30 playing a club all night than take a gig in the studio making $90 for three hour’s work.”

Working around Chicago, Collins was picked up to travel with several different
bands, and he found a place in bluesman Junior Wells’ group in 1968. He heard about an opening with the Constellations— a supporting act that was touring with Bobby “Blue” Bland and Dionne Warwick—and jumped aboard. One night, when Warwick’s drummer was out, Collins filled in; eventually, he turned it into a full-time job and moved to New York.

He did recording dates with Herbie Mann, Cedar Walton, David “Fathead” Newman, Aretha Franklin, Dr. John, Maxine Brown and Melba Moore; he did jingles, and often worked in the company of some of the city’s top soul and pop studio players like saxophonist King Curtis, guitarist Cornell Dupree, bassist Gordon Edwards. He toured with Roberta Flack.

“I was just getting ready to join King Curtis’ band when he got killed. That was a big blow for me, not just because he was a great musician, but because it would have been a big breakthrough for me. To tell you the truth, I traveled almost all of the time until 1975. Then I stopped, and I’ve done 90 percent of my work in the studio since then.”

In 1974, he heard about a band called Duke Williams and the Extremes that was forming in the Philadelphia area. A group of soul-influenced rockers, the Extremes included Philly session players like guitarist T. J. Tindall and keyboardist Cotton Kent. The band had done one album for Capricorn and was recording a second at Sigma Sound—a rhythm and blues studio that was favored by Gamble and Huff, and which was earning a reputation as the home of the Philly sound.

Collins recorded and toured with the band. Capricorn dropped the Extremes about a year later, but Charles suddenly found that he was in demand again.

“My reputation in New York opened the door with Gamble and Huff when the Extremes recorded in Philadelphia,” he says. “I was very hot in Philadelphia, but that made the people in New York want me even more. Sometimes I’d do a morning session in New York and an evening session in Philadelphia, or vice versa. Between 1975 and 1978, if you wanted to see me, you’d just have to stand along the New Jersey Turnpike and wait for me to come by.”

Collins was inducted into MFSB, the Philadelphia rhythm section at the time, and recorded with the O’Jays, the Jackson Five, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls. He cut with Eddie Kendricks, the Temptations, Archie Bell and the Drells, the Salsoul Orchestra, and other artists who recorded in Philadelphia.

It was through Gamble and Huff that Collins met producer Thorn Bell. They’d sent him to Bell to play on a Kodak commercial with the Spinners in early 1976.

His relationship with Bell continues. They’ve worked together on albums by the Spinners, Dionne Warwick, Phyllis Hyman, Gato Barbieri, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Eloise Laws, and the West Coast sessions with singer Elton John that produced “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” and “Three-Way Love Affair.”

“I like Thorn Bell because he sets a real comfortable mood in the studio. It makes me feel like I used to feel when I was in high school, you know, having a good time and trying out new things. And you get the time to work on your project. I liked Gamble and Huff for the same reason. When they went into the studio, it was like a club meeting with the guys. I mean, it was serious, there was a job to do, but there were always good songs and enough time to do them right. There were a lot of different artists, and it was fun.”

By 1978, Collins was recording in New York with Stanley Turrentine and Eric Carmen, he’d played on the soundtracks to the childrens’ shows Kids Are People, Too and Animals, Animals, Animals, several NBC news show themes, and he was working on the soundtrack to the Broadway play Bessie And Me.

“That’s been about 70 percent of my work since 1978,” he says. “I liked having something established. I liked seeing the same guys on the gig from day to day. There’s a camaraderie with a band. It was like that in Philadelphia. You had guys who worked well together, they worked together all the time, and there was a good feeling about it.

“I like a mixture,” he adds. “I like to stay around the studio, but I like to go out, too. I like to see people in the audience. In the studio, you never even meet the band you’re playing for sometimes. You come in and just dub in the track. Sometimes, they put the drums in an acoustic box and you can’t see the guitarist or bass player. Sometimes you know how your playing will sound on a record—sometimes you don’t. And you don’t give a damn. Sometimes you leave the studio and you feel great, knowing that you just played on a hit and you can’t wait to hear it on the radio. Then you hear it and it’s terrible, and you can’t tell if it’s the mix or the record pressing. Sometimes a tape goes somewhere you’ve never heard of in your life and it’s a hit. A guy in some other country makes a million and you never even know it happened.”

Collins’ style is usually recognizable. He plays with a light, clean tone and an economical sense of rhythm.

He generally sounds right in place—nothing wasted and not a note too many—because he manages to bridge a gap between spontaneity and a sort of thoughtful consideration of the music at hand. But Collins also reads well; it’s a skill that’s gotten him a lot of unusual work.

“Drummers should be as versatile as possible. A young drummer should learn to play a bossa nova beat, a jazz beat, every kind of beat he can find. Learn at least enough so you always have something to work from. So many guys you meet have gone to a teacher and he’s presented them with a new rhythm, and they’ve gotten turned off. All they want to play is rock ‘n’ roll or something. If you want to play for a living, you’ve got to do all kinds of things. Even as you go from one thing to another, your own style will always stick out. I feel good about that. I’ve done ballet (The Juice), worked with Alvin Ailey live, done television. Broadway, even soundtracks and industrial films. Not just straight rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm and blues.

“Reading definitely makes you more flexible.” he goes on. “But with some arrangers, you play what they write and they hate it. They don’t play the instrument and they don’t write well for it. Rhythm instruments are hard to write for. Thorn Bell writes a sketch. He tells you he’s not a drummer, and not to play it if it doesn’t sound right. When I was younger, I was more headstrong and I’d argue about charts all the time. Not any more, though.”

Collins has used Slingerland drums through much of his career. In 1975, he started using Tama. “I don’t know if they were made better then, or if the wood’s different, or what, but they sure sounded good to me and they still do,” he comments.

In performance, he uses AKG mic’s. “They catch the brightness, and they catch the full-bodied sound, too. But for the bass drum, I like a Shure. They just seem to sound better with that drum. They pick up the true sound.”

In the studio, he uses AKGs for the toms and cymbals, a Shure for the bass, and a Sennheiser for the snare. “The Sennheiser’s called the ‘salt and pepper’ model by most of the drummers I know. I can’t really say what model it is. But I like to double them; one under the snare and one on top. I always use heads at both ends of the drum. You get the body from the top and the snare sound from underneath, and then you mix them together to your taste. It takes time to get a set-up you like. I generally like to mic the drums from above because I use two heads. A lot of drummers take the bottom heads off and mic them from below. But I get a better tone from above; the top is where the sound is coming from.

“Concentration is probably the most important thing in studio drumming,” Collins explains. “And being able to keep a solid tempo. You have to be versatile, have musical taste, and be melodic. A lot of drummers don’t know melody. They should at least be able to play the scales on a piano. I sing. You have to realize that you’re the base of everything, that everything is built on the drums—even if it’s just rim shots all the way through a song.”