Phil Collingsworth is the father, group manager, and baritone singer for the Collingsworth Family. Most of the interviews I’ve done for this site have been via email or phone, but for this one I had the opportunity to talk in person before a recent concert.
DJM: I’ll just start off with a general question. How did you become interested in Southern Gospel?
Phil: Well, I had never been to any concert in my life until I was a freshman in college. I was a student at God’s Bible School in Cincinnati. Our public relations director used to be involved in professional Southern Gospel music and knew a lot of the performers.
He called me one day and said, “Hey, do you want to go to a concert tonight?”
I said, “Sure, I’ve never been to one—let’s go!”
It happened to be the Singing Americans and the Cathedrals at the Landmark Baptist Temple in Cincinnati. Michael English was singing “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy,” and George Younce and his crowd were singing “Somebody Touched Me,” with Danny Funderburk.
DJM: So that would’ve been ’84 or 85, then?
Phil: It would’ve been about ’83 or ’84, somewhere in that time frame.
DJM: I think they released “Somebody Touched Me” in ’84.
Phil: It was just released, it was brand new—it would’ve been ’84. What a phenomenal thing!
The very first night that the new Gaither Vocal Band were all together, in Orlando a few weeks ago, we were on the program with Gaither that weekend. We did all the Florida concerts. And I had not heard Michael English sing “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy” in person since ’84, when he did it with the Singing Americans. So in ’09, twenty-five years later, I’m hearing him sing it again, and it was like deja vu. My very first concert to have ever been to, he sang that, and twenty-five years later…it was very interesting!
That was what piqued my interest.
DJM: Were you a vocalist who picked up trumpet, or a trumpeter who started singing?
Phil: I was a singer who picked up trumpet. But I picked up trumpet as soon as you could—the first year you can actually play trumpet is about the fifth grade, because that is when your teeth are set enough to be able to have a embouchure. So I started playing the trumpet in fifth grade.
But I was already singing by then. I wasn’t too accomplished of a vocalist, but I did sing first, and then play trumpet.
DJM: Who would you point to as your greatest musical influences, and why?
Phil: First of all, probably a guy by the name of Jerry Hayden, who was the song leader at our church when I was a boy. He was my first trumpet teacher, and a tremendous song leader. He used to make the crowd of about 200 people—not a huge church—sing like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. He would get medleys going, because the pianist and organist were very fluent at improvisation. And so he would just sing and sing the hymn or Gospel song, and then as it felt right, he’d go right into another chorus, and another. And it just would go from there! We’d sing for 20 or 25 minutes, never stopping, just going chorus to chorus to chorus. To me, that was just fluent music. So that was my first, biggest influence.
Also, all the records my mom played as a child had a huge influence. Mom loved Gospel music, but it always had to have a woman singing in it. So we had the Bill Gaither Trio, the Speer Family, the Rambos, the Downings, Henry and Hazel Slaughter, the Happy Goodman Family—as you see, there were no male quartets in any of that! I don’t remember Mom even buying a quartet record if there was not a woman singing in it. The Gethsemane Quartet was a big one she loved, but it had women in it.
Probably the Bill Gaither Trio was my earliest influence because they had kids’ records. I would listen to all those kids’ records, and knew all the songs by the time I was eight or nine years old. So in the professional realm, it would be Bill and Gloria, and in the personal realm, it would be Jerry Hayden.
DJM: Okay, now this is off the wall. Speaking of male quartets, if you were going to put together a dream team male quartet, with yourself singing lead or baritone, who would you pick?
Phil: Well, first thing I would do is put Jim Brady at the baritone and extract myself! Because it would not be a dream team if I was singing.
I would definitely put David Phelps on the tenor, and I would put Wes Hampton on the lead. I would put Jim Brady at the baritone, having bowed out of that position, and I would most likely put Tim Duncan as the bass. Those are probably my four favorite male vocalists.
Now, I don’t know, Doug Anderson’s pretty close in there, too. Jim Brady and Doug Anderson would have to be alternates, because those are both strong favorites of mine. Or if either one of them had to have the night off, I would toodle along at the baritone.
DJM: When did you start touring with Kim?
Phil: Well, in a church setting where we did extended-length revival meetings and church conventions and camp-meetings, we started six weeks before we were married, in August of 1986. We did a fill-in at a camp-meeting in Petersburg, Michigan, when the song evangelist’s nephew died unexpectedly. They had to leave, and that left the last weekend (Friday/Saturday/Sunday) without any special singers. It was a decent size gathering of maybe 400 people, and they had no special musicians all of a sudden.
Kim’s dad was the evangelist, so the president of the church camp came up to him and said, “Do you think your daughter and her fiancée would finish the camp-meeting for us?”
So we threw our stuff in the car, grabbed her brother to go with us as our chaperone (since we weren’t married yet), and headed up to Michigan. We put repertoire together and every day we would just rehearse more and more repertoire, and we sang out the rest of the camp meeting. That was our first engagement.
That’s where it started, and we did that for almost fourteen years.
DJM: Was it just occasionally on the weekends, or was it pretty regularly?
Phil: It was pretty regularly. We made a good majority—probably 70%—of our income from that.
At one point, it wasn’t that much of an income, because I was working as a regional claims manager for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. During that time, we sang every weekend, but we would do it within driving distance of Indianapolis, where my job was. We did that fourteen years.
DJM: When did you start bringing the family on stage to sing with you?
Phil: As soon as they were about two years old, we’d put the children up on stage to sing one song with us in the meeting. Say we had six nights that we were singing, and three special songs a night. Then sometimes, maybe on Friday night, we’d put one of the children up to sing with us.
As they got older and began to sing harmonies, we just used them more and more. And I’m for “If it’s working, you work it!” That’s my philosophy. Putting them up early on helped to circumvent stage fright…
DJM: For a while, I think you were known as “Phil and Kim,” or “Phil and Kim Collingsworth.” At what point did you make the decision to change your name to “The Collingsworth Family”?
Phil: We actually changed that with our project in 2003. Strength for the Journey was the first one that was noted as “The Collingsworth Family.” Prior to that, the two national releases we’d had said “Phil and Kim Collingsworth.”
In those days, Roger Talley was our producer. When we were producing Strength for the Journey, he came to me and said, “You’re very early in your career. This would be a good time for you to make a name change.”
He said, “Of course, you have Jeff and Sheri Easter,” and it’s Mike and Kelly Bowling now. He said, “That’s the direction you can go, and be known as a duo with a person singing along with you. If you really want to purvey what you’re really doing, I would suggest you change it to ‘The Collingsworth Family.’”
Roger’s been around, and I took his advice. So officially we changed it in 2003.
DJM: So did you make any recordings before you signed with Crossroads, and are they available anywhere?
Phil: We did make two recordings before we signed with Crossroads. The first one was called Lifting Our Voices, and the second one was called I’m Too Far. They’re all out of print, because they’re more than five years old, and I put them out of print after five years. If they’re available anywhere, they’re used copies off of eBay. People have them—we sold maybe 15 or 20,000 of them so they’re laying around on people’s shelves somewhere.
Silver & Ivory, the instrumental one, was before Crossroads, and also Kim’s first Sunday Morning Ivories.
DJM: But Crossroads picked up at Sunday Morning Ivories.
Phil: Yes, they did—they have picked it up on distribution.
DJM: Let’s jump topics. One of the first concert reviews I read of your family described it as a “variety show.” You rarely have more than two songs in a row with the same configuration, unlike most groups, who will have the same personnel on stage all night. Is that intentional, and why do you do it like that?
Phil: We do it like that because it flat-out works for us.
It works because in this media age, people’s attention span is so short. So moving around the configurations on stage does two things. It helps us to be able to re-voice the sound, and it also make an an interesting change, rather than four or five people standing there the whole night.
Also, we intermix instrumental numbers throughout, and we’re not all playing on the instrumental numbers. Some of them are Kim, some of them are me, some are the girls on violin, and we’re starting to get Philip on guitar. So that is all happening throughout the concert, and we have to have changes for that to happen.
We build a concert based on the atmosphere the song creates, and the atmosphere in the auditorium. So it’s a switch on and off as to what song should come next, what would work, and most of the time it’s not the same as the one before.
DJM: So you change the configuration on the spot—you don’t work with a fixed set list?
Phil: Oh, yes! We typically know where we’re starting and where we’re ending, but what happens in between is up to the Lord.
DJM: I saw on the website that you were working on a new project. Can you tell us anything about it, and when will it be coming out?
Phil: Oh, sure! Man, it is going to be exciting!
Wayne Haun is going to be producing this one exclusively. We’re doing it all in Nashville.
DJM: Will you be using the Prague Symphony?
Phil: If he has enough other ones to do at the same time, he will take it to Prague. I’m thinking it will probably end up being the Nashville String Machine, just because he is so busy with playing the keyboards for Signature Sound that he’s not doing nearly the number of productions he’s done in the past. I believe this year he said he’s only doing four or five vocal projects, plus a full-scale Lillenas fall choral collection. We’re excited, because Kim’s song “The Blood of Jesus” will be in that choral collection.
We start tracks on Monday [April 13], and we have some tremendous material. We’re excited!
This particular one will be all vocals—we’re not putting any instrumentals on it.
DJM: I was just about to ask that!
Phil: That’s because we plan to do an all-instrumental album either later this year or the first part of next year, and we wanted to save all the instrumentals for that album.
DJM: And that ties into another question I had. You’ve done your mainline releases once every two years, pretty predictably since you started—2003, 2005, 2007, and now 2009. Is that intentional, and why? I mean, most groups do projects a year apart, or a maximum of a year and a half. Why do you do two years?
Phil: Here’s the reason why: It works for us!
We get a maximum number of sales on the current project. We put a lot into the recording process. It might be interesting for you to know that our cost of recording an album is almost triple what some of the other ones are. That’s what we put into it, because we put time into it, and time is money when you’re in the recording studio. We put a great deal of time into it because we want it to be a lasting product—something you listen to years down the road and say, “That’s still good quality.” We feel quality rather than quantity is the key issue here.
In the off year, we do videos, books, and other off products. Then we go back to finding a whole new repertoire for another album.
Once you come out with the new one, the old one begins to slide in sales. The people who have been very successful in sales typically do one every two years. Look at the main Gaither Vocal Band projects, the Martins (every two or sometimes three years)… We’re better off to do a lesser amount of projects and shoot for higher quality. We prefer to take the money we would spend on that middle year project that’s not nearly as good, and lump it all into the big one. That’s our philosophy.
DJM: When We Still Believe came out, I heard “Blessed Be the Lamb,” and thought, “That song needs to go to radio.” When I saw that it was going to be your new single, my reaction was, “What took so long?” So I’m curious—how do you pick radio singles?
Phil: Here’s how we pick. Specifically, we pick based on what’s out there at the current moment. You look at everyone else who is currently making radio releases, and the types of songs they’re releasing. Just because of my type of personality, the thing I’m not gonna do is get in there and grovel or push when you have another set of artists who are releasing similar type songs. So I’m gonna try to release a different type song at that given point.
I also like my final release to radio from an album to be my strongest.
DJM: Really? Most groups do the opposite. So why do you do it that way?
Phil: I do it that way because I like keeping the album’s sales at their maximum until the new one hits. On this particular project [We Still Believe, released in 2007], sales are still on an upward curve. That makes good financial sense.
It makes good sense in marketing, because you don’t get everyone like, “We’re tired of that thing—we’ve heard it for two years.” If you save your best for last, it kind of continues an uphill climb to the very end, then plateaus off and falls off the radar.
It doesn’t really work as well if it starts on the plateau and slides all the way. If you start with the strongest one, and then maybe the next one’s not quite so strong, and the next one’s not quite so strong, and so on.
It has worked well on this one, because our very first single was “We Still Believe.” It didn’t even make the top 40—I think it made 41. Then we did “He Already Sees,” and that went to 36. “I Can Trust Jesus” went to 26 or 24, somewhere in there. “The Blood of Jesus” went to 21. So, who knows what “Blessed Be the Lamb” will do?
DJM: What is your long-term vision for the Collingsworth Family? Where do you see the group ten or twenty years down the road?
Phil: In-laws and grandkids! (Laughs)
I definitely plan to do this the rest of my life should God allow me to! I love it—I love it in the same ilk that Bill Gaither loves it. He doesn’t need to do it one more time. He could probably stay home in his easy chair for the rest of his life and have a great time. But this is what he enjoys doing and thrives on, and this is what I love!
I don’t consider this hard work. This has never been work. I’ve always heard, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s how I view this.
Kim’s brother, who pastors a church, went with us one weekend. We did three concerts that weekend, and got done on Sunday night. He helped load in and load out, ran the table, and everything. He said, “Dear Lord in Heaven, how do you do this every weekend? This is the hardest work I’ve ever seen in my life!”
We just fell on the floor laughing at him! He said, “I never dreamed it was this kind of work.” But it’s not work to us, because we love it, we love it, we love it!
I hope to do this the rest of my life with Kim right along beside me. We’ll just see what configuration of the children will be with us. The older girls are very adamant about staying on board, but as a family, we’re praying for God’s will to be done in their lives.
Both of the girls have serious boyfriends. Courtney is dating a fellow who’s going to be a medical doctor, and Brooklyn’s dating a guy who’s going to be a mechanical engineer. Both are great guys, and both have a strong interest in our family’s ministry.
DJM: Are either of them musically inclined?
Phil: They’re not. Neither one of them sing! (Laughs).
DJM: So I guess you’ll just have to wait for the grandkids then!
Phil: I shouldn’t say they are not musically inclined. Brooklyn’s boyfriend is a good guitarist and sings some. Courtney’s boyfriend doesn’t sing much, but he does enjoy music.
So we don’t know how it will pan out, but we do plan to keep a configuration of the Collingsworth Family—us and the children, and maybe some in-laws—and just keep it right on rolling down the road! We plan to add a second bus, so that the married kids can have their own bus, and Kim and I have ours. We’ll just see how it all works out. Only God knows.
DJM: Any other thoughts or comments?
Phil: Well, 2010 is showing a transition for us. We, first of all, just this week, purchased Ernie Haase’s trailer—Ernie’s buying a bigger one—and we bought a roadcase for a grand piano from Bill Gaither. We’re buying a Yamaha C7 Grand Piano and putting it on the road with us, along with a Roscoe lift to put it in and out of churches and theater halls.
Starting in November, we’re starting a series called “Special Evenings.” Our first one will kick off in Cincinnati, November 13, at the Taft Theater in downtown Cincinnati. It will be called “A Hometown Special Evening,” and it will feature the Collingsworth Family and Larnelle Harris together.
We’re going to take this across the country to theaters. These will be events our own office sets up, and we ticket and we promote ourselves.
We’re going that direction, first of all on some very sound advice from Bill Gaither. It’s outside of the box for the Southern Gospel realm, but Bill’s never been an inside-the-box guy.
DJM: Will Larnelle be with you on every date?
Phil: Not on every date. It will be a different artist every date. Not all of them will be musicians—we may do comedians, motivational speakers, different sorts of things.
For this “Special Evening” series, we already have dates booked in Roanoke, Virginia at the Jefferson Center—these are all downtown theater type situations—and we’re negotiating with another theater in Indianapolis right now.
My goal is to do fifteen of those in 2010. If it goes well, we’ll expand it, and if it doesn’t, we’ll shrink it! I’m not a smoke-and-mirrors guy—I’m absolutely a bottom-line guy. If it works, you work it, and if it doesn’t, you try something else. Kim and I are simply seeking God’s direction and going from there. If this works, great, and if it doesn’t, I’m not embarrassed to say, “Okay, guys, we failed on that one. Let’s turn around and try something else.” I’ve seen the smart guys do that.
So that’s the direction we’re going. If these Special Evening events work out, we’ll expand it to even more in 2011.
DJM: So would it be fair to call these Homecoming-type events?
Phil: They’ll be similar. Basically, it will be a great venue for the Collingsworth Family to premiere our repertoire from our albums, and we’ll usually have at least one guest with us, and sometimes more.
DJM: And how can people get in touch?
Phil: Our office’s contact information is online at www.thecollingsworthfamily.com. For bookings, contact the Dominion Agency, www.thedominionagency.com.
DJM: Thank you very much!
Phil: You’re welcome!