Nathan East on the Writing, Recording and Legacy of "Easy Lover"
By Chris Steffen
Jun. 19, 2015
We've talked to bassist Nathan East about a lot of the massive hits he's played on, like "Get Lucky," "Footloose" and "Change the World," but one thing sets "Easy Lover" apart from the rest of the pack: East earned a credit as a songwriter on the track, which hit #2 in the U.S., #1 in the UK, and remains a staple of throwback pop radio. Originally released as a duet between Phil Collins and Earth, Wind and Fire's Philip Bailey on Bailey's 1984 album, Chinese Wall, the song lived a long, healthy life in the setlists of both Bailey and Collins, appearing on numerous live albums and greatest hits collections.
In this installment of our series of conversations with East, he tells us about the off-the-cuff, no-frills session that yielded the hit, the origins of his relationship with Phil Collins, for whom he would go on to play bass down the line, and how the song's success impacted his life and career. And read on to find out what adjective they gave the song's subject before she became "easy."
AllMusic: What were you working on when you got the call to come to the session that "Easy Lover" came from?
Nathan East: At that time, I was pretty much carving a session career out. I’d done some touring with Kenny Loggins, Al Jarreau and Joe Sample. I was getting the party started, and that’s when Philip Bailey, who was a friend of mine, called me and asked me to go to London and record his solo album. Everybody knows him from Earth, Wind and Fire, but this was going to be his first solo effort, and Phil Collins was producing it. That was, once again, very exciting, because I hadn’t worked with Phil Collins and I hadn’t recorded with Philip, so this was going to be a new venture.
AllMusic: And you knew Phil Collins would be drumming as well as producing, so you and him would be the rhythm section.
East: Right. I got called in for two weeks of sessions at a studio called the Townhouse in London, and that was owned by Richard Branson at the time. That was exciting, to record in London. It was all pretty new, staying out in the country, and Phil Collins lived not far from where we stayed, so he’d drive us in to the studio in the morning. So it was fun getting to know Phil as a person, and then playing with him. They had songs already demoed and written that we recorded, and “Easy Lover” didn’t come until the end of the second week, it was the last song that we recorded. It was fun, because we had two weeks of getting to make music together and the bass player/drummer love affair was being set up, so it was really great, I enjoyed playing with Phil from the first note.
AllMusic: How did you first meet Philip Bailey?
East: I was a big Earth, Wind and Fire fan, so I used to show up at a lot of their concerts. There was actually a production of a play called Jesus at the Roxy that Philip was involved in, and I was involved in that and played, so that was the first time we met, and I got to play with him. From there, we hit it off and stayed friends, so when he was going to go over and do his solo album, he called me and invited me to go.
AllMusic: How did "Easy Lover" start?
East: After two weeks of recording, we had the album Chinese Wall, and there were some really great songs, some were a little bit esoteric, but very cool songs, and Philip one day in the studio said, “Man, we still don’t have that undeniable single that the record label would instantly pick, and that’s what we need,” so literally I just went over to the piano and started fooling around with the riff and surprisingly, in about 20 minutes, came up with this song that almost wrote itself. I was playing the main riff on the piano, and Phil Bailey started singing the verse that he sings, and we’re fooling around with some chords and Phil Collins starts chiming in with these melodies, and we said, “Man, let’s put this thing down.”
We made what we considered a demo of it, and at the time, there was no lyrics or anything. “Choosy lover” was what we were singing, so literally we recorded it that night, made a tape and said, “That’s a good idea,” I think that was a Thursday night and Friday was the last day, so we were going to come in and listen to it in the morning and see what we needed to do and then make the record. So we went home and when we came back in the morning the next day to listen to it, we all listened to it and said, “Sounds pretty good to me, what do you think?” So we used that track, which was like the demo.
The other thing that I noticed was that when Phil Collins was singing along with Phil Bailey, it was a Phil Bailey record, but I was vibing with his voice and how great it sounded with Phil’s, and I said, “You have to sing on it, too, Phil, this could be a duet,” and so Phil took it home and the next day he came in with these lyrics, “Easy Lover,” and it was like, “Get in there and sing the song, guys.” They went in there and that was it.
AllMusic: So it took maybe 48 hours, start to finish?
East: Pretty much, it went down really quickly. One of the things was because we were at the end of the session, so I had a plane to catch on Sunday, that was the first time I flew the Concorde, which was great. We got the track, and the next thing was the lyrics, which Phil wrote really quickly, and the next day they went in and put their parts down, and we were all just dancing around the studio and loving what we were hearing.
AllMusic: Of all the huge hits you've played on, your work on this one was enough to earn you a writing credit. Is that a difficult conversation to have: "Hey, my name should be on this."
East: Yeah, it becomes really tricky in the creative process, when you’re living in the moment all the time, these things happen, and sometimes they go the way you want to and sometimes they don’t, but in this particular case, the three of us sat down, and it’s always uncomfortable to bring up, but I can remember having the dialogue of, “OK, how do you want to split the song?” Again, it establishes the fact that we are all co-creators on this, so how are we going to divvy it up? Normally I think the lyrics count for 50 percent of a song and the music is about the other 50, so I think the way it ended up being divided was 50 percent for Phil Collins and then Phil and I split the other 50 percent.
AllMusic: Phil Collins has a bit of a complicated reputation. How have your dealings with him been over the years?
East: Nothing but laughter and good times. To me, he’s one of my favorite people on the planet, period. We had nothing but great times, and I’d go over and stay at the house and there was a room with an amazing train set that he built, he was fascinated with model trains. But just traveling around the world with him, that was nothing but great things and lots of laughter.
AllMusic: So you've never seen difficult, aloof Phil.
East: Not even close. I remember we were having dinner one night in Chicago, and an eight-year-old girl came up to us while we were eating and asked for his autograph, and usually that can be a very tricky situation, you don’t know how it’s going to, whether they’re going to say, “Can’t you see I’m eating?” but he immediately signed whatever she had and he said, “Thanks for asking,” and I thought to myself, “Of all the people, one of the biggest stars on the planet, and he just thanked a girl for asking for his autograph.” You learned the measure of a man in humility from people like that.
AllMusic: When you toured with Phil Collins later on, you'd sing part of "Easy Lover" in the live shows. How confident of a singer were you when you were first asked to do that?
East: It’s always fun, the challenge has always been playing bass, so to play and sing at the same time is another challenge, to do both at the same time, but I always enjoy it, I’ve done it ever since I was in Top 40 bands when I was growing up, and then I remember when Eric Clapton asked me to sing “Can’t Find My Way Home” on his shows, which was a lot of fun. It’s intimidating to cover a Stevie Winwood vocal, but it was fun to do, and when Phil asked me to sing it for the live show, it was just fun. I never considered myself jumping in the ring with a real singer, because that’s all they do, so I’d never try to consider competing on that level, but it’s just fun to make music and do it all.
AllMusic: There's a lot of dancing onstage during this song, is that easy for you?
East: It’s all fun, and I grew up loving groups like Earth, Wind and Fire, so a lot of times I’d see those moves and say, “How much fun would that be to jump around onstage like that?” If you give me a wireless, that’s it, I’m gone.
AllMusic: Did you ever have to learn any choreography?
East: Never having to learn it, but when we used to have the band with me, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and Greg Phillinganes, Greg and I used to go down in the front and do these little choreographed moves and Phil and Eric would stand off to the side of the stage, cracking up laughing. We were doing our Earth, Wind and Fire bit.
AllMusic: There's a few recordings of Eric Clapton playing guitar on live versions of the song.
East: We did it at the Albert Hall, I remember he took the guitar solo and I thought, “Wow, this is so cool.”
AllMusic: Did he seem uncomfortable playing on such an upbeat modern pop song?
East: No, he jumped right in there and he rocked it pretty hard, I loved having him play it, it was great.
AllMusic: Since your name is on the song, does this one hold a bigger place in your heart than other hits you've played on?
East: I have to say yes, it’s pretty high up on there on my list of favorite moments. And primarily, just because I’ve been about longevity and things lasting, because a lot of songs come and go, and then six months later, you can’t remember how they go, but this has been fun because it became something where my kids listen to it and it became one of their favorite songs when they first heard it, and it’s pretty near and dear to my heart, especially having been able to buy the folks a house with some of the royalties, that was kind of cool.
AllMusic: Have you ever sang "Easy Lover" in the shower?
East: I can honestly say no. I don’t think I’ve ever sang the song in the shower. You never know, sometimes before we did it with Phil on tour, maybe I warmed up a little bit in the shower on it. The part is pretty high.