For more than 30 years Phil Collen has been known as the chiseled lead guitarist for the British rock band Def Leppard. In the past few years he has dabbled outside his primary job with the lads from Sheffield to form an alternative roots/rock side project called Manraze, and now Collen is digging deep into his bag of influences with yet another side project. This one is called Delta Deep. Along with Collen on guitars, the band features bassist Robert DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots); drummer Forrest Robinson (Joe Sample, Crusaders); and fronting the band is the powerhouse Debbi Blackwell-Cook, who has been described as “one part Aretha (Franklin), one part Chaka (Khan), two parts Led Zeppelin.”
“Debbi has it all going on. She’s sang with loads of people as a backup singer, but now she is out front and she is killing it,” guitarist Collen said from his California home. “I just love sitting back and watching her find new sounds in herself. She’s got the R&B and soul thing down, but with Delta Deep she is pushing herself into new territory with rock & roll, jazz, and blues. It has pushed her wide open as a singer, and it’s a thrill to watch her sing.”
Delta Deep is somewhat of a family affair for Collen. Debbi Blackwell-Cook is the godmother to Phil’s wife Helen L. Collen, who is also credited with co-writing all the songs on the Delta Deep debut. Blackwell-Cook sang an a cappella version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “The Man I Love” at Phil and Helen’s wedding in 2010, visited the Collens after the wedding, and ended up singing with Phil playing guitar.
“You know, Helen is responsible for this project,” Phil Collen said with a laugh. “We’d be sitting around watching a movie or something and we’d start singing lines, I’d pick up a guitar and we were working on melodies and eventual songs. It was magical and came together so easily. Helen encouraged us to take these songs and make something of them.”
Delta Deep’s music is strongly rooted, as you might guess, in the blues from the Mississippi where countless black blues legends cut their teeth. But Collen is a white guy from England who grew up on Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Rainbow. His full time band – Def Leppard – has sold over 100 million records. How could he have the blues?
“I never had the confused angst-filled upbringing. I took all my aggression out through the guitar. I am lucky to be a privileged white guy to play this kind of music. I guess I was a bit naive because my ex-wife was half black and she would tell me story about being treated differently because she was not white and it was hard to believe. Then I saw it happen and my mouth was on the floor. Helen is black too, and I still see a lot of people looking at us different because we are a mixed couple; it’s a shame.
“I see it now with Debbi; she has gone through some serious shit because she is black. She channels that when she sings. She has that angst in her voice, that pain, and she turns it into passion. It’s really amazing. I’ve heard that voice in the past when I would listen to Tina Turner, Etta James or Aretha Franklin; that passion comes from their soul. It’s what the blues is all about.”
Delta Deep is taking their vast styles and mixing them together for their sound. Blackwell-Cook has the power and passion, while DeLeo has an astute taste of early Motown rhythms, while Robinson adds timely jazz drums fills and Collen inserts his rock influences, which were influenced from the blues.
“Growing up I learned about the blues from listening to Keith Richards, Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. I found out their sounds were taken from the blues, so I had to dig back deeper into music. That’s how I discovered the blues. And when I found Jimi Hendrix, well, it was all right there. Hendrix is my favorite guitar player, and I think he is the best electric blues player ever. He had it, all those things we’re talking about – the passion, the hardship, the passion and soul. He was ahead of his time – hell, he is still ahead of his time.
“But anyway, I remember hearing B.B. King, and he was the real expression. I loved Zeppelin and Purple, and those bands forced me to discover what the blues were all about. That’s the thing, blues was created out of something completely different from what we hear today. Today’s musicians miss out on what blues is completely about. There’s a type of ‘blues style,’ but not actual blues music. I just don’t hear true blues anymore unless I go back and listen to really old music. What I hear today kind of makes my skin crawl.”
To get those blues leads and beautiful jazzy fills, Collen used most of his guitar gear he uses in Def Leppard except an old Fender Stratocaster and a couple vintage jazz guitars, and he toyed around with a few amplifiers instead of a big stack. Whatever he did, it works well. In fact, Delta Deep is already working on album number two, so this will not be a one-off side project.
“We’ve tracked a few songs and we got half the second album already working, so there will be a next album,” Collen said with excitement. “These songs go back to the James Brown and Etta James feel. I think we will push ourselves, push the boat out a little further with morphing the sound and see where it takes us. It’s a lot of fun. That’s what creating music is all about.”