By Roger Wolmuth
July 08, 1985 12:00 PM

This is how big Phil Collins has become: When he has a beef, he gets to air it on the Tonight show. Just the other night, as Johnny rolled his eyes and nodded in sympathy, Phil indicated he was a mite peeved that every article written about him starts off with how short he is, how pudgy, how bald, how unhiply clad, in other words how unlike a “normal” rock star. Okay, his hairline resembles Squiggy’s, his clothes look like Merv Griffin’s rejects and his muscles are heading south. So what? “Look at Woody Allen,” the 34-year-old British rocker says with reason. “Women love him. And he gives good value for the money. So do I.”

Indeed. Collins’ value is most apparent on his current 28-city U.S. tour, a series of two-and-a-half-hour concerts featuring everything from ballads to jazzy instrumentals to a generous helping of his up-tempo hits. He’s hot in your living room, too. His latest solo LP, No Jacket Required, has sold more than two million copies and has generated one No. 1 single—One More Night—and another probable chart topper, the danceable Sussudio. Two years ago Genesis, the band for whom he’s been the drummer since 1970, released its best-selling LP ever—produced by Collins, naturally. Easy Lover, the tune he co-wrote and sings with ex-Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Philip Bailey, hit No. 2 in February, while Against All Odds, penned and performed by Collins for the movie of the same name, earned two Grammy Awards and an Oscar nomination.

Apparently, some of rock’s best and brightest believe Collins’ magic is contagious. In the past year alone he has produced albums for Bailey and old pal Eric Clapton. Those still clamoring to get in on a sure thing include Barbra Streisand, Al Jarreau, Teddy Pendergrass and Ronnie Spector, who knows about great producers—she was once married to the best, Phil Spector.

Collins in the studio is a little of this, a little of that. It adds up. “He has a good ear,” says Bailey. “But his strongest point is his playing. If Phil’s playing the drums, he knows what’s going to feel good and what’s not. And the drums are everything. You have a good drum track, and you can put everything else down pretty easily. Collins also is flexible enough to bring out the best in an artist. He interjects ideas all the time, but if it’s going smooth, and he doesn’t interject, he’s not going to feel he didn’t do anything.”

Ego? Collins couldn’t spell it if you spotted him the e-g. One night, out dining with his wife, Jill Tavelman, he was approached by a female fan. “God, you are sexy,” she purred. All Collins felt was embarrassed. “I don’t know what they see in me,” he says. Around home he drives a five-year-old BMW, does the dishes after meals and often scrubs the floors of his 16th-century house. On tour he travels without bodyguards—and sometimes without even a car. (When his limo failed to show up after a dinner in Houston, he bummed a ride back to his hotel with a waiter.) Instead of partying he spends his free time prowling antique shops with wife Jill, 29. “If there’s more than two of something, Jill will collect it,” he says good-naturedly.

The couple met five years ago when Tavelman, daughter of an affluent L.A. haberdasher, happened upon Collins in the Rainbow Bar in Hollywood. Phil, hoping for a quiet drink away from fans, warily introduced himself as Bill Collick. Later, perhaps taken by the fact that she didn’t know him from the Archies, he invited her on one of the Genesis tours—she paid her own way—and Jill returned home shortly afterward with a photograph of her newfound sweetheart. “Well, love is blind,” said her mother after scrutinizing the picture.

Though Collins comes across as average in looks, his musical skills are anything but. One of three children of a West London insurance man and a toy shop manager turned children’s agent, he began playing drums at 3 and by 14 was playing soul and mod clubs with school-kid rock bands. Pushed into acting by his mother, now 72, he landed a part that same year playing the Artful Dodger in a London production of Oliver! A few minor TV and movie roles followed. But at 18 he quit the cameras and returned to his first love—music—much to his parents’ dismay.

In between acting stints Collins had kicked around London, earning a rep as a studio session player. In 1970 Genesis, formed in 1966, placed an ad in Melody Maker for a new drummer. Four years of steady work followed, with Collins lodged firmly in the background, keeping the beat for Genesis and its lead singer, Peter Gabriel.

When Gabriel left the group in 1975, Genesis seemed headed for an exodus. Although “the press had us dead and buried,” the band set to work auditioning replacements for the vacated vocalist slot. “As they came one by one, it became apparent that I was as good as they were,” he says.

With Collins playing front man, Genesis cranked out eight more LPs during the next seven years. His work with the group took its toll, though, and in 1978 his first marriage foundered in a bitter dispute over his workaholic schedule. The disappointments since have been few and forgettable—with the exception of this year’s Oscar fiasco. To recap: Collins had volunteered to perform his song at the Academy Awards and even rescheduled the Australian leg of his tour to accommodate. Organizers of the telecast declined his offer, however—via a letter addressed to “Mr. Phil Cooper”—and he eventually sat in the audience watching singer-dancer Ann Reinking lip-sync her way through an absurdly inept rendition of the tune. Now Collins introduces the number in concert by saying, “I’m sorry Miss Ann Reinking couldn’t be here tonight; I guess I just have to sing my own song.”

This fall Collins will be doing just that in the studio with Genesis, after which they’ll hit the road for a major tour. But first he’s scheduled to perform live at both of the two massive fund-raising concerts for Ethiopia that will be held July 13 in London and Philadelphia.

Collins also plans to find time this summer for his alloted eight weeks with son Simon, now 8, and daughter Joely, 12. Together with Jill, whom Collins married last August, the clan will retreat to his big home and 14-acre plot in West Sussex. It is a place where Collins can work (in a three-room upstairs studio) as well as play the role he loves so dearly—common man. Nighttimes he can go to his favorite Queen Victoria Pub in nearby Guildford, 20 minutes away. “There’s no facade there,” he says happily. “When I go in, the landlord will put on some Chopin and say to me, ‘This is a real bloody pianist. Not what you do.’ ”