As one of the founding members and lead vocalists for Earth, Wind & Fire, Philip Bailey doesnít waste time with labels and categories. Creating hit after hit for three decades, his dynamic falsetto has slipped effortlessly among a variety of musical grooves ≠ R&B, soul, jazz, funk and more. Apart from EWF, his solo projects have encompassed pop, gospel and contemporary jazz.
Soul On Jazz, Baileyís new release on Heads Up International, is just what the title suggests: a well-crafted collection of jazz compositions ≠ classics in most instances ≠ with a contemporary soul spin. Itís the latest chapter in Baileyís 30-year quest to keep searching for new and innovative approaches to musical expression.
Maybe the deeply rooted sense of diversity comes from his efforts early in life to actively seek out music rather than waiting for it to come to him. He was born and raised in Denver, Colorado ≠ not exactly a thriving musical mecca in the late Ď50s and Ď60s when his musical consciousness was first awakening. "It was more of a pop music town than any kind of R&B culture," says Bailey. "There wasnít a large population of African Americans in Denver ≠ not like Chicago, Detroit or New York."
For lack of a thriving club scene, Baileyís musical passions developed amid a collection of vinyl that belonged to a friend of his mother. "Thatís how I really fell in love with jazz, just going through her record collection," he says. "She was a big jazz buff, and one of her friends happened to be a bass player."
Some of Baileyís earliest heroes included jazz giants like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Max Roach. But he also developed a taste for the Motown sound, especially the music of Stevie Wonder, who was just beginning to make his mark in the early Ď60s.
By his teenage years, Bailey was pursuing a dual track of percussion and vocals. The bulk of his musical training ≠ on both fronts ≠ came from the countless club gigs that he worked throughout high school and college. On some weekends, heíd work two gigs in one night ≠ singing from 9 pm until 1:30 or 2 in the morning in one club, then playing drums from 2:30 to 6 am in another.
"That was really such a valuable workshop," he says. "When I think back on it now, and I look at the musicians of today, I realize that we had a place to hone our skills, playing all those gigs in all those clubs. But now, these kids who are coming up are actually recording music and becoming famous without ever having done a concert. Consequently, there are a lot of things that they really donít learn, or they learn them late, or they learn them the hard way."
By 1970, Bailey had finished two years of college and was playing the Denver club scene with an R&B/rock outfit. His career took a fateful turn when the band landed an opening slot for a new group called Earth, Wind & Fire. By 1971, he had left school, moved to Los Angeles and become one of the leaders of EWF.
For the next two decades, the platinum-selling and Grammy-winning Earth, Wind & Fire fused a high-energy mix that crossed cultural and generational boundaries like no other band before it. Spiritually charged and unfettered by artificial boundaries, the band enjoyed universal appeal throughout the Ď70s and Ď80s, with a string of successful albums and a live show that quickly assumed legendary proportions.
Fueled by Baileyís vastly dynamic vocal range and his emotionally charged delivery, Earth, Wind & Fireís universal appeal continues to this day. Reflection on a recent performance with the band, Bailey says, "You would have thought it was 1975 all over again, and we were at the peak of our career. The enthusiasm of the crowd was electrifying. You look out across that audience, and itís cross-cultural, cross-generational, and a sea of many different faces and people who have fallen in love with our music. Even after all this time, itís really gratifying."
In the midst of Earth, Wind & Fireís ongoing success, Bailey has maintained a parallel career track that began with his 1982 solo debut, Continuation, and the 1984 platinum follow-up, Chinese Wall, co-produced by Phil Collins. The albumís Bailey-Collins duet, "Easy Lover," topped the R&B and pop charts. He also released four gospel albums between 1984 and 1991, including the Grammy-winning Triumph in 1986.
The solo projects kept coming in the Ď90s. Philip Bailey (1994) was a collaboration with singer Brian McKnight, and members of PM Dawn and Arrested Development. Dreams, released in 1998, marked the beginning of his association with the Heads Up label.
Through it all, variety has been Baileyís secret to staying connected with the music. "You can go down this road where the music industry becomes a grind, and if youíre not careful after a while, youíre just kind of going through the motions," he says. "So Iíve always tried to find things that would spark that love again. Thatís the reason why Iíve had a multi-faceted type of career ≠ including the off-the-cuff projects with Phil Collins, or the gospel thing."
"Iíve always looked at my career as an evolutionary process, something where I donít put any barriers up," he says. "Iíve always believed that thereís a higher force involved in my whole life. Iím just taking the ride, as it were. Iíve always looked at Earth, Wind & Fire as a wonderful steppingstone to whatever else Iím supposed to do in my life. Music has been such an exciting adventure for me that I never get so caught up in the accomplishments that I lose sight of where I am as an artist."