As one of the founding members and lead vocalists for Earth, Wind & Fire, Philip Bailey doesn't 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, Bailey's 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. It's the latest chapter in Bailey's 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 '50s and '60s 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 wasn't a large population of African Americans in Denver not like Chicago, Detroit or New York."
For lack of a thriving club scene, Bailey's musical passions developed amid a collection of vinyl that belonged to a friend of his mother. "That's 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 Bailey's 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 '60s.
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, he'd 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 don't 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 '70s and '80s, with a string of successful albums and a live show that quickly assumed legendary proportions.
Fueled by Bailey's vastly dynamic vocal range and his emotionally charged delivery, Earth, Wind & Fire's 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 it's 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, it's really gratifying."
In the midst of Earth, Wind & Fire's 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 album's 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 '90s. 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 Bailey's secret to staying connected with the music. "You can go down this road where the music industry becomes a grind, and if you're not careful after a while, you're just kind of going through the motions," he says. "So I've always tried to find things that would spark that love again. That's the reason why I've had a multi-faceted type of career including the off-the-cuff projects with Phil Collins, or the gospel thing."
"I've always looked at my career as an evolutionary process, something where I don't put any barriers up," he says. "I've always believed that there's a higher force involved in my whole life. I'm just taking the ride, as it were. I've always looked at Earth, Wind & Fire as a wonderful steppingstone to whatever else I'm 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."