Growing up in Denver during the 1960s, Philip Bailey had plenty of great music to sing along to on the radio. Awed by the vocals of Stevie Wonder and the musical magic of instrumentalists Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Max Roach, Bailey found he had a particular passion for the female solo singers and girl groups of the era.
Despite having a natural baritone range, Bailey discovered that he had a particular affinity for singing along with the girl groups and quickly developed the ability to sing in a full four-octave range. That unusual skill paid off early, when he was discovered by Earth, Wind & Fire band leader Maurice White while singing in a local R&B band called Friends & Love that opened for EWF in a concert there.
Over 40 years later, Bailey has become the de facto leader of that legendary R&B group. Performing with the band through more than 200 shows each year worldwide and a current hot streak that saw the release of their highest-charting new album in 30 years, as well as the current recording of their first-ever Christmas album, Bailey has also decided to finally share his story in the new memoir “Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire.”
Speaking with Pasadena Weekly while awaiting a recording session on the new holiday CD, Bailey shared his thoughts from his career and expressed excitement about the chance to meet his local fans up close and personal at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore, where he’ll discuss and sign the book.
“I didn’t know that I could register as a falsetto until I was singing in a club one time and a vocal coach from one of the local colleges came through, listened to the band and remarked afterwards that I had an amazing falsetto, and I said ‘what’s that?’” recalls Bailey. “I grew up mimicking Dionne Warwick and other female vocals I heard around the house because of the emotion of the vocalist and the song value. Then the whole Motown and Philadelphia sounds influenced every one as well. I’m a natural baritone and studied operatic baritone in college. In discovering my vocal abilities, I wanted to use the full four octave range.”
Bailey certainly did that, performing lead vocals on such popular EWF hits as “Devotion,” “Head to the Sky,” “Reasons,” “Fantasy” and “I’ve Had Enough.” And rather than slowing down with age, Bailey has picked up extra singing responsibilities, performing both his own falsetto parts and the deeper baritone lines sung by White prior to his retirement.
Although challenging, the effect is a crowd-pleaser. Bailey has to shift almost constantly between the two vocal ranges, both in the group’s intense ballads and its fast-paced dance numbers. The effort has paid off, helping the group rebound in popularity from merely being oldies-concert staples to make them viable enough to produce new albums. His steady hand in the group has been a key component to that comeback, mainly because he had a hand “in writing 50 to 70 percent of our classic hit songs.”
Looking back on the EWF songwriting process, Bailey gives credit to White’s extensive background as a drummer with jazz great Ramsey Lewis and as a session drummer for the legendary Chess Records label. He says that White tired of being in the background of purely commercial music and wanted “to play a lot more sophisticated music to a pop/mass audience, using what he learned from finding the hooks in the simpler stuff he played on.”
“So we started landing horn licks, Latin rhythms, and R&B driven songs with pop overtones,” explains Bailey. “We just wanted to do a music that has the complexion of everybody in it. Also, the lyrics were written to uplift people. We wanted to have a positive message, a message that inspired people and made them feel good, and our stage presentation was always cutting edge.”
Like far too many other great bands, creative differences and internal tensions eventually forced EWF to break up for five years in the 1980s. It was then that Bailey released his first and still most popular solo album “Chinese Wall,” which was produced by Phil Collins and spawned the worldwide smash duet “Easy Lover” by the two men.
Bailey wisely leaves the story of the band’s breakup and reformation for readers to enjoy in his memoir, one of several critical points in his life that he hopes people will learn by reading the book. He has long reconciled with White, whose retirement was sparked by health issues rather than animosity, and Bailey attributes his own continued success and levelheadedness to his devout Christian faith.
“I’m a Christian, and it’s very much the foundation for which I live and think and breathe,” says Bailey. “I’ve always said to my kids since they were little: Life can take away through accidents or other means what you do in life for a career. It’s much more important for you to concentrate on who you are, because that resonates and no one can ever take it away. Who you are is where you are. As I get older, everything finds its place, especially in this industry where you can fall in the trap of evaluating yourself too high or too low.”
Philip Bailey discusses and signs his book, “Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Visit vromans.com or call (626) 449-5320.