Singer-songwriter Philip Bailey

The multiple Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer recounts inspirational stories from his memoir, Shining Star.

With his four-octave range, Philip Bailey has been creating, recording and performing music for decades. Best known as the lead vocalist of the Grammy-winning supergroup, Earth, Wind & Fire, he's also had a successful solo career, in multiple genres. As a teen in Denver, Bailey pursued his dream of being a percussionist. He played in the high school jazz band and was in the school choir. In college, playing in a band at local clubs, he met members of the then-fledgling EWF. They later reconnected, and he was invited to help rebuild what would become the legendary band. Bailey shares the inside story of his professional and spiritual journey in his memoir, Shining Star.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: As one of the founding members of the elements, Earth, Wind & Fire, Philip Bailey has sold over 90 million albums worldwide, has won eight Grammys and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s now written a memoir about his life and times titled “Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire.” Before we start our conversation, a look at the band performing that big hit, “Shining Star.”

[Clip]

Tavis: Such a crossover audience after all these years. To what do you attribute that?

Philip Bailey: I think it really is about the fact that the music is really for the people. And just in writing the songs, the whole vision was the music is for the people. So that whole message has really been something that’s been very, very compact, you know, in terms of all over the world, yeah.

Tavis: When you say the music is written for the people, unpack that. Explain what you mean because, depending on what artist you’re talking to, there are other artists who’ve been on this show over the years countless times who write songs from a very personal space. So they figure that, by putting their own truth out, their own story out, maybe there’s somebody in the audience who can relate to that.

That’s a little bit different, I think, as a writing technique from what you’re saying which is that we’re writing songs for the people. What do you mean by that?

Bailey: Well, the concept for Earth, Wind & Fire was to render a service to humanity, that the music was actually going to be rendering a service to humanity. So the songs were written to actually inspire, to uplift and messages that would resonate, you know, with people and give them, you know, hope, inspiration. So that’s the reason why the band – that really was the seed of the philosophy about Earth, Wind & Fire.

Tavis: You say in the book which kind of struck me as interesting that, for you, the band has always been a means to an end.

Bailey: Right.

Tavis: I’m glad you explained that because that sounds a little narcissistic – I’m just teasing you – when I first read it. A means to an end? No, you can’t use Earth, Wind & Fire as a means to an end, but you explained in the book. What’d you mean by that, though?

Bailey: Well, I always knew that whatever vision or destiny that God had for me that this wasn’t it, but this was a means to whatever that is. I don’t know what it is [laugh]. It’s interesting that, in my life, it’s always been music. It’s kind of like been like the Pied Piper and in some ways it’s always been a means to just kind of follow my path to my own personal destiny that God had for me.

Tavis: So the love and the joy and the hope that you spread around the world, the humanity that these lyrics revel in, that ain’t enough? There’s still something else out there that God has for you?

Bailey: Well, I really do believe that it’s just a matter of me not conceiving or perceiving that in my own head, but just being open, you know. Just being open and knowing that, you know, he’s able to do so much more than we can even expect or think, you know, and just kind of like be open to whatever that is.

Tavis: Earth, Wind & Fire, to be clear, is a fusion band, not a funk band.

Bailey: Yeah, right, right.

Tavis: It’s a fusion band and fusion suggests to me a mix – I guess if we looked up the definition – it suggests a mix of a number of things which takes me back to your childhood to ask what fusion, what were you listening to? What were you inspired by in terms of different genres when you were growing up?

Bailey: Well, I’m from Denver, grew up loving jazz, but listening to country and Elvis Presley and pop and folk, Carole King, Three Dog Night, you know, singing in bands and stuff that were mixed, and singing all those different genres of music.

So when I got into the band, I was the one that recommended doing the song, “Make It With You,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” because that was the stuff that, you know, I was hearing.

Tavis: And how did Maurice and the guys look at you when you suggested that?

Bailey: He was like, “Yeah,” you know. And he was able to really house it in a way that was unique for Earth, Wind & Fire.

Tavis: So between the two of us, they didn’t laugh at you when you first suggested it?

Bailey: No, not at all, not at all [laugh].

Tavis: What has it been like? We know that Maurice stepped away from performing with the band, you know, some…

Bailey: Yeah. 20 years ago.

Tavis: Is it 20 years now?

Bailey: Yeah.

Tavis: See, I would have lost the bet on that. If you would have asked me how many years, I would not have come anywhere close to 20.

Bailey: Isn’t that something? I know. It’s crazy.

Tavis: So Maurice stopped performing 20 years ago. What has it been like, though, to not just befriend him, but to work with a genius of his caliber for all these years?

Bailey: Well, it’s really set the stage for a work ethic that is totally off the charts, you know. So we cut our teeth really putting it down, you know, like really grinding. So we do the same thing now in terms of the professionalism and the way Earth, Wind & Fire rose from our production, to management, to touring, and the whole thing. Just a very first-class organization. All came from how he laid it out.

Tavis: Let me jump back to that childhood again. You talk about this, again, in the text. Your falsetto is – I mean, if I had to do a list of the top 10 most well-known, most appreciated falsettos, you’d be on that list of top 10 ever, I think.

Bailey: Thank you.

Tavis: How did you develop that? I guess what I’m asking is, as a child, who were you imitating? Because everybody starts imitating somebody before you find your own voice.

Bailey: “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

Tavis: Okay [laugh].

Bailey: Hey, Dionne Warwick.

Tavis: Dionne Warwick, yeah.

Bailey: Dionne Warwick. I mean, I was like so into listening to her. And it’s funny now ’cause we worked in a studio together and stuff and I always tell her, you know, like how much I just embraced the way her phrasing, her lyric sense. You know, like really, Miles Davis too, just the sound of the trumpet.

So I was always mimicking, you know, female vocals and stuff, I think, because of the emotion in the singing. But I’m a natural baritone, so I studied operatic baritone in college.

Tavis: That’s a big gap [laugh].

Bailey: Yeah. It’s always been…

Tavis: Falsetto and baritone. That’s quite a gap, isn’t it?

Bailey: Yeah. So it’s been like, you know, hooking them all up between the baritone and wherever else I go upstairs.

Tavis: Prince, as you may know, has been a guest on this program any number of times and we’ve hung out over the years, had all kinds of conversations around the world literally about music.

And he will tell you very quickly that, when he hits certain notes on certain songs, he prefers to sing in his higher register because there’s a certain message he wants to communicate, and that higher register allows him to communicate that. Now as a singer, I expect you to get that better than I get it.

I get it intellectually, but you’re an artist, so you really get that. Which leads me to ask what is it that you hear when women sing in that register that you think really communicates well with the audience, since you were imitating a woman named Dionne Warwick?

Bailey: Well, there’s a tenderness and a nurturing and a feeling of empathy and compassion that comes across when females sing. You feel that, you know. It’s a soothing, a healing. And I think that, you know, those are some of the things that I probably picked up on.

Tavis: Every band has its ups and downs, to be sure, and you can’t stay together for as long as y’all been together without ups and downs. For you personally – and I suspect this answer might be different for every member of the group – but for you, what was the lowest of the downs for you as a member of this band over the years?

Bailey: I think we probably all would say that that fateful day that Maurice called the meeting and said, you know, that he was going to “put the band on the back burner.” But it was really in doing so, we were going to have to get our stuff out of the storage and the whole thing or they were going to be sold by a certain time.

You know, just the lack of forethought or planning for that situation ’cause it came all of a sudden and everyone’s lives were just totally thrown into chaos, you know.

Tavis: And at that moment, his reason for disbanding the band was what?

Bailey: Well, he just said he wanted to put the band on the back burner and I think that he wanted to concentrate on, you know, some other pursuits. He was, you know, producing Barbra Streisand and…

Tavis: Jennifer Holliday…

Bailey: Neil Diamond and Jennifer Holliday and all that stuff. So, you know, he was one of the most sought-after producers of that time. You know, looking back on it now, I just think that everything just became so overwhelming, the responsibility of the band and everything, that he just needed a break.

But I don’t think he really knew how to do that, so, yeah, everything just stopped. That’s the time that we say that life became real, you know [laugh], ’cause we were in a fantasy world, you know, before that for about almost 10 years.

Tavis: But it’s not like – with all due respect to Maurice who I obviously adore – but it’s not like you haven’t had your moments of stepping away from the band…

Bailey: Right.

Tavis: And having some pretty big hits. “Easy Lover,” I mean, it don’t get much bigger than that.

Bailey: Yeah. It was a great experience working with Phil. And I always try to do things that are going to…

Tavis: Phil being Phil Collins.

Bailey: Phil Collins, right.

Tavis: For the uninitiated who don’t know “Easy Lover,” we’re talking about Phil Collins here now.

Bailey: I always like to do things that are going to spark that flame and passion and interest for the music again because I love doing it so much. And the business can just kind of zap all of the enthusiasm.

I’ve seen musicians who are just a kind of a shell of, you know, their former selves in terms of just loving the art for the art form. So I try to do different things, you know, in different genres with different people. So that was one of the things that I did.

Tavis: After all these years, to your point, Philip, what do you still love about it?

Bailey: I just love music. It still really, really gets me high, you know, to hear the core changes in music and all the harmonies and overtones and to feel, you know, the magic of the rhythms and, you know, to play.

What I’m currently doing now is doing dates with Ramsey Lewis ’cause I like to sing a lot of jazz stuff. So I got this opportunity, so we’re doing a lot of jazz dates and stuff together. And Christian McBride, doing some stuff with Christian…

Tavis: One of the best.

Bailey: Yeah. So it’s like, you know, those are the kinds of things that I do and I would do them for free. Fortunately, I don’t have to [laugh].

Tavis: No. Your manager said, “No!”

Bailey: “No!”

Tavis: Your agent just said, “What did he just say?” Let me ask this as an exit question, then. What do you think the gift is that Earth, Wind & Fire has? What is that gift that’s still resonating with people all these years later?

Bailey: The joy of living, the joy of sharing. When we did our tour with Chicago, it was interesting. I came up with a name for my foundation called Music is Unity and we would see the Earth, Wind & Fire fans and Chicago fans, some of which hadn’t seen the other band.

And by the end of the night, it was just a love fest where everybody was, you know, shaking hands and, you know, exchanging numbers and so forth. It’s just the ability the music has to bring people together.

Tavis: Well, music is unity, and the Elements have brought a lot of that over the years. “Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire” is the new book that finally tells the life and legacy ongoing of one Philip Bailey with that beautiful falsetto. Philip, good to have you on the program. All the best to you.

Bailey: Thanks. It’s always a pleasure.

Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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  • Perry Farmer

    EARTH, WIND & FIRE is my all time favorite band.

  • Carol Burke

    There simply is no better Band of Musicians on the Earth… I L.O.V.E. Earth, Wind & Fire…True Story :)

  • Perry Farmer

    I agree.

  • Carol Burke

    Hello Perry,
    Earth, Wind & Fire are Life stories…everytime I see a show of Music appreciation I expect to see Earth, Wind & Fire…The Elements…True Music!

  • Perry Farmer

    Couldn’t have said it better.

Last modified: August 18, 2014 at 12:41 pm