PRODIGAL SON

EARTH, WIND AND FIRE'S PHILIP BAILEY RETURNS TO HIS HOMETOWN EAGER TO TURN YOUR FROWN UPSIDE DOWN.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more relentlessly upbeat person than Philip Bailey. Give the 44-year-old Denver native a chance to gripe about the press, record companies or practically any topic into which most of us would love to sink our teeth, and he'll likely respond with the glass-is-half-full homily. But even Bailey, the designated traveling ambassador for the once-and-future soul/ R&B behemoth known as Earth, Wind and Fire, finds it difficult to hold his tongue when the subject turns to music that rejects EWF's affirmations in favor of their polar opposite.

"In today's society, a lot of negativity is rewarded," he posits in a gentle purr of a voice. "It's gotten to the point where even children who don't necessarily live gang-infested lifestyles are gravitating toward them because they're popular. There are so many mixed signals being sent. When we were coming up, you didn't want a lot of negative baggage connected with your career, because it could hurt it. But now, it seems like the negative, stereotypical things that drowned careers in the past have the ability to catapult them to another level. And that's unfortunate. Look at Tupac Shakur--he sold two million records while he was in the penitentiary."

After making these modest statements, however, Bailey seems to realize that he's ventured out of character. "I think this discussion is too broad to go into," he declares. "I have strong opinions on the subject, but I'd rather focus on the positive."

"Focus on the positive"--that's as neat a description of EWF's modus operandi as you're likely to find. The group, birthed more than a quarter-century ago by Maurice White (whom Bailey matter-of-factly describes as "the boss"), has eschewed anger and resentment in favor of a musical worldview that seeks to create rather than to destroy. Its complex cosmology, made of equal parts Afrocentrism and utopianism, has sustained the combo through plentiful personnel shifts, business downturns and the barbs of cynics who find EWF's essential cheerfulness difficult, if not impossible, to swallow.

As Bailey puts it, "You have to survive this industry. It's not one that's always up or always down. You have to have some creeds or beliefs that you hold fast to and live by in order to get through this thing sane and keep your feet on the ground."

Those values, Bailey asserts, were implanted in him throughout his formative years in east Denver. Back then, the city as a whole was even more overwhelmingly white than it is now, but instead of lamenting his minority status during that period, Bailey concentrates on what his environment taught him about life. "I learned at a very early age how to get along with anybody and everybody," he says. "I think that's something that I still look at as an asset for me today in relating to people just as people. So it was an advantage for me. We didn't have a large African-American community or a lot of Afrocentric kinds of teachings--I missed out on those things until I was grown and had joined Earth, Wind and Fire. But I never had any negative experiences racially until after I'd moved away from Denver."

Learning more about the music that would form the backbone of Bailey's life was also difficult in Denver. He verifies that soul and R&B were rare commodities during his youth. Jazz, however, was more accessible, particularly for Bailey. "I got into jazz mostly by raiding a friend's mother's record collection," he recalls. "Her name is Erlene Love--she'll gasp if she sees her name in the paper--and she had a really extensive collection. And at the same time, she was dating a bassist, an upright bassist. I became a jazz lover just from hearing the stuff that she played."

In short order, Bailey gravitated toward the drums and was playing with jazz groups in school and out by the time he was in junior high school. He sang, as well--"My mother said I was singing before I was talking," he recounts--but it was as an instrumentalist that he thought he would make his mark. His primary group bore a name that fits in perfectly with Bailey's personality: It was called Friends and Love.

While Bailey was still attending classes at Metro State College and the University of Colorado, his future mentor had already founded EWF. Maurice White was far from a novice in 1969, when his band was launched under its original name, the Salty Peppers. He was a staff drummer at Chess Records between 1962 and 1967, playing on dates with legends such as Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon, and he also toured with jazz star Ramsey Lewis. But EWF was the first project of White's own creation, and his collaborations with players like vocalist/keyboardist Wade Flemons were immediately distinctive. Although the combo's self-titled debut, issued in 1971, and a followup, The Need of Love, featured a jazzier, less accessible approach than the music White and company would make later, the material was strong and intriguing, if less funky than that which flowed from the Parliament-Funkadelic axis of bands that would become EWF's primary competition during the Seventies. (P-Funk's George Clinton derided the band as "Earth, hot air and no fire.")

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