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.")
The original EWF lineup split after Love, leaving White and bassist Al Verdine to start over. They soon added Bailey, who had moved from Denver to Los Angeles (where he was working as musical director for a gospel group called the Stovall Sisters), and sax player Ronnie Laws, among others, and landed a new record deal with Columbia. Thus began EWF's golden age.
With Bailey aboard, Earth, Wind and Fire experienced a staggering winning streak throughout the Seventies, thanks to a growing pop sensibility and a unique sound epitomized by the Phenix Horns, a brass section equally adept at hard riffs and sumptuous choruses. There were hit albums (1974's Open Our Eyes, 1975's Gratitude, 1977's All 'n' All, 1978's That's the Way of the World) and hit singles ("Mighty Mighty," "Devotion," "Shining Star," "Sing a Song," "Serpentine Fire," "Fantasy," "Boogie Wonderland"). And in the years to come, there were hit associations (White worked as a producer with the Emotions, Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand, and Bailey enjoyed a 1984 solo smash--"Easy Lover," a duet with the far-less-than-worthy Phil Collins). The operation grew so vast that Bailey got into the habit of referring to EWF not as a band but as an "organization."
"Earth, Wind and Fire is more than just music," he elaborates. "It's a school, a way of doing things. And we were doing so much: making records, writing, producing, touring. We were into everything."
By the Eighties, though, EWF had lost its momentum. There were a few hits here and there, but White's experimentation within the pop form began giving way more and more frequently to a kind of maundering balladry in the Lionel Richie mode. Members, including Bailey, drifted in and out of the ensemble, and changing times--particularly the rise of the more abrasive, streetwise sounds associated with rap--left even some of the outfit's clever, elaborate and sweeping productions seeming somehow quaint by comparison. An attempted comeback in 1993 with the platter Millennium, issued by Reprise, did something unthinkable for Earth, Wind and Fire. It sank almost without a trace.
Still, White was not ready to retire. After EWF was dropped by Reprise, he formed his own company, Kalimba Records (the moniker is a tribute to the African thumb piano with which White is closely associated), and made plans to bring EWF into the next century. The first step in re-establishing the group as a vital unit was to get it on the road again, but there was a rub: White didn't want to tour anymore. According to Bailey, "He's sick of getting onto and off of airplanes and of jumping up and down."
Fortunately, Bailey was there to fill the void. "It took us a long time to make the decision to tour without Maurice," he acknowledges, "but once we did, everything's gone wonderfully. We went out on our own for the first time last fall, and the fans were thrilled. We've pretty much reinvented ourselves; we are Earth, Wind and Fire's second generation. We've incorporated samples and even some hip-hop into what we do, so it gives a fresher, newer feel to the catalogue. That's one of the reasons why we're having success even without supporting an album. And this summer's tour has been even better--a lot better than our last major tour, in 1989."
Because of White's absence, Bailey is taking leads on tunes where he previously supplied backing or support vocals. "A few songs were a little initimidating," he concedes, "but it was just a matter of finding the moves. You can't replace Maurice--he's a great, integral part of this organization--but, fortunately, it works. People have come to the show, and afterward they've said to me, `We were expecting certain songs to be lacking something, but we didn't miss a thing.'"
That's no surprise, because EWF, like it or loathe it, has always been as professional a band as any, with an unerring sense for production and costume design and slick presentation. But these attributes aside, there's still the danger that, without a record deal, the performers will devolve into a nostalgia machine, prized for doing nothing more than cranking out the cuts that created a soundtrack for aging baby boomers. Bailey, aware of this danger, makes a point of emphasizing that EWF won't be content with simply remaking what it's made previously.
"Kalimba Records is financed in Japan, and we just did a live album that's being released there," he notes. "We're contemplating releasing it here, too, but we're going to go into the studio after we get finished and do a record of new material. And we think we'll have success, because if hip-hop has taught us anything, it's taught us that independent companies like ours can work. Unlike a lot of bands that don't have names but have had success with independent records, we have a worldwide name, a name with credibility that people have heard before. And that gives us a better chance to do it ourselves. We're not done."
By the same token, Bailey admits that he takes a special pride in the strong reviews that have accompanied recent live performances, especially in view of the sometimes rude dismissals of the group that the press dished out during the late Eighties and early Nineties. "I think if you're true to what you do, good things will happen for you, and people will finally look at it and judge it accordingly," he says. "And even if they don't, I think you're able to live with who you are if you live that way. That's always been our philosophy, and our philosophy as well as our music has influenced so many musicians. Some of the musicians who are playing with us now, who are ten years younger than us, have been influenced by us. And some of the biggest musicians out there today, like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and the guys at LaFace--all of those musicians have been inspired by Earth, Wind and Fire.
"I don't think you get into something like this thinking about how you're going to influence things, because you're too busy concentrating on stretching and doing the best job you can and being a benefit to people. But it's nice to see that we've left our mark."
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Given the omnipresence of the Snoop Doggy Doggs and Ice Cubes on contemporary sales charts, many observers would suggest that there's no place for Earth, Wind and Fire anymore. But Bailey, the eternal optimist, thinks that America needs what he and his fellows offer--now more than ever.
"I think it's good to have an Earth, Wind and Fire still around," he announces. "People have really been enjoying coming out and bringing their families and experiencing the music, the production, the songs and the message, which are all very uplifting. But I also think we need to have an Earth, Wind and Fire of today, too. A group that will put a positive spin on things that are not necessarily always positive, just to give another alternative, another look. Because if you look at it the right way, the world can be a beautiful place."
Earth, Wind & Fire. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, August 20, Buell Theatre, 950 13th Street, $25, 830-