Earth, Wind & Fire was honored along with Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt, Sesame Street and Michael Tilson Thomas at the 42nd annual Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday in Washington, D.C. Denver native Philip Bailey was at the ceremony, along with bandmates Verdine White, brother of late Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, and drummer Ralph Johnson.
Two years ago, Bailey and fellow East High School alumni and former Earth, Wind & Fire members Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk were inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.
“We had a fabulous music department in the Denver Public Schools,” Bailey told Westword in 2017. “We were always surprised at the depth of the musical education that we got in the Denver Public Schools system back in the day.”
Bailey sang in the Echoes of Youth Choir with another East student, the actor Pam Grier, who tweeted on Monday: “Earth, Wind & Fire, honored last night at Kennedy Center Honors. I bawled as Denver peeps Larry Dunn, Andrew Woolfolk & Philip Bailey who attended my Denver’s East High School. I blast their jams every day.”
Earth, Wind & Fire, honored last night at Kennedy Center Honors. I bawled as Denver peeps Larry Dunn, Andrew Woolfolk & Philip Bailey who attended my Denver’s East High School. I blast their jams every day.— Pam Grier Ph.D (@PamGrier) December 16, 2019
Bailey said in 2017 that he learned countless things at East that carried over into his playing with Earth Wind & Fire for more than four decades. And it wasn’t just in the classroom: During their time at East in the late ’60s, Bailey, Dunn and Woolfolk also frequented clubs around Denver, both as audience members and performers.
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“As young musicians, we cut our teeth on doing gigs at clubs and functions and colleges,” Bailey said. “That was really the proving ground for young musicians, learning songs, doing covers of different songs that were popular, learning different genres of music. Because in Colorado — with there being such a small percentage of African-Americans — you heard and were exposed to everything from country to pop. Not only did you do songs that were popular in your community, you did songs that were popular on the radio.”
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On Sunday, singer and actor Cynthia Erivo, who will perform at Boettcher Concert Hall in February, paid tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire with stunning versions of "Fantasy" and "Reasons," while John Legend sang "Can’t Hide Love" before both joined the Jonas Brothers for a rousing take on "September" to close out the night. During the performances, members of the star-studded audience danced and sang along, while some blew kisses at Bailey, White and Johnson.
When interviewed by CBS's Paula Reid, Bailey said he couldn't find the right words to describe exactly how they felt about the Kennedy Center honor.
"The fact that the music has transcended us — it’s totally transcended us," he said. "It’s become the people’s music. It really has."