May 19, 2024

A Conversation With
Philip Bailey
by Mark Ruffin

Thirty years ago, when the Ramsey Lewis Trio was one of the hottest jazz acts in the country, the drummer gave Lewis the news that he was leaving. “He told me he was going to start a band with his brother that mixed magic and inspirational messages with jazz r&b and rock,” Lewis said laughing at the memory. “I told him to take two aspirin, lie down and call me in the morning.”

The drummer, Maurice White, went on to form Earth, Wind & Fire; one of the largest selling musical acts of the 70’s, and arguably, “the” most influential black band of all time.

Three decades later, Phillip Bailey, EW&F’s most recognizable voice and one of three members left from the celebrated group’s heyday, the others are drummer/vocalist Ralph Johnson, and the only original member, Verdine White, has comes full circle with his very first solo jazz album,”Dreams.”

Bailey recorded his first solo album, “Continuation,” back in 1982. He followed that with two more pop albums and the worldwide hit duet with Phil Collins “Easy Lover,” plus four gospel albums including 1986’s “Triumph,” which earned him a Grammy award that sits with the six others, four American Music awards and 50 gold and platinum albums earned with Earth, Wind & Fire.

While EW&F has always done very jazzy tunes, Bailey didn’t start getting notice singing jazz until earlier this decade when he was part of two one-shot groups that exquisitely displayed what his four-octave voice can do with the great American song. The first group, Pride of Lions, was assembled in Chicago in ’92 by James Mack, head of the music department at that city’s Harold Washington College.

The group included, among others, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, the late drummer Tony Williams, pianist Billy Childs, saxophonist Bobby Watson, Chicago guitarist Fareed Haque and their self-titled album is still available on Sony. However, the other group, Night On The Town, only toured, but the group was just as formidable featuring Chicago superstar Chaka Khan, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Japanese keyboardist Keiko Matsui and smooth jazz sax star Gerald Albright.

“Dreams” is decidedly more in the direction of smooth jazz than either of those specially assembled groups were, to wit, Bailey makes no apologies. The list of musicians who absolutely, positively overnighted Bailey music for his album include jazz stars Grover Washington Jr., Pat Metheny, George Duke, Peter White, Kirk Whalum and many others.

Bailey was on tour with Earth, Wind & Fire in Las Vegas when we talked last month. Bailey, an avid golfer was watching the U.S. Open and was easily distracted at first. But eventually, he settled in for a nice chat that proved the man’s positive and bright on-stage demeanor is no act.

JazzUSA: When I heard you had a jazz record coming out, all I could think of was this band that I saw that you were in…

PB: With Keiko Matsui and all of them?

JazzUSA: Yes, it was Keiko,

PB: Keiko, Chaka (Khan), Hugh Masekela and Gerald Albright. It was called Night On The Town.

JazzUSA: That’s right. It was incredible.

PB: Yeah, that was a nice thing.

JazzUSA: Yeah, and I was already hip to the James Mack recording with you singing “The Nearness Of You,” to hear you do it live was just awesome. Had you aspired to be a jazz singer before Earth, Wind & Fire happened?

PB: That was my first love. Jazz…ooh, nice putt…. Jazz was the very first love, really. That’s been the real inspiration for all the stuff that I do musically. The fact that there’s those people that went before me that I still look up to.

JazzUSA: But you have such a unique voice, I can’t hear who has influenced you as a jazz singer.

PB: Miles Davis and Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and really people do not know what an influence Dionne Warwick was on me. Just her vibrato, just her phrasing had me into Dionne Warwick like a champ when I was a kid. But basically, I think of my voice as a vehicle by which the creator does whatever he wants to do and then I just try to stay yielded in that way. And that way I don’t put a limit on what can happen. I’m always exploring and discovering new things about my voice.

JazzUSA: Are you still discovering new things about your voice?

PB: Heck yes. I’m forevermore discovering something new.

JazzUSA: Why do a jazz album now?

PB: Because that’s the supreme expression of freedom and fluidity and flexibility. That’s where it all comes together and you begin to fly. As a singer and an instrumentalist, you’re not thinking about what you’re doing. It’s just free flow, like astral traveling.

JazzUSA: Actually Earth, Wind & Fire has performed jazz from the beginning.

PB: That’s our inspiration. That’s always been our inspiration, and while we’ve talked about it for a while now, I still look forward to the day when Earth, Wind & Fire does a jazz record. A record where you don’t have to deal with commerciality at all. It can be whatever it is.

JazzUSA: Phillip, you guys have threatened to do that for years now, and man what great jazz tunes you’ve done already, “Zanzibar,” “Power,” “Sun Goddess,” the Milton Nascimento Brazilian stuff.

PB: Oh yeah, we go there, but doing a whole record of it would be a different thing.

JazzUSA: This new record, “Dreams,” I mean “Head To The Sky” is a jazzy as this record, but it’s interesting that you’re competing with yourself on a couple of tracks like re-doing “Make It With You.” It’s very cool how you did it, and you re-invented the first time you did it, and now you’ve kind of re-invented it again…Was that hard to do?

PB: No that was one take, and actually I had forgotten that we had done that song before.

JazzUSA: (big laugh)

PB: I did, until you said it right now. Which record did we sing that on?

JazzUSA: Are you kidding? “Last Days And Times.”

PB: Damn, I forgot. I knew that song felt close to me some kind of way, but I forgot that we did it before.

JazzUSA: And you re-invented it last time, do you recall it now?

PB: Yeah, now I do.

JazzUSA: So my question is null and void, that’s the answer, you didn’t even think about the old version.

PB: (laughs) Right, I didn’t even think about it.

JazzUSA: What about “Sail Away?”

PB: “Sail Away,” I thought we were going to do a stripped down acoustic version of it and then when Erik sent it to me, it was a hip-hop version with the chords changes changed up, with a slight twist on the melody. So I just sang it and sent it back to him. This record was put together very interestingly.

JazzUSA: You know, I noticed that.

PB: It was all FedEx and Adats. Ohhh..get out.

JazzUSA: You’re watching the U.S. Open aren’t you?

PB: Yeah man, Tiger just hit a shot out of the sand and the ball went up and then came back into the sand. I thought that was only me.

JazzUSA: Are you a golfer?

PB: Yes.

JazzUSA: I noticed on the record, it was like whomever you wanted you sent a tape to them. You can tell by looking at the studio credits, all of those personalized studios listed. Is that what you did, went after people for specific sounds?

PB: Yep, it was like, okay, who would be cool on this or that, and just send them a tape, (laughs) and then they put their stuff on there and send it back. (laughs) I didn’t even see anybody. I haven’t even seen Erik Huber. I’ve never met him.

JazzUSA: You never met him?

PB: Nope. We did the vocals at my house, at my studio. The only person I saw was Robert Brookins.

JazzUSA: What about Grover Washington?

PB: I didn’t see anybody.

JazzUSA: Man, on “Make It With You,” you and Grover sound like you’re right there.

PB: I haven’t seen ne’er a soul, which is really cool, because it so crazy, so on par with today and technology and everything.

JazzUSA: Right, including the album coming with a video.

PB: (big laugh) Yeah, right, plus it comes with a video.

JazzUSA: Yeah, technology has come a long way since you guys were in Earth, Wind & Fire almost 30 years ago.

PB: Yeah, all this stuff could have never been thought of. We were never able to do something like this.

JazzUSA: The Pat Metheny tune, “Something To Remind Me,” did you call Pat, because you wanted Pat on a tune.

PB: Yeah I told him about the project and he said, ‘listen to this song, because I was inspired to write it by you guys.’ And I talked to my son and he wrote the lyrics.

JazzUSA: Did he say specifically what Earth, Wind & Fire tune, or what era, or what about Earth, Wind & Fire inspired him?

PB: No, he didn’t elaborate, he just said that he and Lyle Mays were inspired to write it by us.

JazzUSA: How old is your son, Sir Bailey?

PB: 27.

JazzUSA: Does he play? Does he sing like you?

PB: He writes. He’s a really, really good lyricist. He works for a television company, for Carsey & Werner, on “Third Rock From The Sun.” His aspiration is to direct and to write and produce on TV. He’s got quite the mind. So he can just take the stuff and just hook me up.

JazzUSA: You’re already so hooked up.

PB: But the thing about it is you’ve got to know your limitation. And I know, kind of what I want to say, but then, it’s important to say stuff the way it should be said for today. I think people get in trouble when they don’t acknowledge it’s a different day and find out what their contribution should be now, for today. They get too stuck in yesterday. So while they’re not trying to move on, they actually get left behind. (laugh)

JazzUSA: You guys are currently touring, did you think, when you guys were in the glory days, that you’d still be doing it 20 years later.

PB: You really don’t think about it, because you’re in motion. So you’re not really thinking about it. Plus your whole aim when you first start out is to build a career. You’re looking at Miles Davis. You’re looking at the fact that when you go into a record store, you’ve got three rows of records, of music history. You’re looking at that and you’re going, ‘I’m not there yet.’ You’re just marching. And then you look back 20 years and you go, ‘wow, I’m still marching.’ So the journey’s not over until it’s over. And you let other people credit you for whatever you leave behind. But you’ve got to stay in motion, that’s my philosophy.

JazzUSA: Why not just opt for a solo career? Why keep the band and the solo career all this time? Now you’ve been doing the solo thing for getting close to 20 years. Why keep in motion with both of them?

PB: I want to have something to bring back to Earth, Wind & Fire, and I want to have a reason to have a solo career. (laughs) It all makes sense.

JazzUSA: Yes, and you put it very succinctly, like you’ve really thought about it.

PB: (laughs) Of course. Look with Earth, Wind & Fire, before Maurice (White) left, I’m a role player. I knew what my responsibilities were and all of that, but it didn’t encapsulate all the potential in everything I could do. So I had to have a solo career to have an outlet to continue to grow. But then as I grow and come back to Earth, Wind & Fire, I’m more of an asset. So, it’s one hand washes the other.

JazzUSA: Now who’s in the band? Verdine White is still in the band?

PB: The originals are myself, Ralph (Johnson) and Verdine.

JazzUSA: Is Sonny Emory still with you guys?

PB: Sonny’s doing his solo stuff. Gordon Campbell’s playing now. He used to play with Mary J. Blige.

JazzUSA: Doesn’t Robert Brookins have something to do with the band?

PB: Robert is like my son. (laughs) He lived with me when he was a kid and of course you know he’s in the industry. Robert is a really good producer, songwriter. He plays with us now and he was totally the man on my record. He produced all the vocals for me and the new show that we’re doing now; he’s largely responsible for.

JazzUSA: Who is this Erik Huber guy who produced “Dreams?”

PB: He’s the producer and I’ve never seen him.

JazzUSA: So why pick him to trust with something so valuable.

PB: The music speaks for itself. You send me some stuff and it’s happening, it’s happening.

JazzUSA: And it is a happening record. No doubt, you didn’t even think about the fact that you could lose some audience by doing a jazzier record?

PB: (laughs)

JazzUSA: Some people worry about that and you laugh.

PB: (laughs harder) whoa, man.

JazzUSA: Why is it funny?

PB: Heck no, I don’t think about that. That never would enter into my mind. I’m honest and true about what I do and why I’m doing it. You can’t go through life second-guessing yourself thinking about what if somebody doesn’t like stuff. You’ll never arrive at your destiny that way.

JazzUSA: What about a new Earth, Wind & Fire recording?

PB: We’re doing that with Wyclef, and Eric Benet and Dee-Lite in between touring this year, we’re going into the studio and doing those.

JazzUSA: Is there a record deal? PN: Yeah, we’re on Wyclef’s label. We’re signed to him. We’re going to do this record with release for 2000.

JazzUSA: Which is the 30th anniversary of the release of the very first Earth, Wind & Fire album. Now, you weren’t with the band yet, now correct me if I’m wrong, even before “Last Days & Times,” the band third record, but your first, you had known the band before.

PB: Yeah, I knew the band. Actually, we used to perform their songs.

JazzUSA: What songs?

PB: Earth, Wind & Fire songs in my band.

JazzUSA: No kidding. You mean early Earth, Wind & Fire songs.

PB: Yes. We did “I Think About Loving You,” and (starts to sing) “where you’re gonna run, starts to get higher, better come down…

JazzUSA: Gonna be a fire. Right. That’s “Moment Of Truth,”

PB: Yeah, we did all that stuff.

JazzUSA: So how did you meet?

PB: Well their band did a promotional show in Colorado and our band opened the show and that’s how we met. Obviously, we didn’t play their songs when we saw them. But, I caught their attention, me and (keyboardist) Larry Dunn; we were in the other band. That’s how it happened.

JazzUSA: So they just swept you out of Denver?

PB: That next year, a mutual friend of both bands moved out to Los Angeles to work for Warner Brothers, (the record company Earth, Wind & Fire was originally signed to.) And he brought me out there and then when they started to reform, that’s how I got into the band.

JazzUSA: Did you ever feel like it was fate, after you had been in the band for a while?

PB: Oh definitely, there were no accidents. It was just totally the way God wanted to do something.

JazzUSA: My favorite solo record of yours is “The Wonders Of His Love,” Although it’s a gospel album, you and George Duke are just kicking throughout that album. How is your gospel career going? Are you going to continue that?

PB: I’ve gotta find a writer/producer to help me out, the right person.

JazzUSA: But it’s something you definitely want to do?

PB: I’m definitely am going to do it.