Recorded July 2, 2010
For 40 years, Philip Bailey has been an integral part of one of music's most successful bands: Earth, Wind & Fire. And like the elements, his love for the music has endured and evolved as he reveals to Darnell Meyers-Johnson...
Darnell Meyers-Johnson: So good day, everyone. This is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m going to be speaking with a living legend: he is a seven-time Grammy Award-winner; he is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer; he is a Songwriters Hall of Famer; he is co-founder of one of the most influential bands in the history of music. He is funk, he is jazz, he is soul, he is gospel: he is the one and only Mr. Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire. How are you, sir?
Philip Bailey: I’m pretty good. Hey, I’d like to add to that I’m also a double Doctorate.
DMJ: There you go! The list goes on, right?
PB: Yeah. It’s an honour from Berklee School of Music and Columbia University of Music. You know, I just wanted to give them a plug.
DMJ: That’s awesome. So how does it feel when you hear those long lists of accomplishments and accolades? How does that make you feel?
PB: It feels nice. Gratifying, in a certain respect. I don’t think that I really focus on that. I feel humbled and thankful for the things that I’ve been able to accomplish; for the accolades and things that have been bestowed upon me in my career. At the same time, I’m very much so focused on the present: on doing new music, and keeping the Earth, Wind & Fire household in order, and staying on top of our game, professionally and emotionally, physically and spiritually, until… I don’t really give it too much thought.
DMJ: I hear you. And we are going to cover some of that ground. I know that you have a new EP that just came out, and you guys are on a summer tour, so we’ll get to some of that. But first, I do want to congratulate you on your recent induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. That was just a couple of weeks ago, right?
PB: Yes, it was, and it was quite exciting. I got a chance to perform “Easy Lover” with Phil—
PB: —for the first time since we did it, and that was a lot of fun. And then performing “September” with the original guys, with the original writers, Al (McKay) and Larry Dunn, myself, Verdine (White)… Maurice (White) wasn’t able to make it because he had a son that graduated, his graduation was that same night. But he was very highly spoken of.
DMJ: That’s awesome. It’s funny that you mentioned the Phil Collins duet, because as I was feeling people out and letting them know that I was going to be speaking with you, that’s what a lot of people mentioned. It kind of caught me by surprise, I mean, I know that’s one of your biggest hits, but it just seemed like everyone was like, “Oh, ask him about the Phil Collins song.” [Laughs] So you guys got to do that after so many years?
PB: We did, and it was a lot of fun. And…
DMJ: Have you—
PB: I beg your pardon?
DMJ: I’m sorry, I interrupted you. You were saying?
PB: No, I was just saying it was a lot of fun, and people really enjoyed it.
DMJ: So, speaking of the fact that you’ve been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, that kind of gives a lot of credence to the fact that… ( connection failure)
PB: Wow. I think I might have lost you.
DMJ: Just a second. Can you hear me?
PB: Hello, you there?
PB: Okay, you came back.
DMJ: Okay, I’m not sure where we interrupted, so I’m just going to go back—
PB: You said—I lost you on credence.
DMJ: Oh, okay. I was just trying to make a point: the fact that you guys have been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame really speaks to the fact that what has been part of your longevity is the fact that you had so many good songs. And so I was just wondering: when you’re out and about, or maybe afterwards at concerts and whatnot, which song is the one that you get the most feedback from the fans about?
PB: Well, there’s not any one particular one, ’cause like you said, there are so many that are peoples’ personal favourites, and all that, but I think possibly the one that has the most universal, one hundred per cent, you know, hands-down… it would have to be “September”.
DMJ: Oh, okay. Yeah. And why do you think that is, with that particular song? Why do you think that one reaches people a little more than the others?
PB: Well, it’s a good, happy-feeling song. And the hook is so catchy and simple. In fact, when we wrote the song—well, when Al and them wrote the song, I thought that the song was personally too simplistic to be a hit. I was like, “Man, that’s too simple.” But little did I know, you know, almost forty years later, that that one’s still going strong.[laughs].
DMJ: It still works. It’s kind of like “Shining Star”. When I listen to “Shining Star”, that seems… I mean, the message in that just seems really, you know, it’s not… lyrically, it’s not overpowering. There’s not a lot of symbolism, necessarily. I mean: shining star. You get it. But it seems rather simple too, in a good, positive way.
PB: Yeah, but I think that… “Shining Star”, from a conceptual standpoint, a lyrical standpoint, it’s a lot more weightier than “September”, I thought. You know, because of what it’s really talking about, you know: whoever you are, in your own eyes, in your own humanity, you know that you are significant. That you are a shining star, and no matter what you’re going through, or whatever, no matter where you are, that that light, that glow, and stuff, is still your choice, to actually shine. So, it’s a little more weightier in its philosophical standpoint.
DMJ: Now that also brings me to the point that a lot of your songs have had this sort of spiritual element to it. I mean, has that been something that just kind of naturally happened, or were you guys purposely trying to put out a healing message?
PB: Well, it’s not only a lot of them, it’s kind of predominant—it’s a predominant thread throughout Earth, Wind & Fire’s lyrical content: that it was our focus to actually speak into the lives or into the hearts of people in a positive, uplifting kind of way. And so for that reason, we really chose to keep that bent on the things that we wrote about; and subsequently, those songs are able to actually speak, even to me, forty years later, in a way I wouldn’t have imagined when we wrote them.
PB: Yeah, songs like “Sing a Song”. When I’ve been going through a bad patch, and still having to perform or work, that song has kind of actually kind of really spoken to me.
PB: Well, not kind of, it has.
DMJ: I can see that, too. I mean, that’s what the beautiful part about positive music, is the fact that it just lives forever, and it doesn’t matter if it was written forty years ago or a hundred years ago, if it’s a—
DMJ: —if it’s a really good song, people still connect with it. So the fact that you guys have always had that spiritual concept throughout your music as Earth, Wind & Fire—did that help you make that progression when you decided, as a solo artist, to go into the gospel arena? With your solo stuff…
PB: Yeah. It wasn’t anything… it was my own personal journey, my own personal faith and beliefs that actually was the catalyst for doing the gospel stuff. I think that from the standpoint of what we were doing, I wanted to just see a lot broader infusion of different types and elements of music and production in the gospel… in the gospel music presentation that I was giving. Kind of typical, or similar to Andre Crouch and how he was able to really break a lot of barriers in gospel, in terms of the way he started to present the message in a lot of different various kinds of genres and styles of music.
DMJ: Now—I’m sorry?
PB: No, I didn’t say anything.
DMJ: Oh, okay. Well, that also… I wanted to also ask you about the fact that throughout your career you’ve touched on so many genres, as I said in the intro. With Earth, Wind & Fire you kind of had that funk sound; you guys even went through a little bit of the disco movement; on your own solo stuff you’ve touched on jazz and gospel—all these different things you’ve influenced people in so many different ways. I’m just wondering, who influenced you, way back when you were a teenager?
PB: Well, all those people in those different genres, from jazz: Miles Davis and Coltrane, and the like, to Mahalia Jackson and gospel, and you know… Morgana King, Nat Cole… then, you know, Gershwin; all of the classical stuff; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, you know… just a lot of different stuff. I was raised in (Denver) Colorado, so there was a lot of country and middle-America stations. And I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, so I was a hippie.
PB: [Laughs] So you know, playing everything.
DMJ: One of the songs I wanted to ask you about that you guys did as Earth, Wind & Fire that you did not write was a cover of “Got to Get You Into My Life”, the Beatles. Did you guys ever get any feedback from any of the Beatles in terms of what they thought of your cover? Because I think that, next to theirs, yours is probably the most well-known.
PB: I can’t really remember if… obviously we did it for the ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’ movie, which they were a part of. We didn’t do our taping or our visual part at the same time they were present, so we didn’t get a chance to meet them. We did meet Sir Paul (McCartney) when we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Didn’t speak much about the song, though.
PB: So I’m not sure.
DMJ: [Laughs] Okay. And speaking of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, just… people like myself, who will never have that moment, we won’t know how it feels, so we kind of have to live vicariously through those who have been there like yourself—so, explain to me, as best you can remember, being there and what that feeling felt like to you?
PB: Well, it starts out like a typical, industry event, with the red carpet and the whole thing. I think that when it really gets serious is when you’re sitting there, and you’re going through this chain of people who have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: all of whom have contributed so much, not only to music but the world in general, and culture, and changed culture, and all that. And to be named amongst them, to know that you’re going to be named in the same breath with all of those great people—and then, the people who have not been inducted, who have done even more significant things than some who have been inducted, is a really humbling experience. And one that you try to hold onto, take in and savour the moment.
DMJ: Okay. Now, of all those things that you’ve accomplished, and I know that, as you said earlier, you put a lot of your current-day focus on what’s happening now—and we are going to talk about the new project in just a moment—but of all those accomplishments; all the songs, all the awards, all the concerts… which, of your many accomplishments do you feel the most proud of?
PB: I probably would have to say… I’d have to say the honorary doctorate from Berkeley would have to be amongst the top.
DMJ: Okay, and why is that?
PB: Because I’ve always been a serious student of music, and I was in college, it was always a goal and aspiration of mine to finish. I never could have dreamt in my wildest imagination that a prestigious college, university of music would honour me in any way, much less bestow on me a doctorate degree, an honorary doctorate. It takes so much work, so much dedication, so much knowledge and skill for people to get those, the work that they have to put in… so they don’t go through that process and do that, you know, light of heart or mind or soft. You know, it’s a whole process. The honour was very, very big, to receive that. My son actually graduated from Berkeley—the one who’s singing with us now—but he did the work. [Laughs]
PB: And they honoured us for our work we’ve done globally, and internationally, and for the time in which we have done it.
DMJ: Right, so that brings me to something I was going to wait a little later to ask, but since we’re kind of on it already: what would be the advice that you would give students of music, whether they’re doing it formally, in an institution, or whether they’re in a band somewhere, just starting out… what would be your best piece of advice for them in terms of how to have the sort of longevity that you’ve had?
PB: Well, I think that first and foremost of I would probably say to do it as much and as often as you possibly can, whatever you’re doing: whatever instrument, whatever field you’re doing, do it all the time, ’cause that really pays dividends. And then the other thing for people in the arts now is, they have to be multi-dimensional, in terms of not only their own talents and abilities to the art, but in the wheres and the how-to's of how to market and distribute and promote their own products. Now that has become part and parcel of the idea of becoming a successful artist. You have to know those things, and be almost as passionate about those things as you are about the music.
DMJ: So it’s no longer enough to be a good singer or a good guitar player, anymore?
PB: I won’t say it’s no longer enough, I would say it’s going to serve the person who has developed that craft and that skill to also be up on the other aspects of marketing and advertising and producing, and showcasing their talents and abilities. Back in the day, there were few people like Madonna, or other acts such as her who—or Earth, Wind & Fire—who really saw the whole vision, and was really ahead of the curve in terms of how they wanted to be portrayed and how they wanted to be marketed and advertised, and all that and stuff. So now, without the record companies and A&R and all the different departments that were in place to do those things, it’s important that an artist really have a vision for themselves, as well as the talent.
DMJ: Right, because you guys, as Earth, Wind & Fire, you also were very—like you were just saying—you were very visual, even in the concerts, the album covers… so I can understand what you’re saying.
PB: Yeah, we were very instrumental, conceptually, in terms of what the concept of our whole organization was about. And artists nowadays… they have to have that now. Before it was, if you had it, you did; if you didn’t, there were going to be A&R people and whole divisions and floors of folks that would send you from office to office to get that stuff together. And that’s no more.
DMJ: Yeah. So that kind of brings me… we’ll go right into your latest project, which is an EP, ‘Love Is Real’. That was just released a couple of days ago, right?
PB: Yeah, yeah. It’s called ‘Love Is Real’, it’s an EP, it has four songs on it. It’s actually from a forthcoming PB project that we’re going to release at the beginning of the top of the year. The project was really inspired by the electronic genre, ’cause I started to get into it a few years ago, and start to see how many different genres of music were represented in that, and really wanted to just do some more up-tempo music, and not to be pigeonholed to have to out-hip-hop this person, you know, or get bogged down with any type of a lot of barriers. And the electronic genre seems to be a very free-form, freethinking genre, and so that’s why I really got interested in it. And so it’s inspired by that, works with my own camp, you know. Then I worked with Cee-Lo, three weeks to a month ago on his project, and that was very exciting. And I was also listening to his stuff as I was working on this project, there was Gnarls Barkley and the things that he’s been doing, so… it’s a fun project.
DMJ: Yeah, actually I had a chance to listen to it last night. For longtime fans, I think there’s going to be stuff on there that they’re really going to be feeling; there’s going to be stuff that’s going to be maybe a little bit different, that they haven’t heard you do, but I think overall people are going to like it. One of my favourite tracks is actually “You In I”, which kind of has a midtempo, almost kind of jazzy feel, really.
DMJ: What are your reflections on that particular tune?
PB: Well, what we did was, for the entré to the project we chose these particular songs, really, to kind of whet the appetite of the audience. Because I know that my core audience—all of them are not going to be into the direction of some of the music, because it’s not anything expected. And you know, it’s up-tempo, it’s club, you know, it’s…
DMJ: You never really do the expected, anyway. [Laughs]
PB: [Laughs] Right. So, because we were going on tour and we knew we’re playing for a lot of the core audience, we put the songs together that we thought would kind of whet the appetite, but not alienate them, or whatever? But then, the rest of the music is totally a lot more energetic, a lot more club, and just a lot more… it’s just fun. It’s just up-tempo, lot of energy.
DMJ: Now I do want to ask you about one other track on it. It was the one that was inspired by the Haiti earthquake: “We’re Going to Make It”. That’s kind of different for you, that whole sound of that tune. What are your reflections on that, and how that came about?
PB: Well, we were in the thralls of the end of the project when that catastrophe happened, and we were inspired to write that song as a result of what happened. So that’s how that came about.
DMJ: And also what’s different on that song, because people are so used to you singing in that well-known falsetto of yours, but on that particular tune you’re kind of more in your almost natural, I guess a baritone voice.
DMJ: Did you make that conscious decision, to not go high on that particular tune, or…?
PB: It’s just how you… it’s just where the song is. When you write the song, you don’t really—I’m not really thinking of if I’m going to be high or if I’m going to be low, but—just where the song is written.
DMJ: Just how you feel it?
PB: Yeah, how it’s written, yeah.
DMJ: And since we’re talking about that, just very briefly, speak a little bit about your vocal range. Did you have training, or was that just a complete, natural-born gift? Just speak on that for just for just a little bit.
PB: I didn’t get that part.
DMJ: I was saying, regarding your vocal range, can you just speak on whether you had any vocal training, or whether it was just something that came completely natural.
PB: Oh, the vocal range came from me—first, God blessed me. But I grew up kind of mimicking female vocalists. I loved Dionne Warwick and Sarah Vaughan, and all that. People like that… like Morgana King, Mahalia Jackson. And the doo-wop era came along, where you had the Stylistics and the Delfonics and all that. So I was always singing that stuff, but, at the same time, I’m a natural baritone and I studied operatic baritone in school.
PB: So it’s always been a challenge to hook up the total instrument, from bottom to top. Like a piano, you know [laughs].
PB: You know, bridge it all together. So on all my projects, I try to showcase the full range of my voice, which is a little more than four octaves.
DMJ: And I’ve got to tell you, one of the main questions of people who haven’t been aware of your stuff lately is: Well, can he still sing? Can he still hit those notes? And I’m just going to say—I know you already know the answer—but I’m just going to say, from listening to the brand-new project last night, that for anybody listening: Yes, he can still hit the notes, and it is also good.
DMJ: So, let me just lastly ask you about, I know you guys are going on a summer tour? Has that already started?
PB: Oh, yeah, I’m in the coffee shop right now. We’re playing tonight in Alpharetta (Georgia). We’ve been touring all summer.
PB: And we leave tomorrow. We’re here in Alpharetta in Georgia now and we play tonight, and tomorrow we go to the Essence Festival in Orlando—I mean, in New Orleans. And then from there we go to Europe, and we’ll be in Europe for three and a half weeks, all over, and then we’ll be back in the States.
DMJ: Okay, and tell me how this particular tour is. Is this a little more scaled-down from what you guys did back in the day, or… what can people expect if they came out to see you?
PB: Obviously we’re not flying, and doing double, multi-tiered stages and all that kind of stuff. Those things are very cost-prohibitive, and you have to be doing stadiums to do that kind of stuff.
PB: But we’re playing between five and seven thousand, to smaller auditoriums; concert halls. The show is very pristine; we have great production, great sound, great musicians, you know, and a great songbook. And we’re still doing our thing at its highest level, so… we’re still having a good time, and we’re still packing them in; the reviews, for people—everything's out there for people to see now, all the reviews they can see for themselves, and see that we get nothing but fabulous reviews, and we try to keep it that way.
DMJ: [Laughs]. Well, just let everybody know, in this world where everybody keeps in touch via the Internet, just let people know—I know you have a Web site, where they can get the new project—just let them know how they could keep in touch with you, technology-speaking-wise.
PB: Right. At Philip Bailey—one L in Philip—at philipbailey.com, and with Earth, Wind & Fire, it’s ewffanclub.com.
DMJ: And they can pick up the new project on… it’s available on iTunes, and—
PB: Yes, and they can download a free song from my project at philipbailey.com.
DMJ: Okay. Well, I do appreciate your time. Is there anything you want to say that we haven’t covered?
PB: No, I think that we’ve done pretty well, you know. I hope that everyone continues to pray about our world and our country, with the oil spills and the wars, and all the rumours of wars, and all the unrest and stuff that’s going on in our world, you know. Continue to pray and continue to love one another, and spread the good music and good vibes.
DMJ: Well, I do appreciate your time. Here at soulmusic.com, any time that you want to come by and speak, you don’t have to have a project, you can just talk any time you want to talk. And so I do appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
PB: Thank you so much.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.