Q&A: Philip Bailey–‘Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind and Fire’

Philip Bailey_credit Randee St Nicholas_Tishaun DawsonEarth, Wind and Fire is unquestionably one of music’s most influential, respected and  internationally acclaimed bands; through numerous awards and recognition including six Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, the group has long ago solidified its place in music history.

In Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind and Fire, in addition to addressing his own personal and professional journey, lead singer Philip Bailey details the highs and lows of the group’s early days, the inspiration behind some of its biggest hits, and the story behind the group’s abrupt disbandment by its leader, Maurice White.

Today, led by Bailey, along with Verdine White and Ralph Johnson, Earth, Wind and Fire has remained a force in the entertainment industry. SoulTrain.com spoke with Bailey about the book and the rich legacy of one of music’s biggest and boldest bands ever.

SoulTrain.com: When you first decided to write the book, how did you envision the big picture?

Philip Bailey: It’s as important to know what you don’t want to do as it is to know what you do want to do. I knew that I didn’t want to write a book that was just all the flattering and the accolades. I thought that would be quite boring. I wanted to put some real life into the book; besides the recording and career stuff, there’s actually a life that goes on for us who are in the public eye. I wanted to also tie together what our inspiration was for writing a lot of the songs and why we chose to lyrically address or not address certain things. It’s all been in keeping with who we are, who we wanted to become and the legacy we want to leave.

SoulTrain.com: You were in several bands in Colorado during your late teens; however, did you ever foresee being a part of something that would become as legendary as Earth, Wind and Fire?

Philip Bailey: I don’t think I was really thinking that far in advance; I was just really enamored with music and was following that trail to try to be the best musician and find as much fulfillment in that as I could.

SoulTrain.com: In the book, even long after joining Earth, Wind and Fire, you describe your relationship with Maurice White as that of mentor-leader. Can you tell us more about this bond?

Philip Bailey: Much respect to Maurice, who was definitely like my big brother of sorts, a father figure of sorts, and in another way, a best friend and a mentor. It was just one of those things and given the fact that I didn’t have a lot of male counterparts growing up, Maurice ended up being one of, if not the biggest, male influences in my life.

SoulTrain.com: You were a trained baritone but initially, you weren’t aware of your falsetto, let alone your multi-octave range; also, once you first got to California to join the group, your main focus was percussion instead of vocals. Why?

Philip Bailey: The drums were always first and my aspirations were to be a percussionist and be in symphonies, do records and everything. As far as singing goes, I knew I could do it and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t actually change to “Okay, you are born to be the front man” until after I got in Earth, Wind and Fire. That’s when I said, “Okay, I gotta focus more on that.

SoulTrain.com: Speaking of your falsetto, one of Earth, Wind and Fire’s mega-hits, “Reasons,” is a ballad that was born out of a conversation you had with Maurice White about fidelity and relationships. In the book, you note the misconception many fans seem to have about the meaning of the song, especially those who play it at weddings. Would you like to set the record straight here?

Philip Bailey: In the lyrics it says, “After all our reasons why, all our reasons were a lie;” in other words, all this stuff you’re feeling for this person—like looking at the booty—then after you “hit it”—the luster is gone. “Reasons” clearly says that. I think it’s great if people are in love with that tune which is very romantic and sexy, but it’s just not a tune you should play at your wedding; if you do, your wedding will become your funeral! [Laughs]

SoulTrain.com: In the book, you wrote about how things took a turn once the industry changed and became more focused on individual stars rather than “big bands.” How would you say that affected you and the group as a whole?

Philip Bailey: Not only was it changing in terms of the support from the record company, but looking back, your fan base grows and goes on to other interests and then different fans are on the radar. Everyone goes through their serious highs and lows in this industry, especially if you have some longevity. We went through that period that I call “no man’s land,” where there were [acts like] BBD and Keith Sweat—and we’re doing Budweiser [Superfest] dates—not headlining them—we’re just on the same bill. And there were times when we were on the bill and the crowd was not necessarily with it. We were playing gigs in the same arenas that we were [once] packing out and the backstage was a madhouse but then, the backstage became a ghost town and we were only selling 3,000 tickets in a 15,000-seat arena. But we made it through and in the last 20 years since I’ve been leading the group with Verdine, it’s never slowed down. Internationally, the band is still very sought after and we tour every single year the way we like to.

SoulTrain.com: Earth, Wind and Fire’s songs were regularly played throughout Soul Train’s run; however, the group never made an appearance on the show. How did that happen?

Philip Bailey: We didn’t want to lip sync and Don Cornelius didn’t [really] let you have set-ups so that you could play live. Maurice didn’t want us to lip sync so we just never did Soul Train. I did perform as a soloist on the show, though.

SoulTrain.com: Throughout the book, Maurice White’s leadership style and his control over every major aspect of the group is mentioned. At a point, you believed he was “overwhelmed and over-leveraged,” which ultimately led to him disbanding the group. From the financial and business management side of things, do you regret not being more interested or hands-on?

Philip Bailey: Not really, but all that is in the past. It didn’t make any difference not actually being more hands-on or involved because the bottom line is that I wouldn’t have been able to help much with that, anyway. I didn’t have any knowledge of the things he was dealing with in terms of management, touring and all that kind of stuff and it wasn’t until I went solo that I got baptized with that. After having the success with “Easy Lover,” when I came back to Earth, Wind and Fire in the late 90s, it was then that I could work with Maurice across the table. He saw how taking all that responsibility had worn on him. I came back with another understanding—not in an egotistical way—but having a lot more confidence about being able to be more of an asset, and he was very much with that.

SoulTrain.com: You’ve had the role as the band’s lead for some time now; given your earlier experiences, how would you describe your leadership style?

Philip Bailey: I still try to look at the things that were done that could have been done better and I try to make sure that I don’t make those same mistakes. I try to make sure that Earth, Wind and Fire is more about “family” in terms of the road, touring, holidays and so forth. When we were doing it back then, holidays really didn’t mean that much and family was not necessarily a welcome sight in the mix, so that part has changed. But the main things, as far as the concept that Maurice drew out in such detail, is what I’ve had to go back and rediscover to get back to just who Earth, Wind and Fire is. There are certain things you don’t want to reinvent; you really just want to continue the legacy.

SoulTrain.com: Given that it’s the title of your book, message wise, the song “Shining Star” has special meaning for you—you even call your social media followers your “shining stars.” Tell us why this ideal resonates with you.

Philip Bailey:  I had very humble beginnings with all the drama I grew up under, but my whole message is that your past is your past and it doesn’t have to define who you are or who you become. You are that shining star no matter what the situation is. That resonated with me when we wrote the song and I think it’s a message a lot of people still need to hear.

SoulTrain.com: In the book, you are very forthcoming about certain choices you made in both your personal and professional life. Looking back, what would this Philip Bailey tell that Philip Bailey?

Philip Bailey: I don’t know if that guy would listen! I think there are certain things that wisdom will teach you but you will reject them. At age 63, there are a lot of things I’d like to tell him, but I just don’t think he would listen.

SoulTrain.com: Love Is Real is your 12th solo project; can you tell us more about it?

Philip Bailey: The reason I did Love is Real was prior to us doing [20th studio album] Now, Then & Forever, I got tired of not being in the studio. Now, don’t misunderstand me; you do need a big conglomerate to actually market and distribute and promote properly; however, because of social networking, you don’t necessarily have to have a record label anymore to get music out to people. If you just want to do some music and get it out there, you can. So that’s what I did with Love is Real. I’ve always felt that I can’t let the business dictate my enthusiasm and fervor and enjoyment of the art form.

SoulTrain.com: From diehard fans to aspiring musicians, what do you want readers to take away from this book?

Philip Bailey: I would like them to take the work in progress and the grace of God that’s been seriously brought in my life and for them all to know that grace. That’s really what the book is. And if somebody’s going through some things, they can find some inspiration from it, too. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind and Fire is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

~LaShawn Williams

LaShawn Williams is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former Arts & Culture Editor for Gapers Block. She is an arts and entertainment enthusiast with immense love for stand-up comedy, music and dance. Follow her on Twitter at @MsWilliamsWorld.

4 Comments

  1. Crystal says:

    Excellent interview. I learned a few things I didn’t know before.

  2. Stephen McMillian says:

    Excellent interview LaShawn! Really enjoyed it. When I interviewed Larry Dunn of EWF, he told me that they had never appeared on Soul Train, but only allowed for concert clips to be shown of them in 1978.

  3. Shameika R says:

    great interview! I had no idea they were never on Soul Train.. interesting.

  4. precise_chi says:

    WOW!!! I’ve been singing “Reasons” for all the wrong reasons…lol That is so hilarious. Thats a lesson to listen. Great Interview. This provides me energy to keep pushing.

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