For a musical figure with an illustrious past and a busy present, Philip Bailey has somehow remained firmly focused on the future. “I look at my whole career as part of constantly building, maturing and growing,” explains Bailey. “For me, the gift of making music is all about evolving. It’s always been about taking that next step.”From his childhood in Denver — not exactly a hotbed of R&B — through decades productively creating, recording and performing a wide range of music both as a shining star with Earth, Wind & Fire and as a successful solo artist in multiple genres, Philip Bailey has consistently gone to all sorts of interesting musical places.”Once you get inside a form of music and understand where it’s coming from — its origin and all the people who make it — there’s a world of people and sounds out there and music is the perfect chance for exploration. Music allows people to go places that perhaps they’ll never be able to travel to. But through the music, you can bring them a different part of the world, a different world of sound. I believe that’s part of the reason I am still excited and enamored with the world of music. The fact that I get to explore all these different types of music and experience all of these collaborations keeps my pulse going musically.”
As Bailey recalls, “My mother told me that I was singing before I was talking. Music was my first language.” Indeed, Bailey has had a love and appreciation for all kinds of music from an extremely early age. He grew up listening to country, to Top Ten radio, to folk music and to jazz, after discovering Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the record collection of his mother’s friend.
The impact of Earth, Wind & Fire has been such that some critics even dubbed the group “The Black Beatles,” a reflection of the power of the music the group has made. “Our message is one of love, but also more about being conscious,” Bailey says. “We’re about trying to wake people up to life and all that’s out there. My voice is my instrument — beyond being a percussionist — and you never stop discovering the instrument and learning things through a lifetime, through a journey. I’ve never looked at putting a period there. It’s about moving forward.”
That forward-thinking approach to music, and to life itself, has been at the heart of Bailey’s solo career that began with 1982’s Continuation, and the 1984 platinum follow-up Chinese Wall, produced by Phil Collins and featuring their global smash duet “Easy Lover.”
“It was liberating to work outside the group,” Bailey says now. “With the solo stuff, I had the opportunity to work far beyond what was expected of me within the group and use the full range of my instrument without any reservation whatsoever.”
Rather than simply seek to repeat the successful pattern of Chinese Wall, Bailey has continued to use his solo career to explore. For instance, he released four gospel albums between 1984 and 1991, including the Grammy-winning Triumph in 1986. “Music is a spiritual experience for me, and I was proud to be one of the spearheads at that time in what they called Contemporary Christian Music,” recalls Bailey. “Spirituality that’s always been part of my music.”
In the Nineties, as Bailey continued to help lead Earth, Wind & Fire on the road, and along with White, in the studio as well, Bailey continued to explore his musicality. 1994’s Philip Bailey album was collaboration with Brian McKnight, and members of PM Dawn and Arrested Development. With Dreams, released in 1988, Bailey began his association with the Heads Up label.
It was on 2002’s Soul on Jazz that Bailey was able to begin to focus on singing jazz in a new way that continues to excite and challenge him as a musician. “Jazz is to me the true essence of musicality.”
His desire to explore has kept Bailey engaged at a time when other distinguished artists might start resting on his laurels. Instead, Bailey excitedly discusses future challenges and recent passions — including his recent passion for electronica music. “For instance, I’ve been listening to a lot of Imogen Heap recently, and as soon as I can figure it out a little more, that sort of influence will probably be all over whatever solo album I make next.” Bailey says.
Similarly, recalling two recent visits to the famed Berklee College of Music — including one at which Bailey was named as an honorary Doctor of Music — he is characteristically quick to mention not all that he taught, but rather all that he learned from this experience.
As Bailey — who also recently received a honorary doctorate from Columbia College in Chicago– says of his Berklee experience, “Those fantastic young musicians all taught me so much. And as long as I can keep learning, I feel I’m doing what I was put here to do.”