Written by: Le Le Symone
After countless awards, induction into Rock & Roll’s Hall of Fame and nearly a dozen CDs that span over 40 years of influence, longevity and hits, what more can possibly be said about Earth, Wind & Fire? Music lovers from any age group can identify at least a handful of their countless hits over the years, and thanks to their collective skills as musicians, writers and vocalists, the catalog is as eclectic as it is extensive (“Reasons,” “Fantasy,” “Let’s Groove,” “September,” “Thinking Of You,” etc.).
Many thought that 2005’s CD, the Grammy-nominated Illumination, was the last hurrah, but according to co-founder, lead vocalist, songwriter and producer Philip Bailey (founder Maurice White retired due to Parkinson’s Disease in the 1990s), they still have duty and desire to share their musical ministry with fans around the globe and will continue with their 20th studio CD, NOW, THEN & FOREVER (which drops Tuesday, Sept. 10), already abuzz due to the latest uptempo groove, “My Promise.”
In the midst of preparing for another US tour, Mr. Bailey was gracious enough to chat with Knowshi about the new music, their legacy and what still humbles them all after so many years in the mix.
LE-LE SYMONE for Knowshi: EW&F was my first-ever concert and I’ve been a fan my entire life Mr. Bailey, it’s an honor to speak with you today.
PHILIP BAILEY: “Oh that’s sweet, thank you.”
Knowshi: From what I’ve heard of the latest CD, there aren’t as many collaborations this time around. Was that unconscious or on-purpose?
PB: “We just wanted to return to the classic sound—we’ve done so many records now that were a departure from that, and my son, Philip Duron Bailey, co-wrote many of the songs and was very instrumental in helping to point our way back to it. We’ve done several songs [on this CD] with several A-list producers (Neal Pogue, Lee Hutson Jr., Siedah Garrett) with us just being the instruments in their hands, but we also reached out to [original keyboardist] Larry Dunn, he contributed keyboards to mostly all of the songs on the project and we wrote several songs together. We just wanted to focus on the sound of EW&F and what it’s always been.”
Knowshi: Do you have any favorites on …Forever?
PB: “My son Philip wrote ‘Splashes’ when he was at school in Berkely and when he first played it as a demo, I told him I could really hear the band playing that. We were also able to get Terence Blanchard to guest on it, so that song has a very special place in my heart. My wife was listening to it and said that ‘Guiding Light’ was a great EW&F song that we’d missed. We’re having fun with the new material, interjecting certain songs into the shows and getting great responses, songs like ‘Dance Floor,’ ‘My Promise’ and ‘Love Is Law.'”
Knowshi: How did you all hook up with Lee Hutson Jr. and Siedah Garrett?
PB: “Those came about through Neal Pogue, he brought all of the people to the project and produced several songs. The single with Siedah’s great, what else can you say about her other than that she’s a consummate writer, vocalist and great person.”
Knowshi: You’re all over the new music singing in both the baritone and the falsetto range, how do you maintain it? Do you have a regimen you follow or….
PB: “Me and Maurice are the sound of the band vocally, so we’re both able to sing ‘up and down.’ When he left, I just had to step up and it gave me the opportunity to, night in and night out, use the full registers of my voice. I am a baritone, I studied operatic baritone in college and I always had the falsetto because I would mimic the female vocalists that I loved, like Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn, Dionne Warwick.
As far as keeping it up, I know the things I can do and what I can’t do. I can’t take a lot of air conditioning—that is like kryptonite—and Coca-Cola is….I don’t drink Coca-Cola.”
Knowshi: Really? What does that do?
PB: “I found that out the hard way when I was doing a gig—I needed something to drink, got some Coca-Cola, went back to the mic and it just said ‘AAAAACK’! (laughs) No voice at all. I sounded like the ‘Aflac’ duck, no voice. So brown sodas….mmm-mmm.”
Knowshi: I learned something new today, wow. Another thing I wanted to ask you, Mr. Bailey—Mint Condition gave you a tribute last year at your request and they speak very, very highly and fondly of you. Is there a chance that you two bands will unite and record?”
PB: “Well, we think highly of them too—their praise of us is very kind, I’ve always liked their band and Stokley is an amazingly talented singer, songwriter and producer. I sure would love to do something together, so maybe if you put it out in the air, it can happen.”
Knowshi: Oh certainly, right when this is published! I know we’ve got to wrap it up now Mr. Bailey, but I’m curious about one last thing—you’ve won practically every honor there is as a performer, but which one stands out to you the most?”
PB: “The thing that we’re the most proud of is our relationship with President Obama. I don’t think there’s anything that tops that, to be asked on three different occasions to serve your country and President. The last time we performed, he just came up in Docker pants and a T-shirt saying, ‘That’s my jam!’ (laughing) And when someone does that, you know you’ve got a black president.”