Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire

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9780670785889: Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire

A revealing and heartfelt memoir from the lead singer of the legendary Earth, Wind & Fire

With more than ninety million records sold and eight Grammy awards throughout its forty-year history, Earth, Wind & Fire has staked its claim as one of the most successful, influential, and beloved acts in music history. Now, for the first time, its dynamic lead singer Philip Bailey chronicles the group’s meteoric rise to stardom and his own professional and spiritual journey.

Never before had a musical act crossed multiple styles and genres with a quixotic blend of astrology, Universalism, and Egyptology as Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) did when it exploded into the public’s conscience during the 1970s. The group’s shows became sensory experiences with their dramatic staging, shimmering costumes, elaborate choreography, baffling magic tricks and a thumping backbeat. At the center of it the group was its charismatic founder Maurice White and Bailey, with his soaring multi-octave range and distinctive falsetto. After being signed by recording titan Clive Davis, EWF went on to produce a remarkable series of platinum and gold albums and headline stadiums around the world. As Philip and Maurice were profoundly influenced by genius producer Charles Stepney, as well as famed arranger David Foster, EWF elevated Sly Stone’s multiethnic “I Wanna Take You Higher” message to an even higher level.

Bailey hit the wall due to fame, fortune, and the excesses of global succes. The constant touring and performing took its toll on him publicly and privately. While White and Bailey’s relentless work ethic shot the band into the stratosphere, it also exhausted and emotionally gutted the group. In 1983, White abruptly dismantled the band, leaving Bailey and the rest of the members to fend for themselves. As a solo act, Bailey recorded “Easy Lover,” a worldwide smash duet with Phil Collins, launching the next stage of his career until EWF reunited later that decade.

Shining Star is the true story of what happens when real life exceeds your dreams, when the power and pain of building a legacy brings both joy and faith-testing challenges.

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About the Author:

Philip Bailey is an iconic American R&B, pop, soul, jazz, and gospel singer/songwriter/percussionist best known as the lead singer of Earth, Wind & Fire. Bailey has won seven Grammy awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of EWF in 2000. He lives in Southern California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prelude

The Concept


Looking back and upon reflection, Earth, Wind & Fire’s premier mission has been to raise people to a higher level of consciousness. Maurice White—our founder, visionary, and mentor—called it “the Concept.” He’d sit me down, and we’d talk about it for hours. He stressed the importance of the Concept. He had drawings, charts, and schematics of the band detailing the Concept.

“Always be strong talking about the Concept,” he emphasized.

It was 1972 in Los Angeles, the year Motown Records relocated from Detroit to the West Coast. Maurice White’s brainchild musical ensemble had already released two albums on Warner Brothers Records, the self-titled Earth, Wind & Fire and The Need to Love in 1970 and 1971, respectively. They were ambitious, eclectic re- leases that explored the tenets of soul, jazz, blues, and other facets of American music. Yet when disagreements over direction and leadership clouded the picture, in 1971 Maurice promptly dis- solved the Warner lineup. He started over in early 1972, having left Chicago for Southern California. The second time around, he was advised to enlist a group of young, eager players he could guide and who would inject more vitality and energy into the group.

That’s how I came to join Earth, Wind & Fire. I was a twenty- one-year-old “country” lad, arriving in Los Angeles from Denver with a pregnant wife and a large duffel bag—big enough to hold my conga drums.

Maurice, the tall, slim, and dapper singer, composer, and drummer of EWF, had auditioned and then assembled an ambitious eight-piece group of mostly anxious rookies. I was the third member to join a lineup that included me as a singer-percussionist, Maurice’s lanky brother, Verdine White, on bass, singer Jessica Cleaves from the slick R&B pop group Friends of Distinction, local Los Angeles drummer Ralph Johnson, horn player Ronnie Laws (younger brother of jazz flautist Hubert Laws), guitarist Ro- land Bautista, and keyboardist Lorenzo (Larry) Dunn, who had migrated to LA alongside me from Denver.

Spring 1972 had sprung some impressive R&B superstars and megahits: Sly and the Family Stone were at their creative peak with “Family Affair.” The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” was a sexy across-the-board success, and Al Green tore it up with the silky “Let’s Stay Together.” All three became timeless smash cross- over hits on both the R&B and Top 40 charts.

Earth, Wind & Fire had just been signed to Columbia Records. Things were happening pretty fast. We had just wowed the label staff at their national convention and were in the process of recording our Columbia debut album, Last Days and Time. Yet when it came time to hit the road and solidify our skills as a working road band in order to spread our musical gospel, we had a ways to go. Maurice had hit many a brick wall getting his band to the per- forming stage, so to speak. Whenever we had an important gig lined up, particularly on the East Coast, something would go wrong at the last minute, and the tour or the dates would be canceled. There were times when I was on my way to the airport, only to find out at the airline gate that our gigs had fallen through . . . again. It must have been doubly frustrating for Maurice, our fear- less leader, though he didn’t let on at the time. Later, I was to realize at first hand what a gargantuan and supremely demanding undertaking it took, year in and year out, to keep a band this large out on the road.

Even though we were newly signed to Columbia, these were the shoestring touring days of EWF. We’d load the band and our gear into station wagons and weave our way around the East Coast. We weren’t exactly traveling in style, but we were safe; that is, as long as Verdine wasn’t driving. We loved Verdine’s solid bass lines, but he got the prize for being the worst driver in the band. He would jerk the wheel and head straight into oncoming traffic on busy city streets. Maurice had this big old twelve-passenger green van that we drove around LA. It was the only vehicle we drove besides Maurice’s car. You can’t imagine how that poor van looked after Verdine had driven it for a few consecutive days, all the dents where he didn’t quite make the corners, the paint on its back and sides a mass of scratches and scrapes.

One day we received a call about a performance in Philadelphia. We agreed to do the gig for Georgie Woods, a legendary deejay and promoter who booked concerts at the Uptown Theatre, a 2,000-seater built in 1927 in Philly. The Uptown, at 2240 North Broad Street, was nearly as sacred as Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater in New York City. It was part of the so-called chitlin’ circuit, which African American acts toured on for years. (I would find out later that we had barely enough money to get to the gig in Philly. We would need to book some extra, fill-in college shows to earn enough money to make it back home to California.)

We were sandwiched in with two other acts on the bill at the Uptown, which also included an eleven-piece funk outfit called New Birth and the velvety R&B vocal group The Manhattans. New Birth, led by composer-producer Harvey Fuqua (who would later produce Marvin Gaye’s album Sexual Healing), had a male and female lead-singer combo like us, but they also played James Brown–style licks and imitated the Godfather of Soul’s vocal lines on one of their songs.

Talk that talk! Get on down! Get on the good foot!

The Manhattans were newly signed to Columbia, just like we were, but they were a more traditional doo-wop-styled harmonizing R&B group. Their latest radio song at the time, “One Life to Live,” had a buttery spoken-word groove going, with seductive doo-wop harmonies underneath.

Compared to The Manhattans and New Birth, our music was sure to sound quite revolutionary, and far from what the more traditional black audiences at the Uptown might expect. We often threw in bits of free jazz mixed with African world beats, Afro- Cuban rhythms, and our own brand of layered vocals, which included Jessica’s, Maurice’s tenor, and my falsetto. Nobody was playing anything like that at the time. We included fusion-styled jams left over from the Warner albums, along with a unique arrangement of David Gates of Bread’s “Make It with You.” We would throw in an occasional Sly and the Family Stone cover for spice.

Earth, Wind & Fire had a lot of spirit and energy; we were still raw and bodacious. Maurice reminded us, “They’re either going to like us or hate us. We don’t want anything in between, and we don’t want to be middle of the road, like those doo-wop groups.” As for our look, Maurice encouraged us to be creative with our wardrobe. No way would we don matching suits like The Spinners, nor did we want to go onstage dressed down in jeans and T-shirts like The Allman Brothers. We aimed for a unique flair, only we didn’t have much money for stage clothes. We raided the LA costume stores, the Capezio dance shops, and used-clothing joints in Hollywood, picking up anything that caught our attention as flamboyant and different. We wore long thermal underwear with brightly colored vests and makeshift belts! Our good friend Jean Jones crocheted big floppy knit hats for us—the same kind she knitted for Sly Stone in the early days.

When we arrived for load-in at the Uptown, the other bands on the bill looked at our motley troupe as if we were cuckoo — probably not too differently from how the pioneering hip-hoppers were treated by the older, more established African American mu- sic establishment. We paid no attention to the doo-wop bands. We were too much into our thing. The chitlin’ circuit concept was old hat; to our young aggregation, it was definitely dated. Maurice had a loftier Concept in mind—one that would signify universal love and spiritual enlightenment.

After we finished our brief sound check, we told Georgie the promoter that we were headed back to our hotel. Georgie and his stage manager got very upset with us—we were breaking the Up- town tradition of brotherhood by bolting for the door early. “We don’t do that around here,” he explained to us. “Y’all stay here all day long until you hit that stage.”

Maurice, thin and lean, had a certain swagger about him—a stylish look that he brought with him from Chicago. Both Maurice and Verdine wore sharp, citified short-brimmed hats, smooth silk shirts, and lean bell-bottom pants. With EWF, Maurice wanted to bring the same sense of theater and flash to the stage. EWF was about more than just playing songs and performing. But how would we distinguish ourselves from the other two bands on the bill that night?

Maurice assembled the entire group inside our cramped dressing room. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said in the huddle. “When the curtain opens, we’re going to be sitting on the stage, looking right back at the audience.”

My response was skeptical. “Are you sure?”

“That’s what we’re gonna do,” Maurice reiterated. “Then slowly we’ll each get up and individually go to our instruments and start to play.”

When we were introduced by the emcee, as the curtain rose, there we were, stoically sitting on the Uptown’s dirty, sticky stage floor, staring back at the audience as if we were the masters of the universe.

We were roundly booed by the crowd. We still didn’t move.

Then came more hostility.

“Get off the stage! You guys stink!”

A typically tough Philly horde.

The audience laughed and heckled the band. But we remained motionless on the floor, in the lotus position as Maurice had coached us, transfixed in meditation mode, staring blissfully at the audience. Maurice reassured us: We should sit and be silent. As the hostile Philly crowd began to throw stuff onto the stage, we stared straight ahead, quiet as church mice. I was frightened but obedient to Maurice’s vision. As things calmed down to an awkward pause, the crowd saw that we weren’t going to budge. Maurice made the first move, playing notes on his kalimba, a small handheld hurdy-gurdy-sounding exotic African instrument that he plucked with his thumbs.

We opened our set with “Power,” an extended instrumental jam the band had recently written in the recording studio. It started out quiet and peaceful with tinkling notes from Maurice’s kalimba. Then Roland Bautista stood up, adding a tight but slightly dissonant wah-wah rhythm guitar. Ronnie Laws popped up next, grabbing his soprano saxophone and weaving in some fluid jazzy countermelodies. Then Larry Dunn added spiky clavichord changes from his keyboards. Our drummer, Ralph Johnson, kicked into a tight 4/4 medium-tempo backbeat. Next, Verdine slid into a hypnotic, rolling power bass line. Finally, I ran over to the congas and joined in. As the band kicked into high gear, the audience was now bobbing and moving to our new brand of rhythmic fusion. The EWF spaceship had just taken off, and the crowd stood up. The room was sonically airborne.

We blew the audience’s minds that night. By the time the song was over, the crowd was wildly applauding. We’d won them over! As “Reese” (one of Verdine’s nicknames for Maurice) was stroking his kalimba and leading the band, the people sensed that they were hearing something fresh and innovative, an intriguing extension of the whole pride and power movement and a brand-new human-potential experience. As proud African American men (and one woman), we knew we were onto something and that we had connected with our inner selves onstage as well as with the crowd. By the end of our set, we kept the audience on its feet. The heckling had turned into hoots and stomps, awarding us an encore.

The 1972 Uptown Theatre gig was ground zero for Earth, Wind
& Fire. That night set a template for what was to be. We were the ones who broke ranks at that gig in Philly, dressed in colorful, flowing shirts, Capezio ballet shoes, draped in all sorts of chains, bells, and costume jewelry.

When we got back to the hotel in downtown Philadelphia, Mau- rice called an impromptu band meeting. We sensed something unique and very special had just happened that we needed to affirm together. We had hit our mark. It was a huge tribal, ceremonial moment for us. We had heard the people in the backstage area whispering behind our backs, “Them Negroes are straight crazy.”

And maybe we were.

But we were also “strong about the Concept.”

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