While we live in an era ofgroups reuniting to seek those last vestiges of that iridescent supremacy, very few have been able to maintain that quality of a shining star as enduring as Earth, Wind & Fire. The group has, in its span of 45 years, broken down racial barriers for African-American performers in the pop music genre, with a melding of R&B, soul, jazz, pop, rock, funk, disco, Latin, African and gospel that provided a rump-shaking, hip-thrusting, finger-snapping, worldly groove.
Founder Maurice White formed the group in 1969 and with more than a little help from his friends, went on to sell more than 90 million albums worldwide. In fact in its lifetime, EWF has received a number of accolades. It was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and won a BET Lifetime Achievement Award. Five members — White, Philip Bailey, bassist Verdine White, singer/percussionist Ralph Johnson, and former members keyboardist Larry Dunn and guitarist Al McKay — have been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. This volume of validation typically is bestowed posthumously, but not for EWF.
Oh, just for good measure, the band has been nominated for 20 Grammy Awards, winning six as a group; White and Bailey each have wins as singer-songwriters in the group. And it has 11 American Music Awards nominations and four awards. But who’s counting? The group’s catalog of hits reads like a list music’s greatest pop standards and includes “Shining Star,” “That’s the Way of the World,” “Devotion,” “Reasons,” “Sing a Song,” “Can’t Hide Love,” “Getaway,” “Fantasy,” “Love’s Holiday,” “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “After the Love Has Gone” and “Let’s Groove.”
The band’s 1975 breakthrough album That’s the Way of the World and single “Shining Star” both topped the Billboard album and singles charts, a first for a black group. The album would become certified triple platinum. No one knows greater the good fortune that has and continues to befall the band than Bailey, who joined the band in 1972, three years before this breakout success.
“No one could have envisioned the longevity and the kind of success that we’ve been afforded,” he says. “I am taken aback by the fact that we’re still touring and [we are] appreciative of the fans globally, and the continuing growth of our fans, and the younger fans that have gravitated toward Earth, Wind and Fire music. We [now] have fans from 7 to 70.”
Bailey, 63, is known for his unique a five-octave range and trademark falsetto register. For most of the band’s golden years, he typically handled the higher responsive verses of EWF songs while bandleader White hit the lower, more funk-afied ones.
Bailey, however, has been doing double duty since White quit singing with the band in 1985 after contracting Parkinson’s disease. White, who had been a veteran percussionist with the Ramsey Lewis Trio in the mid-’60s, still helps manage the band. He took a group of young musicians and made them in conveyors of writing, recording and performing music through a theme of universal love and harmony. The timing was right for EWF as it began its journey right on the backside of a decade of civil unrest, war, segregation and a cultural explosion known as the ’60s.
“The fact that we were so young and naïve, and we had nothing but the utmost confidence in Maurice’s experience and the way that he carried himself, not cockiness, but self-assuredness and a self awareness, and a real sense of purpose,” says Bailey.
In addition to touring with EWF, Bailey has just penned Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire with noted biographers Keith and Kent Zimmerman; it describes his life’s journey, before and with EWF. Elements is Bailey’s frank and honest look at the rise and fall and rise again of EWF, and his successive solo career in pop and gospel music, where he has won, all told, seven Grammy Awards. He describes the hiatus the band took in 1984 which led to the release of his first solo LP Chinese Wall and hit single” Easy Lover,” a tune sung with Phil Collins. Those were high watermarks for Bailey before the reuniting of EWF.
And as much as the book touches on musical accomplishments, it deals also with Bailey’s struggles with fame and the temptations of female fans, life as sometimes absentee father and husband on the road, and eventually road to recovery with what he calls ”my personal relationship with God.”
“For myself it really is just an honest self portrait in my life so far and of what we’ve learned and what I have learned, gone through and how I have grown with the grace of God in my life, and how we continue to survive the elements of this business,” Bailey explains.
Besides writing the book, Bailey also had the unique privilege of reading the book for recording purposes to create an audio book. Bailey’s journey hasn’t always been smooth, but it has been a chance to enjoy what he does for a living and more.
“The thing I did not want to do was to write a book that was self-aggrandizement,” he notes. “You know the mission that Maurice had was to do more than make music, but to actually inspire people and to find a need and fill it with our music. I know that my life is much more than for myself and so I try to look for every opportunity to why and how and what God is doing with me and I know it is never just for myself. We don’t live here by ourselves. I wanted to use it as a platform to be a blessing and encouragement to people.”
Not content to ride into the sunset on a greatest hits tour, the band recorded Now, Then & Forever, its first album in eight years, in 2013, and Bailey is not slowing down. He’s working on an EWF holiday album when not on the road.
“So I have a day job, a night job and part-time job — my day job is Earth, Wind & Fire, my night job is [legendary jazz performer/composer] Ramsey Lewis and my part-time job is doing the record,” he adds with a sense of irony and humor.
EWF’s sustaining popularity allowed them to play for President Barack Obama in 2009 as the first artists to play at the White House. They also opened the 2014 Grammy Awards and played at halftime of the 2014 NBA All-Star game. Bailey’s own pet project aside from the band and solo work is his organization Music is Unity — it helps Foster youth transition into adulthood. Bailey started the program in 2007.
While Bailey doesn’t mention Cleveland in his book, he definitely has a soft spot for the city.
“The whole state of Ohio always has embraced Earth, Wind & Fire,” he says. “We like the folks in Ohio because they are so homey and warm. We still like touring there. And, there’s a wonderful pastor in the Cleveland named Alistair Begg, who is just a wonderful teacher.”
At the end of the day, for Bailey, after all these years, it still comes down to one undeniable truth.
“It is very fulfilling,” he says. “I still love music; I am still following that music pied piper of sorts that caught my attention even before I was born.”
Earth, Wind and Fire
7:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 9, Evans Amphitheatre, 14591 Superior Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000. Tickets: $52.50-$99.50, cainpark.com.