Q&A: Philip Bailey
Earth, Wind & Fire has always been a band without an obvious star, a true collective of creative artists unified in a goal of spreading soul, funk, jazz, rock, R&B and sonic love throughout the universe. You could make a case that the late genius Maurice White, who founded the group in Chicago in 1969, served the role of frontman for the greater part of the band’s existence, but if there’s a single iconic voice best associated with EWF, that would have to belong to Colorado-born Philip Bailey. The 67-year-old singer, songwriter and percussion player known for his incredible four-plus octave range will be bringing EWF back to the Las Vegas Strip March 20-30 for another special engagement at The Venetian Theatre. I spoke with Bailey about that magical voice, performing with his son and the legacy of the music he’s created over the years.
Earth, Wind & Fire has had many powerful performances in Las Vegas recently. I hope you’re planning to keep coming back in the future.
Our fans in the Vegas area have always been very excited and plentiful and faithful to the band for so many years. Last year, it went off so well at The Venetian that they invited us back this year and we’re very excited for it because these shows are the beginning of our touring season. We’ll be there six nights and we’re going to have a fantastic time.
Do you enjoy spending extra time in Las Vegas?
I’m a golfer so I get a chance to play some of my favorite courses out there on the off days. That’s my go-to.
Your son Philip Jr. has been with the band for more than eight years now. Was he always going to follow in your footsteps? And did you ever encourage or discourage his musical pursuits?
With Philip, he was kind of like me, he was always musically inclined. Then he went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduated and stayed there for a few years playing with local bands and getting his chops together. At a certain point, I just thought, you’re doing this with other people, why not come on over here and try this out for a while. It’s been fun and he gets a chance to really see what I was doing when (he was younger) and we have a good time bonding. It’s a very natural fit, and he does his own thing, too, writing and performing with other people.
Earth, Wind & Fire still has so much power and precision and your voice hasn’t faded one bit.
I’ve been really fortunate. I haven’t had any issues with my voice. You learn over the years what to do and what not to do and I’m very much still discovering the instrument and having fun with it, learning new things all the time. It’s an ongoing process. As you live you evolve and grow and discover, and I don’t like to look at anything as an arrival. I always like to look at it as a discovery and an evolutionary process.
When did you first realize what kind of vocal range you’re working with?
I’m still discovering it, really. I was always mimicking high-register singers as a kid but I also studied operating as a baritone because I’m a natural baritone. On certain nights, I can tweak it a little bet more. I just go up there in a kind of surrendered state and just enjoy the process. For me, there’s not a lot of thinking going on up there, it’s just enjoying the experience and the symbiotic relationship between what the audience is giving and what we’re doing. Even though we’re playing the same songs over and over, it’s fantastic because we’re playing for a different audience every night.
Speaking of those songs, do you have a favorite portion of the show or songs you really love to sing particularly at this stage of your career?
All those songs are kind of like your kids. It depends on the night and the experience, or who’s there, because you’re really singing for your audience. They make it so special. Because we made these songs with certain people and moods and life changes in mind, I think the songs kind of speak to you. We think of songwriting as a craft and you’re putting your life on the line, in a way, when you’re writing songs, because you’re writing about your experiences. Those become others’ experiences as they find commonalities in the music, so you want to speak to people in a way that feels like they wrote it themselves.