In 2019, a historic Earth, Wind & Fire appearance wasn’t on stage. Colorado native Philip Bailey sat alongside two of his EWF bandmates, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson, positioned above – rather than in front of – the audience at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in a Washington, D.C. The annual Kennedy Center Honors, sometimes described as an American equivalent of Great Britain’s knighthood, celebrates select artists who helped direct and define American culture. Supremely coveted, the award stands as a career pinnacle for artistic accomplishment.
With John Legend, Cynthia Erivo, the Jonas Brothers, and David Foster singing Earth, Wind & Fire’s praises – both literally and figuratively in song and spoken tribute, Bailey and his EWF brethren not only scaled an artistic height. They stood in and up for EWF founder Maurice White’s “premier mission” for the group. Bailey opens his autobiography, “Shining Star,” with a description of what White called “The Concept,” a reason for EWF’s existence (and as it turned out, the group’s success). “Looking back and upon reflection, Earth, Wind & Fire’s premier mission has been to raise people to a higher level of consciousness,” Bailey wrote in the 2014 memoir. “Maurice White – our founder, visionary and mentor – called it ‘The Concept.’”
The band succeeded spectacularly. And the people returned the favor, uplifting EWF to critical and commercial acclaim enjoyed by only a handful of musicians in the last half century. The group boasts a successive slew of accomplishments and accolades: a run of platinum albums that rocketed into the upper reaches of the Billboard charts (eight of them Top 10 with two of them topping the charts), seven Billboard Top 10 singles with one of those riding the summit on the Hot 100, eight number one smashes on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts, multiple Grammy Awards (one of which is for Lifetime Achievement), induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the aforementioned Kennedy Center Honors, and a career total of nearly two dozen albums that have inspired musicians and fans for more than 50 years. No doubt, there’s power in “The Concept.”
Bailey has also enjoyed solo success, releasing albums across multiple genres. Like EWF, he doesn’t allow labels to limit or define his work. Whether it’s the multi-platinum “Chinese Wall” with its smash duet with Phil Collins, “Easy Lover,” gospel “Triumph,” or his “Soul on Jazz” outing, the man performs onstage and on recordings like a great actor – a Brando or Poitier – his four-octave vocal range assuming different roles, rising into a breathtaking falsetto and taking the wind and fire from the earth into the stratosphere. Awarded honorary doctorates from both Berklee College of Music and Chicago’s Columbia College, Bailey continues to teach musicians and fans “The Concept” both through his music and his actions.
Denver Urban Spectrum talked with Bailey via phone last month in anticipation of both an upcoming Denver concert, a double header featuring Lionel Richie and EWF at Ball Arena in September, and the present and upcoming activities of his nonprofit Music Is Unity Foundation (MIU).
In particular, Bailey appears excited about the MIU activities in May and June. MIU and nonprofit Coaches vs. Racism launched a joint fundraiser called the Power of Unity to highlight National Foster Care Month in May. MIU also partnered with Mess in a Bottle, a T-shirt company that is Black- and women-owned, to design and create a commemorative t-shirt celebrating the cause and the month. According to the MIU website, musicisunity.org, the foundation “makes grants to nonprofit, community-based organizations that provide supportive services for youth who are emancipating from the foster care system.”
Bailey is stoked about another endeavor. In June, MIU will reprise “Backstage Soundcheck,” an opportunity for “youth aged 18-26, transitioning out of the U.S. foster care system, and engages participants in a behind-the-scenes tour of the variety of roles and careers available in the music industry,” according to the MIU announcement.
The three Backstage Soundcheck events will coincide with EWF concerts in San Diego, Phoenix and Cincinnati. Additionally, musician and producer Dreion, a former foster care youth who now serves as MIU’s ambassador, will open the three EWF concerts, and appear as an incarnation of the possibilities MIU wants to pass on to its community.
Bailey and his daughter, Trinity Bailey, founded MIU in 2007 after their research of underserved communities exposed the struggles and indifference youth encounter as they graduate the foster care system into even more challenging circumstances. Bailey discovered this oft-ignored population appeared “the most in need.” Having seven children and seven grandchildren of his own, the issue resonates personally. “I cannot imagine my kids not having anybody to turn to,” he states. He observes that these youth often face dire, heart-breaking situations – everything from dumpster diving to penal institutions to trafficking.
MIU provides support to community organizations that are among the few extending a hand to this underserved population, placed in the foster care system “through no fault of their own” and without adequate support upon leaving. After nearly two decades, MIU has celebrated success stories. But Bailey is concerned about those still struggling. He says that assistance includes everything from “toilet paper, tuition to small colleges, food, and shelter.” But securing donors isn’t an easy task. “We haven’t been graced with the large donors,” he explains. But he stresses that he and MIU are “in it for the long haul.”
Bailey also mentions another project, Kids in the Spotlight. According to the Los Angeles Sentinel, “Kids in the Spotlight’s Movies By Kids, For Kids Film Awards recognizes young filmmakers in foster care group homes.” He explains that foster care youth write, film and produce movies and short stories. The Los Angeles Sentinel reported in the 2015 article that Bailey founded the nonprofit, “providing arts and healing programs to foster care facilities and schools throughout Los Angeles and surrounding areas.” The Kids in the Spotlight does exactly that – spotlight and encourage nascent talent. “It’s exciting to see,” he enthuses.
While not a former foster child, he appreciates and recognizes the support he received growing up in Denver. A graduate of Denver’s East High School, he acknowledges Denver Public Schools in his autobiography “for giving me an excellent musical foundation.”
“I’m really blessed that Denver had a very high-quality music department in schools from elementary to high school,” he adds.
Another youthful influence was Echoes of Youth, a youth choral group led by Joann Ryan and organized by music educators in the Denver area. Bailey notes that Pam Grier, another Colorado native who scored big in the entertainment industry, also participated in the Echoes of Youth. A Denver Post photograph from August 1965 is captioned, “Echoes of Youth Choral Group Accepts New Purchase Bus.” In it, Ryan appears alongside several other adults, including Denver’s state representative, while a group of smiling children appear alongside the bus. The caption further states that the new purchase will soon transport those smiling faces “on a singing tour of California.” While it’s uncertain whether Bailey is in that particular photo, he recalls those days with gratitude and lingering excitement. “That’s where I cut my teeth [performing],” he says.
He also wants to relay a “shout out… and spread some roses” to Ryan, the Echoes of Youth leader. Even long distance and the memories decades distant, the affection in Bailey’s voice when recalling the group and its leader come through crystal clear.
The conversation fast forwards through the years where Bailey muses on the phenomenal journey from performing in school events to returning home and headlining concerts at the state’s premier venues. A constant threads throughout the decades – his passion for music, or what he terms his “Guardian Angel” and the “pied piper.” “I just followed my love and passion – music,” he explains. “I keep my eye and ears on the pied piper and let it take me where it will.”
He enthuses over Colorado’s scenery and concert settings, calling both the state and Red Rocks Amphitheater among the “most beautiful places on earth.” And while the immediate buzz is the upcoming Ball Arena concert with Lionel Richie, this writer recalls a more intimate Denver appearance 30 years ago when Bailey performed at the Buell Theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. When I asked if he recalled that particular performance when he and Chaka Khan performed jazz instead of their pop hits, he immediately responds in the affirmative before giving props to another person from that performance, the great jazz saxophonist and bass guitarist Gerald Albright.
The upcoming concert on Sept. 5 at Ball Arena that brings Lionel Richie and EWF to Denver prompts other memories for Bailey. He recalls a Kansas City stadium show that EWF and the Commodores sold out “back in the day.” While he looks back at the KC show, he’s also looking forward to the Denver show that reunites the Commodores’ former lead singer with EWF on the same bill. And Bailey’s not alone anticipating the upcoming double feature. Both longtime and new fans are also looking forward to the concert.