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Philip Bailey Shines Light on Earth, Wind & Fire

In his new memoir, the lead singer talks about the peaks and valleys of being in the legendary R&B band

Philip Bailey performs with Earth Wind & Fire

Philip Bailey performs with Earth, Wind & Fire.

Philip Bailey's imitable falsetto on such rhythm-and-blues classics as "Reasons" and "Fantasy" helped catapult Earth, Wind & Fire into superstardom through the 1970s and early '80s. The group's music epitomized '70s boomer R&B and funk at its most sophisticated, while also attracting a massive multicultural and multigenerational audience. Now, more than 40 years later, Bailey and the Grammy-winning band are still going strong.

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In his new memoir, Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire (cowritten by Keith and Kent Zimmerman), Bailey, 63, shares some of the secrets behind the band's tremendous success, without shying away from how the demands of constant touring and recording nearly took a toll on his personal life.

Q: Why did you decide to write a memoir at this point of your career?

A: I really didn't decide. Actually, I was asked by a publishing agent — Jan Miller. I was touring with David Foster and Friends when she pitched the idea to me. She said that she knew a couple of great cowriters [the Zimmerman brothers] in Northern California that would be great.

Q: What was it like reliving some of the more challenging episodes in your personal and professional life when writing the book?

A: At certain points, it was pretty uncomfortable. We all have things in which we look back and say, "If I had a chance to do it all over again, I wouldn't do certain things." But in the book, I wrote the truth. The thing that I didn't want to do was to just glorify all the highlights. I didn't want just a squeaky-clean book that just illuminated my stardom. For me, that would just be such a waste of time. I wanted my book to reflect real life — the highs and lows.

Q: You wrote about your bitterness with Earth, Wind & Fire after the classic lineup disbanded in 1983. Elaborate on your emotional state during that turbulent time.

A: When the band broke up, we were so shocked and hurt because of the way that it happened. My life was a little different because I had already started my solo career on several different fronts. So I did have some springboard by which to continue my musical vision. But sure enough, for anybody, when your paycheck dries up and you're no longer communicating with people that you had been with for almost every day of your life for 10-plus years, it's very traumatic. You have to understand that we [the band members] went straight from Mama's house to Earth, Wind & Fire within a few years. Many of us turned 21 within Earth, Wind & Fire. So there hadn't been a lot of life lived outside the confines of college and home. It was a wake-up call for many of us; it was like, "OK, and now real life begins."

Q: The book also discusses the power struggle between group founder and lead singer Maurice White and the rest of the group, particularly in terms of songwriting and finance. According to the book, White hired you and the rest of the members; he was the one who decided to abruptly disband the group in 1983. He was also responsible for recruiting outside songwriters, edging out the contributions of other members. Has White had a chance to read the book? If so, what did he think of your portrayal of him?

A: The book just came out on April 15. I'm quite sure that he'll have a chance to read it. But I didn't trash Maurice; I just told the truth about what happened. I also say in the book that having taken on the coleader role with [bassist] Verdine White, I've learned to appreciate and empathize with a lot of the decisions that he had to make, because trying to hold a band together is not the easiest thing.

Q: On the lighter side, what is your favorite Earth, Wind & Fire album — and why?

A: That's the Way of the World, because [producer] Charles Stepney was still [alive]; he was such an integral part of the band's sound and creative vision. I think it's between that album and All 'n All and possibly I Am.

Q: Why do you think the music has had such a broad appeal?

A: The intent Maurice had for the music was to uplift and educate people; we created music for people. So the music was conceived out of a place of giving, not just getting. For that reason, it filled a need that apparently people had; people needed to be uplifted with positive songs. The music is something that other generations have been born into and those people [of the newer generations] appreciate it for those same reasons.

John Murph is a music and arts writer for The Root, National Public Radio, JazzTimes, DownBeat and Atlantic Monthly.

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