You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the R&B world who is both alive and has achieved as much as Philip Bailey. He’s the lead singer in a band, Earth, Wind & Fire, that Miles Davis once said was his favorite of all time. In July, that same band became only the fourth group in history to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, a distinction typically given to individuals, not ensembles.
In addition to the seven Grammys his band has won, they’ve also sold nearly 100 million records throughout a distinguished career that has featured them earning spots in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
And that doesn’t even include his solo accomplishments. That list encompasses a Grammy of his own for 1987’s Triumph. Three years before that, his glorious 1980s Phil Collins collaboration, “Easy Lover”, found its way to the top of the charts in five different countries, narrowly losing out on the distinction of a #1 single in the U.S. to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”.
Oh, and he also has an honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee.
Right now, though? Well, right now, it’s possible that Philip Bailey would trade at least one of those things in for a real good espresso.
“I’m an espresso junkie,” the singer says on a recent afternoon before adding how Uber has become one of the greatest inventions in a musician’s world. “I’ll Uber who has the best expressos, and I’ll take my iPad and go get a coffee … It’s really given the touring situation a whole other layer of enjoyment.”
So, where’s his favorite place to get one of those really good espressos?
“There are so many cities. I’m sitting in front of a shop right now that I’m going to go into,” he offers, almost longingly, in anticipation of what lies ahead. “I Yelp and see who has the most stars. Then, I can see the pictures of them to see if they’re made right and if they got the right stuff and all that.”
His voice lowers, seemingly at the thought of the interview ending and the day’s espresso excursion beginning.
“I’m a real snob when it comes to coffee,” he admits.
At the age of 68, Bailey deserves the right to know what he likes and likes what he knows. In fact, those unyielding preferences are all over his latest excellent record, Love Will Find a Way, a set of mostly covers that reintroduces the singer to a decidedly more accessible crowd — a crowd that enjoys complex, layered grooves along with its soulful vocals, sure, but a more accessible crowd nonetheless.
Released in June, the LP includes features from a cadre of R&B/jazz stars, including Christian McBride, Bilal, Kamasi Washington, Chick Corea, Robert Glasper, and Teddy Campbell, among many, many others. It kicks off with a nearly seven-minute take on Curtis Mayfield’s “Billy Jack” that’s as excitingly funky as it is wildly imaginative. By the time the title track, a beautifully lush Casey Benjamin collaboration, comes around to finish the thing out, all you want to do is reserve a copy of whatever the R&B legend might have coming next.
Talking about the project now, Bailey remains thankful for the opportunities that presented themselves as he worked on it for more than two years. He funded it himself, he notes and was more than willing to take the time it needed for it to turn out the way he envisioned.
“It’s one of the projects that I’m the proudest of,” he says, before adding with a chuckle, “I like it myself.”
“I had a musical relationship with Chick Corea and Christian McBride,” he goes on to explain how the collection came to be. “So, it started there and then I reached out to Robert Glasper and went to visit one of his shows. Then, I went to see Kamasi Washington in New Orleans, and unbeknownst to me, I knew Kamasi’s father because we played in the same church band. From those relationships, the tentacles went out to Christian Scott and Bilal and Casey Benjamin. It’s one of those kinds of projects that was so much fun and one of those dream projects that came together over two years with a lot of serendipitous things that happened that just made it very special.”
As for the tracklist, the singer insists the selection came as a response to the political, social, and economic challenges that the U.S. has been facing over the last few years. Those issues, he claims, sparked an interest in a collective initiative to speak to what he believes has been a taxing period in the country’s history.
“Our voice of choice is music,” he says. “Those songs and those artists, such as Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield were socially conscious artists, and their songs spoke to an incredibly difficult time in our country. That’s why those songs were chosen — to speak to a lot of the same issues that we were dealing with in the 1060s. This project is similar to some of the projects that I’ve had an opportunity to record with Earth, Wind & Fire, some of the classics. It was a journey, a journey with peaks and valleys.”
One of the peaks of his “day job”, as the singer calls it, is the announcement that Earth, Wind & Fire will be part of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors class. Bailey found out about it before the official announcement was made and once he got wind of the accolade, he felt both ecstatic and humbled. The prize is only mildly bittersweet, he notes, because of his wish that his mother, grandfather and other relatives who have passed away could be there to enjoy it with him.
Still, he laughs at the thought of ranking where it falls among the rest of his storied career’s accomplishments.
“This is one of the highest honors that one can achieve on this planet,” he says, “so it definitely ranks among the top.”
Two other moments rank in that upper echelon of achievements, and both are things about which he takes joy in talking. The first is his time spent collaborating with Phil Collins on perhaps his most recognizable solo album, 1984’s Chinese Wall. He looks back on that time with such fond memories, he contends, before going on to describe how much of a “jewel” the Genesis frontman was. The singer even goes as far as to say that both Chinese Wall and his most recent LP are not only his two best pop records but also his favorites.
The other moment that ranks near the top for Bailey comes with the advent of Music Is Unity, an organization the singer founded to help financially support agencies that provide programming to help foster kids grow into adulthood. Among the groups, Music Is Unity has worked with through the years is San Francisco’s Foster Youth In Action and Los Angeles’s Kid in the Spotlight. A portion of ticket proceeds from Bailey’s performances always goes to the institution.
“We’re helping these young folk navigate through life,” he says. “It’s one of the passions that I have. I can’t imagine folks out there in this cold, cruel world without anybody to turn to.”
As for what’s left for Phillip Bailey to do? Well, despite that list growing shorter each day, he’s insistent that he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. Bailey enjoys traveling, exploring different golf courses (though he is coy about his handicap) and soaking in the fruits of his favorite modern-day invention, Uber. With the Kennedy Center Honors coming in November and a fantastic new album to promote until then, he’s happy to be busy.
Even with that said, is there anything for which he continues to strive?
“I mean, I strive every day, man,” he says after a tiny laugh, “to just be the best that I can be.”
And with that, Philip Bailey is off to find the greatest espresso he’s yet to taste.