Here’s another as/is book review, originally posted in 2015. This review was written before Maurice White’s death.
Having been a child of the 1970s and 80s, I am well acquainted with the fusion genius of the band Earth, Wind & Fire. I had a sister who played their music all the time and, of course, I heard it on the radio non-stop. When I got older, I started to buy the band’s better known albums. I have always admired the great talents of the people who comprise the elements of Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF), especially the band’s founder, Maurice White, and falsetto frontman and conga player Philip Bailey. When I saw that Bailey had written a book about his life and experiences in EWF, I knew I had to read it. I just finished the book the other day and feel like I came away with new respect and knowledge for a very long running and talented band.
Bailey co-wrote his book, Shining Star, with ghostwriters Kent and Keith Zimmerman, but I always got the sense that the words in this book were coming straight from Bailey himself. He starts at the beginning, explaining how his parents moved to Denver, Colorado, where he was born. Since Bailey’s father was a military man who had a rocky relationship with his mother, Bailey didn’t really know his dad until he was well into adulthood. He and his sister were primarily raised by his mother and his stepfather.
Philip Bailey expressly thanks the public education system of Denver, Colorado for giving him strong instruction in music. That education led him to his chosen career as one of the lead singers for one of the most influential, most talented, and best loved bands in music history. He also writes about Maurice White, who grew up in Memphis and eventually moved to Chicago, where his mother and stepfather, Verdine Adams, Sr., gave him two half brothers. Brothers Verdine White, the frenetic bass player for EWF, and drummer brother Freddie, changed their surnames to White’s out of a sense of solidarity with their older brother.
Bailey offers a colorful account of the band’s earliest days, when they traveled to gigs in station wagons. I got a kick out of his commentary about how the band got around in the early days. Apparently, Verdine White is a fantastic bass player, but can’t drive worth a damn. He also writes about how the earliest stage shows were conceived, where they got their costumes, and even offers some fun trivia about EWF in its heyday. For instance, I had no idea that the band hired Doug Henning and David Copperfield to make their live shows more exciting and… magical.
Philip Bailey also writes about some of the less pleasant aspects of being in the band. During EWF’s heyday, Bailey was pretty much an employee in the group and was paid accordingly. Maurice White called all the shots and was paid the most, which naturally led to some friction, especially when the band temporarily broke up in the 1980s. Bailey and the rest of his bandmates were enjoying a steady and generous paycheck, which abruptly stopped when Maurice White determined it was time.
One aspect of this book that I found especially interesting was EWF’s association with David Foster. In 1978, Foster was a young, up and coming composer. He approached EWF with a ballad he’d written called “After The Love Is Gone”. It, of course, became a monster hit for EWF and launched a successful partnership between Foster and EWF. David Foster has gone on to have a great career composing music for other bands and movie soundtracks. Indeed, he’s work a lot with another brass heavy band called Chicago, which has been known to share concert billing with Earth, Wind & Fire. Aside from working with David Foster, Bailey also famously sang a duet with Phil Collins. If you were around in 1984, you might remember “Easy Lover”, which Bailey recorded with Collins right after EWF temporarily folded.
Bailey also reveals information about his personal life. Bailey married his first wife, Janet, when they were both very young. Life on the road presented a lot of temptations, though, and Bailey admits that he was not faithful to his wife. One affair produced an out of wedlock daughter. He also dabbled a bit in drugs. Nevertheless, they went on to have four children. After their divorced, Bailey got remarried to a woman named Krystal with whom he had two more kids. They divorced in 2010.
Unfortunately, Maurice White no longer performs with EWF. He suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, which makes making music at his prior level impossible (edited to add: Maurice White died in 2016). White still maintains an executive role in the band, which is now wholly fronted by Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson. I still love listening to this band even without Maurice White at the front. Just watching Verdine White dance while he plays bass is enough to get me going.
Shining Star is required reading for any EWF fan. Bailey does a great job balancing his personal story with that of the band’s, offering plenty of interesting stories without getting bogged down in minutiae. He includes photos and lots of juicy tidbits about what it’s like to work with some of the finest musicians popular music has ever heard, but he never gets long-winded. Naturally, I recommend his book! It made the music nerd in me sing!
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