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Philip Bailey Still Keeps His Head to the Sky with ‘Love Will Find a Way’

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile) 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Some, perhaps, might not know his name, but no one who has listened to Pop-Top 40, Soul and R&B in the 1970s and 1980s, could ever forget the searing falsetto that belongs to Philip Bailey.  As the co-lead vocalist of the iconic Earth, Wind and Fire, who will be feted by the Kennedy Center later this year, Bailey powered a litany of classics including “Keep Your Head to the Sky” (1973), “Devotion” (1974), “Fantasy” (1977), and most famously “Reasons”, especially the live version that appears on Gratitude (1975). For more than 35 years, Bailey has also maintained a solo career recording both secular and Gospel albums, including Chinese Wall (1984), which was produced by Phil Collins and featured a duet between the two, “Easy Lover”, which earned a Grammy nomination.  With Love Will Find a Way, his first album since Soul on Jazz (2002), Bailey returns to the musical elements that made him a star, bridging the worlds of Soul, improvisational Jazz, Funk and Gospel. 

Love Will Find a Way finds Bailey interpreting a wide range of Soul, R&B and Jazz gems, though with a few exceptions, notably Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner”, they would fall in a category of lesser-known tracks.  Bailey’s career has largely been defined by singing original songs largely written and produced within the Earth, Wind & Fire eco-system.  Yet Bailey’s first album with the group Last Days and Times (1972) – he joined Earth, Wind & Fire after the band released two albums under their name and the soundtrack to Melvin Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song – is instructive. Among the songs on Last Days and Times are covers of Bread’s “Make It with You” (the year after Aretha Franklin’s Filmore versions) and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”. In both instances, the songs work because of Bailey’s Jazz improvisational sensibilities – an  aspect of Bailey’s vocal style that was largely suppressed during Earth, Wind, & Fire’s heyday, save that live recording of “Reasons.” 

Like its predecessor, the woefully underrated Soul on Jazz, Love Will Find a Way is a vehicle for that part of Bailey’s artistic sensibilities that could never find a home on the Pop charts. Bolstered by the production of Robert Glasper, Bailey doesn’t play it straight on anything heard on Love Will Find a Way, beginning with his reading of “Billy Jack”, from Curtis Mayfield’s largely forgotten There’s No Place Like America, Today (1975).  As an opening salvo, “Billy Jack” -- a song about Black lives that matter, in the fullest, tragic, surreal and most inevitable senses -- places Mayfield’s music in a contemporary and cosmopolitan moment, aligning it with a previous era or Black political nadir that was the Nixon presidency.  

“Billy Jack” is one of two Mayfield originals on the album; the aforementioned “We’re a Winner” features Bilal.  Whereas the original Mayfield track is an oh-too-short slice of “All Black Everything,” that implored Black folk to victory, Bailey’s cover feels like a Saturday afternoon drive tuned in to the Smooth Jazz station. Nevertheless Bailey’s double treatment of Mayfield, might be a nod to the influence of the late musician’s falsetto on Bailey’s own, as opposed to Smokey Robinson, or any of Bailey’s peers in the 1970s like Ted Mills (Blue Magic)  or Russell Thompkins, Jr. of The Stylistics. 

Bilal, who possesses a fine falsetto in his own right, is one of many collaborators on the album, including Glasper, Chick Corea, Kamasi Washington, Christian McBride, and Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah. Of his younger musical partners Bailey offers, “they embrace the nuances of jazz and its historical value, but they’ve really infused the game with new possibilities. And I’ve been the recipient of infusion.”

Veteran Corea joins Bailey in a tribute to the Jazz Fusion superband that Corea once led, Return to Forever. “You’re Forever” finds Bailey filling the vocal space of the great Brazilian singer Flora Purim, who provided vocals on the first two Return to Forever albums, alongside percussionist Airto Moreira, and a young Stanley Clarke. Bassist McBride appears with Adjuah on  “Stairway To The Stars”, which features production from Will.I.Am, and also on “Long as You’re Living”, a jazz classic co-written by Oscar Brown, Jr. and recorded by Abbey Lincoln on her important Abbey is Blue (1959), one of the earliest collaborations between Lincoln and Max Roach. 

Bailey pivots towards the Pop charts of the 1980s with cover of The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”, that is more evocative of his riff on Weather Report’s “Indiscretions” (Soul on Jazz’s “My Indiscretions”), than the New Wave original. “Brooklyn Blues” -- perhaps a nod to Barry Manilow’s Swing Street (1987) -- finds Bailey offering an extended sermon of the Kalimba.

Perhaps the most arresting track on Love Will Find a Way is Bailey’s meditation on Marvin Gaye’s “Just to Keep You Satisfied” -- a song that never wearies from a good cover.  The song has been given near classic treatments by the late Nancy Wilson (Keep You Satisfied, 1985) and Randy Crawford’s on her classic Raw Silk (1979), and Bailey is in fine company here, finding possibilities in the moving on, in contrast to the studied distress of Gaye.

The title and closing track, “Love Will Find Away”, is also the title track of oft-forgotten Pharoah Sanders classic. After a decade of blowing fire and brimstone, Sanders mellowed on the Norman Connors produced Love Will Find A Way.  The album has earned a cult-following because of the tracks “As You Are” and “Love is Here” which feature obscure performances from the Phyllis Hyman (Connors worked closely with both Hyman and Sanders in the early 1970s). On the Bailey version, Sanders’ signature riffs are replaced by Casey Benjamin of the Robert Glasper Experiment, who also summons his Vocoder in this latest instance of archival recovery.

Philip Bailey sounds less like a seasoned Soul veteran trying to remain relevant on Love Will Find A Way, and more like still emerging artist, still trying to find out new ways to share his instrument with the world.  Love Will Find A Way is brilliant testament to a musical genius that often choose to share the spotlight, but still has quite a bit of shine. 


Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African American Studies at Duke University where he chairs the Department of African and African American Studies and hosts the weekly webcast, Left of Black. He is the author of several books including, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999); Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002); and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013). Follow him on Twitter @newblackman. 

Philip Bailey Still Keeps His Head to the Sky with ‘Love Will Find a Way’

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