Maurice White may have been the de facto leader of Earth, Wind & Fire, but it was arguably Philip Bailey’s falsetto on the choruses of hits such as September, After The Love Has Gone and Lets Groove that establish the group’s signature vocal sound. With that in mind, its perhaps understandable that Bailey would attempt something different, more individual on his solo recordings.
Chinese Wall, from 1984, was given a profile boost by the inclusion of Easy Lover, the chart-topping duet with Phil Collins that was closer to the Genesis tub-thumper’s usual slick AOR than anything from Bailey’s own back pages. There are further diversions on the rickety techno dance of Photogenic Memory and the elector-funk of Time Is A Woman, but the singer is best when staying close to his comfort zone, as on the ballad For Every Heart That’s Been Broken.
Following a trio of gospel albums, Bailey returned to pop for 1990’s Nile Rodgers-produced Inside Out but, despite some taut underpinning Chic-like grooves, its let down by unremarkable generic dance tracks(Welcome To The Club, Back It Up). Again, Bailey succeeds best when the noise surrounding him is dialled down, such as on the bedroom soul of Long Distance Love, where his sweet voice and subtle phrasing gives Luther Vandross a run for his money.
The Second Disc
It’s not always easy for a vocalist, even a lead vocalist, of a successful group to come out from that group’s shadow and flourish as a solo artist. But Philip Bailey made it look easy when he signed with Columbia Records for 1983’s Continuation, produced by George Duke. It didn’t hurt that he had a then-white hot Phil Collins producing his 1984 Chinese Wall and CHIC’s Nile Rodgers behind the controls for 1986’s Inside Out, collected as a 2-CD set (Edsel EDSD 2119).
Sure, much of Chinese Wall hasn’t aged particularly well. It’s disconcerting to hear Bailey’s luscious high tenor electronically processed to the nth degree on the shudder-inducing album opener “Photogenic Memory.” At least most of the album’s drums weren’t synthesized, as Collins was himself behind the kit! Bailey didn’t rely completely on the familiar Earth, Wind and Fire horn sound, though EWF’s horn section (as The Phoenix Horns) does appear on five of the album’s tracks. Four of those more orchestrated efforts also boasted subtle string arrangements from Arif Mardin. But even without the horns or strings, tracks like the smooth “For Every Heart That’s Been Broken” recall EWF’s strengths. Among the other agreeable tracks are “Go,” an up-tempo groove that melodically recalls “After the Love is Gone” for a brief moment, and “Woman,” with its seductive, lightly Latin groove. The socially-conscious “Children of the Ghetto” has a jazz feel to it. Glen Ballard (later to gain fame producing Alanis Morissette and currently making his Broadway debut with the score to the musical Ghost) co-wrote three songs including the sweet seventies soul throwback ballad “Show You the Way to Love.”
But the best track on the album, however obvious a choice, is the glistening duet with Collins (who also co-wrote the song with Bailey and Nathan East). “Easy Lover” has all of the ingredients of a great pop song: a big, catchy hook; a lyrical tale of one evil woman; a slick, glimmering production; muscular instrumental dynamics from East on bass, Collins on drums, Daryl Stuermer on guitars, and Lesette Wilson on keyboards.
1986’s Inside Out is more diverse affair, although it lacks a single song as compelling as “Easy Lover.” (Leadoff single “State of the Heart” didn’t repeat its success, either. It’s also present here in its 12-inch dub mix, the Bailey set’s lone bonus track.) But that’s not to say that the album doesn’t have much to recommend, especially for fans of eighties pop-soul. “Welcome to the Club,” written by Bailey, Bobby Nunn and Donna Weiss, is a percolating dancefloor groove with Nile Rodgers’ rhythmic production hallmarks. “Special Effect,” co-written by Bailey and Rodgers, is even more in the CHIC style, and Rodgers teamed with his CHIC bandmate Bernard Edwards for the pleading “Don’t Leave Me Baby,” There are some quieter moments that score, too, including “Long Distance Love,” with Bailey’s expressive falsetto and Steve Elson’s prominent saxophone, and “Because of You” with George Duke and Ray Parker, Jr. among the guests. Phil Collins returns for “Back It Up,” joined by Duke, Rodgers, Parker, Fonzi Thornton and Jeff Beck! The song is written by Bailey, Rodgers, Collins, Duke, Parker and Nathan East. Despite its a-list team and intentional echoes in melody and style of “Easy Lover,” it doesn’t top that past hit.