By concentrating on the pre-history and early years of EWF this biography captures the most creative phase of their story. Philip Bailey does well to present a frank and balanced account that includes the cultural background, musical influences, creative process, spiritual mission, business dealings and internal tensions of EWF. It becomes clearer that Philip was well placed to tell this story due to his role as an insider to Maurice White’s ‘concept’ of pantheistic universal positivism, but also as an outside party to White’s concealed business dealings with Columbia executives.
The book falls into 3 sections. The first part up to page 76 covers Philip’s childhood and early music career in Denver. Maurice White’s early career as a session drummer and member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio is recounted. Next follows the story of EWF version one in Chicago and how the band walked out on Maurice due to his dictatorial leadership. The key role of Perry Jones in recommending Philip to Maurice at this juncture in 1972 is explained. Bailey also captures the freewheeling, bohemian mood and lifestyle of the time (1968-72) in which influences of the hippy movement mingled with the black music of the day. On the business side Robert Cavallo and his partner Joe Ruffalo were instrumental in securing a contract with Columbia. Warner Brothers were persuaded by Cavallo to release EWF from their contract, before they discovered that the line up had changed. Also, unbeknown to the other band members the CBS company men advised Maurice White to keep all the production and publishing rights to himself.
Bailey is clear that EWF was a ‘commercial fusion group’ and not a funk band. He also mentions the influence of the Latin American music of Sergio Mendes and Santana. He recounts EWF being blown off the stage by Funkadelic in 1973 and then gives due credit to Charles Stepney for tightening up the band’s chops. Stepney was one of the few people to whom Maurice White would give way to. Beginning on the Open Our Eyes LP of 1974 Stepney played a crucial role as engineer, arranger, producer and player of the Moog synthesiser. Maurice White did not credit or properly remunerate Stepney for his vital role in honing the best EWF LPs until after his death in 1976. Other aspects of the creative process are also described including collaboration of Philip and Maurice in layering diverse versions of their vocal parts through overdubbing and the contribution of Larry Dunn to the chords used.
Bailey recalls the All n’ all LP (1977) as the most challenging to make. With a string of multiplatinum LPs and sell out global tours EWF seemed to be on a roll in the years 1976-81, but as Bailey notes the pressures of stardom and over-extravagant stage shows eroded the band’s cohesion. By the time of the I Am LP (1979) Maurice White was bringing in white writers and producers and the band became reduced to mere session musicians. The record sales of EWF declined in the 80s leading White to disband the group suddenly in 1983. Bailey enjoyed sporadic success in his 1980s solo career, and recalls putting on weight after too many beers and currys while recording with Phil Collins in England. In the 1990s EWF rebuilt their global following from the grass roots level by playing at smaller venues to new audiences who had heard them on smooth jazz and classic oldies radio channels. Bailey now became the co-leader with Verdine White.
As well as the music the book gives a frank account of Philip’s difficult childhood, the good times and low points of his enduring relationship with his first wife Janet and the romantic temptations of life on the road. In the late 70s several members of EWF including Philip became practising Christians, partly to cope with the pressures and stresses of touring and celebrity.
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Being one of the worlds biggest fan of the Fire, I have been waiting for such a book for man, many years. I would have loved it to have been a fuller story, but hopefully this is the first EWF book with many to follow.
Maybe Maurice White will be encouraged by "the Voice" and get his pen out to give us fans the full story?