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Published: Wednesday, 7/23/2008

Earth, Wind and Fire: Band that has been topping charts since '70s is in Toledo tonight

Earth, Wind & Fire, featuring, clockwise from bottom, Verdine
White, Ralph Johnson, and Philip Bailey, will perform tonight at
the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater. Earth, Wind & Fire, featuring, clockwise from bottom, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, and Philip Bailey, will perform tonight at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater.

Philip Bailey knows how to take care of his instrument, a one-of-a-kind voice that features a falsetto that can soar across a four-octave range.

At 57, the Earth, Wind & Fire frontman is experienced at nursing and nurturing that familiar voice that makes songs like "Easy Lover" and "Fantasy" so memorable.

His secret weapon: sleep.

At 9 a.m. yesterday he was under the covers in Cleveland in the middle of a four-concerts-in-five-nights run that includes a visit to the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater tonight. A bit groggy, he was friendly and gracious with his time, given that he'd just woke up for a phone interview.

He said he's learned that unlike a guitar player or even a drummer, he has to be extra careful about getting rest so he doesn't end up missing a show.

"I'm not going to go out and do a hollering match or something like that," Bailey said. "I just kind of shut it down. Obviously I'm talking, but after all these years I'm very cognizant of the fact that I have to kind of balance or conserve my energy and my voice."

Bailey's role in the classic funk and R&B band is especially crucial. Maurice White, whose supple tenor was key to many of the band's hits like "September" and "Shining Star," no longer performs with the 11-person group because he has Parkinson's disease.

And the band's 90-minute, hit-packed performances are notoriously athletic and intense. Bailey said the band has trouble finding replacements for musicians who leave the group because not only do the players have to know jazz, funk, R&B, and rock styles, but they have to be able to move around a lot and bring a physicality to the shows.

"The music is very demanding and broad in terms of what we're playing. You have to have a lot of physical endurance," he said.

The band was formed in Chicago in the late '60s, hitting its stride in the 1970s, thanks to elaborate stage shows, including some that featured magician Doug Henning, and string of hits that included "Fantasy," "September," "Shining Star," "Mighty, Mighty," and "Devotion."

Still in the band from the early lineup are Bailey - who joined after several albums had already been recorded - Maurice White (who is still considered a member of the band although he doesn't tour), his brother, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson.

Bailey recorded a number of solo albums over the years, including "Easy Lover" with Phil Collins in 1984, and a series of gospel releases, but he has always been a member of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Growing up in Denver, he was surrounded by music and was trained to be a classical percussionist. At the same time he began developing his voice, listening to other musicians who would influence both his tone and his style.

"Interestingly enough Miles Davis was an influence, and the way he approached harmonics," Bailey said. "And one of my biggest influences was Dionne Warwick, early Dionne Warwick."

And he never stops working on that voice, finding new strengths as it soars across the band's songs.

"I just continue to develop the instrument. You're always discovering other things you're capable of doing if you're out their singing," he said. "I just try to stay open to learning more things as the voice expands and grows."

Earth, Wind and Fire performs at 7:30 p.m. at the zoo amphitheater. Tickets are $37.50 and $55. They are available from Ticketmaster, 419-474-1333, online at www.livenation.com or the zoo box office near the Anthony Wayne Trail entrance.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.

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