One Track Mind: Philip Bailey "Children Of The Ghetto" (1984)

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Philip Bailey should have been a star in his own right.

Here’s a guy with a falsetto as divine as Russell Tompkins, Jr.’s, served as co-lead singer of the superstar soul group Earth, Wind and Fire and used star producers to handle his first two solo albums. And yet, all there is to show for it is a single hit song “Easy Lover” (#2 US, #1 UK) that got there on the fame of a short, balding Englishman prog rock drummer who took up singing almost as an afterthought.

(Save your fire, Phil Collins fans, I had a lot more Collins on vinyl than I did Bailey. I dig that short balding Englishman, too.)

So what happened? It certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. Philip Bailey launched his solo career in 1983, when EW&F was still riding somewhat high. He enlisted George Duke as his producer and put forth a well-crafted set of MOR R&B songs called Continuation. It barely made a ripple. The following year, Bailey watched as the Duke-produced Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” made it all the way to #1 the following year, a song which would have been right at home on Continuation.

For his next album, Bailey convinced Collins to serve as producer. This odd couple of sorts made Chinese Wall an even better record, as Collins helped to craft an appealing sound for Bailey that was more distinct from EW&F but nevertheless showcased Bailey’s singing prowess just as well. “Easy Lover” was the only time Collins stepped up to the mic in a lead role for the album and while it’s a good tune, I’d rank it as middling amongst the other songs on Chinese.

About half of the cuts are better, and among those, one of the best comes right at the end of the album. “Children Of The Ghetto” breaks from the pattern of danceable love songs and switches to a much more somber mood. Collins laid down a bedrock African rhythm and sparse keyboards and guitar that’s a match for the bleak, desolate plight of the young people Bailey is singing about:

Children of the ghetto
Running wild and free
In a concrete jungle
Filled with misery

There’s no inspiration
To brighten up their day

While with desperation
I would like to say
Children of the ghetto
Keep your heads
To the sky.

Astute EW&F fans will notice the last line in the above lyrics is the same hoopeful message of the early EW&F song “Keep Your Head To The Sky,” which Bailey took the lead vocal on in 1973. The “to the sky” part is bolstered by some rich backing harmony vocals which also appear more in the end, but otherwise, it’s Bailey’s pristine, unadulterated vocal that drives this song. Daryl Stuermer’s beautifully morose guitar and a pretty, understated jazzy piano solo by Lesette Wilson add some cherries to this sundae.

With its street poet lyrics and Afro-derived beats, “Ghetto” sounds a lot like something Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye could have written in the early seventies, but surprisingly the origins of it came across the ocean. It was written by the Amoo Brothers, Eddie and Chris, of the Liverpool, England’s The Real Thing and originally appeared on a 1977 album by them. Since The Real Thing never really enjoyed much success outside of the UK, it was probably Collins who brought the tune to Bailey’s attention.

Regardless, Bailey’s rendition undoubtedly got the song wider exposure; Mary J. Blige, Courtney Pine and Paul Hardcastle all later covered it. I haven’t heard their versions, but I can’t imagine that they topped Bailey’s.

“Children Of The Ghetto” is a message song whose message gets across well because Philip Bailey, with Collins’ sympathetic support, made a great delivery.

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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