Philip Bailey winced. He was about to be hit with it again .

"That's OK," he said stoically. "I'm used to it."

What was causing the unrest was a question: Does Earth, Wind & Fire still exist? The famed pop/R&B;/rock band hasn't toured for nearly two years and hasn't announced any recording plans.

Everyone thinks Bailey should know about EWF's future since he's been one of the lead singers, along with leader-founder Maurice White, for 13 years.

Throwing up his hands in exasperation, Bailey replied: "I don't know what the Fire is going to do. I wish I knew the answer. Maurice is working on a solo project right now. I don't think he has any plans for the band right now but I'm not sure. You know as much as I do. Ask Maurice. It's his band. He calls the shots." (Attempts to reach White through Columbia Records were unsuccessful.)

Bailey, here on a business visit recently from his home in Denver, hasn't been sitting around waiting to find out what White plans to do with EWF. He's been busy with his own solo career, which has finally started to blossom.

His new Columbia Records album, "Chinese Wall"--produced by Phil Collins of Genesis--was one of the best of 1984. Its showpiece is a gem of a single, "Easy Lover," a thunderous rock-and-soul fusion that's No. 5 on Billboard's pop chart. Collins sings on it with Bailey, who's wailing in his fluid falsetto.

Bailey first approached Collins about a collaboration backstage at a Collins concert. At first, Bailey wasn't thinking about him as a producer.

"I just wanted him to write some ballads," Bailey recalled. "Phil is really funky. He has a great feel for R&B.; When the possibility of him producing the album came up I liked that idea. He's a good guy. I knew I could work with him easily on a solo project."

Does this solo project mean Bailey is bowing out of Earth, Wind & Fire? "Not really," he replied coyly.

If White suddenly called with a message that Earth, Wind and Fire was going into the studio soon, would Bailey interrupt his solo plans?

He never gave a straight answer. Instead, he burst into laughter so hysterical that he drew stares from people at neighboring tables in the restaurant where the interview was conducted. Apparently Bailey, flush with solo success, might not jump at the chance to work in the next EWF project.

Bailey is thinking more in terms of a solo tour. "I want to wait until my next album to go on the road," he said. "Then I'll have more material to do in a show."

His gospel work also seemed more urgent to him than any Earth, Wind & Fire project. A dedicated "born-again" Christian, he's recorded a gospel album and performed in many gospel concerts, beginning with a Roxy show in 1981. "I love singing gospel," he said. "It's fulfilling but in a different way than singing pop music."

But, Bailey insisted, he has no plans to concentrate exclusively on gospel. "I can do both," he said. "I don't want to give up pop music. It's how I earn my living. I've got a family to take care of."

A singing percussionist from Denver, Bailey has spent most of his professional career in Earth, Wind & Fire. Not long after joining the band 13 years ago, Bailey, 32, gave up percussion and concentrated on singing.

"There were plenty of percussionists in the band," he said. "I saw my future was in singing."

Bailey's solo urges surfaced years ago, but he didn't do anything about them while Earth, Wind & Fire was working steadily. "Maurice knew I wanted to do a solo album. We even talked about producers and touring. I really wanted to do this album two or three years before I did it but I just never got around to it. I don't know if it would have worked out while the band was really active."

Though Bailey wouldn't confirm it, the word around the music industry was that White--a tough, no-nonsense leader--didn't want Bailey doing solo work because it might detract from his EWF duties. A conflict between White and Bailey has been rumored for years. Bailey wouldn't confirm that either. Reportedly, the source of the conflict was both Bailey's solo aspirations as well as his shrinking role in EWF. Most people thought Bailey should have been doing more--not less--lead singing.

"This whole thing was more of an issue for other people than it was for me," Bailey said. "They kept after me about it, saying that I should do this or do that. But as long as the band was working, there was no need for me to do anything drastic.

"Sure, I wanted to sing more. That's only natural. After a while I was only singing one or two songs. But it's Maurice's band. Naturally, I wanted freedom to sing more and expand what I was singing. Since I was doing less I knew I had to eventually do an album of my own, the way I wanted to do it."

As an EWF singer, his falsetto vocals were largely limited by the band's sound--which didn't vary much--and White's musical tastes. "Sure Maurice told me how to sing," Bailey said. "That's his job as producer. I had to do what I was told."

On Bailey's new solo album, producer Collins allows him to roam rather freely, testing different vocal styles. "There's a side of me vocally that people didn't know existed," he said. "I had to get it out of me."

Bailey began his vocal explorations last year on his first solo album, "Continuation," produced by George Duke. The album, which had no hit singles, flopped. But that was no surprise. Neither the songs nor the production were of high caliber.

Now Bailey says he had reservations about the album. "Let's just say I wasn't overjoyed or ecstatic about the final product."

Then why was it released? "I'm not in a position to do three or four albums worth of songs to get one album. That costs money. We did the best we could and put it out on the market."

Bailey hinted that if Duke hadn't been so busy with other projects, "Continuation" might have turned out differently.

"I felt George was producing too many other records when he was producing my record," Bailey charged. "I didn't like that, but I didn't have any control over it."

Bailey was disappointed, he recalled, but not discouraged: "I figured I'd do it again and get it right. All I had to do was find the right person to produce it. Then along came Phil Collins."

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