“Do you remember” the first time you ever heard Earth, Wind & Fire? Do you remember smiling, singing along, shaking your rump or cuddling with your loved one while listening to their albums? Do you remember the energetic rhythms, sultry love songs, feel-good vibes and lyrics that were intelligent, positive and uplifting? Do you remember the vocal interplay between Philip Bailey’s highs and Maurice White’s lows, propulsive bursts of funk from the horn section, sophisticated instrumentation and complex arrangements? Do you remember the first time you saw them in concert? Do you remember the full spectrum of vibrant colors, masterful musicianship and extraordinary theatrics? Do you remember the purity and spiritual elements that always seemed to elevate your mood and expand your consciousness? And here we are, a breath away from entering a new millennium, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s music is as timely and timeless as ever.
A little basic history…Maurice White knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish when the Memphis-born, Chicago-reared drummer left his gig as a member of renowned jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis’ quartet and session drummer for the famed Chess Records. Simply put, he wanted to form a band that abolished the lines between musical genres. He wanted to be able to freely borrow from all styles of music without regard to convention. “Although we were basically jazz musicians, we played soul, funk, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and dance music which somehow ended up becoming pop,” Maurice recalled. “I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. We were coming out of a decade of experimentation, mind expansion and Cosmic awareness and I wanted our music to convey messages of universal love and harmony without force-feeding listeners spiritual content.”
After heading west to Los Angeles, Maurice coaxed his younger brother Verdine, then nineteen, to join him. Verdine was a classically trained bassist who previously had never been outside of Chicago. The first grouping initially took the name “The Salty Peppers.” Maurice renamed the band Earth, Wind & Fire, which he took from his astrological chart (he’s a Sagittarian – no water). At first, EW&F was loose and somewhat unfocused. They even tried unsuccessfully using female singers in the mix. After his vision wasn’t quite realized on two 1971 albums for Warner Brothers Records, Maurice demolished the band to its foundation and rebuilt the unit, adding a four-octave singer-percussionist from Denver named Philip Bailey and a drummer-percussionist-vocalist from Los Angeles named Ralph Johnson. Verdine stuck around. Good thing.
Beginning to gel…Maurice’s charismatic tenor and Philip’s stratospheric falsetto helped chisel the band’s vocal identity. The two fit together and complimented one another remarkably well. In the studio, Maurice floated a thicket of elaborate vocal arrangements over a stream of musical rivers. Philip brought an innate sense of melody to their songwriting efforts.
Earth, Wind & Fire created the soundtrack to a pioneering black film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song,” then promptly switched to Columbia Records, which became the home for so many of Earth, Wind & Fire’s classics. The albums “Last Days and Time,” “Head To The Sky” and “Open Our Eyes” propelled the group onto the radio and were backed with concert dates wherever they could play including clubs, colleges and theatres. An underground following began to amass. It was a soundtrack to an ill-fated film that busted them wide open. “That’s The Way Of The World,” was a total stiff at the box office (twice), but it did huge business at record stores. Earth, Wind & Fire got their first #1 single (“Shining Star”), first Grammy Award and first double platinum sales award. They were just getting started.
The elements in motion…”Gratitude,” “Spirit” and “All ‘n All” made Earth, Wind & Fire superstars. Hit singles began to flow like the missing element – “Can’t Hide Love,” “Gratitude,” “Fantasy,” “Getaway” and “Got To Get You Into My Life,” an imaginative cover of The Beatles tune for a film. Grammy nominations and wins. Gold, platinum and double platinum sales plaques. Ceaseless international touring. Writing and recording new albums while at soundcheck or in hotel rooms and studios on off-days. The pace was frenetic, the band prolific. “The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1,” “I Am,” “Faces,” “Raise!” and “Powerlight” proffered hits “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “After The Love Has Gone,” “In The Stone” and “Let’s Groove.”
Doin’ it live…Earth, Wind & Fire’s hit recordings were partially responsible for their infamy. There is nothing like an Earth, Wind & Fire concert. “When we hit the stage, it is showtime,” Verdine declared energetically. Along with Maurice, Verdine is quite often the mastermind behind-the-scenes, but usually the most prominent member on stage with his long raven tresses whipping about, smile beaming brightly and lithe body inexhaustibly writhing and prancing. “It’s kind of like Carnival, Mardi Gras, Broadway, Las Vegas and Cirque du Soleil all at once.” They put on captivating, trendsetting concerts that literally were magic. EW&F hired magicians Doug Henning and his then unknown assistant, David Copperfield, to design their stage shows. Band members levitated, flew, disappeared, emerged from Egyptian pyramids and space ships, drum sets flipped upside down, thundering explosions rocked and scores of whirling lights and lasers winked in sync at the pageantry. With precision and panache, Earth, Wind & Fire high-stepped effortlessly through demanding athletic choreography while adroitly playing their instruments.
The huge group – fourteen or more on stage at-a-time- was outfitted in outlandish costumes. In the early days, they wore tights (seriously folks), which were replaced by magnificently colored African-influenced attire. Flashy sequined, metallic and futuristic spacesuit numbers also were de regular. Earth, Wind & Fire was the first to bring the African culture into prominence and into pop culture. One of Maurice’s and EW&F’s trademark was a handheld African thumb piano called a kalimba, which seasoned so many of their recordings. Philip explained, “It was important to us to make a connection to our heritage and to introduce our culture to a wide audience.”
Then and now, Earth, Wind & Fire put on unforgettable shows. These days however, it is done with less pomposity and greater focus on the actual music. “Times are different,” Verdine said. “Most of that stuff was of its time. We found that we can still put on fabulous concerts without all the hoopla. Look, even Elton gave up his wild glasses and outfits. KISS took off their make-up. Wait a second, check that.”
Time to chill…In the middle and late seventies, Maurice wrote and produced hits by Ramsey Lewis, Deniece Williams and The Emotions, all three of which opened for The Fire on tour at one point. Earth, Wind & Fire took a much-needed break to finally relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor in 1983 after nearly twelve years of non-stop recording and touring. Individually they explored other avenues of musical expression. Maurice released a successful solo disc and produced superstars Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. Philip made several gospel records including a Grammy winner. “Easy Lover” was his smash international pop single, which was a duet with Phil Collins, who had been borrowing EW&F’s famed horn section for his and Genesis’ recordings and tours. Verdine produced an album from British pop funksters Level 42. The time apart did them good. They were reinvigorated.
A new dawn…Four years later, Earth, Wind & Fire came charging back with “Touch The World,” paced by the hit single, “System of Survival,” followed by a second volume of greatest hits. Another studio package and a collector’s dream box set, “The Eternal Dance,” arrived in the early 1990’s. The “Millennium” album brought another Grammy nomination in 1994, their fourteenth to date, for the single “Sunday Morning.” Maurice decided to unpack and get off the road after thirty years of touring and the group, lead by Philip and Verdine, kept the rhythm strong. Recorded during a Japanese tour in 1996, Maurice’s farewell performances were captured for posterity on “Greatest Hits Live.” Still Maurice produces and sings on Earth, Wind & Fire’s recordings.
While the band played show after show, Maurice built a state-of-the-art recording studio and produced several compelling jazz projects including a pair of all-star “Urban Knights” albums, which feature his old mentor Ramsey Lewis collaborating with Grover Washington Jr., Gerald Albright, Jonathan Butler and others. He also unveiled a boutique record label called, what else, Kalimba Records. “Some people still don’t understand my decision fully (to get off the road),” Maurice stated. “I’m focusing on the next phase of my career. With what I’m doing now, I’m still able to be creative and fully express what I’m feeling musically.”
“Earth, Wind & Fire has always, above all else, been a group concept,” echoed Philip. “Maurice and I have always been able to sing each others’ parts. Now I’m able to exercise my full vocal registry on stage. Honestly, it did seem a bit strange at first, singing songs he and I had sung together for so many years, but that feeling disappeared quickly. Plus the audiences have been incredibly enthusiastic and supportive, so we know it works.”
Year after year, tour after tour, concert venues worldwide are packed with fans who converge upon Earth, Wind & Fire shows. The warm feelings of love that permeate the celebratory concert extravaganzas exude from both the band and the audience and have forged a lasting bond. VH1 and HBO have both aired a pair of concert performances over the last few years and EW&F has appeared on numerous television shows including NBC’s “Today,” “Oprah” and “Rosie O’Donnell Show.” Since their inception, Earth, Wind & Fire has won six Grammys and four American Music Awards while selling over 20 million albums in the U.S. alone. They have been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and collected a Hall of Fame Image Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Lasting impressions…1997’s “In The Name of Love” was easily one of Earth, Wind & Fire’s best-received records in over a decade. Fans and critics unanimously championed the organic live sound in an era when popular music is so often synthesized and sampled. Countless artists from nearly every musical genre have been influenced and inspired by Earth, Wind & Fire – influenced by their composition, instrumentation, vocal harmonization and concert theatrics, or inspired by the divine love and positivity that radiates through their songs. One such artist is Wyclef Jean, a member of the Grammy-winning hip hop trio The Fugees, solo artist and in-demand producer-songwriter.
After collaborating on a cameo appearance Earth, Wind & Fire made on a #1 rap version of “Shining Star” by Sunz of Man, Jean inked them to Refugee Camp/Columbia Records. He’ll produce several tracks with Maurice for Earth, Wind & Fire’s next album, most likely due first quarter next year. Already Jean wrote and produced an EW&F song for “The PJ’s” soundtrack, released last March. Various hitmakers are being considered to join the group in the studio for what will be their twenty-third album. While they labor on the new material, Sony Music Legacy is re-releasing four of Earth, Wind & Fire’s landmark albums – “Gratitude,” “That’s The Way Of The World,” “All ‘N All” and “The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1″ – which have been remastered. Outtakes and other material culled from the original recording sessions have been added to each disc.
“I wanted to create a band and a library of music that would stand the test of time,” reflected Maurice. “What makes Earth, Wind & Fire different is that Cosmic Consciousness is a key component of our work. Educating and expanding people’s awareness and uplifting their spirits is so important in this day and age.
It’s so tough out there and people are looking for more. They want more, and without sounding preachy, I hope our music can give them something positive…some encouragement and peace.”
“We’ve worked hard over the years and we want to establish Earth, Wind & Fire as a brand name,” Verdine concluded. “We’re going to make the most of the opportunities presented to us. We’re quite fortunate and kind of in what I like to call ‘the attitude of gratitude.’ Over the years, we’ve seen the record business change dramatically and we know we’re blessed to still be making records and touring at this level. Really no other band from our so-called era, especially a large group like Earth, Wind & Fire, are around today doing what we’re doing. Certainly I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but we want even more, much more, and you can bet that we’re going to do everything we can to focus on making a great album. Don’t underestimate us and don’t ever bet against Earth, Wind & Fire. We’re going to surprise a lot of people with where we’re going next.