THE ETERNAL DANCE
second Warner Brothers album, Maurice White had been dealing with the vagaries of being
the leader and the founder of a group that hadn’t become an overnight success. Despite
what were considered promising sales for their two first albums and the opportunity to
score the entire soundtrack for the Melvin Van Peebles’ vanguard movie, Sweet Sweetbacks
Badasssss Song (a forerunner to Shaft) for Stax Records, some members of EWF were
feeling decidedly restless.
Verdine remained but "the band broke up," says Maurice. "We’d been together about six months and people were complaining that we hadn’t made it yet. I just decided to re-form the group and I started holding auditions." The White brothers approached Philip Bailey (who had moved to Los Angeles to work as a musical director for a gospel group The Stovall Sisters) about joining EWF. Bailey recalls, "I realized that Maurice was serious about bringing a sense of dignity to the art form. This wasn’t about hanging out, getting the girls. This was about the integrity of the art. That’s what I was interested in."
Bailey turned White on to Denver buddy Larry Dunn who was visiting Los Angeles at the time, and through auditions, Maurice found Houston born sax player Ronnie Laws, guitarist Roland Bautista and drummer/percussionist Ralph Johnson, while vocalist Jessica Cleaves joined the group after quitting then-popular r&b/pop quartet The Friends Of Distinction.
An audition for managers Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo led to an association that continued uninterrupted until 1983, and Cavallo’s management of John Sebastian led to a series of gigs as opening act for the popular pop/folk singer. a performance at New York’s Rockefeller Center introduced EWF to Clive Davis, then President of Columbia Records.
"Clive saw us, and he loved what he saw. We were pretty "out there". We were wearing leotards, kinda like fresh out of Haight-Asbury. To say we were "colorful" would be an understatement! We had a lot of the "flower child" in us and our music. Well, we still had strong jazz overtones but we were starting to become a little more accessible, a little less self-indulgent," notes Maurice.
Davis was hooked. he bought the group’s contract from Warner Brothers and in the spring of 1972, EWF headed to the studio to record Last Days And Time, their CBS debut. "Clive just seemed to understand what we were about and we felt like we were being nurtured," says Verdine.
The album featured mostly original material but Philip had suggested the Pete Seeger song, "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" and the group threw in a cover of the Bread hit "Make It With You" for good measure. Last Days And Time was also the first album that prominently featured Maurice on kalimba. "I found a kalimba in a drum store one day in Chicago and I’d heard it being played in an African band. I just didn’t know what it was called. Anyway, I bought it decided to amplify it. I begun using it during my years with Ramsey but the first time I recorded with it was when we did "Bad Tune" on one of the Warner albums."
The album did remarkably well considering the group was still developing a following, over time hitting the gold mark. College radio played an important part in breaking EWF. Maurice – "We started creating a strong underground audience and we were different. There was a lot of energy in our performances."
"We opened for everyone: Mandrill, War, Eddie Kendricks, B.B. King, The Stylistics, Funkadelic." Adds Verdine. "We were the only group wearing tights, platform shoes, and no shirts; and our audiences were hip, young, black and white."
relative success of their Columbia debut, the group headed back to Clover Studios in the
winter of 1973 to record Head To The Sky. With it’s release, the group had undergone some
personnel changes: Roland Bautista and Ronnie Laws had left to pursue new opportunities.
Philip had recommended former Denver classmate Andrew Woolfolk, who had been busy in New
York studying sax with sax maestro Joe Henderson and was on the verge of taking up a
career in banking when Bailey called; guitarist Al McKay who had been performing with The
Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band; and guitarist Johnny Graham rounded out the lineup, after
playing with r&b favorites New Birth.
The album yielded the group’s first two legitimate hit singles: "Evil," co-written by Maurice and Philip; and the title track, "Keep Your Head To The Sky," both top 30 r&b and top 60 pop charters. The message in the music was clearly a reflection of White’s vision for the group: "From the very start, I had a commitment to the different terms of music and what was projected on stage. Coming out of a period of social confusion in the seventies, I wanted EWF to reflect the growing search for greater self-understanding, greater freedom from the restrictions we placed on ourselves in terms of our individual potential."
On the heels of Head To The Sky came Open Your Eyes, the group’s first platinum album. By the time the band went in to record, Jessica Cleaves had left, disappearing one night after a gig in Boston. As it turned out, she’d gotten married, moved to Detroit, and later went on to work with George Clinton. Maurice – "I decided not to replace her with another female singer so there were eight of us at that point."
In the studio, EWF jammed. "We’d have skeletons of the songs but there were a lot of improvisation in the studio. We were very free, very spontaneous," says Maurice. Verdine – "There was a lot of open discussions, a lot of room for different possibilities and creative combinations." Recorded at Caibou Ranch in Colorado, Open Your Eyes featured veteran Chicago arranger and producer Charles Stepney as associate producer and co-arranger.
"Charles had been resident arranger at Chess Records," states Maurice. "He worked on all those sessions with The Dells, Rotary Connection. He was my buddy…and he was also one of my main mentors. He was the guy who gave me the idea of us doing musical interludes on our albums. To me, he was like the professor. He brought his classical training, mixed with jazz and gospel overtones, to our records. He brought a certain element of class to what we were doing." Verdine – "It was Maurice’s group and he was like the quarterback, while Charles was the coach.
Open Your Eyes was the turning point in providing EWF with it’s first Top 30 pop hit ("Mighty Mighty") while "Devotion", a song with a strong spiritual message, became a second hit single, an indicator that EWF’s mission to communicate a philosophy of harmony and unity was indeed timely.
Maurice – "When we started to become big, a lot of media thought we were kinda "woo-woo", real Southern California. Some folks thought we were pretentious. The truth was, I writing about my life. There were people who relied on us for the message: we had a responsibility to our community."
Continues in The CBS Years [1974-1979]…