I’LL WRITE A SONG FOR
YOU: THE MUSIC OF EARTH WIND & FIRE
On a famous episode of Seinfeld, Elaine dances
(in the kindest definition of the word) to their hit "Shining Star." You might
have seen them on an episode of "Grace Under Fire" (Grace and Nadine drive all
night to their concert, miss the performance, but sing "Let’s Groove" with the
band in a local bar). Mariah Carey and Crystal Waters have borrowed their carefully
orchestrated rhythm tracks for Top 40 hits, while songs like "That’s The Way Of The
World" and "September" have been remade by everyone from Herb Alpert to
In May 1974, "Mighty Mighty" (Columbia 46007) became Earth Wind & Fire’s first hit on the pop charts, peaking at #29. "’Mighty Mighty’ wasn’t a big Top 40 hit," said Verdine, "because at the time Top 40 radio was scared of ‘Mighty Mighty,’ because they thought it was a song about Black Power." But it was a start. While "Mighty Mighty" was on the charts, Earth Wind & Fire worked with Sig Shore, the mastermind behind the motion picture Superfly, on a new film about the dark side of the recording industry. That’s The Way Of The World starred Earth Wind & Fire as "The Group," a new recording act. In the film, Harvey Keitel hears "The Group" performing, and produces their first album. The film’s title is repeated throughout the film as a shrug of the shoulders to the music world.
Earth Wind & Fire performed the songs in the film, and Maurice had a small speaking part as leader of "The Group." "We actually recorded one of the songs, ‘Happy Feelin’,’ at a roller skating rink during the movie," said Philip Bailey. "We had a truck outside, we actually recorded it then, we went to the studio and tried to do it over, but the feel that we had in the roller rink was the one. So we just used that one." "Our performance in That’s The Way Of The World was us running into a van and the van driving off," said Verdine White. "There was some concert footage in the end, that was it. When we saw the film, we said this is going to be a major flop, we need to get our record out before the film comes. The music was so different, and we didn’t want the film to hurt the music."
The strategy paid off. The music Earth Wind & Fire recorded during that time period – later released as the album "That’s The Way Of The World" (Columbia 33280) broke through to new audiences. And when songs from the motion picture were repackaged into Earth Wind & Fire’s 2-album set Gratitude (Columbia 33694), the group reached the top. Five songs from that album blasted onto pop and soul radios around the country – the tender ballad "Reasons," the inventive "Sing A Song," the sultry "Can’t Hide Love," the title track from their film "That’s The Way Of The World," and their first #1 hit, "Shining Star." As for the film, it bombed upon release, was re-released under the name Shining Star, and flopped again. "It was incredible, the most incredible feeling," said Maurice White. "Our song, ‘Shining Star,’ was the #1 song in the country. That was our dream come true, it was unbelievable."
Many of those early hits came from the long years of touring and soundchecks, the improvisation every night that generated a new guitar lick, the musical dexterity born from inspiration and dedication. Even their second song to reach the pop Top 10, "Sing A Song" (Columbia 10251), found its genesis in a soundcheck. "The creative process took place in the studio," said Maurice, "and it continued to the stage. When we were preparing for a gig, we would make up songs, and a lot of songs later became album tracks. That’s how "Sing A Song" was discovered. We were on stage, just having a sound check. In the studio, there was a process too. I had so many years in the recording studio as a producer, it was very easy for me to capture a song."
Other tracks, like the complex hit "Getaway" (Columbia 10373), came from outside the group. Verdine White remembers when he heard "Getaway" for the first time. "I originally heard it from a guy named Chuck, who was producing this flute player named Bobbie Humphries. And I heard this song, and I said to him, ‘That would be a great song for us.’ He wanted to produce it for us, but that wasn’t about to happen. So we got the tune, took it into the studio and cut it. It was a smash, too – it was totally different, it was like Yes with a little funk under the bottom. It had uptempo and breaks, and a lot of upbeats in it."
"’Getaway’ was written by Beloyd Taylor and Peter Carr," said Philip Bailey. "It was really bebop, like if you sang the lick at the top. But Maurice had a real uncanny thing for just locking up those rhythms. Al McKay was just the rhythm master, it was a hook that just caught. It was like a train, all the engines were moving and running, everything was in sync. It had a repeating hook, the music and the rhythm that became very catchy. But ‘Getaway’ was still very, very out there. And I think only Earth Wind & Fire could have done that kind of thing right there."
Even as Earth Wind & Fire’s music blended into the pop mainstream, Maurice White found time to produce other artists and groups. Ramsey Lewis asked him to produce an album, and the Lewis-EWF collaboration Sun Goddess (Columbia 33194) is still a jazz staple. White produced Top 10 hits like "Free" and "It’s Gonna Take A Miracle" for Deneice Williams, a former member of Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove backup group. Another track Maurice produced, the Emotions’ "Best Of My Love" (Columbia 10544), went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts. "We were cutting rhythm section records," said Verdine. "Maurice would produce the records, him and Charles Stepney at the time, and we’d play on them and then Ramsey would play on them, or maybe Deneice Williams or the Emotions would sing on them. Our schedule was such at the time that if we were in the studio for three weeks, we would be cutting tracks – and those tracks might be for one act or another. It was one continuing musical flow."
These additional artists became part of one of the largest touring packages of the 70’s. The Emotions, Deneice Williams and Ramsey Lewis would be the opening acts. A group that Verdine White produced, Pockets, also toured in the group. Then Earth Wind & Fire took the stage. Their concerts were loaded with pyrotechnics, magic, laser lights, flying pyramids and levitating guitarists, all supported by a solid musical performance every night. Magician Doug Henning directed many of their tours throughout the 1970’s, and the band – including Larry Dunn (keyboards), Al McKay (guitar, sitar), Fred White (drums) and Andrew Woolfolk (sax, flute) would leviate, teleport, explode on stage – all for their audience’s entertainment. "We started the massive tour around 1975," said Verdine. "We thought that for the high ticket prices at the time, the public should see something they had never seen before. Most concerts were just concerts, and we thought it was time that people would see something they never saw before."
"What I started to do," said Maurice White, "was put on the tour some of the acts that I was also producing at the time, the Emotions, and also Deneice Williams. Sometimes we would use Ramsey Lewis too, so everybody on the tour were from albums I was producing. It was like the moving circus comes to town. We had ten semis carrying equipment and instruments, and we had our own plane. But the music came first. First we were musicians, and we were very serious musicians rather than just there for the hits. Our first love was music. We were just a band. Which just happened to have a couple of hits."
Maurice also incorporated the Kalimba and its sound into Earth Wind & Fire’s vision of world-wide and world-inspired music, even naming their production company Kalimba Productions. "During that period of time, I always studied metaphysics and Egyptology. It got so interesting, what I was trying to do was share with the audience what we were learning at the time. As we learned more, we went about trying to share it with the audience, bring a message to the music."
And Maurice’s studies appeared not only in the music, but also on the Shusei Nagaoka-designed album covers. All ‘n All (Columbia 34905), for example, displayed Rameses II’s pyramid as neighbor to an Imhotep-inspired futuristic metropolis. Raise! (ARC/Columbia 37548) showed an Egyptian statue with a mechanical exoskeleton. Ankhs, crosses, statues of Shiva and Buddha and William Shakespeare – all were incorporated into the intricate album artwork of Earth Wind & Fire covers.
"Maurice always studied astrology, numerology, astronomy," said Verdine. "We introduced Trancendental Meditation to a lot of the black audience. That was very new for them. Of course, the Beatles had brought TM to the people in the 1960’s, but we brought it into the 70’s to an audience that was looking for something alternative. I even met the Maharishi in 1970. When you really look at the three cornerstones of religion – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and all of the world’s religions, they all bear witness to each other."
In 1978, Earth Wind & Fire appeared in another motion picture, the Beatles movie tribute Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the film, the band played themselves, performing "Got To Get You Into My Life" at a concert hall. The film itself was a commercial bomb (Peter Frampton recalls his experiences with the Sgt. Pepper movie in Goldmine #447), and although the soundtrack shipped triple platinum, it allegedly was returned triple platinum. Yet despite musical performances on the soundtrack from Aerosmith, Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees and Alice Cooper, Earth Wind & Fire’s remake of the Beatles classic was the highest charting pop single from the soundtrack. "Once more, we had a movie that flopped on us," said Maurice White, "but we had a #1 hit out of it, ‘Got To Get You Into My Life.’ We actually recorded our parts on the set."
"Robert Stigwood called us and asked if we wanted to be in a movie," said Verdine. "We said okay, it could be interesting. At that particular time, you didn’t see a lot of musical blacks in movies – there was The Wiz, but that was a horrible movie. We had three songs to choose from – ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ and two ballads. We just did the song Chicago-style. Some people thought George Martin produced the song, but Maurice produced it."
"I remember that day, it was cold as heck," said Philip Bailey, "and it was an all-day, all-night kind of thing. That was one that really catapulted us into a whole new arena. That was an exciting move, because the Beatles – that’s legendary, and the magnitude – we were honored to be asked on that, really. That was a good experience for us. We recorded the song in Colorado, in a little studio up in Boulder. We rehearsed the horns for that song in Denver, went up to Boulder in the snow, and recorded the whole song in one night."
The success of "Got To Get You Into My Life" drew more fans to Earth Wind & Fire’s music, and the group responded with excursions into ice-melting ballads ("I’ll Write A Song For You," "After The Love Has Gone"), booty-shaking disco ("Boogie Wonderland", "Let’s Groove") and more metaphysics ("Fantasy," "Jupiter"). "We started to expand a little bit," said Verdine, "and started writing better songs. "Boogie Wonderland" really was capturing the tail end of the disco era. We didn’t think of it as disco, we thought of it as a song with a 4/4 beat. Clubs always had that kind of music, they just called it disco – the industry always has to call it something."
"As an artist," said Philip Bailey, "I’m just blessed that songs like that came our way. I remember one that we didn’t get and I always wished we could have – Jeffrey Osborne’s ‘Love Ballad.’ He had a great hit with that one."
Maurice loaned Earth Wind & Fire’s signature Phnix Horns – Don Myrick on saxophone, Louis Satterfield on trombone, Rahmlee Davis and Michael Harris on trumpets – to his other production projects, the Emotions, Ramsey Lewis and Deniece Williams. Then, on a tour of Europe, somebody else took interest in the famed horn section. "We used to tour so much," said Maurice, "we used to tour Europe. Phil Collins had an opportunity to see us. He would recruit our horn section whenever we weren’t using it."
Sure enough, Collins imported the Phnix Horns into Genesis tracks like "No Reply At All" and "Paperlate," and on his solo hits like "I Missed Again," "Sussudio" and "I Cannot Believe It’s True." "I sometimes had to call and make an appointment to see my own horn section," said Maurice. "They even toured with Genesis and Phil Collins for a while."
In 1983, Earth Wind & Fire released the "Electric Universe" album. It was also their last release for four years. "The whole scene was changing," said Verdine. "There was an explosion of video artists. At that time, MTV wasn’t playing black artists – the only black artists they played at that time were Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and Prince. There was BET to play black videos, but they didn’t have the same money behind MTV. It hurt a lot of those groups, because the audience didn’t know who those groups were, and they only knew about groups that had the visibility. Rick James was the first black artist to really bitch about MTV, and he was right at the time. They were playing acts that hadn’t had hit records, and he had hits at the time."
"I put the group on hiatus in 1983," said Maurice, "because I just wanted to rest from touring. I had been touring for 10 years, and it was time for me to take a rest. The only things I ever saw was the road or the studio, that was my whole life for ten years. So I left the band for a while. We kind of put everything on hold, and in the process of doing that, I cut a solo record. The two hits from that album was ‘Stand By Me’ and another song called ‘I Need You.’"
"I think that was the best thing that ever happened to us," said Verdine, "because it was time to shut down. We had made enough records to define our careers – I tried to convince Maurice to shut down after the Raise! record in 1981, because I felt we needed a break, just to live. We had slammed pretty hard for 13 years. I think people should stop, particularly in creative endeavors, to catch up and see where you are. And times were starting to change, too. We were having our own interest in things we wanted to do."
During the hiatus, Philip Bailey released a solo album, "Chinese Wall." While it was not his first solo album (Bailey recorded a series of gospel LP’s for the Myrrh and Word labels), it was his most successful. The first single from that album, a duet with Phil Collins called "Easy Lover" (Columbia 04679) went gold, and the music video of Bailey and Collins rehearsing their collaboration hit #1 on MTV’s video playlist. "I really didn’t know that much about Phil’s music until the Phnix Horns introduced us and I went to a concert of his. It wasn’t a stargazing thing – when we got together, it was mutual admiration for each other’s musicianship. It definitely was a boost for me – not only domestically, but also internationally. Still, to this day, I can do that song and people will know it. Phil Collins is one of the most down to earth famous people that we ever worked with."
Meanwhile, during the hiatus, Verdine White worked behind the scenes, writing and directing videos. He produced a Level 42 album, and promoted go-go bands like Trouble Funk and E.U. "When you are known for one entity, people think that’s the only thing you know. But music is music."
"Contrary to popular belief," said Verdine, "we didn’t have pop radio in our pocket. For Earth Wind & Fire, we had to continue to have an R&B smash in order to even raise the eyebrows of pop radio. We never really knew if the mainstream market would like our record or not – and in some instances, maybe if the song had been played, it might have been a hit. We were always judged by what happened on R&B radio first. Even after having the countless chart hits that we did, it was still – when a record came out, it had to go R&B first, in opposed to just getting played on the radio. When you listen to ‘After The Love Is Gone,’ and if you listen to Earth Wind & Fire’s catalog, I’m sure there was at least one song in the bunch that pop radio – if they had known about it, would have been a hit. We were always walking that fine line – was the song too R&B, or too pop? Of course, this is all hindsight. These were not things that we focused on or complained about – we were making music, and that was what we did."
In 1987, CBS Records spoke to Philip Bailey and Maurice White separately, convincing both that a reunion of Earth Wind & Fire would be beneficial for all parties. "We began to realize the real appreciation that people had for the band and what we had done. We saw that the whole Earth Wind & Fire was bigger than its parts. It made sense to continue with what we had started. So we said, let’s do it album by album, one disc at a time. We knew that we couldn’t go back to the old band and start over again, because it would have been a mess. I’m very glad that we were pretty mature about us understanding that – or our reunion would have lasted less than nine weeks."
Thanks to an ingenious young songwriter, the group had a comeback hit. "Philip and I was in San Francisco," said Maurice. "Going to the studio one day, we went out to the car and there was a cassette tape attached to the door handle. We got the tape and put it in the car stereo, and played it. It was ‘System of Survival.’ This guy, Skylark, wrote the song, and instead of disturbing us at the hotel, he taped the tape to the door handle of my car. That was a good way to get material to me. I wouldn’t mind if my car was covered with cassette tapes, as long as they were as good as ‘System of Survival.’"
But by 1990, Earth Wind & Fire’s time with Columbia was ending. Their 1989 release Heritage did not sell well, despite cameo appearances on the disc from Sly Stone and MC Hammer. The upper echelon of CBS Records had also changed – while Earth Wind & Fire had achieved success under label presidents Clive Davis and Walter Yetnikoff, there was increasing friction between the band and new label president Tommy Mottola. "Our deal with CBS was with Yetnikoff," said Verdine, "and we had a key man clause – that meant if Yetnikoff left, we left too. Although I liked Tommy, Tommy’s a really good guy, we just decided to move on. Mo Ostin at Warner Bros. had wanted us to come where he was. We had re-signed with Columbia in 1982, and Mo wanted us to come to Warner Bros. then, but Walter wouldn’t let us out of the contract."
Their exodus from Columbia may have been spurred by a new hit single by their Columbia labelmate, Mariah Carey. In 1991, friends called Maurice White, telling him to listen to a new track on the radio. What Maurice heard was the Earth Wind & Fire’s rhythm track for the Emotions’ 70’s classic "Best Of My Love," but the Emotions’ voices were replaced by Mariah Carey – singing entirely different lyrics. And when the disc jockey announced the song’s title had been changed to "Emotion," White hit the roof. "I don’t mind if someone records a song and gives us credit for writing a tune, that’s fine, that’s not a problem, that’s a compliment. But when somebody just rips you off, steals your song and tries to get away with taking the credit for writing it – we received no writing or publishing credit for that song. Everybody that heard the song knew it was a ripoff of ‘Best Of My Love.’ How close can you get? It seems to be a trend that’s happening now, but I think eventually somebody’s going to come along, they’re going to put the creativity back into music. It’s unfortunate that a lot of fans and a lot of people that received the music get it watered down, and a lot of times they don’t know what the original is. That’s really too bad."
In 1993, they released their new album under the Warner Bros. contract, Millennium (Reprise 45274-2), earning a Grammy nomination for the track "Sunday Morning." In fact, between 1975 and 1993, Earth Wind & Fire received 14 Grammy nominations, winning six times. "All through the Seventies, we had Grammies and gold records all over the place," said Maurice. "It’s a great gesture. The first Grammy we ever won, I couldn’t believe it. It was like getting our first number one single. I make sure that everybody in the band gets the gold records, which we have a lot. I could fill up the room I’m in with the gold and platinum records we’ve won."
But ten of those Grammy nominations were in the "Best R&B Group" or "Best R&B Instrumental" categories. "First of all," said Philip Bailey, "I could never understand that you could have a record with the kind of crossover success that Earth Wind & Fire has had, and continue to be nominated as just an ‘R&B Group.’ Just once I would have liked to have seen us nominated as ‘Best Group,’ let us compete with all the other pop and rock bands."
And when Earth Wind & Fire did win the golden gramophones, their acceptance speeches never appeared on the Grammy telecast. "I’m not dissing the Grammy people or anything like that," said Bailey, "but you know, we have seven Grammys – the band has six and I have one for my gospel work – and none of those Grammys were ever received on television. Not one. That was at a time when the Grammys were given to the R&B categories pre-telecast. How many people have seven Grammys – and we never got a chance to make a speech on television. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. I’m not bitter about it or anything, it’s just that when you talk about the Grammys – and we’re very proud to have them, I have the ones that didn’t get broken in the Northridge earthquake – but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten the chance to feel what that really means in the larger sense of the world. Very few people even remember that we have this many Grammys, because they never saw it on television. If you didn’t catch that little part where they list all the ancillary awards – seven times – you wouldn’t have known about our seven Grammys."
Meanwhile, problems were brewing over at Warner Bros. Mo Ostin, the man who recruited Earth Wind & Fire to Columbia, was himself forced out of the label. "We talked about the record for a year before we cut it," said Verdine. "He let us take our time and let us do what we wanted to do. When we started to record, he financed our upstart costs. The leveraged takeover that cost Mo Ostin his job at Warner Bros., that was one of the biggest mistakes the industry ever made. It slowed the label down, it cost a lot of talent. A lot of artists in the late 80’s-middle 90’s were the victims of moguls fighting over each other for positions. The moguls weren’t fighting over records or movies – they were fighting over who was going to control the gatekeepers of this information. They got Mo out of the way because of the massive catalog that Warner Bros. had. But the only person who knew about Warner Bros. music was Mo."
Although there were many achievements and accomplishments throughout Earth Wind & Fire’s existence, there has also been tragedy. Charles Stepney had worked with Maurice since the days of Chess Records, and had produced and arranged albums for the Dells, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. In 1976, after helping co-produce and arrange Earth Wind & Fire’s Spirit album and Deneice Williams’ This is Nicey album, Charles Stepney died of a heart attack. He was only 45.
In the summer of 1993, former Phnix Horns member Don Myrick, whose saxophone could be heard not only on Earth Wind & Fire’s albums, but also on albums from Regina Belle, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Heaven 17 and Phil Collins (it’s Myrick’s emotional sax on Collins’ hit "One More Night"), was shot to death in Los Angeles, under circumstances that still remain a mystery to this day.
"Don hadn’t worked with us in almost ten years," said Philip Bailey, "and so we were on to other things, we had a new Earth Wind & Fire horn section. I was in Los Angeles, and somebody called me and told me what happened. I think that he had some problems that he couldn’t resolve in himself – that kept putting him in situations. We were all very shocked and hurt that that had happened. He hadn’t worked with the band in quite some time. He did a solo for me on one of my projects, and wasn’t really feeling up to doing what I was used to hearing him do. But later I learned that he was back and playing really well and everything, so it was a real shock to us. He had been real sick one time and close to death, we were thinking he was bouncing back. It’s still shocking today."
While Earth Wind & Fire continued to record and tour, Maurice White continued to produce. One of his most successful and well-received projects during that time came in 1994, when at the bequest of GRP Records Vice-President Carl Griffin, Maurice teamed up with Ramsey Lewis, Grover Washington, Jr., Victor Bailey and Omar Hakim as the "Urban Knights" (GRP 9815). White produced the sessions, and even wrote six songs for the project. "I was so happy that Carl called me to do the project," said White at the time, "especially with Ramsey being an old friend. The sessions were highly improvisational and a lot of the tunes were written as we went along. Since my original musical roots are in jazz, this was like coming full circle for me and it was a tremendous experience. My idea (of being a producer) is to allow everyone around you to contribute…you don’t force them [to do that] but allow them to contribute…." The success of the Urban Knights album prompted White and Lewis to collaborate with guitarist Jonathan Butler, saxophonist Gerald Albright and drummer Sonny Emory on a second album, "Urban Knights II" (GRP 9861).
Maurice White is still Earth Wind & Fire’s producer and their guiding light, but he retired from the stage in 1996. He now spends his time building a studio in Los Angeles, fielding offers to produce new bands and performers, and contemplating a less nomadic pace. "I would love to do a completely jazz/acoustic album. Sometime in the future, that’s going to be possible. I was on the road for 25 years, that’s a long time in itself. I paid my dues. I’m doing a lot of recording now, I stay in the studio so much – so the best thing for me to do is build my own place."
Today, Earth Wind & Fire are back on the road, touring in support of their new album In The Name Of Love (Pyramid/Rhino 72864) and their singles "Revolution" and "When Love Goes Wrong." "The first time around," said Philip Bailey, "it was going by so fast. I’m having more fun now than I ever had in my life. That’s not to poo-pooh that time, but in those kind of blitz situations, everything’s coming at you so fast and everything’s happening around you, until you don’t really have time to ever savor the experience and say, wow. It went by so fast, and there so much stuff going on – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
"I’m proud of the staying power," said Verdine White, "the music was always strong and we’re still here. Every time we go to the concert, there’s always somebody of notoriety there from today’s era – Wesley Snipes was at one of our concerts, Queen Latifah was at our concert, I ran into somebody from the Martin show the other night. They get excited, and they’re proud, too. We go to the airports, people still get excited when they see us. They tell us about the songs that affected their lives."
And as Earth Wind & Fire perform their blend of jazz, funk, fusion, gospel, rock and pop to a new generation of fans, perhaps we can get a glimpse of their future. In the motion picture The Fifth Element, the film mentions that the first four primary elements were earth, wind, fire and water. Not air – wind.
The rest of the film was spent searching for that elusive fifth element. Maurice White found it long ago when Ramsey Lewis told him about the kalimba.
(C) BBC MCMLXXXIII