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Earth, Wind & Fire

+ {Maurice White}

Borrowing a bit of cosmic soul from the charismatic GEORGE CLINTON/P-FUNK enterprise and melding an R&B, jazz-fusion-funk with the quiet storm of The ISLEY BROTHERS, EARTH, WIND & FIRE had the key ingredients to create a dynamic dimension to disco/dance music. Spearheaded by visionary songwriter/drummer/producer/singer Maurice White (until Parkinson’s disease finally forced him to retire pre-2013), the ensemble took the 70s by the dazzling mirror-balls, securing Top 10 smashes from the chart-topping `Shining Star’, to `September’, `Boogie Wonderland’ (with The EMOTIONS) and the baby-boomer ballad `After The Love Has Gone’.
Emerging as The SALTY PEPPERS, early 1969, in Chicago, Illinois, Chess Records session drummer/kalimba player Maurice White (born December 19, 1941, in Memphis, Tennessee) took time out from the RAMSEY LEWIS TRIO, to team up with singer Wade Flemons and bassist/pianist Don Whitehead, for what was supposed to be a one-off 45 on local T E C Records: `La, La, La (Part 1)’. Almost immediately picked up by Capitol Records, a re-issued version (`La La Time – Part I’) gleaned airplay that spring, and was duly tailed by a second single, `Your Love Is Life’.
Persuading his kid brother Verdine White (bass) to venture with his triumvirate to the West Coast, Maurice, Don and Wade adopted the astrologically-inclined moniker of EARTH, WIND AND FIRE, before roping in guitarist Michael Beal, singer Sherry Scott, percussionist Yackov Ben Israel, tenor saxophonist Chet Washington and trombonist Alex Thomas.
Ambitious from the outset after signing with Warner Bros., the fluently funky ensemble saw their eponymous debut LP, EARTH, WIND AND FIRE (1971) {*6} catch a Top 200 place on the back of minor hit `Love Is Life’. Clocking in at under a tight-knit half-an-hour, and as `Fan The Fire’ and `Help Somebody’ had not previously registered much interest chart-wise, their heady cocktail of SLY & THE FAMILY STONE-meets-JAMES BROWN funk petered out.
One dude that had his eye on EW&F was MERVIN VAN PEEBLES, who had already invited the combo to perform on his Blaxploitation body-shock soundtrack to `Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’ – released that summer. Doubling their street-cred for quick-fire Top 100 follow-up, THE NEED OF LOVE (1971) {*5} – produced by Joe Wissert – they band had partly taken a free-form jazz experimental route, as witnessed on exhaustive bookend grooves, `Energy’ (at 9+ minutes) and the Phil Upchurch piece, `Everything Is Everything’ (a track that DONNY HATHAWAY fans might recognise as `Voices Inside’).
In creating the conscious, cleaned-up soul which made them famous, leader Maurice had retained only his brother Verdine, whilst recruiting an entire new band of players: silky star Philip Bailey (from Denver’s Friends & Love), keyboardist Larry Dunn, drummer/percussionist Ralph Johnson, rhythm guitarist Roland Bautista, saxophonist/flautist Ronnie Laws and second vocalist Jessica Cleaves (ex-FRIENDS OF DISTINCTION). This major personnel upheaval coincided with a switch to Columbia Records and their third set, LAST DAYS AND TIME (1972) {*6}. Another Top 100 breaker, and encapsulating the sounds surrounding them (from The ISLEYs to WEATHER REPORT), two tracks that stood out from the pack were their re-vamps of BREAD’s `Make It With You’ and PETE SEEGER’s `Where Have All The Flowers Gone’.
By the release of 1973’s HEAD TO THE SKY {*7}, the 9-piece line-up had added guitarists Al McKay and Johnny Graham (in place of Bautista), plus solo-bound RONNIE LAWS replacement: Andrew Woolfolk. While it would also be Cleaves swansong before she jumped ship to GEORGE CLINTON’s Brides Of Funkenstein (via domesticity), there were definitely signs that EARTH, WIND & FIRE were finding a commercial niche to their jazz-fusion funk. Bolstered by two modest hits, `Evil’ and `Keep Your Head To The Sky’, there was also room for a second Skip Scarborough smooth-y `The World’s A Masquerade’ (he contributed `I’d Rather Have You’ to their previous outing) and the beautifully-conceived 13-minute finale of Brazilian EDU LOBO’s `Zanzibar’, complete with birthing intro – worth the admin price alone, and hiding in many ways from SANTANA.
While this album gave the group their first major success, it was the Top 20 OPEN OUR EYES (1974) {*7} that began to encompass Maurice’s pseudo-mystical concepts into a more commercially viable proposition. Taking the funk head-on, the all-male octet captured the mood of their R&B audience with sensuous, stylish and sophisti-soul, held together by a trio of modest hits, `Mighty Mighty’, `Kalimba Story’ and `Devotion’.
Adding kid brother Fred White (born 1956) to share the drumming duties, Maurice and EARTH WIND & FIRE sessioned on RAMSEY LEWIS’ 1974 album, `Sun Goddess’, from which a couple of singles hit the charts. With connections to Blaxploitation guru MELVIN VAN PEEBLES, the White brothers had helped initiate the movement, although in the process they’d become the antithesis of it, envisioning black culture as a spiritual continuum rather than celebrating it through sharp-suited caricature. Filmmaker Sig Shore (responsible for Super Fly) was about to give “the group” a chance to take it one step further.
A laidback, creamy rich blend of soul/funk with a finely-polished pop sensibility, the soundtrack to THAT’S THE WAY OF THE WORLD (1975) {*8} deservedly scaled the charts. In a rare case of life imitating art(istic licence), EW&F hit pay-dirt in this story of a rags-to-riches singer. The movie itself sucked but, as San Francisco funk authority Rickey Vincent told it (in his excellent book, Funk – The Music, The People And The Rhythm Of The One), this LP “opened doors for the band’s imagination and paved the way for a live tour that expanded the realm of black popular music”.
The opening salvo, `Shining Star’, lit upon their self-help ethos and reflected it back into the cosmos. Powered by hard-pecking chicken scratch and scalpel-sharp horns, it was about as earth-bound as EW&F Mk.II ever came; ironically, it was their only No.1 single. The #12 title track hit and `Reasons’ explored higher ground: flawless cosmic soul just on the right side of muzak, lulled into the lotus position by Bailey’s 4-octave falsetto. Maurice, as usual, played a kalimba, the African thumb piano beloved of avant-garde jazzers and Congo alchemists. He showed off its brittle charms on `Happy Feelin’, and the choppy ethno-funk of `Africano’ (when one suddenly remembers one’s listening to soundtrack music!), as worthy highlights as the jazzy, SLY STONE-esque `Yearnin’, Learnin’.
In thanks to their fans for solidifying their reputation as the world’s top funk act, the predominantly live double-LP GRATITUDE (1975) {*8} rewarded EW&F with a back-to-back No.1. A document – `Sun Goddess’ was included – that convinced the globe they were more than just a pop-soul act, of the five proper studio tracks, both `Sing A Song’ and Scarborough’s `Can’t Hide Love’ burst some life into the charts; note too that guest Don Myrick on alto sax led the horn section. If it was all a bit much for some – most infamously GEORGE CLINTON dubbed them “Earth, Hot Air and No Fire” – this album at least remains one of the benchmarks of solar-soul, and an influence on the likes of early-period LENNY KRAVITZ and LAURYN HILL, among others. Love yourself, love everybody else, stay young, hug trees, go with the flow, channel the right vibes: these were the band’s mantras; and as 70s as the dashikis they wore on stage.
On top of the world, possibly looking down on creation, EARTH, WIND & FIRE expressed hope and joy on the exuberant SPIRIT (1976) {*8}, another success story that nearly sealed their third consecutive No.1; ironically kept off the top spot by STEVIE WONDER’s `Songs In The Key Of Life’. Maurice and Philip were the key players here, the former expressing an Afro-American Christianity and Eastern philosophy on the passionate pieces such as `Getaway’ and follow-up hit, `Saturday Nite’.
1977’s ALL ‘N ALL {*8} soared into the Top 3 (UK Top 20 for once); its visionary and mirrorball-pop railing against the times as `Serpentine Fire’, the cosmic `Fantasy’ and the British-only hit equivalent, `Jupiter’, were jewels in the crown among the enlightening day-glo of `Love’s Holiday’, `I’ll Write A Song For You’ and MILTON NASCIMENTO’s `Brazilian Rhyme’ interludes.
If one could pick holes in exclusive smash hit, `September’, or its parent 10-track piece de resistance, THE BEST OF EARTH, WIND & FIRE, VOL.1 (1978) {*9} well, then one had plum position as a prize punk (or words to that effect). Then again, maybe it was all too much for Fab Four fans when the funk-tour-de-force re-vamped `Got To Get You Into My Life’, a Top 10 platter that was a rare highlight on that year’s disastrous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band musical soundtrack.
EARTH, WIND & FIRE further got to grips with disco on the enduring glitter-ball favourite, `Boogie Wonderland’. Recorded with female soul group The EMOTIONS (sisters Wanda, Sheila and Jeanette Hutchinson), the infectious collaboration was one of their bigger Brit hits. Spawned from EW&F’s transatlantic Top 5 album I AM (1979) {*7}, it was in their quiet storm moments a la `After The Love Has Gone’ (penned by Bill Champlin, David Foster & Jay Graydon), rather than in the body-popping gloss of `In The Stone’ and `Star’, that fans could empathise.
Into a fresh decade, EARTH, WIND & FIRE were picked on by the media for their socio-political and quasi-mystical motifs, referenced on their US/UK Top 10 double-set, FACES (1980) {*6}. A favourite of leader Maurice, the smooth soul/dance record failed to produce a major Top 40 hit, although `Let Me Talk’, `You’ and `And Love Goes On’, came close. More impressive was the ensemble’s insistence to widen their range and scope, while not sticking to conventional bite-sized singles; example the 8-minute title track and the guest spot for rock guitarist Steve Lukather (from TOTO).
Maintaining the link between technology and Eastern mysticism, RAISE! (1981) {*6} was basically EW&F-by-numbers, albeit with higher chart figures extracted from the album itself and the transatlantic Top 3 smash, `Let’s Groove’. Bautista had now reunited with the group when McKay departed, but the consistency factor abandoned them when `Wanna Be With You’, stalled just outside the Top 50.
Since their Greatest Hits set rolled off the presses in ‘78, EW&F had set up their own ARC enterprise to saddle-up alongside Columbia, but this venture couldn’t last the pace for 1983’s POWERLIGHT {*6}. Their first set not to hit Top 10 status since the mid-70s, Philip’s contributions were increasingly downscaled (as were the Phoenix Horns), when an animated Maurice took the lead on `Fall In Love With Me’ (a Top 20 volley) and `Side By Side’.
Panned by the critics for its switch into atypical high-tech, the David Foster/Martin Page-produced ELECTRIC UNIVERSE (1983) {*3} was synth-funk at its worst and fell short of sales, leaving PHILIP BAILEY to concentrate on his solo career; `Easy Lover’ with PHIL COLLINS, his most memorable five minutes.
As the group’s creative and commercial flame began to dampen, their chief decided to take time out by splitting the band. In the intervening years, inspired by the likes of breakaway artists LIONEL RICHIE and SMOKEY ROBINSON, underrated singer MAURICE WHITE (1985) {*6} decided to come out of the shadows with an eponymous set. Augmented by Martin Page, Robbie Buchanan, Brian Fairweather, PETER WOLF and a raft of session people (and by-passing a jerky rendition of BEN E. KING’s `Stand By Me’), it was a tentative trip into the market for a man not yet a household name in comparison to his R&B/soul peers.
Inevitably, the gravitational pull of EARTH, WIND & FIRE was much too overwhelming for Maurice to resist. Reconvening with brother Verdine, Philip, Andrew and Ralph as core players, plus guitarist Sheldon Reynolds, drummer Sonny Emory, second guitarist Dick Smith and keyboardist Vance Taylor, 1987’s TOUCH THE WORLD {*5} saw them at least back in the Top 40. As `System Of Survival’ and `Thinking Of You’ brought out curiosity levels rather than healthy sales figures, Maurice was forced to rethink his strategy.
1990’s HERITAGE {*3} – a poor-selling record that featured guests MC HAMMER and SLY STONE – was not the answer. Outsider scribes and a contrived blast of urban, hip-hop and new jack swing (R&B?) had the undesired effect of a hangover on the dance-floor.
Reprise Records would become EW&F’s guardian angels as they looked to the future – well, at least several years ahead! – for the MILLENNIUM (1993) {*4} set. With mixed results from respectful reviewers looking back rather than in present-day terms, the Top 40 set only spawned one modest hit, `Sunday Morning’, while PRINCE provided the “Saturday” equivalent, `Spend The Night’.
Fred Ravel was now acting ninth member and about to take over as musical director when Vance bailed. When stalwart Woolfolk departed later in ’93, further personnel changes came by way of Morris Pleasure (keyboards/bass) and David Romero (percussion). These events were put into the shade when, on July 30, 1993, former EW&F sax-player Don Myrick was shot dead by a Santa Monica cop in L.A., mistakenly thinking a butane lighter was a gun. Tragic also, was on October 13, when Wade Flemons died of cancer; Maurice stopped touring with the band in ’94.
On the back of a concert set (at Velfarre; April 20, 1995), GREATEST HITS LIVE (1996) {*4} – UK title: PLUGGED IN AND LIVE (issued a year earlier) – EARTH, WIND & FIRE were back in the studio with Ravel moving over for Mike McKnight (keyboards) and B. David Whitworth (percussion/vocals). IN THE NAME OF LOVE (1997) {*6} – for Miami’s independent Pyramid Records – was an attempt to keep in touch with the fickle music biz, but for many it cruised towards retro; not a bad thing for older fans.
Into the millennium itself, EW&F finally came in from the cold with Top 100 album, THE PROMISE (2003) {*5}. Released on Maurice’s Kalimba imprint and featuring drummer John Paris (in place of short-stop Gordon Campbell), Daniel De Los Peyes (to replace Romero) and both Myron McKinley and Robert Brookins (keyboards), there were no shocks, just smooth and sophisti-soul that pleased their re-generated disciples and fresh acolytes, if not non-affiliates.
Better still was their 2005 effort, ILLUMINATION {*6}, a Top 40 record with a contemporary production and guest appearances by hip-hop/R&B luminaries OUTKAST, Jam & Lewis and WILL.I.AM, artists whose smoove grooves owed at least a little to the Maurice White/EW&F dynasty; KENNY G was also involved with the project.
For several years, EARTH, WIND & FIRE were always in demand, while their induction into the Songwriting Hall of Fame in 2010 was well overdue. Under the guidance of Maurice, the band (mainly Philip, Verdine, Ralph and part-time Larry) returned to the fold in 2013 with the aptly-titled NOW, THEN & FOREVER {*6}. The “forever” aspect of the venture derived from the inclusion of Bailey’s son Philip Doron Bailey, SIEDAH GARRETT and Lee Hutson Jr.; the Saturday night/Sunday morning EARTH, WIND & FIRE had invested in a future through soul-searchers `My Promise’, `Guiding Lights’ and `Got To Be Love’.
Sadly, a long-time sufferer from Parkinson’s disease, Maurice White died in his sleep at his Los Angeles home on February 3, 2016; he was 74. His spirit will live on through the soul of EW&F.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD/LCS-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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