Spotlight On: Earth, Wind & Fire

Earth, Wind & Fire was the biggest black rock band of the 1970s. But today, it’s among the era’s most misunderstood platinum acts. The group’s discography nearly mirrors black music’s evolution, from the Afrocentric jazz of the Black Panther years to the quiet storm balladry and slick corporate funk that marked the end of that tumultuous decade with a merciful whimper. Its visionary leader, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Maurice White sought to encapsulate it all, and he succeeded remarkably. When you hear an Earth, Wind & Fire record, you know it. The soaring brass section led by Andrew Woolfolk and the Phenix Horns, the marvelous interplay between White’s cool spoken-sung vocals and Philip Bailey’s lush falsetto, and White’s kalimba (an African finger piano) gave them a unique, oft-copied sound. However, their capacity for hit singles has sometimes reduced them to pop culture clichés, whether it was 1979’s wildly over-the-top disco nugget “Boogie Wonderland” or Julia Louis-Dreyfus doing the funky white-girl dance to “Shining Star” on Seinfeld.

Then there’s that other black rock juggernaut of the Seventies, Parliament-Funkadelic. The two organizations were rivals, and P-Funk figurehead George Clinton claimed that EWF was “earth, all wind, and no fire.” They celebrated the African-American experience in markedly different ways. P-Funk adopted a cryptic language based on street slang, black popular culture and authors like Ishmael Reed. Their music was often intentionally cryptic, which not only protected them from homogenization (or “the placebo syndrome”) but also created a cult of believers dedicated to propagating Clinton’s message of funk epiphany.

White designed EWF as a mainstream rock experience that would introduce his ideas to a mass audience. He began his career in 1960s Chicago as a session drummer for Chess Records, and spent time gigging with contemporary jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. By the time White moved out to Los Angeles with several friends to form EWF in 1970, he had begun developing a complex philosophy of cosmology, Afro-Christian spirituality, and New Age karma. As the group’s success grew, White’s use of Egyptian symbols like pyramids and hieroglyphs increased. Many critics blanched at his koan-like lyrics on songs like “All About Love” (from That’s The Way Of The World) and “Be Ever Wonderful” (from All ‘N All). He was aware of his detractors. On the latter, he sang, “What I’d like to tell you may not be what you see.” Another All ‘N All track, “Runnin’,” juxtaposed chants of “You want to get down, you got to take it on up” with White’s edict that “If you don’t understand, it’s your fault.” Although not all of EWF’s millions of fans (or even some of its members) dig as deep as this cheat sheet or understand the Egyptology references, they love the band for its life-affirming music.

Dozens of players followed White through the decades, but the classic 70s lineup featured his brothers Verdine and Fred, Bailey, keyboardist Lorenzo “Larry” Dunn, saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk, guitarists Al McKay and Johnny Graham, and drummer Ralph Johnson. Later this year, EWF is scheduled to release The Phoenix, its first new album in six years.

Earth, Wind & Fire, Earth, Wind & Fire

EWF’s 1971 debut marks a culture clash between its Chicago jazz and soul origins and the sunshine pop of its new home in Los Angeles. White aimed to merge the shambling energy music of Albert Ayler, the Latin rock of Santana, and the psychedelic soul and vocal pop of Minnie Riperton’s Rotary Connection and Fifth Dimension. Though “Love Is Life” and “Fan the Fire” have an appealingly ragged quality, neither White’s songs, his band, or lead vocalist and veteran Chicago shouter Wade Flemons met his goals. After a second album, The Need Of Love, White fired nearly all of EWF’s original members and started over again.

Melvin van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

During EWF’s early period, the group collaborated with filmmaker, spoken-word artist and iconoclast Melvin Van Peebles for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a violent experimental film of a male prostitute caught up in black revolutionary fervor that became an unexpected Blaxploitation-era hit. The soundtrack replicates the chaotic narrative with a free jazz opera of gospel hollers, Van Peebles’ poetic chants and movie snippets, including the crazed “Come On Feet” and the instrumental groove “Sweetback’s Theme.” Decades later, Sweetback has become sample catnip for musicians, particularly the mysterious L.A. artist Quasimoto. As for EWF? All they remember is that they barely got paid for the sessions.

Earth, Wind & Fire, Last Days and Time

For EWF’s Last Days and Time, White reorganized the group, and began to abandon the free jazz and psychedelic soul of their first two albums, with the seven-minute “Power” a glorious exception. There are two killer funk tracks, “Time Is On Your Side” and “Remember the Children,” and message-oriented stoned soul such as “They Don’t See” and “Mom.” While White tried to balance his funk and jazz background with his rock ambitions, he made good use of new member and gospel singer Philip Bailey, who took lead on the Pete Seeger cover “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.” Former Friends of Distinction vocalist Jessica Cleaves, who took center stage on “I’d Rather Have You,” didn’t last as long.

Earth, Wind & Fire, Head to the Sky

On Head to the Sky, Santana’s Latin rock sound is a prime influence (particularly on the excellent jazz-rock instrumental “Zanzibar”), as is White’s kalimba (an African finger piano), Larry Dunn’s haunting keyboard work and Bailey’s spectral vocals. More subtly, these songs have a despairing yet optimistic view of humanity, and “Evil,” “World’s A Masquerade” and the title track include some of White’s most urgent lyrics. Head to the Sky is the first EWF top 40 album, and one of the best in its catalog. Sadly, it’s also the last with a muddy and dense rock element – later successes would feature a polished Seventies gloss.

Earth, Wind & Fire, Open Our Eyes

If Open Our Eyes’s cover artwork of EWF members clad in colorful Dashikis on a mountain vista didn’t clue you that these guys are hippies, then listen to White’s lyrics espousing a post-Coltrane, African-centered Christian theology, from “Devotion,” a showcase ballad for Bailey’s lush falsetto voice, to the stomping funk of “Mighty Mighty,” EWFs first top 40 single. This may be their first album to fully explore the group’s trademark symbols, including positing the kalimba as a link between Africa and America on “Kalimba Story.” Brilliant producer Charles Stepney worked with Joe Wissert to create a soaring, airy tone for White’s increasingly confident mix of Seventies rock motifs.

Ramsey Lewis, Sun Goddess

This is the first of several albums White produced for his mentor. The title track and its Bailey chorus is an Earth, Wind & Fire song in all but name, and it became a staple of the group’s concerts. (The group also appears on “Hot Dawgit.”) Overall, Sun Goddess is marred by string arrangements typical of 70s commercial jazz. However, the boppish workout like “Gemini Rising” is a nice showcase of Lewis’ piano work, and “Jungle Strut” is a strangely funky romp reminiscent of fusion-era Miles Davis.

Earth, Wind & Fire, That’s The Way Of the World

More people heard this classic soundtrack to That’s The Way Of The World than saw the awful 1975 Harvey Keitel flick. As the group’s first number one album, it marked artistic and commercial peaks in White’s songwriting and the nine-man-strong band’s musicianship, from hits like “Shining Star” and the title track to expansive album cuts such as the big-band funkin’ “Yearnin’ Learnin,” the effortlessly breezy “Happy Feelin’,” and the brassy instrumental “Africano.” Listen to the very end of “All About Love” for an indelible minute-long solo from Larry Dunn.

Earth, Wind & Fire, Gratitude

Gratitude is one of two classic albums EWF albums released in 1975, and it’s essentially a victory lap for the first, That’s The Way Of The World, which made them the biggest black rock band in the world. The first three quarters consist of live material, including memorable renditions of “Devotion,” “Reasons” and the nine-minute fusion exploration “New World Symphony.” The last quarter finds EWF honing its unique take on funk and pop-rock with studio recordings “Sunshine,” the title track and the radio hits “Can’t Find Love” and “Sing A Song.”

Earth, Wind & Fire, Spirit

The sudden death of producer Charles Stepney during the recording of Spirit cast a pall over this album, and White’s familiar themes of spiritual uplift on “Earth, Wind and Fire,” the title track and “On Your Face” have an air of sadness. Other songs like “Getaway” and “Saturday Nite” benefited from the vaunted Phenix Horns, whose swooping, emphatic clarion calls buoyantly lifted them to the cosmos. On Larry Dunn’s “Spirit,” Bailey paid tribute to Stepney, who had a profound influence on EWF and, by extension, popular music in the 70s.

Earth, Wind & Fire, All ‘N All

Like so many ideologues, White eventually turned EWF into a servant for his complex hybrid of ancient Egyptian and Christian beliefs. The music was increasingly slick, particularly on the disco-tinged “Fantasy” and the too-lush ballads “I’ll Write a Song for You” and “Love’s Holiday.” This fusion of pop-rock, fusion jazz, funk and Egyptology (which 70s critics myopically derided as spiritual mumbo jumbo) works on All N’ All because White wrote some terrific songs, including “Jupiter,” which describes a Jesus-like figure with Zeus-like powers, and the burning bush-inspired “Serpentine Fire.” The group still had a knack for improvisation, particularly on “Brazilian Rhyme” and its classic Bailey vocalese. But they wouldn’t be so lucky on future albums.

The Emotions, Best Of My Love: The Best of The Emotions

In the mid-70s, White set up American Recording Company as a boutique imprint for Columbia Records. The label issued albums by Deniece Williams, Weather Report, and its most successful act, the Emotions. Originally a gospel-tinged soul act on Stax, the Hutchinson sisters flourished under White, who paired the ladies’ dulcet harmonies and Sheila’s soft yet insistent lead with EWF’s trademark disco-funk arrangements; the two groups joined forces on the smash “Boogie Wonderland.” This compilation gathers R&B classics as “Best of My Love,” “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love,” “Don’t Ask My Neighbors,” “Flowers,” and “A Feeling.”

Earth, Wind & Fire, The Eternal Dance

EWF’s later albums (basically everything after All N’ All) were uneven hits-and-filler efforts, but the group still recorded memorable songs. So this 1992 box set is a nice bridge between the group’s many eras, from its early period (represented with the underrated “I Think About Loving You”) and its stadium rock salad days (the previously-unreleased Gratitude-era jam “Kalimba Story/Sing A Message To You”) to 80s synth-funk hits like “Let’s Groove,” “Fall In Love With Me” and “System Of Survival.” And yes, “Boogie Wonderland” is here, too.

(Rhapsody – August 22, 2011)

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