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
The music of Earth Wind & Fire can not be easily categorized, although many in the
entertainment industry tried. They brought jazz, bebop and fusion to pop audiences; they
brought progressive rock to R&B fans. They didn't need a 70's Preservation Society for
their music - their classic hits have stood the test of time, every song polished and
performed on an endless highway of college concerts and faith. The Grammys, the gold and
platinum records, the American Music Awards - all were a by-product of Earth Wind &
Fire's popularity, but the music and the message remain the key to this day.
Even as they approach their third decade of musical expertise, Earth Wind & Fire's
origins can be traced back through the roots of Chicago blues and soul, through the jazz
and fusion excursions, back to the beginnings of music itself.
What we know as Earth Wind & Fire today has to start with its creator and producer,
Maurice White. Born in Memphis in 1941, White moved to Chicago as a teenager and found
work as a session drummer for Chess Records (the story has it that Leonard Chess asked
Maurice to bring a few friends over for a recording session; Maurice showed up with his
entire college band). By 1967, he was the new drummer in the famed Ramsey Lewis Trio,
replacing Red Holt. During the two years White performed and toured with the Trio, Ramsey
Lewis showed him a Kalimba, an African thumb piano. That instrument and its unique sound
became the focal point of White's musical dream.
In 1969, Maurice left the Ramsey Lewis Trio, and joined two friends in Chicago, Wade
Flemons and Don Whitehead, as a songwriting team. "We started a group out of just
writing songs and commercials around Chicago," said Maurice. "We were writing
lot of songs, so we decided to form a recording group. We had a recording contract with
Capitol, and called ourselves the 'Salty Peppers,' and had a marginal hit in the
Midwestern area called 'La La Time.' (Capitol 2433). It was only released in the
and it did fairly well for an unknown band."
The Salty Peppers' second single, "Uh Huh Yeah" (Capitol 2568) didn't fare as
well, and Maurice decided it was time for a change of location - and a change in the
band's name. "We never made any appearances or anything like that as the Salty
Peppers," said Maurice. "I moved out to Los Angeles, and when the band came
there, we signed a new contract. Before that, I renamed the group after my astrology chart
of Sagittarius. I was into astrology pretty heavy, and there were three elements in my
astrological charts - earth, air and fire, and I changed air to wind."
Verdine White, Maurice's younger brother, joined the band in 1970 as their new bassist.
"We grew up in Chicago, there was a lot of music on the radio at the time - a lot of
Motown and jazz, both on the radio and at the Regal Theatre, where we went a lot. My
father is a doctor, so he played a lot of jazz music in his office. Maurice had this idea
of putting together a band like that - that could encompass all the different kinds of
musicality we were exposed to. The group was pretty much in existence, and he asked me to
come out, and I came out in June 1970. And the first couple of years were really those
testing years of cutting records."
Earth Wind & Fire spent three years on Warner Bros., recording two studio albums and
the soundtrack for Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a box-office smash that paved the
way for black-themed films throughout the 1970's. "We had done this Sweet Sweetback
soundtrack," said Verdine White. "which was actually the first black soundtrack.
Maurice knew Melvin Van Peebles really well, and Melvin was putting together this wayout
film that was going to be real different and real revolutionary. We recorded that
soundtrack over two days at Paramount Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard."
At that time, Earth Wind & Fire were still finding their identity. They even signed
some female vocalists - Sherry Scott (who sang on "I Think About Loving You"),
who was later replaced by Jessica Cleaves. In 1971, while Earth Wind & Fire played a
gig in Denver, Maurice heard about a singer with a local band - a singer with a range that
could rumble the seats with his baritone, yet harmonize with the angels on every high
That singer, Philip Bailey, remembers that night. "Our band, 'Friends and Love,' was
actually doing some of the Earth Wind & Fire songs, and we opened the show for Earth
Wind & Fire when they came to Denver to play a promotional tour. We had been familiar
with their music through a mutual friend of ours, Perry Jones, who later became a
promotional man for Warner Bros. I moved out to Los Angeles when they began to reform
their band, Maurice asked me to be in the group. I think that Maurice liked the fact that
I had a very identifiable sound in terms of my range, and the timbre of my voice. Maurice
and I began to do all the vocals on all the records after "Head To The Sky," and
we really developed a sound together, which became the trademark "sound" of
Earth, Wind & Fire. My melodic sensibility was something that was added, and Maurice
had the experience of being a songwriter and producer, and was my mentor and teacher for
But Warner Bros. didn't know how to promote this new combo - the only other funk band on
their label was Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. And after eighteen
months, Maurice disassembled his band and formed a new Earth Wind & Fire from its
"College kids were hip to us far beyond the acknowledgment of the record
industry," said Maurice. "We were on tour, we normally did a lot of college
touring, and we had a manager who actually booked John Sebastian into New York City. And
so what happened as a result of us opening for John Sebastian, Clive Davis was in the
audience. And he saw us for the first time, and he came over and talked to us about
It would be a perfect match. CBS had successfully promoted another progressive rock/soul
band, Sly & The Family Stone. They backed and distributed the Philadelphia
International label, home of the Gamble & Huff songwriting and producing team.
"We were in the middle of cutting what we thought was our third album for
Warners," said Verdine White, "and Clive bought our contract from them. Clive
has great insight. He put us in the right places. He gave us proper marketing, he took the
time necessary to break a group like this. A group like this wouldn't be broken overnight.
With us, we wanted to play concerts, we didn't want to play two sets a night, three sets a
night, we wanted to do concerts which showed off our musicality."
Between 1971 and 1975, Earth Wind & Fire played the colleges, the universities, the
clubs and the performance halls, and every night they would use jazz and fusion
progressions to keep their songs fresh and their chops sharp. "Our whole
vision," said Philip Bailey, "was creativity within a form. It was derived from
the greats before us, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and all the great singers. We really
were lovers of jazz and fusion. We were jazz musicians at heart playing popular music. We
would take every opportunity we could, whether it meant adding a bebop horn lick or
progressive chord changes to our songs. We made fusion and jazz a commercial entity."
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
Wonder's Wonderlove backup group. Another track Maurice produced, the Emotions'
Of My Love" (Columbia 10544), went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts.
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
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
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",
Groove") and more metaphysics ("Fantasy," "Jupiter").
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
"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
Phoenix 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 Phoenix Horns
into Genesis tracks like "No Reply At All" and "Paperlate," and on his
solo hits like "I Missed Again," "Sussudio" and "I Cannot
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
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 Phoenix 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
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
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
Their exodus from Columbia may have been
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
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
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
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
And when Earth Wind & Fire did win the
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
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 Phoenix Horns member
Don Myrick, whose saxophone could be heard not only on Earth Wind & Fire's albums,
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
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
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
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
"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
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