I found a station on SiriusXM called Soul Town and it was a welcome break from my usual rock/blues/jazz fixation. One thing led to another and I eventually heard these guys. And I said, oh yeah. Long overdue for a post. I’ll provide a little history. And while I’m picking only six here and they represent some of their biggest hits, if you like this stuff I encourage you to go back and check out their catalog.
Wikipedia: “Earth, Wind & Fire is an American band that has spanned the musical genres of R&B, soul, funk, jazz, disco, pop, rock, dance, Latin, and Afro pop. They have been described as one of the most innovative and commercially successful acts of all time. Rolling Stone called them “innovative, precise yet sensual, calculated yet galvanizing” and declared that the band “changed the sound of black pop.”
A little history: Maurice White* grew up in Memphis and was a childhood friend of Booker T. Jones. He later studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and became a studio drummer for the fabled Chess Records, playing on songs by artists from Etta James to Buddy Guy. (That’s him you hear playing on the Sixties hit “Rescue Me,” and Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love is Liftin’ Me Higher.”)
He went on to become the drummer for the Ramsey Lewis Trio, a jazz unit whose biggest (pre-Maurice) hit was “The In Crowd.” He played on several of their albums in the 1966 – ’67 timeframe. In 1969 he left the band and tried songwriting and playing in a band called The Salty Peppers The band had minor success in Chicago but Maurice later moved to LA and renamed the band Earth, Wind & Fire for his astrological elements.
He started filling the band out with vocalist Sherry Scott, percussionist Yackov Ben Israel and his younger brother bassist Verdine. He started sending demo tapes of the band which at that point featured Donny Hathaway. This led to the now eleven-piece being signed to Warners.
Other than on college campuses, this particular formation of the band didn’t find much success. (Although a listen to their eponymous debut release is worth a spin if you want to hear some of their early funky stuff.) That incarnation of the band lasted for a couple of albums then broke up, leaving only Maurice and Verdine to re-form it.
It was this next edition of the band that formed the powerhouse the world got know as Earth, Wind & Fire. Added, among others, were Philip Bailey and Jessica Cleaves on vocals, jazz saxophonist Ronnie Laws (one album) and Larry Dunn on piano.
For the first tune I am going to go non-chronologically and jump to the song I heard on the radio and, frankly, had forgotten about. From their 1977 album All ‘n All, “Serpentine Fire” is the tune described as “a high stepper guaranteed to set even the most sluggish soul (like ME) into motion.”
In 1975 the band were approached to do the soundtrack for a Harvey Keitel movie called That’s the Way of the World. The band actually appear in the film (about the music business) but sensing a dud in the making, they decided to release the album ahead of time. Good thing, too as the album rose to No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 and Top Soul Albums charts. The movie sank like a stone.
From that album, two tunes. First “Shining Star.” I love how the song ends a capella with all the voices close up:
And then of course, the title tune:
Now that I’ve lulled you into a nice peaceful easy feeling, how about a smokin’ number that I gotta think is Sly-inspired. From 1974’s Open Our Eyes, the eminently danceable “Mighty MIghty,”
Can one possibly do a six-pack of EWF and not include the great “September?” Is this a fun song or what? Co-songwriter Allee Willis was “initially bothered by the gibberish “ba-dee-ya” lyric White used through the song, and begged him to rewrite it.
“I just said, ‘What the fuck does ‘ba-dee-ya’ mean?’ And he essentially said, ‘Who the fuck cares?’ I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.” Indeed:
On the 1966 Beatles album Revolver, was a Motown-inspired McCartney tune called “Got to Get You Into My Life.” While he couldn’t admit it at the time, he later said the song was an ode to weed, not to a person. While the Beatles original is great, Earth Wind & Fire took it to a whole new place:
Maurice White has passed on but EWF are still out there with both Philip Bailey and his son on vocals and Verdine White on bass.
*In addition to his songwriting and drumming talents, Maurice popularized the kalimba, an African plucked instrument which you can hear here if you’re curious.