Interview: Earth, Wind & Fire proved music ‘could change the world’
In the pantheon of all-time great American bands, Earth, Wind & Fire ranks right up there with KISS, the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Aerosmith, the Band, the Beach Boys and the Eagles.
If you think about it, Earth, Wind & Fire employed elements of each of those acts: The live show was a marvel; the musicianship was mesmerizing; the act had style for days; and the melodies and harmonies were sublime, rivaling anything from those last three groups.
Now, granted, if your exposure to Earth, Wind & Fire has been limited to its bigger hits — “After the Love Has Gone,” which has been irresistible to soft-rock stations since the Carter administration, or it‘s disco-infected counterpart “Boogie Wonderland” — then your perception of the band may be a little skewed.
Nonetheless, dig past Earth, Wind & Fire‘s top layer, and you‘ll be rewarded with a deep wellspring of sensational music — a progressive fusion of soul, R&B, pop, funk, gospel, Latin and traditional jazz and rock — that‘s been influential to a countless number of admirable acts over the years, including Prince. And you’ll also treated to a story that‘s completely captivating.
A visionary tale of tenacity, the saga begins in the early ’70s with Earth, Wind & Fire‘s mastermind, a makeshift metaphysician named Maurice White, whose audacious concept informed the group: Feeling that “music had a positive, life-affirming power that could change the world,” as Phillip Bailey puts it in “Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire,” his insightful 2014 memoir, White insisted that music ’could have a cleansing effect on its listeners, and could be more than just background noise against which to party or get high.”
A onetime session drummer for Chess Records, White formed the group after leaving a gig keeping time in Ramsey Lewis‘ band. After a pair of early Earth, Wind & Fire albums gained marginal notice, White parted company with the original lineup and put together a whole new ensemble with younger players, including Bailey, a percussionist from Denver whose falsetto is an integral part of Earth, Wind & Fire‘s distinctive sound.
With this mission in mind, White created an extensive blueprint — dubbed “The Concept,” the gospel of EWF, complete with charts, graphs and illustrations ’ that he rigidly expected his bandmates to follow. The whole idea was to elevate consciousness.
“I think the big thing about Maurice and his concept for Earth, Wind & Fire was it was a concept that was bigger than himself and for more than just himself,” says Bailey from Stockton, California, prior to rehearsing with his band and Chicago in advance of a tour that kicks off this week. “You can attribute that initial understanding that he had to the longevity that Earth, Wind & Fire has had.”
It was evident from the first album with the new lineup, 1972‘s “Last Days and Time,” which featured cover art by Mati Klarwein, who illustrated “Bitches Brew,” that Earth, Wind & Fire was a heady and progressive vehicle speeding along in its own lane. And the band only became steadily more sophisticated from there — not just musically, but conceptually, visually and theatrically.
Everything about Earth, Wind & Fire was carefully conceived, from the stage clothes, which were custom crafted by a top designer, to the choreography, which was meticulously directed by award-winning choreographer George Faison, right down to the artwork, which was inspired by White‘s burgeoning studies in spirituality and Universalism.
This conceptualism is probably best captured by the stunningly intricate artwork for “All ‘N All,” illustrated by famed Japanese artist Shusei Nagaoka. The front cover featured a realistic portrait of pyramids, while the inside cover depicted a scene with a sacred book (Bible? Torah? Quran?) surrounded by a dozen pillars, propping up various religious avatars, in front of a bruised and fiery backdrop, with angels above a pyramid with an all-seeing eye.
“He was studying a lot of Egyptology and interested in the different symbols of the world and what they meant — you know, and where they derived from and all that kind of stuff,’ recalls Bailey, one of several confirmed Christians in the group. ’He was very serious about it. We even made a pilgrimage to Egypt, to the pyramids, as a group together. That was an interesting experience.”
As the band continued to tour, the live show became even more ambitious, with space-age staging that included a hovering spacecraft, which the members would climb aboard one by one and then disappear before reappearing as masked spacemen seconds later, the handiwork of production advisers Doug Henning and David Copperfield.
But as happens with many great acts, the more steam the group built up, the more combustible it became. When Earth, Wind & Fire reached its commercial zenith, collaborating with David Foster, who penned “After the Love is Gone,’ one of its biggest hits, the group began to wane creatively, reportedly a product of too much painstaking production in the studio, fueled by the pressure of remaining relevant.
And, so, after a succession of records that didn’t register as well as previous outings, White eventually opted to pull the plug on Earth, Wind & Fire. And while he was well within his rights to do so — as the founder of the group, he owned the name and everything else associated with it, including the publishing — his bandmates, including Bailey, who was making a mere $2,500 a week, despite Earth, Wind & Fire‘s massive success, were disillusioned and waylaid by his decision.
After a healthy hiatus — during which time Bailey earned even greater acclaim with a breakout single as a solo artist, “Easy Lover,” with Phil Collins — the band reconvened and limped along with a few releases before White, dealing with Parkinson‘s disease, stopped performing with the band in the mid-’90s.
That seemed to be the coda for Earth, Wind & Fire. But then a chance one-off appearance at a jazz festival a few years later featuring Bailey and bassist Verdine White inspired the two to see if they could soldier on without their leader. And so, after working out a licensing deal with Maurice to use the name, they set about reaffirming their renown with a revised roster.
Now, two decades later, Bailey — who took over as frontman and now handles both his and White‘s parts ’ and Verdine are still wowing audiences and continuing to make stirring music. While the newer material isn’t quite as compelling as the classics, it’s certainly respectable. And with Bailey now at the helm, Earth, Wind & Fire‘s legacy is safely secured.
“He set such a strong template,’” Bailey says of White. “It was a process that took years, but now it’s been 20 years since Maurice has been there. One of the wonderful things that he really mentored me about: It‘s not always what to do; it‘s what not to do.”
You can bet Bailey and Verdine have learned plenty on their own over the course of four decades.
“We were only 20-21 years-old. When you‘re that age, you haven’t seen anything, haven’t done anything, you have nothing to compare stuff with,” says Bailey, who‘s been in Earth, Wind & Fire now for more than half of his life. “I think, now, we probably appreciate life and appreciate our success more than ever because we have something to compare it to, and we know how extremely difficult it is to do what we’re doing.”
Read more from Dave Herrera at bestoflasvegas.com. Contact him at email@example.com.