Earth, Wind & Fire – Interview 2018

The word legend is bandied about all too readily these days, sprinkled like confetti by beyond-themselves music fans and hyperbolic journalists. However, there can be little argument that Earth, Wind & Fire are exactly that. Proper legends. Titans of music. Giants of the form. They’ve won 20 Grammys, been inducted in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and sold over 90 million records. They get me excited, see. And there’s plenty of excitement in the air generally as they head our way to perform a Sunday headline slot at this year’s Love Supreme festival.

A few years back Love Supreme hosted The Earth, Wind & Fire Experience, which featured one-time band member Al McKay. No disrespect to Mr. McKay, but this time we’re going to get the real thing. An Earth, Wind & Fire band that includes original founder Verdine White (brother of singer and bandleader Maurice White, who died in 2016, having retired from the band due to the onset of Parkinson’s Disease back in the mid-90s) as well as Phillip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, who both joined in 1972, when the band had yet to achieve any notable commercial success.

For those who only know EWF as a disco band who partied in a boogie wonderland, it may come as a surprise to learn that they were founded way back in 1969, by Maurice White with his brother Verdine. They were a big band from the off, but initially making a tougher, more freewheeling sound, a little similar to Sly and the Family Stone and Marvin Gaye, both of whom were major musical forces at the time. Yet, from the off, EWF preached the message of love and community which, combined with their fusion of dance sounds, slowly morphed into what became the signature EWF sound. “Maurice was a session drummer for Chess Records,” says younger brother Verdine. “He played on Jackie Wilson records, Billy Stewart’s records, and Ramsay Lewis. He had a tremendous amount of studio experience before he started EWF.

“Really, our roots come from the city of Chicago. We went to LA (shortly after the band formed) and took our music with us. The roots are certain aspects of jazz, r’n’b, pop. Miles, Coltrane, The Beatles, all those guys. And WBON, the radio station.” WBON was a key voice in the 60s for African-American communities, a station that still to this day provides a forum for the African-American community to discuss current social, political and economic issues.

Although they were making a mark on the college circuit, and scoring some a minor hits, It wasn’t until the legendary founder of Columbia Records, Clive Davis, signed the group to his label that things started to really happen for them. “We had three albums previously before we started getting the hits, including Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (a soundtrack for Melvin Van Peebles’ ‘blaxploitation’ period piece). When Clive signed us to Columbia Records that’s really when we took off. That was a great moment when Clive signed us. He was wonderful to us and he is still a great friend today.”

Then, boy, did the hits start coming, especially when they started to bring in elements of the nascent disco sound into their all-embracing funk sound, that incorporated elements of rock, pop, r’n’b, African, soul, jazz and Latin. ‘Shining Star’, ‘Sing a Song’, ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’, ‘September’, ‘Boogie Wonderland’, ‘All the Love Has Gone’, and ‘Let’s Groove’ were all top ten hits in the States. “We started the hits with ‘Shining Star’,” says Verdine. “And that’s when we started getting into what I call ‘The Big Bang Theory’, when we really broke through.”

Success in the UK wasn’t immediate, but eventually came in late 1976 with ‘Saturday Nite’. After that, despite punk and new wave hitting the streets, the headlines and the charts, EWF’s polished-yet-innovative and sensual disco-funk sound, allied to their elaborate costumes, and energetic stage routine, became something of a household diet as they regularly paraded on mainstream TV via Top Of The Pops. We were, in a word, smitten. “In Europe, it started when we went over with Santana in 1974 – Carlos Santana brought us over,” says Verdine.

So, despite the fact that EWF haven’t been a hit making machine for many years, and despite the fact that their charismatic frontman Maurice White is no longer with us, EWF are still the musical force they were in their 70s and 80s heyday, their live shows are one rich tapestry of wall-to-wall hits, and an uplifting experience. “Last night was incredible. Incredible. Incredible,” says Verdine, about the show they had juts done in New Jersey, obviously still excited by performing music. “The shows are sold out, the audiences are great and enthusiastic, and it is a lot of fun.”

Perhaps their signature song, ‘September’, continues to be a regular staple of radio, and younger audiences are learning all about the incredible musical force that was and still is EWF. “That was because of the Trolls soundtrack, with Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick,” says Verdine about the continuously upward interest in the band. “We actually had three songs in the number one and number two movie in the same weekend (the other film being Doctor Strange, which featured ’Shining Star’ on its soundtrack). And because of Trolls we have a lot of younger people come to our concerts. We had a ten-year-old up on-stage last night with us,” says Verdine with obvious satisfaction.

Along with ‘Boogie Wonderland’, ‘September’ has become an iconic song for the group. I ask Verdine why is that. “We’ve had hits before and after, but the audience picks that song.” So, you always have to play it!? “You’ve got to play it if you’re going to make any money!” he laughs.

EWF are enjoying the festival circuit, too, “We did Bottle Rock last Friday,” says Verdine. “We’ve done Bonnaro and Glastonbury. And last year we did The Classic West, a two-day festival at Dodger Stadium with Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. Festivals are more rowdy, which is a lot of fun.”

How do you get ready for a gig. Any rituals involved? “We get in a circle before we go on, and focus. And then go and kill it, man!

Jeff Hemmings