The founder, songwriter, singer, percussionist and creative pivot point for the musical juggernaut that was Earth, Wind & Fire, White was responsible for bringing funk, rhythm ‘n’ blues, jazz, pop and spirituality together in a way that nobody — not even Sly Stone, who’d aimed in the same direction — could have foreseen.
The nine–piece group made some of the decade’s most exciting records, crossing boundaries of race, radio and finely etched musical manifestos with the kind of ease that defines the most important kind of cultural innovation.
And the musicianship was always kept at the highest level.
“We just wanted to be the best band in the world,” said vocalist Philip Bailey. “It wasn’t about trying to get rich. We were all just very much in love with the art and we were willing to work, and do whatever we needed to do, to be the best that we could be.
“In our own minds, in our own hearts, we just wanted to lift the bar and, like Maurice used to say, be true to the art form. Let it carry you, and let it be the barometer by which you judge yourself, and not anybody else.”
The message, to the tune, was always positive. Today, the best Earth Wind & Fire songs retain their brilliant musical grooves, and their lyrics are as fresh and immovably, profoundly optimistic as when they were first offered up.
“In Japan, we’re called the greatest funk band,” Bailey said. “I tell them we’;re not a funk band — Parliament/Funkadelic is the funk band. I think we’re a fusion band made commercial, because of all the different elements that are there.
“The one thing that we have done is chosen selectively what not to do, and I think that’s been as big a key as any to the longevity. God’s blessings, first and foremost. But I think that because the intent in our hearts, and purpose, was pure.”
‘He makes plans’
Born in Memphis, where his classmates included Isaac Hayes, Booker T. Jones and David Porter, Maurice White had aspirations towards a career in medicine. But he got interested in the drums, and he and Jones put together a jazz combo called the Mad Lads to play campus clubs and parties.
White’s mother moved the family to Chicago, where her teen-aged son entered junior college — and, ultimately, the Chicago Conservatory of Music, where he met many of the musicians who would play important roles in the evolution of Earth, Wind & Fire.
White got a job as staff drummer for Chicago-based Chess Records and its Okeh imprint, playing on seminal sessions for the likes of Fontella Brass, Etta James, Betty Everett (that’s him on the original “You’re No Good”) and even Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon.
All day, he’d bang out R&B in the studio, and at night play the traps in the Windy City’s premiere jazz clubs. He became good friends and confidantes with Chess’ staff arranger, pianist Charles Stepney.
The Ramsey Lewis Trio, the label’s star act, recorded in Studio A on the second floor (the Chess Brothers’ business offices were downstairs).
The group would often ran into White and Stepney, who would be rehearsing in Studio B. “Maurice was a fiery drummer, but very soft-spoken,” Lewis recalled. “He would ask me ‘What’s a publishing company?’ ‘What’s a manager supposed to do?”
“Now, I had no idea our group was gonna break up. But he was asking me ‘What’s it like on the road?’ Then I’d see him two or three weeks later: ‘Hi Ramsey; now, what’d you say a booking agent was supposed to do?’ This went on and on.”
In 1966, Lewis’ drummer and bassist left over a money dispute. White was enlisted to play in the “new” Ramsey Lewis Trio, on its never–ending tour of theaters and college campuses.
It was during this period he began playing the kalimba, a hand–held African instrument also known as a “thumb piano.” White would sometimes solo on the kalimba instead of his drum kit.
“He stayed out on the road with me for about three years,” said Lewis. “And one night, afterwards, he said ‘I think in a few months I’m gonna be leaving the group. I’m going to form my own group.’
“I said ‘What is it — jazz trio, or quintet, you got a couple horns or what?’ He said ‘No, man, I’m gonna form a group that’s gonna do magic. We’re gonna play R&B, pop, jazz, and dance …¹
“I said ‘Reese, take a couple aspirin, go home, meet us at the airport tomorrow morning. You’ll get over it.’”
Within four months White tendered his resignation and moved to Los Angeles to put his dream band into action.
Initially, they were called the Salty Peppers, and their Chicago–cut single, “La La Time,” a regional hit, had been picked for national distribution by Capitol.
The label issued two singles by the Salty Peppers; they were not successful, and a promised Capitol album failed to materialize — but White was already a dozen ideas past the Salty Peppers, anyway.
He had conceived of a multi–player band — an ensemble, really — that would combine hardcore funk with jazz, smooth R ‘n’ B and first–class musicality. And showmanship. He’d told Lewis the band would “fly” on the stage.
“He was on a plane,” recalled Maurice¹s half–brother Verdine. “And he sketched it out. A band that would encompass all different types of music.”
Furthermore, Maurice intended to reach out to all sorts of people with positive, uplifting lyrics, and inspirational messages adapted from the Eastern thoughts he’d been studying since a visit to the Far East with Lewis. He planned to play lots of kalimba, too, to connect the group with its African bloodline.
“Somehow, the name Salty Peppers didn¹t feel universal enough,” he later told an interviewer. “I came up with the name because my astrological chart had no water in it: Earth, Air & Fire didn’t sound right so I used ‘Wind’ instead.”
“Reese has always been, and still is, a thinker,” said Lewis. “He kinda thinks and figures out stuff, and he makes plans.
“He carries books around where he jots down his ideas, whether they’re musical, or things he wants to do or think about. He reads a lot of books and makes plans.
“Then he focuses and gets committed and he brings people around him to make those ideas a reality. That¹s what Maurice is.”
Verdine White, all of 19 and still attending high school, had been studying bass back in Chicago under Chess’ studio trombonist Louis Satterfield.
A call from big bro convinced Verdine to move to L.A. and become part of Earth, Wind & Fire. Most of the other chairs in the band were filled by Maurice’s old–school jazz chums from the Conservatory.
The band signed with Warner Bros in 1970, issued a self-titled debut, and the wheels began to slowly turn. They recorded songs for the soundtrack of writer/director Mario van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song.
A second album, The Need of Love, was released in ’71 and, like its predecessor, went nowhere. “The beginning was difficult,” said Verdine. “Because nobody had ever seen a group like this before.”
Full Spectrum Music
Philip Bailey was singing and playing percussion in a cover band called Friends & Love, a big fish in the small pond that was Denver, Colorado.
“Obviously, there wasn’t a lot of African American culture there, but it was a great place to grow up, and a great place to raise a family,” Bailey said.
In 1972, Friends & Love opened an afternoon show for Earth, Wind & Fire at the Hilton Hotel in Denver.
They were already fans, Bailey remembered. “I’d heard the music before I actually saw them, and I didn’t think that they were black,” he said. “Because that was the time of Motown and Philly and doo–wop. My band was playing Rare Earth, Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat & Tears, all that kind of stuff. Pop that has the most progressive and eclectic sound.
“All of a sudden, I hear this music that¹s totally different. I notice that it has some color to it, but it has a different kind of lyrical orientation — it’s philosophical. So we started doing their music, because we were of that mindset.”
Bailey and Dunn had another gig that night; the White Brothers came to see their show before setting out next day for the rest of their tour.
“After that,” he said, “it became apparent to me that if I didn¹t want to be a local yokel, I was going to have to move.”
Bailey relocated to Los Angeles to play percussion with the gospel trio the Stovall Sisters, who’d backed Norman Greenbaum on the hit “Spirit in the Sky.”
Soon, many of the musicians who’d come west with the White brothers quit, disgusted, and returned to more lucrative gigs in Chicago clubs. The others were let go, leaving only Maurice and Verdine to re-think the whole thing.
The pressure was on. “I think somebody sat down with him and told him look, if you really want to take this to the next level, you need to come in with some guys that have a look, are more aggressive with the sound, and are a bit younger,” said Los Angeles percussionist and singer Ralph Johnson, who auditioned, and won, a spot in the new band.
After a few musicians came and went, afresh–faced new lineup was set in stone. Guitarists Al McKay and Johnny Graham came on board, along with three of the young musicians that had so impressed the Whites in Denver: Larry Dunn on piano, saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk, and — most importantly — Philip Bailey.
In 1972, Columbia Records honcho (and legendary career-maker) Clive Davis auditioned the “new” Earth, Wind & Fire. “Maurice and I had heard that Clive was looking for us,” Verdine White recalled. “We had opened up for Dizzy Gillespie at the Bitter End East, and some guy named Chuck said ‘The man’s looking for you.’ Reese and I thought it was the police, so we started trotting back to the hotel room! And he said no, no, no, it¹s Clive Davis.”
Davis bought out the group’s Warner Bros. contract and put them back into the studio with Joe Wissert, who’d been at the helm for the earlier records.
Each Columbia album — Last Days and Time, Head to the Sky and Open Our Eyes — sold progressively better, and radio was taking an interest, the group was generating a buzz on college campuses, and, as Verdine likes to point out, those were the days when record labels believed in “nurturing” a new act.
Open Our Eyes was a million–seller, and reached No. 1 on the black album charts. Crucially, for this record White enlisted Charles Stepney to refine the group’s arrangements. “He was the kind of cat that, if he couldn’t play an instrument, he’d go buy one, sit in his basement and teach himself to play it,” recalled Larry Dunn. “He was an amazing piano player.”
Two of Stepney’s album productions — Minnie Riperton¹s Come Into My Garden and Ramsey Lewis’ Mother Nature’s Son — were favorites of everyone in Earth, Wind & Fire.
“Mighty Mighty,” the single from Open Our Eyes, was Earth, Wind & Fire’s first appearance on the charts: It went to No. 4 R&B No. 20 pop, in March 1974.
With Wissert out, and Stepney as a full producing partner, Earth, Wind & Fire went back into the studio in late ’74 to cut the soundtrack for a low–budget film called That’s the Way of the World. The band and Stepney worked closely to give the music a sophisticated edge — from the punchy funk of “Shining Star” to the elegantly soulful titles track and “Reasons,” which showcased Bailey’s stunning four–octave falsetto – That’s the Way of the World was refined rhythm ‘n’ blues music, not too rough for the black audience, not too soft for the blacks. Just the coolest of the cool.
This was Maurice White¹s vision come to life.
“Step wrote the music for ‘That’s the Way of the World,’ ‘Reasons’ and a couple of others, then charted it out and conducted it,” recalled Dunn.
“We would go to Chicago, to his basement, and go over the songs. Then we’d go back and record ‘em. Then Step would fly out and write the arrangement — or we’d send him the tracks — and then we¹d go to the studio and he¹d conduct the orchestra.”
Verdine White: “He explained music; he explained what was in our heads, what chords were. When I would overdub with him, and with Larry and Ralph, we would talk about music.
“He’d had a tremendous amount of experience, which was great for us. He was kinda like what Quincy Jones was to Michael Jackson, or George Martin to the Beatles. Where you actually have someone who is a musicologist as well as a producer — a producer to explain what’s in your head.”
Stepney and the White Brothers also collaborated with Ramsey Lewis in 1975 on Sun Goddess, the piano legend’s first foray into fusion music. The title track, although it has no lyrics, wouldn’t sound out of place on That’s the Way of the World. Stepney himself played second piano on Lewis&339; recording, and arranged the track.
Although the movie, starring a young Harvey Keitel as a record producer and Earth, Wind & Fire as “The Group,” was a massive flop, the That’s the Way of the World album sent “Shining Star” to the top of the pop and R&B charts, and the title song into the Top Ten. The album, too, went to No. 1 and sold over a million copies.
According to guitarist McKay, the groove was paramount. “On the records, a majority of five of us cut the tracks, and we’d reproduce it onstage. I did most of the guitar work on all the stuff in the studio.
“Of course, I’m not taking anything away from Johnny — he did some great stuff too. Great solos on That’s the Way of the World.
³But it started out, in the studio, with Maurice on drums, and me, Verdine and Larry,² he explained. ³Maurice was at the helm and we went from there.²
The live legend of Earth, Wind & Fire began around this time; as the money started rolling in, White beefed up the already–impressive stage setup with flamboyant costuming, special effects and elaborate choreography.
“He wanted to do something called Full Spectrum Music,” recalled Ralph Johnson. “He wanted to have a band that had a great live presentation. That was essentially it, because at that time everybody was just kind of standing around, and nobody was into special effects, not really.
“He wanted to take it up to the next level. He wanted to have a black band that could play all styles of music and at the same time have a great live presentation.”
Nine became 13 with the addition of the Phenix Horns, led by Don Myrick and Louis Satterfield, longtime White collaborators, on saxophone and trombone, respectively.
The word Phenix — spelled in the Egyptian fashion, without the letter “o” — had great resonance for Maurice White, who loved its connotation as a living thing risen from the ashes of something once alive, now inert.
Through it all, somehow, the music remained the center of attention. “It wasn’t complicated, it was natural,” said Bailey. “It came from Maurice’s concept first, then people’s individual love and taste for music stylings.
“I came from pop radio,” McKay said. “I was a Motown guy. And Johnny and I played great together onstage — he was more of an Albert King, blues style. I was just a little bit of everything.”
“Many of us loved jazz,” said Bailey. “What Al added to the puzzle was the commerciality. What I added was the harmonics and my voice stylings, and a concept, vocally. If it had been something we were overthinking, I don¹t think it would have ever happened.”
Powerhouse without peer
“I knew,” Dunn recalled, “that this was going to go all the way. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. It wasn¹t so much ‘We’re going to be famous!’ as ‘This is gonna be a very huge musical aggregation!’”
Between 1975 and ’79, Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the hugest musical aggregations on the planet. The band sold more than 30 million albums, and won six Grammys, and their world tours were among the hottest of tickets. Six consecutive albums went platinum.
Gratitude, a double LP, was issued in late 1975. Although it contained several new studio cuts (including the chart’topping “Sing A Song,” written around a riff Al McKay came up with in a dressing room), three sides were live (they were literally touring so much, they didn’t have time to finish an entire record).
Gratitude also featured the live Earth, Wind & Fire version of “Sun Goddess,” with brilliant solos by Larry Dunn on piano and Andrew Woolfolk on sax.
Musically, they were a powerhouse without peer, with each musician at the top of his game, and Maurice White and Philip Bailey out front, duetting and trading off vocals. It was like an exuberant, three-ring funk ‘n’ jazz circus. “Keep Your Head to the Sky” and “Open Our Eyes,” with their stirring gospel feel, were always concert highlights.
White and Johnson alternated between drums, percussion and out–front vocals; Verdine’s younger brother Freddie joined the ranks in 1976 to give the band extra punch.
“He was just laying it down,” said Dunn. “I’d never really heard a drummer hit that bass drum like that. At the first rehearsal, it wasn’t miked and I could feel the bass drum. I was like ‘Man, this cat is serious.&339;”
The first special effects, courtesy of an L.A. magician named Nailhead, involved horizontally “levitating” Verdine White on a wire, while he was laying down a particularly funky bass solo. Dunn’s piano would rise eight feet in the air and start to spin as he played, “and I never fell off.”
Later, as budgets allowed, Maurice hired Doug Henning and his assistant, David Copperfield, to create an elaborate stage setup, utilizing both Egyptian symbolism and Close Encounters–style light and smoke spaceship gimmicks.
Their choreographer was George Faison, a Tony winner for 1974′s The Wiz.
According to the band members, there was never a danger that the spectacle would overtake the music … and the spirit.
“We wanted to give the audience more than just an audio concert,” Bailey said. “We were big fans of Broadway, and we wanted to make the visual effects as spectacular as the music.”
“There was so much going on,” Dunn recalled. “All the eye candy was great, but the band was on 900 all the time.”
Halfway through the recording of Spirit in 1976, Charles Stepney died of a heart attack. The album was dedicated to him.
Arranger Tom Washington (aka Tom Tom 84) worked with the band, in Step’s shoes, for the next few years.
Larry Dunn was the “musical director” for the tours. “Even though I was the youngest one, they did listen to me,” he said. “There was none of that. Everybody was a serious musician, and it was about getting it done.
“That’s why the live shows, to this day, are untouched. I haven’t seen too many bands that even come close to that. I’m not saying that because I was in it. It was because I was in it that I can say that. I’d be sitting there onstage and looking around and just going ‘Damn …’ It was pretty serious.”
For the Spirit tour, Reese’s latest infatuation — pyramids, sphinxes and other religious imagery from the Egyptology textbook — took center stage. Henning’s stage design had the band members, who’d arrived in a huge spaceship descending from on high, disappearing into a giant gold pyramid, which then rose in the air before splitting apart — before the shocked audience’s eyes.
The musicians would re–appear in a flash, in spaceman costumes, alive and well. And dancing up a storm.
At one point, Verdine went into an Egyptian sarcophagus while the others played on; Satterfield left his trombone and took over bass duties.
Beginning of the end
The records — All’N All (1977), The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. I (1978), I Am (1979) — were flying off shelves; arenas around the world were stuffed with fans who wanted the total experience.
Maurice built his empire like a pharaoh. Through his Kalimba Productions, he produced hits for Denise Williams, the Emotions and others. He started his own label imprint, ARC, distributed through Columbia, and opened a massive studio and office complex in Los Angeles.
Inside the hurricane, Verdine said, the focus remained on the music. “What you know is that you gotta keep progressing,” he said. “Particularly when you’re dealing in music, because music is something you get from the spirit.
“We noticed that we were digging in deeper, musically. We were never out of the studio. For me personally, it was all the same — the days were nights, the nights were days. It was like one big thread.”
The constant rehearsals were necessary, he said, to remind themselves that they were, first and foremost, a band. “The bigger the place is, the smaller the music is. The smaller the place is, the bigger the music is, because the music has a place to develop.
“When you’re playing in front of 20, 30 thousand people, that’s show business. That”s not really as much music. It’s the same problem the Beatles had when they were performing at Shea Stadium or Candlestick Park — the show was bigger than the music. They really couldn’t hear themselves onstage.
“And I think any band that’s performing in big places has that big challenge of making the music that comes out of an intimate setting, come out just as intimate in a big setting.”
In 1978, the band was featured in Robert Stigwood’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, performing the only song on the soundtrack not produced by George Martin: “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
I Am produced two major hits: Bill Champlin’s ballad “After the Love Has Gone” (with string arrangement by David Foster) and “Boogie Wonderland,” a full–tilt disco number produced by Maurice White and Al McKay, featuring vocals by the Emotions, the female trio White was producing on ARC.
Earth, Wind & Fire, however, would barely survive the ’70s. After 1980′s Faces, McKay quit. “It was just time to get away,” he explained. “Maurice and I were starting to clash pretty bad. It was time to move on; no regrets.
“In the beginning, it was a family thing. We all created and that was it. It was understood that we were a band, and that’s the way I’d always thought of it, as our band. We go in and create music together, and everybody shares in the rewards.
“But things work out a little different sometimes. Not to fault anybody, but you just have to be aware of what you’re getting yourself into when you get involved in a situation like that, with so many people.”
What it was, was mutiny.
“After Al left, it became the Maurice White Show,” Bailey said. “We just started being sidemen, and it just lost all of the magic of what it was before.”
Although “Let’s Groove,” with its electronic beats, was a Top Five hit in 1981, Bailey all but dismisses everything that came after That’s the Way of the World, All’N All and I Am. “Those records were the heart and soul of the band,” he said. “To this day, the whole catalog is driven by those records. All the stuff after that, Powerlight and crazy mess that we did, that stuff didn’t mean a thing.”
One by one, the band members drifted away — even the Phenix Horns accepted a lucrative offer from Phil Collins.
“When you start thinking it’s all you, that¹s the beginning of the end,” Johnson said.
“The fact of the matter is, Maurice was only as good as the people he surrounded himself with. He was smart enough to surround himself with a bunch of young, aggressive cats who would listen to him. And that¹s how that sound came about.”
Dunn recalled the 1983 album Electric Universe: “I took it home after it was finished and I played it. I told Maurice the next day, ‘I listened to it. Good music, it is. Earth, Wind & Fire, it ain’t.’”
“When you have a group of nine personalities, it’s hard to hold all that together, to Reese’s defense,” Johnson said. “But everybody is not a leader.
“And so Maurice put out a solo record and it did absolutely nothing. Well, it did absolutely nothing because that was God’s plan — that’s what he wanted, for it to do absolutely nothing. Because at that point, Reese was so full of himself, it was incredible.”
Bailey was livid. “Nothing’s ever just one person,” he said. “Taking nothing away from Maurice’s abilities as a facilitator and a visionary and all that, but without a song which Charles Stepney was a major part of, with an arrangement he was able to craft, without a band, without the rhythm section that Al McKay used to take Maurice’s idea and make it commercial, without a great record company that supports a band, there would be no Earth, Wind & Fire.
“Once we had success, and Maurice was the spearhead, then management and everybody started telling him that he was the god of everything. That he was the be–all and end–all of everything. And he started believing it. And it just tore up the group.”
Bailey, who scored a No. 1 hit in 1986 with “Easy Lover” (a duet with Phil Collins), said that things had got so bad that Earth, Wind & Fire had completely ceased to be.
“The group broke up,” he explained. “All our stuff was sold, all our costumes … some people will tell you ‘Oh, we went on a hiatus.’ You don¹t go on a hiatus and sell all your stuff.”
It would be four years before Bailey and White could speak to each other. The others investigated different aspects of the music business; Verdine went into video direction, and produced an album by the British band Level 42.
“I think we all changed a little bit, because the demands were different,” he said. “And everybody processes the same thing differently. And there was no book where you could ask somebody, ‘How do you deal with this?’ You never know what people are going through.”
Touching the world
A truce was reached in 1997, in which Bailey became a full co–owner and co–leader of the band, sharing in all the decisions, planning the set list and in general having just as much clout as Maurice. Touch the World materialized, and the single “System of Survival” made it to No. 1 on the R&B chart. In 1992 came a boxed set, The Eternal Dance, and then the album Millennium.
Maurice White, diagnosed with Parkinson¹s Disease, retired from the road in 1994, although he is still involved in Earth, Wind & Fire recordings.
Today, Bailey explained, “Our relationship is friendly but it’s strained a little bit, just because it’s so complicated.”
White owns the band name, and leases it to Bailey, Johnson and his brother Verdine, who continue to tour — with a huge ensemble, to great acclaim — with Bailey taking most of the tenor and baritone leads that were Maurice¹s trademarks.
Bailey is most gracious in giving praise and thanks to Maurice White during today’s Earth, Wind & Fire shows. The crowd always goes wild.
Don Myrick was murdered in 1993, and Louis Satterfield passed away in 2004. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, which was, to date, the last time all the surviving members have been together in the same room.
This year, White collaborated with Broadway veteran Maurice Hines on a theatrical revue, Hot Feet, based around classic Earth, Wind & Fire songs.
He declined to be interviewed for this story.
The three veterans are only too aware that, according to history, there could be no Earth, Wind & Fire without Maurice White. And they beg to differ. “Of course, Reese was the spearhead, the guiding light,” said Verdine. “But it was pretty much always a collaborative effort.
“There¹s no way Philip, Ralph and myself could take Earth, Wind & Fire on without Maurice unless we were intimately involved. Because in order to be intimately involved, you have to understand the process of it. And in order for us to keep the sound today, and still lead the band today, we would’ve had to participate intimately in the creation.”
In the final analysis, of course, it’s possible that Earth, Wind & Fire — like so many bands in and of a particular era — just couldn’t survive the inevitable transitions of time and taste.
Innovation’s fuse only burns for so long. After all, the Beatles never made it out of the ’60s.
It’s a fact of show business that Philip Bailey has learned to appreciate over time. “We were able to see things from a different perspective,” he said. “We were able to see what our contribution to the world, to the music scene, had been.
“Prior to that, you’re in it. So you really don’t have the proper perspective.”