Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Earth, Wind & Fire: Open to the Elements

Earth, Wind and Fire
Earth, Wind and Fire Earth, Wind and Fire Earth, Wind and Fire

Having sold over 90 million albums worldwide, won eight Grammy Awards and four American Music Awards, been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame plus received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, funk/soul/jazz/rock ensemble Earth, Wind & Fire - as America’s seventh-top-selling music group of all time - have unquestionably emerged as one of the most musically-accomplished, critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful bands of the last half-century. Which is why the release this month of their first new studio album in eight years - the Sony Music/Legacy-released “Now, Then & Forever” - can be justifiably seen as a major event in the world of music.

Indeed, primarily produced by the combo’s renowned falsetto lead-vocalist Philip Bailey, musical moods on “Now, Then & Forever” range from its romantic, upbeat single “My Promise” and the compulsively-pounding groove of “Dance Floor” to the Latin-jazz instrumental serenity of “Belo Horizonte” and springy, socially-conscious funk of “Sign On”.

Initially formed in 1969 under the name The Salty Peppers in Chicago, Illinois by former Chess Records drummer (and one-time Ramsey Lewis Trio member) Maurice White, it would be after moving to Los Angeles, California and a radical line-up change that the band - by now a 10-piece and renamed Earth, Wind & Fire - would sign to Warner Bros. Records, for whom in 1971 they would release two critically-acclaimed yet commercially-unsuccessful albums (“Earth, Wind & Fire” and “The Need For Love”).

Following which - after a further radical membership change - the group would in 1972 sign to CBS/Columbia Records, through whom they would release three increasingly-better-selling albums (1972’s “Last Days And Time”; 1973’s “Head To The Sky”; 1974’s Platinum “Open Our Eyes”) before finally attaining their long-awaited mainstream breakthrough in 1975 with the US-Pop-and-Soul-chart-topping, triple-Platinum LP “That’s The Way Of The World”. Which - originally conceived as a soundtrack to a film of the same name - also spawned the Grammy-winning, funky US Number One single “Shining Star”.

After which the remainder of the decade would see Earth, Wind & Fire progress to becoming a bona fide global supergroup. As a string of multi-Platinum-selling US Top Three albums - l975’s “Gratitude”; 1976’s “Spirit”; 1977’s “All’N’All”; and 1979’s transatlantic smash “I Am” - would additionally spawn a succession of international Top Five singles, the biggest being the 1978 radio favourite “September” plus 1979’s disco-tinged “Boogie Wonderland (Featuring The Emotions)” and classic love ballad “After The Love Has Gone”.

All of which would find the band’s trademark contrasting-lead-vocal interplay between Maurice White’s tenor and Philip Bailey’s falsetto and musical blend of funk, soul, jazz, disco and rock topped-off with dynamic horn section The Phoenix Horns conquering airwaves across the globe; while their energetic and elaborate stage-show - at the time loaded with pyrotechnics, magic, laser-lights, flying pyramids, levitating guitarists and elaborate production tricks - would assure them a place in history as one of the most distinctive and theatrical live R&B acts of all time.

Nevertheless, the Eighties - after the release of l981’s US Top Five LP “Raise!”, which spawned another worldwide smash in the ebullient “Let’s Groove” - would see a decided fall in the group’s popularity, following leader/producer/songwriter Maurice White’s decision to incorporate more of the digital sounds of the day into their music. All of which would ultimately result in Earth, Wind & Fire leaving CBS after the release of their disappointingly-received 1990 “Heritage” set to return to Warner Bros., for whom they would release one album - 1993’s Grammy-nominated “Millennium” - before going the independent-label route following Maurice in 1994 announcing his retirement from touring with the band due to him having contracted Parkinson’s disease. Since which time the group have - alongside remaining one of the world’s top touring bands - continued to release a number of new albums on various independent labels, the last being 2005’s double-Grammy-nominated “Illumination” for Sanctuary Records.

… Which neatly brings us back to today, as the now-three core members of Earth, Wind & Fire - bassist Verdine White (Maurice’s brother); percussionist Ralph Johnson; and lead-vocalist Philip Bailey, all of whom have been in the band since the early-Seventies - graciously welcome “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis into their opulent West End hotel suite. As, with Philip occupied making pressing calls to management, a charming and forthcoming Messrs. White and Johnson enthusiastically discuss their aforementioned new album (which, released through Sony, marks their long-overdue return to the major-label arena) in addition to looking back on their trailblazing four-decade-plus career.

PETE: Let’s start on obvious ground - the title to your new album “Now, Then & Forever”

RALPH: “The “Now” obviously refers to what we’re doing today; the “Then” talks about the legacy of Earth, Wind & Fire and the albums and CDs that have come previously; while the “Forever” speaks to the fact that long after we’re gone the music will still be HERE - just like today you still hear the music of say Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis… So yeah, that’s kinda it in a nutshell!”

PETE: So what did you want to achieve musically with the new album and what are your views on the way it’s turned out?

VERDINE: “Musically what we wanted to accomplish was being Earth, Wind & Fire without being DATED - because that’s a trap you can easily fall into when you’ve been around as long as WE have. Which is why to us this album was very much about keeping it recognisably Earth, Wind & Fire while at the same time being relevant and slightly PROGRESSIVE. You know, I don’t think we think we sound like we’re 62 years OLD - I actually think that we do sound pretty youthful without sounding like KIDS!... So yeah, to me this is a very consistent, strong album which, with a little luck, might even go down as one of our GREATEST.”

RALPH: “Yeah, because musically we definitely have covered all the bases Earth, Wind & Fire are KNOWN for. Like you’ve got the balance between the commercial side and the creative side; you’ve got the uplifting lyrical content; you’ve got the RHYTHMIC aspect; you’ve got the horns; Philip’s production sounds great… So yeah, we’re very, very happy with the way it’s turned OUT! Because it’s almost like we’ve covered our whole history in one album while still making it CURRENT-sounding!”

PETE: So let’s discuss the recording process behind “Now, Then & Forever” and the group’s relationship with its new label-home, Sony Music/Legacy

RALPH: “Well, first let me explain to you that it actually took us two years to MAKE this record! Because what happened was, we’d cut a whole body of work but then when Phil (Bailey) actually went back and listened to it he wasn’t HAPPY. So he then decided to go back and listen to all our CDs from the very beginning right up to (1980’s transatlantic Top Ten) “Faces”… And that in turn became the point where we got right back on TRACK. You know, the actual recording and playing process became very FLUENT - because we now knew what we had to DO. We realised it was all about just getting back to, and buying into, what we’d already CREATED and you didn’t have to do anything OUTSIDE of that! You just had to understand what you’d done previously, and there was your TEMPLATE!”

VERDINE: “Yeah, and fortunately for us Sony were very PATIENT. You know, they had a lotta confidence in us, they supported us... To where, when we finally turned the record in last February, when we walked in they APPLAUDED! You know, they really LIKED it! Which was very gratifying, because you don’t get that often from a label! And since then we’ve actually sat down and had meetings with the staff to make suggestions and to give them our thoughts on things like the marketing aspects and tapping into our audience... So yeah, so far it’s been a great MARRIAGE, and we’re genuinely very excited about getting this album out to the PUBLIC. Because from the feedback we’ve had so far from like journalists and critics, people do like what they’re HEARING.”

PETE: So let’s discuss some of the standout tracks…

RALPH: “I think “The Rush” is an excellent tune. Like as soon as I heard it I was like ‘Oh, it’s Steely Dan meets Earth, Wind & FIRE!’! While “Dance Floor” I’m saying over and over again is a club SMASH! Plus of course we have the first single “My Promise”, which is written by (Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones collaborator) Siedah Garrett along with a couple of other co-writers. You know, it was actually Verdine who was really adamant about making that one the single, and the feedback we’re getting on it so far is TREMENDOUS.”

VERDINE: “Yeah, initially when we started on this album the first single was going to be “Sign On”, because it’s a very ‘hip’ track. But then with “My Promise” being such a happy-sounding song with a chorus everybody can sing along with, because we’re mostly known as a feel-good group I just felt it would actually make a better lead-off single to open up the record. So in the end that’s the one we WENT with.”

PETE: So how do you now look back on the group’s early years - from releasing your self-titled debut album in 1971 up to your mainstream breakthrough in 1975 with the US-chart-topping/triple-Platinum “That’s The Way Of The World” and its Grammy-winning Number One offshoot single “Shining Star”?

RALPH: “Well like you say, the band released its first two albums for Warner Bros. And what was interesting about that time is that the major labels back then really didn’t know how to market black MUSIC. You know, it was kind of a hit-and-miss thing, and it wasn’t really until we signed with (legendary industry starmaker) Clive Davis at CBS/Columbia that the whole thing turned AROUND. I mean, he really was the reason we ended up having such a brilliant CAREER. Like I remember auditioning for Clive in early ’72 , and then next thing I know in July the same year we were being flown into London and staying at The Grosvenor House and doing a CBS Records convention, where he basically presented us to the label and said ‘Hey, this is the next new THING - get on BOARD!’!... Which ultimately led to ’75, which was the real break-out with “That’s The Way Of The WORLD”.”

VERDINE: “Yeah, those years to me were great BUILDING periods, where each one of the albums we released led to another, BIGGER one. Like we went from our first album on CBS “Last Days And Time” in 1972 to “Head To The Sky” in ’73 to “Open Our Eyes” in ’74 to “That’s The Way Of The World” in ’75 - which as Ralph just said, was the big breakthrough where we crossed over to the POP market for the first time. Plus of course we also have to remember the contribution of the late Charles Stepney as our producer during that time.”

PETE: Why do you think that by the mid-Eighties the popularity of the group was decidedly on the wane?

VERDINE: “Well yeah, after we did the (1983-released) “Powerlight” album things did get a little shaky. You know, we did STUMBLE in the Eighties and I think the main reason for that was that we did kinda get away from our FORMULA.”

RALPH: “Yeah, because while the earlier albums had been about the band in the studio just hacking away at it, as the new midi-technology came in it made things EASIER and so Maurice wanted to experiment with some other things and some other PLAYERS. So in that way we did kinda get away from OURSLEVES, and things did start to CHANGE for us… And so actually one of the main reasons why this new album “Now, Then & Forever” is so significant is because we’ve now come full-CIRCLE! You know, with the exception of just a few people we called in from the outside, this record was genuinely once again all about the band in the studio just chipping AWAY at it... Which is why I think people are already responding to it so WELL!”

The album “Now, Then & Forever” is out on October 20th through Sony Music/Legacy.


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