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Issue 1084

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Feature

Earth, Wind & Fire: Open to the Elements

Earth, Wind and Fire @bluesandsoul.com
Earth, Wind and Fire @bluesandsoul.com Earth, Wind and Fire @bluesandsoul.com Earth, Wind and Fire @bluesandsoul.com

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 Americaâs 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 âNow, Then & Foreverâ - can be justifiably seen as a major event in the world of music.

Indeed, primarily produced by the comboâs renowned falsetto lead-vocalist Philip Bailey, musical moods on âNow, Then & Foreverâ range from its romantic, upbeat single âMy Promiseâ and the compulsively-pounding groove of âDance Floorâ to the Latin-jazz instrumental serenity of âBelo Horizonteâ and springy, socially-conscious funk of âSign Onâ.

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 (âEarth, Wind & Fireâ and âThe Need For Loveâ).

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 (1972âs âLast Days And Timeâ; 1973âs âHead To The Skyâ; 1974âs Platinum âOpen Our Eyesâ) before finally attaining their long-awaited mainstream breakthrough in 1975 with the US-Pop-and-Soul-chart-topping, triple-Platinum LP âThatâs The Way Of The Worldâ. Which - originally conceived as a soundtrack to a film of the same name - also spawned the Grammy-winning, funky US Number One single âShining Starâ.

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 - l975âs âGratitudeâ; 1976âs âSpiritâ; 1977âs âAllâNâAllâ; and 1979âs transatlantic smash âI Amâ - would additionally spawn a succession of international Top Five singles, the biggest being the 1978 radio favourite âSeptemberâ plus 1979âs disco-tinged âBoogie Wonderland (Featuring The Emotions)â and classic love ballad âAfter The Love Has Goneâ.

All of which would find the bandâs trademark contrasting-lead-vocal interplay between Maurice Whiteâs tenor and Philip Baileyâs 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 l981âs US Top Five LP âRaise!â, which spawned another worldwide smash in the ebullient âLetâs Grooveâ - would see a decided fall in the groupâs popularity, following leader/producer/songwriter Maurice Whiteâs 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 âHeritageâ set to return to Warner Bros., for whom they would release one album - 1993âs Grammy-nominated âMillenniumâ - before going the independent-label route following Maurice in 1994 announcing his retirement from touring with the band due to him having contracted Parkinsonâs disease. Since which time the group have - alongside remaining one of the worldâs top touring bands - continued to release a number of new albums on various independent labels, the last being 2005âs double-Grammy-nominated âIlluminationâ for Sanctuary Records.

⦠Which neatly brings us back to today, as the now-three core members of Earth, Wind & Fire - bassist Verdine White (Mauriceâs brother); percussionist Ralph Johnson; and lead-vocalist Philip Bailey, all of whom have been in the band since the early-Seventies - graciously welcome âBlues & Soulâ 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: Letâs start on obvious ground - the title to your new album âNow, Then & Foreverâ

RALPH: âThe âNowâ obviously refers to what weâre doing today; the âThenâ talks about the legacy of Earth, Wind & Fire and the albums and CDs that have come previously; while the âForeverâ speaks to the fact that long after weâre 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, thatâs kinda it in a nutshell!â

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

VERDINE: âMusically what we wanted to accomplish was being Earth, Wind & Fire without being DATED - because thatâs a trap you can easily fall into when youâve 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 donât think we think we sound like weâre 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.â

RALPH: âYeah, because musically we definitely have covered all the bases Earth, Wind & Fire are KNOWN for. Like youâve got the balance between the commercial side and the creative side; youâve got the uplifting lyrical content; youâve got the RHYTHMIC aspect; youâve got the horns; Philipâs production sounds great⦠So yeah, weâre very, very happy with the way itâs turned OUT! Because itâs almost like weâve covered our whole history in one album while still making it CURRENT-sounding!â

PETE: So letâs discuss the recording process behind âNow, Then & Foreverâ and the groupâs relationship with its new label-home, Sony Music/Legacy

RALPH: âWell, first let me explain to you that it actually took us two years to MAKE this record! Because what happened was, weâd cut a whole body of work but then when Phil (Bailey) actually went back and listened to it he wasnât HAPPY. So he then decided to go back and listen to all our CDs from the very beginning right up to (1980âs transatlantic Top Ten) âFacesâ⦠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 weâd already CREATED and you didnât have to do anything OUTSIDE of that! You just had to understand what youâd done previously, and there was your TEMPLATE!â

VERDINE: âYeah, 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 donât get that often from a label! And since then weâve 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 itâs been a great MARRIAGE, and weâre genuinely very excited about getting this album out to the PUBLIC. Because from the feedback weâve had so far from like journalists and critics, people do like what theyâre HEARING.â

PETE: So letâs discuss some of the standout tracksâ¦

RALPH: âI think âThe Rushâ is an excellent tune. Like as soon as I heard it I was like âOh, itâs Steely Dan meets Earth, Wind & FIRE!â! While âDance Floorâ Iâm saying over and over again is a club SMASH! Plus of course we have the first single âMy Promiseâ, 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 weâre getting on it so far is TREMENDOUS.â

VERDINE: âYeah, initially when we started on this album the first single was going to be âSign Onâ, because itâs a very âhipâ track. But then with âMy Promiseâ being such a happy-sounding song with a chorus everybody can sing along with, because weâre 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 thatâs the one we WENT with.â

PETE: So how do you now look back on the groupâs 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 âThatâs The Way Of The Worldâ and its Grammy-winning Number One offshoot single âShining Starâ?

RALPH: âWell 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 didnât know how to market black MUSIC. You know, it was kind of a hit-and-miss thing, and it wasnât 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 â72 , 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 âHey, this is the next new THING - get on BOARD!â!... Which ultimately led to â75, which was the real break-out with âThatâs The Way Of The WORLDâ.â

VERDINE: âYeah, 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 âLast Days And Timeâ in 1972 to âHead To The Skyâ in â73 to âOpen Our Eyesâ in â74 to âThatâs The Way Of The Worldâ in â75 - 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.â

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

VERDINE: âWell yeah, after we did the (1983-released) âPowerlightâ 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.â

RALPH: âYeah, 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 âNow, Then & Foreverâ is so significant is because weâve 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!â

The album âNow, Then & Foreverâ is out on October 20th through Sony Music/Legacy.

TO READ MORE FROM THIS INTERVIEW WITH EARTH, WIND AND FIRE CHECK OUT OUR PRINT ISSUE - CLICK BELOW OR VISIT YOUR LOCAL MAG OUTLET (inc: WH SMITH AND JOHN MENZIES).
Words PETE LEWIS

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