Earth, Wind & Fire – the most successful soul/funk group of the ’70s and one of the most important black bands of all time – has a vibrant recent live CD of previously unreleased material from their classic 1975 “That’s the Way of the World Tour.”
Co-produced by Maurice White, the leader/singer/songwriter/drummer/producer of the band, Paul Klingberg, and my good friend Leo Sacks, That’s the Way of the World: Alive in ’75 finds the band in peak form rocking sparkling versions of “Shining Star,” “Sun Goddess” (with guest Ramsey Lewis on keyboards), “Reasons,” “Mighty Mighty,” and 8 1/2 minutes of “That’s the Way Of the World.”
The complex rhythms interlace magically, the group vocals soar and shimmer, and the sound quality is state of the art. The version of the band that is touring this summer is still fine, led by Maurice’s brother bassist Verdine White and lead singer Philip Bailey, but this disc is the next best thing to transporting yourself back 27 years when it was all still new, now, and smoking hot.
As the great David Ritz writes in the liner notes to the new disc,
- Music is a miracle. Its most precious properties – energy, joy and hope – are rooted in a spirit both human and devine. The miracles born out of African-American music are especially abundant, perhaps because its source is sacred. In both primal and sophisticated forms, the music balances the weights or survival and salvation. It is a music whose rhythms pulsate with the oldest cultural news and, at the same time, the most current.
Earth, Wind & Fire was elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, with 7 Grammys, over 30 charting singles, and 20 charting albums (seven Top 10’s) from the ’70s into the ’90s. Now retired from the band, White stirred EW&F’s joyous blend of gospel, funk, jazz, rock, disco, and African music into a soulful, thumping nectar that he describes as “my love, my heart.”
Maurice White was born one of nine children December 19, 1941, in Memphis, and raised by his grandmother while his father attended medical school in Chicago. White listened to R&B, blues, jazz, and early rock ‘n’ roll throughout his childhood, and sang gospel in church, at home and with a quartet, The Rosehill Jubilettes. Styling themselves after Sam Cooke’s Soul Stirrers, the Jubilettes traveled throughout the South performing at churches.
At 12 White saw a marching band strut through the streets of Memphis and became fixed on the power of the drum. He went home, broke a broom in half and started rat-a-tat-tatting on any available surface. In junior high White became friends with multi-instrumentalist Booker T. Jones and they played together in various jazz ensembles. As a high school student, White played in a hot R&B band, The Mad Lads, and after graduation he joined his parents in Chicago.
White was a pre-med student at Crane (now Malcolm X) Junior College when he passed the band room and felt inexorably drawn to the drum seat; he switched his major to music. In ’62 White got a call to play for a Betty Everett Vee-Jay session, the session that yielded the classic “You’re No Good.” Now White was a real professional musician. He played on sets for Jerry Butler, The Impressions, John Lee Hooker, Jackie Wilson and others, then his friend Louis Satterfield jointed him in the direction of the legendary Chess Records.
White became house drummer at Chess playing on hundreds of soul, blues and jazz records for Little Milton, Etta James, Billy Stewart, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Ramsey Lewis from ’62-’67.
“I was in there every day from noon until 6PM, then I’d go to school at the Chicago Conservatory of Music from 7PM until 10PM, then I’d go play at a club,” says White.
White feels that his background as a drummer was the perfect training for his future as bandleader and producer. “The drummer has to learn everyone else’s part as well as his own. He has to think in terms of how everything fits together,” he says.
White replaced drummer Red Holt in the Ramsey Lewis Trio in ’67, and went on tour with him for most of the next two years, becoming a seasoned veteran of the road as well as the studio. White and keyboard players Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead formed a trio in ’69 called the Salty Peppers, and recorded a single for their own Hummit Records called “La La Time,” which was picked up by Capitol. The trio headed to Los Angeles to pursue a deal, and with the addition of White’s younger brother Verdine on bass, a guitarist, horn section, and Sherry White sharing lead vocals, changed their name to Earth, Wind & Fire – a name derived from the elements of White’s astrological chart. White’s ambitious goal for the band was to master the “four principles of music: composition, musicianship, production and performance.”
The ten-man band played around L.A. until they were signed to Warner Brothers by Joe Smith, and assigned Joe Wissert as producer. That group recorded two albums, Earth, Wind & Fire and The Need of Love, which were only moderate sellers and yielded no pop hits.
On tour in Denver, White found singer/drummer Philip Bailey when Bailey’s pop band, Friends & Love, opened for EW&F in ’71. When the original EW&F broke up in ’72 under the strain of limited success, the White brothers formed a new band, recruiting Bailey to sing and percuss. The band hooked up with crack manager Bob Cavallo and then signed to Columbia. They released two more albums with Wissert producing, Last Days and Time and Head To the Sky, the latter of which was the band’s first hit, cracking the Top 30.
Everything began to come together when White joined Wissert in the production duties for Open Our Eyes in ’74, but a whole new universe opened up when White took over primary production duties (assisted by arranger Charles Stepney) for good on That’s the Way of the World (No. 1) in ’75.
A mature, confident classic of exceptional tunes, thrilling gospel harmonies and sophisticated horns, anchored by a cutthroat-funky rhythm section, World was originally envisioned as a movie soundtrack. “Happy Feelin'” features White’s African thumb piano, the kalimba (also the name of his production company); “Reasons” is a silky soul ballad standard; “Shining Star” (No. 1) is a deeply grooved funk workout with White and Bailey trading lines, ending with a timeless a cappella singalong that leaps out of the speakers; the title track is another standard, a jazzy, midtempo jam keyed to a distant trombone line (by White’s old Chicago friend Louis Satterfield), and White and Bailey’s octaved dual lead.
The rest of the ’70s brought nothing but multiplatinum for the band, whose wildly costumed, lighted and staged live shows (eventually featuring special effects by magician Doug Henning) became legendary. Gratitude (No. 1) is a rousing double-live album that includes two more great studio numbers: “Can’t Hide Love,” and the bouncy dancefloor-filler “Sing a Song.”
’77 saw the release of EW&F’s best overall album, All ‘N All , showcasing White’s newfound interest in Brazilian rhythms and an overt move into metaphysical lyrics. A magical blend of Latin jazz and soul, All is highlighted by the great “Fantasy” with Bailey’s impossibly soaring falsetto, and White’s funky versifying on “Serpentine Fire,” but there are no bumps on this superhighway – even the instrumental interludes stick in the brain and heart.
A Best Of album in ’78 sold over 4 million copies and included two new singles, an uptown soul version of the Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life,” and the band’s disco perennial, “September.” The following year EW&F, in cahoots with the female trio the Emotions, grabbed disco by the balls with another great, “Boogie Wonderland,” which derived from the I Am album. “After the Love Is Gone,” another exemplary and moving ballad, ended the decade, and their peak period, in high style.