Earth, Wind & Fire are just about the only soul band I can think of who made it through the disco era unscathed. Forty years later, this may not sound all that impressive, but if you were there, I am sure you understand. For groups that were played on the R&B stations, it was next to impossible not to “go disco.“ Even the fearsome KISS succumbed to it with their song “I Was Made for Loving You.” The music of EW&F was played in the discos, but on their own terms. I believe that is a big reason that their music still sounds so fresh all these years later.
They had a lot of hits. In fact, EW&F had enough hit songs to fill two greatest hits collections, which is rare. Usually a band’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 has one or two later hits, and a whole bunch of album tracks. In 2002, Columbia Records combined the two previous hits collections into the first Essential Earth, Wind & Fire. Evidently this has been a consistent seller, because Columbia Legacy have just issued an expanded Essential package, which adds another eight tracks to the set.
Like all good stories, the saga of EW&F was played out in three acts. The Essential collection is not strictly chronological, and ignores their first three albums, but is does a nice job of introducing the hits. To that end, the first four songs come from their early Columbia albums Head to the Sky (1973), and Open Our Eyes (1974). The opening “Mighty Mighty” is a killer way to kick off this set.
“Shining Star” marked the beginning of a long run at the top. The album was That’s the Way of the World (1975), and with it EW&F hit their golden era. The rest of this first CD is practically nothing but hits, including such classics as “Sing a Song,“ “Getaway,“ “Got to Get You into My Life,“ “September,“ “Serpentine Fire,“ “Reasons,“ and more.
The second disc begins with the closest thing to disco the band ever did, “Boogie Wonderland.” It was a collaboration with the female vocal group The Emotions, off the I Am (1979) album. In all honesty, there are less hits on this second disc, but there are still some classics, including “After the Love Has Gone,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Lets Groove.”
“System of Survival” from 1987 is here, and it is definitely an example of a band trying a little too hard to stay current. I am not sure if they were going for the Paul Hardcastle “19” vibe with the political-speech samples, mixed with brittle ‘80s electro boogie, but it is a definite time-capsule item, and not in the good way.
Another later track is one that I had never heard of before, a collaboration with Kenny G called “The Way You Move.” That one hails from an album titled Illumination (2005), and is pretty good, for what it is. The final track of the collection is “My Promise” from Now, Then & Forever (2013), it is also quite nice.
It has been just over 40 years since “Mighty Mighty” peaked at number four on the Billboard R&B chart, and the fact that they are still making pleasant songs such as “My Promise” is a cool thing. I think one of the biggest unintended compliments Maurice White and the rest of the band received came during the height of their success, when Parliafunkadelicment king George Clinton dismissed them as “Earth, hot air, and no fire.” For Clinton, with his insane troupe of funkateers on their mothership to take notice of anyone else meant that he considered EW&F to be real competition, and not just pleasant radio fodder.
It has always been my contention that Earth, Wind & Fire were a band to be taken seriously, even as they were being dismissed as lightweights. They were great, and if “My Promise” is any indication, they still are. In any case, this Essential package tells their story better than anything I can think of, and it is one that is well worth hearing.