The Elements of Soul
Note: Tracks in bold are compiled on The Essential Earth, Wind, and Fire
More than any group during the 1970s, Earth, Wind, and Fire negotiated the traditions of heady, socially relevant soul music—like that of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and Roberta Flack—with songs that possessed significant commercial appeal that could, in fact, make socially relevant soul music universal. Initially conceived by studio drummer Maurice White in 1969, Earth, Wind, and Fire (EWF) would become one of the most successful black pop acts of the 1970s. With their striking stage shows EWF, in many ways, laid the foundation for the commercial success of artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie (and the Commodores), Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown and MC Hammer in the 1980s. Marking the 30th anniversary of EWF’s debut on the Columbia label, The Essential Earth, Wind and Fire documents EWF’s dominant years from 1973-1993, on a double-disc set that is a thoughtful alternative to the much more expansive (and expensive) EWF Box-Set The Eternal Dance (1992) and the various “Best Of” collections of EWF, that by design, only compile a small segment of the EWF vision.
Initially signed to Warner in 1970, where they released two records, including the brilliant The Need of Love (1971), White reconstituted the group in 1972, bringing in vocalist Phillip Bailey, drummer Ralph Johnson, and keyboardist Larry Dunn, who along with White and his bassist brother Verdine, would form the germ of what would be the “classic” EWF lineup. The group was signed by industry maverick Clive Davis to Columbia, beginning EWF’s 20 year association with the label. EWF’s Columbia debut Last Days and Time was a modest success, but the group broke through to black audiences in 1973 with Head to the Sky, on the strength of the lead single “Evil”. Charting in July of 1973, “Evil” brought together EWF’s still evolving rhythmic sensibilities with White’s plaintive vocals and his new found interest in the “Kalimba” (a West African finger piano), which later became one of the most prominent features of the EWF sound.
Whereas “Evil” musically captured EWF’s hard bop and funk influences, the follow-up and title single “Keep Your Head in the Sky” captured the group’s inspirational vision. According to White, the song reflected EWF’s desire to use their music to “search for greater self-understanding, greater freedom from the restrictions we placed on ourselves in terms of our individual potential”. (Liner notes from The Eternal Dance). “Keep Your Head to the Sky” helped solidify Bailey’s role as “co-lead vocalist” and put him in direct competition with fellow falsetto leads like Eddie Kendricks and Smokey Robinson (who both pursued solo careers in the 1970s after great stints with the Temptations and Miracles respectively), Ted Mills (Blue Magic) and Russell Thompkins, Jr. (The Stylistics). According to Bailey, though many thought that he was influenced by the work that Robinson and Kendrick did with the great Motown groups, he was primarily influenced by Dionne Warwick and Mahalia Jackson.
EWF followed up Head to the Sky with Open Our Eyes (1974), which was co-produced and arranged by Charles Stepney. Stepney and White had been cohorts during the late 1960s at Chicago’s Chess Records where Stepney was the primary arranger and White, was a session drummer and member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Stepney was the brainchild behind the ground breaking multi-culti band Rotary Connection, which featured Richard Rudolph and a then unknown vocalist by the name of Minnie Riperton. It was under the direction of Stepney that the signature EWF sound was crafted beginning with Open Our Eyes and most explicitly with EWF’s mainstream breakthrough, That’s the Way of the World (1974).
“Mighty, Mighty”, the lead single from Open Our Eyes, was a rollicking celebration of African identity as White sings in the song’s chorus, “we are people of the mighty / Mighty, mighty people of the sun / In our heart lies all the answers / To the truth you can not find.” Charting in the pop Top 40 and a Top 10 ditty on black radio, “Mighty, Mighty” was followed by another funk workout, “Kalimba Story”, which like “Mighty, Mighty” was penned by the brothers White. With the release of “Devotion”, in August of 1974 (a track sampled 17 years later by Yo-Yo and Cube on “Don’t Play with My Yo, Yo”), the band was primed for a mainstream commercial breakthrough.
Initially conceived as a soundtrack for a film produced by Blaxploitation kingpin Sig Shore (producer of Superfly), That’s the Way of the World (1975) remains one of EWF most accomplished and popular discs. Commercially the disc was given its legs with the brilliant lead single “Shining Star”, which topped both the R&B and pop charts in February and March of 1975. Clocking in at less than three minutes, “Shining Star” is one of the most muscular funk tracks recorded during the decade, indeed heightened by the speed-stop acapella break down at the end of the song. The follow-up single and title track, “That’s the Way of the World” (which charted five and 12 on the R&B and pop charts respectively) quickly became the signature EWF tune, becoming a universal theme of peace and love. But That’s the Way of the World also included memorable album tracks like “Reasons” (which Bailey immortalized on the live version of the song that was featured on Gratitude , 1975) and “All About Love” (later given an instrumental treatment by Pieces of a Dream), which featured Maurice White’s take on “mack-daddy spirituality”, midway through the song. The success of That’s the Way of the World was the product of Stepney and White’s shared vision as well as the full integration of the group’s horn section The Phenix Horns, which was anchored by the late saxophonist Larry Myrick.
Pressured to tour and still deliver commercial product, EWF released Gratitude in late 1975. According to White the group “didn’t have time to do a whole new album, so we started taping all our shows . . . [W]e cut four new songs in the studio and we had the double-album Gratitude” (liner notes, The Eternal Dance). Two of those four songs were “Sing a Song” one of EWF’s best singles and Skip Scarborough “Can’t Hide Love” which has become one of the groups most well known ballads. Acts such as D’Angelo and Soulive have recently paid tribute to the song’s influence. Gratitude would be the last full project with Stepney behind the boards as the producer succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 1976, while working on EWF’s Spirit (1976). Stepney did produce and arrange Spirit‘s “Get Away”, which followed in the tradition groove happy lead singles, and “Saturday Night”. Spirit was dedicated to Stepney’s memory.
With the passing of Stepney, the production reigns of EWF were largely managed by Maurice White. White initially found inspiration in Brazil, where he vacationed in early 1977. The product of White’s new found muse was All ‘N All (1977), which is generally regarded as the most accomplished of all of EWF’s discs. According to White, All ‘N All was a “turning point in [EWF’s] maturity musically” (liner notes, The Eternal Dance). With their groove-making commercial reputation in tow, All ‘N All marked EWF’s transition into “high-bow” American pop. Constructed around an amplified cowbell, “Serpentine Fire” followed many of the conventions of EWF’s singles, with White singing lead and Bailey dripping his honeyed falsetto around the song’s chorus (“gonna tell a story, morning glory, all about the Serpentine Fire”). “Fantasy”, the follow-up single, was the perfect example of the band’s maturation wrapping the Phenix Horns and string arrangements by Tom Tom 84 (Tom Washington, whose Tom Tom Club would drop the underground classic “Genius of Love” in 1981) around Maurice White’s deeply mystical lyrics (“our voices will ring together/until the twelfth of never / We all will live love forever as one”). The song had a Gothic aura that was perhaps only matched by Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” in terms of 1970s pop.
Bailey delivers, perhaps, his most exquisite lead, on the sparse “I’ll Write a Song for You”, which was written by group guitarist Al Mckay. White Brazilian influences were directly evidenced on the interludes “Brazilian Rhyme” and Milton Nascimento’s “Ponta de Areia”, which the latter recorded earlier on Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer (1974). “Ponta de Areia” segues into the White and Dunn penned “Be Ever Wonderful” which features one of White’s most inspired leads and is arguably the most soulful of EWF’s many moving ballads, including (in my opinion) “Reasons”.
As with their crossover success in 1975, EWF found themselves doing stadium dates around the world and were hard pressed to deliver a disc full of original tracks. Instead EWF dropped The Best of Earth, Wind and Fire Vol. 1 (1978) which featured tw0 new tracks. Initially featured on the soundtrack of the dreadful Bee Gee’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club (1978), EWF’s funke-ass version of Lennon and McCartney’s “Got to Get You Into My Life”, earned them their first Top 10 pop hit since “Sing a Song”. Released in November of 1978, “September” recalled the happy go lucky swing of “Sing a Song”. The song would again become a staple of black radio nearly two decades later when the film was featured in the film Soul Food in 1997.
EWF went back in the studio in early 1979 to recorded I Am. The disc was recorded during the height of the disco craze and EWF was not above tryin’ to cash in on that trend. The lead single “Boogie Wonderland” featured The Emotions (“Best of My Love”) and continued EWF’s string of high charting lead singles, but the song was also evidence that the group was quickly distancing themselves from the artistic heights they achieved with All ‘N All. EWF nearly topped both the pop and R&B charts for the first time since “Shining Star” with the yearning ballad “After the Love is Gone” which stalled at #2 on both charts, but even that track was a far cry from the finely crafted ballads of previous years. Follow-up single releases like “In the Stone” (a clear derivative of All N’ All tracks like “Fantasy” and “Jupiter”) and the bouncy “You and I” barely cracked the Top 30 and Top 50 respectively on the R&B charts.
EWF’s Faces was released in late 1980, during a critical period in the recording industry, which was deeply impacted by an economic recession. The free-for-all spirit of the disco era was facing the dark reality of the coming Reagan years (and the HIV crisis). Responding to a wide range of issues, including the recession and the Iranian Hostage crisis, Faces tried to celebrate a common humanity. On the funke lead single “Let Me Talk”, White sings “now Ms. Sophisticated, your nose up in the air / Tryin’ to find excitement in the labels that you wear” offering a critique of the self-centered hedonism that marked the late 1970s. None of the three singles released from Faces, including the sweetly simple “You”, reached the pop Top 40 charts. The lack of crossover for Faces was not surprising as the recording industry’s financial problems instigated a unspoken apartheid system, where songs that did well on the R&B or so-called “Black” charts, rarely crossed over to the pop charts. With the exceptions of Lionel Ritchie, Prince, Whitney Houston and of course Michael Jackson (who were all promoted as pop acts), this apartheid system, heightened by MTV’s own suspect programming, would remain status quo within the recording industry until the introduction of Soundscan in 1991.
On the brink of a slump and perhaps feeling pressure from the suits at Columbia, EWF released their last significant commercial hit in 1981. While “Let’s Groove Tonight” (Raise, 1981) was “mos def” a serious party hit (shout out to the bomb-ass cast of HBO’s The Wire), with insipid lyrics like “just move yourself / And glide like a 747” EWF was clearly pressing for a major commercial hit. The song was just that topping the R&B charts for the first time since “September” and peaking at #3 on the pop charts. Raise would be the last EWF disc to feature the Phenix Horns, who were disbanded in a cost cutting effort, in a moment when enhanced studio technology dramatically affected the livelihood of so-called “studio musicians” throughout the industry. Like the band Chicago, whose own trademark horn section was toned down in the early 1980s, EWF’s fundamental sound was changed in a way that bothered even their core audiences.
Though Powerlight (1983), which included the beautiful lullaby “Miracles”, (inexplicably left off of The Essential EWF as well as The Eternal Dance), featured two moderate hits with “Fall in Love With Me” and the inspirational “Side By Side”, the great years of Earth, Wind and Fire clearly coming to a close. After the release of the awful Electric Universe the group took a sabbatical from each other, with White and Bailey both recording solo projects (Bailey topping the charts with Phil Collins on “Easy Lover” in 1985). EWF recorded two more disc for Columbia, having moderate success among black audiences with tracks like “System of Survival” (1987) and “Heritage” (1990) from the disc of the same name that featured Hammer and The Boys in an effort to reach the “young folks”. In the 20 years or so since their last major commercial hit, EWF has continued to tour remaining a favorite among “classic soul” audiences. As recently as a month ago the group was lauded by Black Entertainment Television, who inducted the group in the network’s “Hall of Fame”.
Though the double-disc project could have benefited from more tracks from Raise and in particular All ‘N All, The Essential Earth, Wind, and Fire, chronicles the best music of arguably the most popular R&B/soul band of the last three decades.
// Notes from the Road
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