Editor’s Note: Originally published in October 2012, we pulled this out of the archives in honor of the late Maurice White. RIP.
They produced the first album I ever bought (Cameo’s “Rigor Mortis” was my first 12″). I saw them perform at my first concert in 1976 (with Ramsey Lewis). I did a slow grind with my prom date, Tottsie, to one of their classics. I’ve played their songs to appreciative audiences from ’78 through just a week ago. I can say pretty confidently that anyone that reads 5 Magazine knows at least five of their songs.
They are the original Elements of Life. And so I align with legends like Quincy Jones, Miles Davis and Dionne Warwick, and when people ask, “What’s your favorite group of all time?”, we answer unwaveringly: Earth, Wind & Fire.
His astrology chart, believe it or not, actually led Maurice to change the group’s original handle, Salty Peppers, to the group’s iconic name…
One can go really wide with this overview since EWF has been around, in one iteration or another, for over four decades. During that time they produced eleven albums that went platinum or gold, won six of the seventeen Grammys they were nominated for, and were, not surprisingly, enshrined into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Hey… they even played at functions for Clinton and Obama. Pure VIP!
Instead, I’ve chosen to stay more narrow, especially with my focus on the band’s catalyst: their leader, tenor, and one of the best songwriters of his era: Maurice White.
Sired in Memphis and raised by grandmom, Maurice was infused with a ton of that pure, church-fed gospel. Later, joining his parents in Chicago and continuing his musical pursuits as a drummer, he really made it when he joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio in ’67.
EWF’s Eastern philosophical bent was formed through White’s ’69 Middle East trip and eventual studies in metaphysical philosophy. Today he would have created a new sub-genre: Zen-Soul! At any rate, his astrology chart, believe it or not, actually led Maurice to change the group’s original handle, Salty Peppers, to the group’s iconic name.
The new EWF had spectacular stage shows with pyrotechnics, Egyptology, and even magic, courtesy of Doug Henning (and his then assistant, David Copperfield). They certainly weren’t P-Funk but… do you smell (or taste) mushrooms around here!?
Along the way, the band always had around 8-10 members with the White family playing a prominent role through the bass work by Verdine, drums by Freddie, and youngest brother Jeff. Jazz flautist and sax player Ronnie Laws played an essential role in some of EWF’s early work. The other critical cog along the way was the falsetto vocals (not to mention great percussion/congas) of Philip Bailey. Smokey Robinson & Eddie Kendricks set the inspirational direction for the road Bailey followed… and followed incredibly well, some may say even passing the two legends.
Our boy Maurice also kick-started the careers of The Emotions (of “Best of My Love” fame) and Denice Williams (“I’ve Got the Next Dance”) and during the ’80s he actually produced for Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond!
There were a few, let’s say… low-lights: they were actors in the HORRIFIC ’77 movie, That’s the Way of the World starring a young Harvey Keitel (although they did score a #1 hit with the LP of the same name and their cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life”). And the collaboration with MC Hammer was forgettable. White also got “emotional” for not getting sample credits on Mariah Carey’s #1 hit, “Emotions”.
(A quick note on the kalimba! What the hell is that, you ask? It is the African thumb piano (also called the frankenphone), and it’s at the foundation of the “EWF sound”. Maurice said that the black movement in Chicago led him to an Afro-Arts band where he first observed the instrument… the rest, as they say, is musical history!)
As with many of the great ’70s-’80s bands, EWF expertly melded soul, blues, gospel, African, jazz, R&B, disco, with funk at the foundation. It is one of the reasons that they have been sampled, to my count, at least 112 times! These wonderfully accomplished musicians received critical acclaim that distinguished them vs. their peers. Despite their eclectic approach and sound, EWF had tremendous crossover appeal and commercial success!
More succinctly: Earth, Wind & Fire appealed to everyone’s mind (lyrical messages), body (you have to move), and soul (that musical umami!) Now, go listen or find some of these all-timers…
The Essential Earth Wind & Fire Discography
Can’t Hide Love (’76; #11 R&B/#39 Pop charts) – The original is slow-jam bliss but the MAW Remix and Scott Wozniak Shelter Mix both raise this one to ethereal levels… A cover of the Creative Source song.
Fantasy (’78; #12 R&B/#32 Pop charts) – LOVED the OG: the strings, horns, bass, and guitar are amazing! But, then the Blaze Shelter DJ Mix was made – OUCH – and that final 50 seconds… somebody is gonna get HURT! Diddy, Jay-Z, and Nas all knew enough to sample this burner..
Boogie Wonderland (’79; #2 R&B chart/#6 Pop/#14 Dance-Disco charts) – Their disco cut with The Emotions. That opening 8 count will bring the heads, hipsters and even wedding crowds to the floor..
Reasons (’75) – Incredibly, this all-time ballad featuring the best of Philip Bailey NEVER charted. Once again, a great remix made a slow EWF classic… a dance floor classic: “The Remix Original Demo Mix” (there’s a YouTube video of me playing it).
September (’78; #1 R&B/#8 Pop charts) – EWF’s intros were so good they always made you want to cut them in. “Do You Remember”!? A pattern here: superlative horns with a great rhythm foundation. My favorite version is the Danny Krivit Re-edit.
Getaway (’76; #1 R&B/#12 Pop/#12 Dance-Disco charts) – “Let’s get-a-WAY…, let’s leave to-DAY”… I know – you know! One of THE best horn and drum sections struttin’ their stuff.
Let’s Groove (’81; #1 R&B/#3 Pop/#3 Dance-Disco charts) – What I love about so many EWF songs is their, “sing-ability”… a lost art today! Try the Restless Soul Inspiration Information Mix for a more contemporary feel.
Sun Goddess (’75; #20 R&B/#14 Dance-Disco charts) – with Ramsey Lewis. Listen to (and PLAY) the Live version! First the guitars, then the horn build… but it comes together with those haunting vocal chants, “Wayyy-O, bop-bop, way-O…”
Evil (’73; #25 R&B/#50 Pop charts) – You hear the thunder… it might be Chaka and “Clouds” but the percussion and kalimba sets you straight!
Brazilian Rhyme (’77) – A scatty hum-along that sidles in the jazzy-funk zone. This gained momentum courtesy of samples from tastemakers such as A Tribe Called Quest, Byron Stingly, and Fugees. Find “Ponta De Areia – Brazilian Rhyme (Interlude) (Unreleased)” – a reprise-filled nugget of musical genius.
Mom (’72) – Timmy Regisford & Adam Rios’ Remix breathes life into a rare gem.
Interlude (not tellin’) – 23 seconds of instrumental joy and vocal serendipity!
Kalimba Story (’74; #6 R&B/#55 Pop charts) – A great example of EWF’s trademark kalimba.
Bad Tune (’71) – Diggers, if you have this eponymous LP with the cool art cover AND sepia-colored poster inside you get my props!