When Memphis-born Maurice White left his plum gigs as a Chicago session drummer and member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio - as the `60s became the `70s - he had a plan. He wanted to form a band that abolished the lines between musical genres, freely borrowing from all styles without regard to convention. "I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before," Maurice explains. "Although we were basically jazz musicians, we played soul, funk, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and dance music...which somehow ended up becoming pop. We were coming out of a decade of experimentation, mind expansion and cosmic awareness. I wanted our music to convey messages of universal love and harmony without force-feeding listeners' spiritual content."
Following a move to Los Angeles, Maurice called upon his younger brother, Verdine White - a 19 year-old classically trained bassist - to join him. Their initial name was The Salty Peppers. Maurice rechristened the 10-piece outfit Earth, Wind & Fire, inspired by "the elements" of his Sagittarian astrological chart. Their self-titled 1971 debut album Earth, Wind & Fire, followed by 1972's The Need of Love (both released on Warner Bros. Records), as well as the score for Melvin Van Peebles' pioneering black film, Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song (on Stax) were steeped in bedrock jazz, rhythm and blues that netted the up-and-coming band a loyal but primarily black underground following. With this foundation laid, Maurice exacted a bit of urban renewal on the group, switching out all of the Chicago-based members and pooling resources from Los Angeles, California and Denver, Colorado. Among the stellar cast of new additions was a super versatile drummer-percussionist-vocalist from L.A. named Ralph Johnson, and a percussionist from Denver with an amazing four-octave vocal range named Philip Bailey. Maurice's charismatic baritone voice and Philip's stratospheric falsetto set EWF's vocal identity "in the stone."
Earth, Wind & Fire made a crucial move to Columbia Records where their next three albums, Last Days and Time (1972), Head to the Sky (1973) and Open Our Eyes (1974), ushered them onto the radio. The group put major stock in their live shows, performing in any and every club, college and theatre that would book them, typically on double bills with bands from the rock, jazz and soul arenas. A broader demographic within their underground following began to amass, but it was the soundtrack to an ill-fated film that broke EWF wide open. That's the Way of the World (1975) was a stiff at the box office (twice), but Earth Wind & Fire's galvanizing 8-song Lp was a sales and cultural phenomenon. The group earned its first ..1 single ("Shining Star"), first Grammy Award and first double platinum sales award from that now-classic album.
Gratitude (a half live/half studio double Lp released just in time for Christmas 1975), Spirit (1976) and All 'n All (1977) cemented Earth, Wind & Fire's status as superstars. Hit singles began to flow: "Can't Hide Love," "Getaway," "Serpentine Fire" and "Fantasy." Then there was "Got to Get You Into My Life," their thrilling R&B arrangement of the Beatles' classic from the otherwise all-star rock film odyssey Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that expanded their audience even further. Relentless international touring followed. The pace was so frenetic that band members found themselves composing during sound checks and in hotel rooms, even recording on precious off-days. "The Fire" was blazing hot by then, even scoring a smash with "September," one of two new songs included on their first greatest hits set, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire (a quadruple platinum seller). It wasn't for nothing that this 1978 compilation was subtitled Volume I.
The hits kept on coming with I Am (1978), the double Lp Faces (1980), Raise! (1981) and Powerlight (1982), including "Boogie Wonderland" (a duet with the Emotions featured in the movie Roller Boogie), "After The Love Is Gone," "In The Stone," "Let Me Talk," "Let's Groove," "Fall in Love with Me" and "Spread Your Love." As if THAT weren't enough, Maurice White (in a divine partnership with the late, legendary orchestrating genius, Charles Stepney) produced hits by Ramsey Lewis ("Sun Goddess"), Deniece Williams ("Free") and The Emotions ("Best of My Love"), all of whom also opened for Earth, Wind & Fire on tour.
Of course, any well-rounded musicologist knows that there is nothing...nothing...like an Earth, Wind & Fire concert. Along with Maurice, Verdine is often the mastermind behind-the-scenes live, and is arguably in possession of the most energetic stage presence of any performer on the planet! Just as "The Fire" vowed to go where no other band had gone before on records, they hired magician Doug Henning and his then-unknown assistant David Copperfield to design their bedazzling stage shows. Band members levitated, soared and disappeared, later to emerge from Egyptian pyramids and space crafts. Meanwhile, drum sets and synthesizer banks flipped upside down, and Maurice battled "The Force" with a light saber while scores of whirling lights and lasers winked in sync. With precision and panache, Earth, Wind & Fire and their legendary Phenix Horns section high-stepped through some seriously athletic choreography, never missing a lick on their instruments. "It was like Carnival, Mardi Gras, Broadway, Vegas and Cirque du Soleil all at once," Verdine proudly exclaims.
The music and showmanship of Earth, Wind & Fire remains a natural for traditional media and new media alike. VH1, HBO and the Arts & Entertainment Network have all aired top rated concert performances with A&E releasing its 1999 Live By Request program on DVD. The Eagle Vision video company released the EWF ..ary Shining Stars, which contains rarely seen historic video footage along with in-depth interviews with the band members. As always, EWF continues to appear on numerous network television shows from "Oprah" to "Leno." And Hollywood continues to have a love affair with their mass appealing music, commissioning new Earth, Wind & Fire music for films such as Roll, Bounce ("Love Together"), Robots ("Love's Dance") and Hitch, ("This is How I Feel"), as well as tapping their classics for films such as Be Cool ("Fantasy"), Soul Food ("September") and Muppets in Outer Space ("Shining Star").