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Earth, Wind & Fire: 12 Essential Songs

Savor the smoothest soul and most enlightened funk from the hitmaking legends

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"I was writing about my life," Maurice White once told the late journalist Timothy White. Yet in the mid-to-late 1970s, his funk juggernaut Earth Wind & Fire resonated with millions. They were arguably the biggest black rock band in the world, scoring nearly a dozen gold and platinum albums, and charting Top 10 singles like "Shining Star," "Sing a Song" and "After the Love Is Gone." Critics may have eventually soured on their increasingly sophisticated mix of disco, fusion jazz, Africana, soft pop and stoned soul; but their message of peace, spirituality and love, as well as their fantastic outfits and incendiary live concerts, made them one of the quintessential bands of the era. 

Earth, Wind & Fire employed 10 musicians during their peak years, as well as the famed Phenix Horns section. White was always at the center, whether singing lead vocals with the gospel-trained Philip Bailey, or working in the studio alongside legendary producer Charles Stepney (who tragically passed away in 1976). He oversaw the intricately designed gatefold covers that depicted Egyptian pyramids and Biblical symbols, and inserted references to his beliefs in his lyrics. Whether the audience understood everything he sang about or not, no one could deny the power of EWF. Here's some of the group's best.

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Boogie Wonderland” (1979)

"[Maurice White] takes simple dance formulas like 'Boogie Wonderland' and finds fresh possibilities within them," wrote Dave Marsh in his Rolling Stone review of Earth, Wind & Fire's 1979 album, I Am. With disco in full bloom, White and his collective of jazz-funk explorers put a commercial sheen on this intricate yet deeply soulful strut. Brassy and ebullient, the track nonetheless bears a dark heart: Anguish and desperation lurk in the song's quicksilver arrangement and startlingly grim lyrics by Allee Willis and Jon Lind, who drew inspiration from the harrowing 1977 Diane Keaton film Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The song's portrayal of boogie-ing to numb the pain ("You dance and shake the hurt") seemed to predict disco's disillusioning crash, right around the corner.

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“Let’s Groove” (1981)

The disco backlash was coming hard and fast by the early Eighties, but the group navigated the changing trends with this slick piece of synth funk. The robotic vocoder heard on the intro heralded the dawn of a new EWF for the new decade, mixing electronica with their live-brass past. White explained the transition to NME. "It's really just knowing the feelings and fundamentals involved in producing a hit. Just like writing a story. It's not less honest than a piece of jazz. Take the new record, 'Let's Groove.' It's real honest. We just went in and done it — a natural giving thing. Just saying, Hey man, enjoy this with me. Share this with us." Many did — the song sold over a million copies and earned a Grammy nom for Best R&B Vocal Performance. 

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