Earth, Wind & Fire: 12 Essential Songs
"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.
“Sweetback’s Theme” (1971)
Circa 1970, playwright, poet and radical raconteur Melvin Van Peebles was finishing work on his low-budget film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The filmmaker still needed a soundtrack and his assistant happened to be dating a young Chicago transplant to Los Angeles, Maurice White, whose band Earth, Wind & Fire was still shopping their demos. As Peebles told Wax Poetics, "they were all starving to death on Hollywood Boulevard" but he enlisted their help in concocting a set of greasy funk and jazz loops that Peebles himself warbled and screeched over. The album and movie unexpectedly became runaway successes and EWF became the first musical stars of the blaxploitation era, paving the way for Isaac Hayes's Shaft and Curtis Mayfield's Superfly.
"Maurice’s whole vision was to kinda sneak a little jazz on people," said EWF singer Philip Bailey in a 2013 interview. Nowhere is that more evident than in "Devotion," a minor hit but major fan favorite from 1974's Open Our Eyes. Awash in shimmering chords, fusion-rich keys and a lusciously sinuous bass line, the song's hooks are as subtle as they are unshakeable. It's a tender song for a time when America felt anything but — and White’s mission to smuggle jazz into the R&B and pop charts feels more sacred here than almost anywhere else in EWF’s catalogue. Or as the song itself unabashedly states, "So our mission, to bring melody/Ringing voices sing sweet harmony." Its most memorable version can be heard on the 1975 live album Gratitude, where the band's rendition at the Omni Theater in Atlanta is like a gospel-funk revival.
“Shining Star” (1975)
1975 was the year Earth, Wind & Fire wrote themselves into the pop canon, and that had a lot to do with this jubilant, chart-topping smash. "Shining Star" sounds like a party – and it certainly soundtracked more than a few — but it's really an uplifting motivational anthem along the same lines as Sly and the Family Stone's "Everybody Is a Star," riding along on a clean, bright, brassy groove that stands as one of White's finest production jobs. In 2000, when Earth, Wind & Fire joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he remembered the single as a crucial turning point. "That's the Way of the World really took off very slow," he said of their sixth studio LP. "We thought it wasn't gonna happen. Then we released 'Shining Star,' and it went to the top of the charts and saved the album."
Ramsey Lewis, “Sun Goddess” (1975)
Maurice White was involved in numerous groups in the late Sixties and early Seventies, even as Earth, Wind & Fire was starting to become his main attraction. One of those groups is the band that backed popular jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis — so it only makes sense that Lewis and EWF would cross paths, which they did to scintillating effect on "Sun Goddess." The 1974 single is a monstrously groovy funk dreamscape full of airy harmonies, ripe brass and a deeply reverential undertone — a beautiful illustration of White’s transition from sideman and session player to bandleader nonpareil.
“That’s the Way of the World” (1975)
Just as Earth, Wind & Fire made their debut on the Sweet Sweetback soundtrack, their first Number One album was also birthed out of a film project: Sig Shore's 1975 flop That's the Way of the World. The band was cast as the Group, an up-and-coming R&B outfit shepherded by a cocky record producer played by Harvey Keitel. Band vocalist and percussionist Philip Bailey wrote in his autobiography, Shining Star, that recording the album was "a spiritual experience," especially for the silky title track, adding, "when Maurice played us the finished mix … I thought we sounded like angels. … It was as if God had been guiding us." The group's real life success far outshone the film that birthed it; Shore's flick didn't even get a DVD release until 2006 while the album of the same name became one of the best sellers of 1975, eventually going triple platinum.
“Sing a Song” (1975)
Gratitude, EWF's 1975 double album, showcased three sides of the best live material from their busy year of touring. But tucked away on the fourth side is a quintet of studio gems, led off by the shimmering "Sing a Song." Guitarist Al McKay came up with the track's signature riff while in his dressing room prior to a show, before presenting the tune to Maurice White for lyrical input. White kept the words simple and optimistic, penning an infectious disco-flecked jingle praising the healing power of music. Produced with his old Chess Records colleague Charles Stepney, White replicated — and updated — the classic sound he created for Etta James and Fontella Bass a decade before. The result was a triumph that reached Number One on the Billboard R&B charts and pushed Gratitude past the 3 million sales mark.
If you're an old-school rap fan, then you remember the scene in Erick Sermon's "Stay Real" video where he sings "Reasons" in the shower. Indeed, many people have tried and failed to reach the notes that Philip Bailey hits on this ballad from EWF's That's the Way of the World. The song is not only a karaoke classic, but also a sign of how the group had evolved from a visionary funk-rock band to a cosmopolitan ensemble that incorporated easy pop, jazz and disco. As Maurice White, who co-wrote the track with Bailey and producer Charles Stepney, explained to Billboard in 1975, "It was simply our goal to reach everybody."
“Brazilian Rhyme (Beijo)” (1977)
"Brazilian Rhyme (Beijo)" is just a flighty 80-second groove near the center label of an album that spawned two huge singles; but thanks to its falsetto disco call — "Beijo! Beijo! Ba da ba ba ba!" — its impact on hip-hop would be monumental. DJs from New York's earliest days of the genre would spin the track for MCs to rhyme over; Southern rap pioneer MC Shy D copped it for his hard-rocking 1987 single "I've Gotta Be Tough"; A Tribe Called Quest used it to fill out their groundbreaking debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and Big Punisher couldn't resist copping it for his iconic 1998 Top 40 hit "Still Not a Player." Everyone from the Black Eyed Peas to MF Doom have joyfully borrowed its ecstatic hook — "beijo" is, after all, Portugese for "kiss."
“Got to Get You Into My Life” (1978)
With its hot horn section, "Got to Get You Into My Life" was already one of the funkier Beatles songs out there. That made it a natural fit for EWF, who covered the song for the 1978 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band film starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. The movie isn't exactly remembered fondly: "What was incredible is that people like … Earth, Wind and Fire got into that. You would have never thought any of them would have gotten into that … thing," a regretful Barry Gibb later told RS. But the cover took on a life of its own, thanks largely to its prime placement on Earth, Wind & Fire's first greatest-hits album that same year — ensuring that generations of fans love the easygoing EWF groove as much or more than the version heard on Revolver.
In 1978, EWF negotiated a new contract with Columbia that gave them their own label, ARC. The first fruit was The Best of Earth Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, and "September," a new single that soared to Number One on the R&B charts. The track represented White's talent for writing joyously optimistic soul anthems. At the song's center are the soaring Phenix Horns and Philip Bailey’s falsetto vocalese closing the song by riffing, "Bow dee ow dee ow dee." It was a throwback reference to the days of doo-wop, White told Billboard magazine in 1979. "My principle for producing is to pay attention to the roots of America, which is doo-wop music."
“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.
“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.