They’ve sold 25 million albums, received six Grammys and four American Music Awards. Their groundbreaking mixture of jazz, funk, soul and pop influences paved the way for artists from Prince to the Fugees, and proved that virtuosity and commercial success did not have to be mutually exclusive. They began life as the Salty Peppers, but you probably know them better as Earth, Wind and Fire.
Formed in 1969 by Chess Records session drummer Maurice White and his bassist brother Verdine, Earth, Wind and Fire recorded two unsuccessful jazz-funk albums for Warner Brothers (as well as the soundtrack for Melvin Van Peebles’ blaxploitation classic movie Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song) before artistic differences forced the Whites to rebuild the band from scratch. With a new core lineup of Maurice (on vocals and drums), Verdine, vocalist Philip Bailey, drummer Ralph Johnson, keyboardist Larry Dunn and guitarist Al McKay, Earth, Wind and Fire were finally able to perfect Maurice’s dream of combining kaleidoscopic music with consciousness-raising lyrics. Hits like “Shining Star,” “Serpentine Fire” and “After the Love Has Gone” followed in rapid succession; by the end of the Seventies, Earth, Wind and Fire had become one of the top-drawing arena acts in the world.
Though its commercial profile has diminished somewhat in recent years, the group still packs ’em in wherever it plays. Maurice, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease eight years ago (but just revealed his condition this week), retired from the road in 1995 to produce acts for his own label, Kalimba Records. However, he continues to write, produce, and record with the group, whose twenty-third record is due this summer from Wyclef Jean’s Refugee Group label. We spoke separately with Maurice White and Philip Bailey about the history of Earth, Wind and Fire, the group’s famously elaborate stage show, and about being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year.
Philip, how did you first hook up with Earth, Wind and Fire?
PB: Around the time of the Sweetback thing, Earth, Wind and Fire played in Denver on a promotional tour. I was playing in a rock group that had Larry Dunn in it; we were called Friends and Love, and they asked us to open the show. We actually met Maurice on the elevator; I remember he smelled like coconuts! [laughs]. That was the time when everybody was into oils and stuff; we were these country boys, totally Denver, and we were like, “This guy smells like coconuts, man!” A year later, a mutual friend of ours moved out to Los Angeles to work for Warner Brothers, and I moved out there with him. I played percussion for awhile with the Stovall Sisters, who were on Warner Brothers; but I knew that the whole reason for me to get to Los Angeles was to get with Earth, Wind and Fire. And when Maurice and Verdine decided to reform the band, they came over and asked me to join them.
One of the hallmarks of Earth, Wind and Fire records was the group’s distinctive vocal sound. Did that develop naturally?
PB: I think that I was the more trained singer, and Maurice had the raw feeling, the personality. We tried to do backing vocals with me and him and Jessica [Cleaves, backing vocalist on 1972’s Last Days and Time and 1973’s Head to the Sky], and I think even Verdine tried to sing there for a second. But then it just quickly evolved into me and Maurice — it was much more expedient. We recorded layers and layers of vocals, and we both sang up and we both sang down, and it created that sound.
That’s the Way of the World and “Shining Star” both went to No. 1 in 1975, making Earth, Wind and Fire the first black act to simultaneously top Billboard‘s pop album and single charts. When you were making the record, did you have the sense that it would be the vehicle for your big breakthrough?
MW: We never knew. That’s the Way of the World really took off very slow. 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.
PB: If there was a magical time in Earth, Wind and Fire, the making of That’s the Way of the World was definitely it. Everything was clicking, everything was harmonious. We were just nanve enough to let things happen the way that they were going to. We were experiencing success, and our lifestyles were changing. It was a wonderful time. The late [producer] Charles Stepney was there with us, and he was such an integral part of Earth, Wind and Fire.
MW: Charles Stepney was kind of like my mentor; I was the quarterback, and Charles was the coach. I started working with Charles during my days as a musician at Chess. Charles was there as part of the staff, and we hooked up and started to work together. So when I started to expand the band, as far as using strings and horns and stuff like that, I brought Charles out to work with us as a co-producer and help out with the arrangements. I learned a lot from him.
With each new record, were you actively trying to top the previous one?
MW: Not really. Each record took on a concept of its own, so what we’d do is try to reach that concept. But we never felt in competition with any of our other records. There’s so much music out there, so many notes, that you don’t really have to try and imitate yourself.
Earth, Wind and Fire have always had an Afro-centric vibe. What originally inspired you to incorporate those concepts into your music?
MW: Well, it had a lot to do with the material that I was reading at the time. You know, I was just trying to study life itself, trying to focus myself upon living a balanced life. The higher-consciousness thing was already in place when we started, but a lot of other things developed as we developed. And when I started to study Egyptology, that was reflected in the album covers and the presentation of the show.
PB: Maurice is a student of all kinds of different cultures and spiritual philosophies. We all became interested in the stuff he was delving into, but we probably didn’t go as far as he did. All the stuff he’d write about, like “Serpentine Fire,” really separated us from the other bands. It gave us a specialness, an identity, and it raised the level of consciousness and awareness for what we were doing. But it did cause problems, because people started to associate everyone [in the group] with the same philosophy. [People thought we were] like a commune, where we all did the same thing, we all thought the same thing, we all ate the same thing, we all lived in the same place, you know? I became a Christian in ’75 — a lot of us became Christians — but because we never did the interviews, nobody knew where we were at. They just assumed that we all were into the same things as Maurice.
You guys have always been famous for your elaborate stage shows. Didn’t [magician] Doug Henning design a lot of your special effects?
MW: Yeah, we worked with Doug. It was very sad to hear that he passed. He was a great talent, man. We would go to him with concepts, and he would more or less bring ’em to the forefront.
PB: All that stuff started out of our desire to make our shows more interesting. In the beginning, we just did stuff on our own — we had smoke bombs, we’d dress as crazy and as weird as we possibly could, just to give ourselves a different ambience. But when we started making money, of course, the ideas started getting bigger. We were big fans of Broadway; we were like, “Man, when you go see a Broadway show, you just get pulled right out of reality; you’re into their world for a two-hour period. It would be nice if we could do that onstage with a music concert.”
Did any of the effects ever backfire? Were you ever trapped in the pyramid, or anything like that?
PB: Well, there was one show where we had a raked pyramid stage, and the roadies poured Coca-Cola on it, so that when we were standing on it in a particular pose, our feet would stick and we wouldn’t slide. But when they turned on the dry ice, it had just the opposite effect [laughs]. So we’re standing up there on this raked stage, and everybody’s trying to keep their composure, but you can see them just fighting to keep their footing. And all of a sudden, Maurice’s feet came out from under him, and then [trombonist] Louis Satterfield, who weighed about two hundred and some pounds — he came slidin’ down! [laughs]
MW: Oh, man, it was like syrup on that stage. We were just fallin’, man, one by one. It was the beginning of the show, too, and there’s the great Earth, Wind and Fire, all fallin’ on the floor [laughs]. All kinds of things happened like that. You’d bust your pants right in the seat, you know, and you didn’t have any underwear on. It was always somethin’.
Was there ever any sort of rivalry between Earth, Wind and Fire and Parliament?
PB: Not a day. Not ever. I really don’t even understand why people would liken Earth, Wind and Fire to Parliament. I mean, Parliament smoked our ass! [laughs] We had a gig with Parliament in D.C., and Parliament was so funky that we went right back to Los Angeles to practice. Earth, Wind and Fire was never a funk band; when you talk about real funk, that was Parliament. Earth, Wind and Fire is a fusion band made commercial. We’ve got Afro-Cuban, Latin influences, pop, R&B, jazz chord progressions, be-bop horn licks — everything, but it was made palatable for the public in a way that became commercial. Funk is on one chord change, one groove. Earth, Wind and Fire ain’t never just had that.
MW: In the beginning, the Ohio Players and Kool and the Gang were kind of like our competition; there were a lot of good groups that came along at that time, but we kind of grabbed our part of it and developed our own individuality.
Are their any contemporary acts out there that are carrying on in the spirit of Earth, Wind and Fire?
PB: If I had to pick one, I’d say Lauryn Hill, because she has the ability to be conscious and commercial at the same time. Her music has so many diverse elements to it, and she has the ability to appeal to a mass audience without trying to do it.
MW: Eric Benet, who has worked with us on the new album, is one of them. He’s really moving on, really perfecting his craft. In terms of spreading consciousness, I don’t find too many people trying to do that. Hopefully there will be more, but you have to experience consciousness for yourself before you can share it.
So, how does it feel to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
MW: I think it’s a great honor, you know; you spend so many years trying to perfect your art and your craft, and just to be appreciated is more than enough. But to have a Hall of Fame plaque forever more is quite an honor.
PB: It’s definitely an honor, because there are so many worthy musicians that have contributed so much to music and haven’t been inducted. At the same time, it was never anything that I beat my head against the wall about, thinking, “Oh God, if I’m not inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I’ll just die!” If anything, I would hope that it will bring a little more awareness to the fact that, just because an artist is over thirty, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything else to give to the community.