Earth Wind and Fire
It is difficult to look back at the 70s and early 80s Soul music scene without marveling at both the groundbreaking music and the breadth of influence of Earth, Wind & Fire. A group revolutionary in its amalgamation of soul, jazz, funk and African music into an attractive, universal sound, EWF influenced an entire generation of self-contained Soul/Funk bands.
Formed in Chicago in 1969 by jazz drummer Maurice White, EWF was the personification of White's desire to mix a variety of seemingly incongruent musical styles into a unique, singular sound, and to use this sound as a backdrop for positive lyrical themes of unity, empowerment and universalism. However, it took several years and multiple lineups (the only constants being White and his brother Verdine) for the group to find its sound and its audience.
In 1970 the group landed a contract with Warner Brothers and released two albums, Earth Wind & Fire and The Need of Love, both which were middling Soul charters. By 1973, a more stable lineup was established, including singers Philip Bailey and former Friends of Distinction member Jessica Cleaves (who would be gone by 1975), and band members Al McKay, Ralph Johnson, Larry Dunn, John Graham, Fred White and Andrew Woolfolk. That year they released Head to the Sky, their first top 10 Soul album, and followed it in 1974 with Open Our Eyes, their first #1.
The group's across-the-board breakthrough came in 1975 with their soundtrack album for the little known movie That's the Way of the World. The album's lead single, the bright, horn-laden, funky number "Shining Star," took the Soul and Pop worlds by storm, topping both charts and taking the album with it. The midtempo title track was a worthy follow-up single, and, with the outstanding album cut "Reasons," established EWF as a popular musical force.
The success of That's The Way of the World set the stage for Gratitude, an album that documented the extravagant EWF live performances, which were becoming "must-see" concerts around the world. The group's next two albums, Spirit and All n All continued their winning ways and boasted a number of now classic cuts, including "Saturday Night," "Singasong" and "Fantasy." During this period, Maurice White wrote and produced songs and sounds that were years ahead of anyone else, and the vocal combination of White and Philip Bailey (often overdubbed several times for backing vocals) worked marvelously with the material and arrangements.
After the release of a very popular Best of album and a contribution to the ill-fated Peter Frampton/Bee Gees Sgt. Pepper movie, EWF released I Am, another solid (if more predictable) disc that included the ballad "After the Love Has Gone" and the dance anthem "Boogie Wonderland" (with the Emotions). A modest slide in popularity of their music began in 1980 with Faces, a double-disc that barely cracked the Top 10 and yielded no significant hits, but which was another gem that has grown in reverence as time has gone on. They rebounded commercially the next year with the dance hit "Let's Groove," but the accompanying album, Raise, was a disappointment, and spelled the end of EWF’s “imperial period” – the most important and influential albums of the group’s career. It was also the end of Al McKay's stint with the group. He went on to become a noted record producer.
EWF continued to record intermittently over the 80s and 90s with progressively lesser critical and commercial appeal. White recorded a moderately successful solo album and Bailey scored a #1 duet with Phil Collins, "Easy Lover," as well as a few solo Gospel albums and Jazz recordings. White was later diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, which restricted his ability to tour with the group (now fronted by Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson) during the 90s and 00s. Sadly, he died in 2016, and was rightly lauded in all corners as a pioneering artist who positively changed the face of music.
In the 21st century, Earth Wind & Fire the trio has continued to sporadically record and release new music. Each of The Promise, Illumination, and Now Then & Forever has included bright moments and achieved some modest success. However, EWF has principally been a touring act, selling out shows around the world, often paired with other acts for extravagant shows, perhaps the most successful of which has been the frequent touring with Chicago.
With its revolutionary sound, positive, empowering lyrics and excellent songwriting and performances, Earth Wind & Fire established itself as perhaps the most important and influential Soul band of the late 70s, and one whose music has continued to resonate a half century after arrival.
By Chris Rizik