Friday, April 4, 2014

Earth, Wind & Fire - Snapshot #1 - The Elements Come Together

Some songs age well, whilst others are consigned to become dated almost overnight.  Though the disco era received an unfair mauling at the hands of pop-rock purists, in time it has become evident that the genre yielded some of the most pristinely crafted popular music, not just of its time, but imbued with a longevity of appeal thirty years after the word ‘disco’ was dismissed as throwaway music.  As with most music genres, disco eventually came back into fashion, and nostalgia has tinted it with an air of respectability.  For mine, disco was never ‘out of fashion’.  Sure it turned up its share of howlers, as any musical style does, but in the most part it produced finely crafted pop music that infuses the listener, the open minded listener, with a sense of high energy and freedom.  No song captures that brief better than Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Boogie Wonderland’.

Earth, Wind & Fire brought its many elements together in 1969, under the stewardship of Maurice White.  White had a vision for the band from early on in his life.  He grew up playing music, at one time jamming with Booker T. Jones, later of the Memphis soul band Booker T. and the M.G.’s.  At age 16, Maurice White entered the Chicago Conservatory of Music, with a view to becoming a music teacher.  Following a stint as a session musician at the renowned Chess Records’ studios (where he played with the likes of Jackie Wilson, Fontella Bass, and The Impressions), he joined a group called the Ramsey Lewis Trio.  The group toured the Middle East, whereby White became a student of mysticism, which would inform the vision for his own band.  He even drew a picture of what they might look like.

Relocating to Los Angeles, White first conceived of a new name for his band - Note: for a few months during 1969 whilst based in Chicago, White, and his assembled backing band at the time, were known as the Salty Peppers, but White wasn‘t happy with that name - I mean who would be?  Drawing from his astrological star sign, Sagittarius, he identified the three elements earth, air and fire (but no water).  He changed air to wind, and behold - Earth, Wind & Fire was born.  There was just one problem, he needed to find some musicians to fill the roster for his new project.  White not only looked for like minded musicians, but like minded people.  Most of the assembled band were vegetarians, and into mysticism and meditation - something the band did collectively before performances.  The original line-up for the newly born Earth, Wind & Fire was Maurice White (vocals, drums, percussion), Verdine White (bass), Wade Flemons (keyboards/vocals), Don Whitehead (piano/vocals), Michael Beal (guitar), Sherry Scott (vocals), Yackov Ben Israel (congas/percussion), Chet Washington (tenor sax), and Alex Thomas (trombone).

Earth, Wind & Fire first recorded as a brass laden, jazz/fusion/ funk band.  After their first two albums (‘Earth, Wind and Fire’ - US#93 and ‘The Need Of Love’ - US#89) failed to garner much interest, the band was dropped from the Warner Brothers’ roster at the beginning of 1972.  Maurice White had to rethink the conceptual side of the band, which included a virtual clean out of the ranks.  Maurice retained only the services of younger brother Verdine, and recruited a new line-up featuring Philip Bailey (vocals/percussion - a key recruit with his distinctive falsetto vocal style), Larry Dunn (keyboards/clavinet), Ralph Johnson (drums/percussion), Roland Bautista (guitar), Ronald Laws (saxophone/flute), and Jessica Cleaves (vocals).  The band signed to the Columbia label in ‘72, and released the album ‘Last Days And Time’ (US#87) which failed to improve much on previous efforts.  The band’s line-up was fluid in nature during this period (sometimes resembling a cast of thousands), and more changes were made late that year, with Al McKay (guitar), Andrew Woodfolk (horns), and Johnny Graham added to the mix.

1973’s ‘Head To The Sky’ (US#27) served to increase the band’s profile, and featured their first top fifty single, ‘Evil’.  By 1974’s album ‘Open Our Eyes’, which yielded the top 30 single ‘Mighty Mighty’ (US#29), Earth, Wind & Fire had adopted a more overtly danceable style of music, layered in rich folds of funk, soul, and R&B, whilst retaining White’s positive, even metaphysical lyrics within.  The blueprint had been laid for a sound that would evolve over the next five years, one that was precise yet sensual, with a broad palette of stylistic brush strokes, from Latin-funk, gospel harmonies, unremitting horn sections, all under the production tutelage of Maurice White.  The band’s roster also stabilised during this period as White had found the right chemistry for the outfit.  It’s worth noting that the band’s live and studio sound was sometimes augmented by the Phoenix Horns, headed by saxophonist Don Myrick, who also appeared regularly on Phil Collins and Genesis albums of the early 80s - another connection between Philip Bailey and Phil Collins beyond their 1985 collaboration on ‘Easy Lover’.

In 1975, Earth, Wind & Fire released their sixth studio album, ‘That’s The Way Of The World’, which brought to the fore the falsetto vocal gymnastics of Philip Bailey.  The album was a conceptual affair intended to serve as a soundtrack to a film about an aspiring rock and soul band (I’m thinking semi-autobiographical), portrayed by the members of Earth, Wind & Fire at the time - Maurice White, Philip Bailey, Fred White, Verdine White, Larry Dunn, Alan McKay, Ralph Johnson, John Graham, and Andrew Woolfolk. The first single from the album was ‘Shining Star’, a funk based song that impinged more than slightly into the burgeoning disco/dance style.  ‘Shining Star’ entered the U.S. Hot 100 at #86 in February of ‘75.  Fifteen weeks later ‘Shining Star’ displaced Tony Orlando and Dawn atop the U.S. charts (OZ#95), only to be dimmed a week later by the arrival of Freddy Fender at #1.  The song also won the  band their first Grammy Award for ‘Best Vocal Performance By A Group’.  The #1 and double platinum album, ‘That’s The Way Of The World’ (OZ#84), also spawned a #12 hit in the title track.

It was during this period that Earth, Wind & Fire graduated to playing arena style venues, with their concerts featuring elaborate stage shows, and spectacular costumes.  With a solid schedule of touring under their belt, it was about time Earth, Wind & Fire released a live album, which took the form of ‘Gratitude’ (US#1), which was released in late ‘75 and produced the #5 hit single ‘Sing A Song’ in early ‘76 (one side of the double album set contained new studio tracks).  By year’s end, the band had recorded another studio album, ‘Spirit’ (US#2), which harvested the hit ‘Saturday Nite’, the band’s first incursion into British chart territory (#17/US#21).  By this stage, Earth, Wind & Fire were a flagship performer on the tidal wave that was disco music.  ‘All ‘N All’ (US#3 /UK#13/OZ#21) - the band’s fourth platinum album - opened proceedings for Earth, Wind & Fire in 1978, yielding the hit single ‘Fantasy’ (US#32/ UK#14/OZ#25).

With disco the dominant musical genus, Earth, Wind & Fire polished their collective glitter balls and gave a danceable overhaul to the Beatles’ classic, ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ (US#9/ UK#33), and followed that up with one of the consummate party anthems ‘September’ (US#8/ UK#3/OZ#12) in late ‘78.  Both hits featured on the mega-selling compilation, ‘The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol.1’ (US#6/ UK#6/OZ#7) which served as an entrée to what was to be a sumptuous feast of Earth, Wind & Fire music in 1979.

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