Friday, April 4, 2014

Earth, Wind & Fire - Snapshot #2 - Welcome To 'Boogie Wonderland'

Previously, Maurice White had been intent on utilising the playing roster within the band, but for a new song he had written, he had in mind recording it with a bank of female vocals to compliment his own.  He recruited the services of female vocal trio the Emotions (see future post), who had scored a US#1 hit in 1977 with ‘Best Of My Love’.  The Emotions had toured with Earth, Wind & Fire previously and it wasn’t unheard of for the two acts to share the stage.  The trio comprised the Hutchinson sisters, Wanda, Sheila, and Pamela, who had come under the guidance of Maurice White and the auspices of his production house Kalimba Productions (the name taken from the African thumb piano - one of many exotic instruments White incorporated into the EW&F sound).  The song that Maurice White had written was ‘Boogie Wonderland’ (US#6/ UK#4/OZ#6), a hit that would be one of the defining anthems of the disco era.  Lush, and resplendent in style, ‘Boogie Wonderland’ renders its listener helpless in the face of an overwhelming urge to get up and dance, even those of us not proficient in shaking one’s booty.  The song was backed with a lavish performance based promotional video, showcasing the band’s stage craft and doubtless helping push the song to the upper reaches of the charts.

‘Boogie Wonderland’ was harvested from the source album, ‘I Am’ (US#3/ UK#5/OZ#12), which also yielded the silky smooth ballad, ‘After The Love Has Gone’ (US#2/ UK#4/OZ#62), which was one of the few songs not penned for the group by White (it had been co-written by the prolific David Foster).  The album also spawned the US#16 hit, ‘Star’.

With such an impressive benchmark to match, Earth, Wind & Fire took their time to re-emerge from the studio, but re-emerge they did in October of 1980 with the new album, ‘Faces’ (US#10/ UK#10/ OZ#55), but relative to ‘I Am’, the album was a commercial disappointment, producing just one top thirty hit in the guise of ‘Let Me Talk’ (US#44/UK#29).  It might have been resultant of the imminent demise of disco in the face of a ‘new wave’ of music, but White & Co must have been questioning whether the band were still relevant in their current mode of operation.

But disco, and dance music still had a mainstream audience, if a little hard to reach via the airwaves, and Earth, Wind & Fire (now with Bautista back on guitar) managed to access that audience with one last tilt at the upper reaches of the charts.  The album was ‘Raise!’ (US#5/ UK#14/OZ#37), and the associated single was the infectious ‘Let’s Groove’ (US#3/ UK#3/OZ#15), backed by a promotional video that showcased all of the band’s glitz and glamour, partnered with the era’s cutting edge video effects.  As the clip ends, Earth, Wind & Fire are shown to fade into the distance, symbolic perhaps of the path the band were to take from there on in.

Released in early ‘83, the album ‘Powerlight’ (US#12/ UK#22/OZ#82) represented more of a power-cut for Earth, Wind & Fire, as for the first time in a decade they released an album that failed to penetrate the top ten (though it did yield the top twenty single ‘Fall In Love With Me’ (US#17/UK#47).  Unperturbed, another album followed late in ‘83 in the form of ‘Electric Universe’ (US#40), which was the band’s poorest selling album since their Warner Bros. days.  With commercial fortunes drying up, and a sense of the band being directionless, Maurice White took the decision to place Earth, Wind & Fire on an indefinite hiatus from March of ‘84.  White pursued solo interests and continued to write and produce work for other artists, whilst Philip Bailey continued with a solo career he had made tentative steps towards back in ‘83.  Bailey would combine with Phil Collins on the 1985 US#2 ‘Easy Lover’ - see future post.

White reconvened Earth, Wind & Fire in mid ‘87, establishing the new playing roster of himself, Bailey, Verdine White, Andrew Woodfolk, and new guitarist Sheldon Reynolds.  It was the sleekest line-up the band had ever had, with other duties being augmented by session players.  The relaunched band released the album ‘Touch The World’ (US#33) in November of ‘87, but it generated only two minor hits in the form of ‘System Of Survival’ (US#60/UK#54 - #1US R&B), and ‘Thinking Of You’ (US#67).  Ralph Johnson (percussion) and Sonny Emory (drums) were added to the band for 1990’s ‘Heritage’ (US#70), but despite the band’s rich heritage, it was only their core fans that looked to purchase their work.

Two more albums surfaced during the 90s, ‘93s ‘Millennium’ (US#39 & about seven years too early), and ‘99s ‘In The Name Of Love’.  In 2003, Earth, Wind & Fire released the album ‘The Promise’, a mix of original material and classic hits of the band’s career, followed by a venture into neo-soul on 2005’s album ‘Illumination’, with Maurice White taking more of a backseat involvement in proceedings.  The band continued to tour over the ensuing decade, and in 2010 were collectively inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Their latest work was the 2013 album ‘Now, Then & Forever’.

Though strongly identified and aligned with the 70s disco phenomenon, Earth, Wind & Fire were a much more diverse musical force than could be contained by just one style.  They were also innovators in their craft, and strongly influenced many of their peers, and subsequent generations.  With album sales over and above 20 million, who could deny the band their rightful place of prominence in pop music folklore.

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