Earth, Wind & Fire âPromiseâ to Keep Rocking [INTERVIEW]

When Earth, Wind and Fire’s bass player extraordinaire Verdine White speaks affectionately about his influential group playing shows in the mid-1970s, one is instantly transported to a funkier time. Currently promoting the band’s upcoming 20th album, Now, Then & Forever (the first since 2005’s Grammy-nominated Illumination), he has no problem stepping into the way-back machine and reflecting on the funk tradition of the superfly ’70s, when the boys in the band were in their prime.

Wearing cool clothes and utilizing dope dance steps, EWF’s performances back then were soulful spectacles where slick magic and sleek music shared the spotlight. “Those shows were groundbreaking,” White says via telephone from his manager’s office in Los Angeles. “We had pyramids landing on stage, magic tricks, and the wonderful choreography of George Faison. It was fantastic.”

Having witnessed the manifestation of their wild visions at Baltimore’s famed Civic Center in 1977, I can attest that EWF were a treat to watch. Yet like most of the folks dancing in the aisles that winter night, I’d come to be warmed by their music. Watching Verdine and his perfect Afro being lifted into the air as he plucked away at the bass was cool. But it was hearing (now classic) songs “Shining Star,” “That’s the Way of the World,” “Getaway,” and, of course, the beautiful ballad “Reasons” that soothed me.

As the centerpiece of their breakthrough album, 1975’s That’s the Way of the World, the “Reasons” was co-produced by Verdine’s older brother Maurice White, founder and guiding light of the Chicago-based group. Originally, the track was slated for the soundtrack of a film of the same name starring the group with actor Harvey Keitel.

Working alongside Charles Stepney, the lushly arranged “Reasons” featured lead vocalist Philip Bailey’s flawless falsetto at its romantic best. The song became the perfect foil for make-ups and break-ups, white weddings and dark divorces.

“ ‘Reasons’ was never officially released as a single,” Verdine says, “but it still became one of the most requested records [in] radio history.” And since the release of That’s the Way of the World, Earth, Wind and Fire has sold millions of albums and received six Grammys.

Thirty-eight years later, while the classic group still has an enduring freshness that is eternal, EWF have never rested on their soulful laurels. With their newest single “My Promise,” the group returns to its roots. “We’re really pleased with the music and the way it’s coming out,” Verdine confirms. “It truly sounds like a EWF album.”

Earth, Wind & Fire, ‘My Promise’

Earth, Wind & Fire, ‘My Promise’

And while big bro Maurice White, who’s been battling Parkinson’s disease since the late 1980s, is no longer the key figure in EWF, he is still down in the grooves spiritually. “We started this project at Philip Baily’s home making the demos, and everything just came together. We’re all very happy with it,” says Verdine.

Coming from the Windy City years before Common or Kanye West were making music, Verdine reminisces, “When I was younger, Chicago was a melting pot of all different kinds of music. The city was rich culturally, politically and musically. It was a great place for a young person to grow up.”

Born into a loving family—dad was a doctor—his brother Maurice was nine years older. “Maurice knew guys like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions very well,” Verdine says. “We all had great musical mentors.” Working as a session musician at Chess Records, the elder White played drums for Etta James, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and on the soul singer Fontella Bass’s 1965 classic, “Rescue Me.”

Without a doubt, the elder White brother knew his way around the studio.

EWF finally found success with the release of That’s the Way of the World, but they’d formed a full six years earlier. Having released two albums on Warner Bros. Records in 1971 (their self-titled debut and The Need of Love), that same year they also recorded the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles’s classic Black indie film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

Although Isaac Hayes’s stunning Shaft dropped a few months later, EWF recorded the actual first Blaxploitation soundtrack. “Maurice was good friends with Melvin, so he asked us to be involved in the project.” Coincidentally, both Sweetback and Shaft were released on Stax Records.

Unlike other Black bands of the period, whose music and personas were fuelled by the “sex and drugs” mantra of their rock ’n’ roll contemporaries, Earth, Wind and Fire was founded on more of a spiritual foundation. While George Clinton and his motley crew were dropping acid and P-funking in honor of the nappy dugout, White and the EWF posse were meditating, practicing yoga and reading their horoscopes.

“There were some people that might’ve thought our practices were corny, but these days they know we were on the right track,” Verdine says. “Even Russell Simmons is doing yoga now. When EWF first came out, it was Maurice’s idea that we try