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.”
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 to be more universal in both our music and what we projected to people. I think we accomplished that pretty good.”
At the height of the EWF’s success, White formed the production company Kalimba Productions. Signing and producing hits for Denise Williams (“Free”), the Emotions (“Best of My Love”) and Pockets (“Come Go with Me”), Kalimba was on the verge of becoming the then-new Motown. But while Maurice handled the production chores of the first two acts, Verdine was saddled with the Baltimore-based Pockets.
“Their debut album Come Go with Us was the first I ever produced,” Verdine reveals. “Their bass player Gary Grainger was great, and their first album went gold. We took them, as well as Denise Williams and the Emotions, on the road with us during that 1977 tour.”
Although Verdine has lived in Los Angeles since the 1970s, he still returns home to Chicago periodically, and is more than aware of the out-of-control shoot ’em up scenarios that have claimed hundreds of bloody bodies. “This is something we need to get a grip on,” he says sadly. “This unruly use of firearms is something we all need to work on with the young people in Chicago.”
In an attempt to raise money for various programs combating Chicago’s street violence, White has recorded a “We Are the World”-style song with keyboardist/musical director Michael Bearden to help raise the necessary funds. “Right now we’re just trying to get other stars interested in singing on the record.”
Sampled by hundreds of hip-hop artists like Jay Z (“Reach the Top”), DJ Shadow (“In/Flux”) and Talib Kweli (“Ghetto Show”), the sound of Earth, Wind and Fire still thrills the ears of young America. “The other night, I went to the LA Coliseum to see Jay Z and Justin Timberlake,” Verdine says. “But when DJ Cassidy played our old song ‘September,’ the kids went crazy… 110,000 were partying a song we recorded 35 years ago. I have to say, that felt great.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.