When he was a teenager, Tennessee native Maurice White moved to Chicago to live with his mother. He started gigging on the drums in nightclubs, while by day he attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Pianist Ramsey Lewis tapped the young man to play in his trio, plus White made some side cash as a session drummer for Chess Records. But he wanted his own band.
He joined with singer Wade Flemons and keyboardist Don Whitehead to form The Salty Peppers, which didn’t go far. But in 1970, when they relocated to LA, added percussionist Yackov Ben Israel and singer Sherry Scott, and changed their name to Earth, Wind & Fire, they were on their way to becoming one of the most successful and longest-lasting groups in popular music history.
Earth, Wind & Fire (1971) was their debut on Warner Bros., with a strong start at the No. 24 spot on the soul chart. Some critics dismissed the record as too derivative of influencers like Sly and the Family Stone and The Fifth Dimension. But others noticed the interesting blend of rock, jazz, and even African music amid the soul tropes.
The original trio of White, Flemons, and Whitehead share writing credit for all the songs. While the album’s single, “Love Is Life,” found only middling success, there are other tracks worth paying attention to. “This World Today” is notable for its funky syncopation. The mighty brass responses are provided by two session musicians. Among the traits that set EWF apart from other soul or R&B groups is the prominence of White’s drumming in the arrangements.
The band put out The Need of Love in the same year, followed in 1972 by Last Days and Time, which marked their debut for Columbia Records. By this point, White was the only original member, with bass now covered by his brother, Verdine White, keyboards by Larry Dunn, and Philip Bailey and Jessica Cleaves joining the brothers on vocals. EWF continued to reach for distinctive sounds, such as Maurice’s ubiquitous electric kalimba.
While Last Days and Time contains mostly songs by Maurice White, one surprising track choice is a cover by Pete Seeger. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was typical fare for white folk revival acts like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. EWF makes their harmonized doo-wop-inspired take – in a slow 6/8 meter instead of the usual square 4/4 – sound so natural that you’d think the song was composed that way.
Their star continued to rise through Head to the Sky (1973) and their first No. 1 album, Open Our Eyes (1974). The big single from that latter release was “Mighty Mighty.” The personnel list includes six percussionists (many of whom also double on other instruments), so you can guess the direction their sound had taken. Larry Dunn is still on keyboards and Moog.
White’s composition “Rabbit Seed” is typical of the 30-second instrumentals he consistently sprinkled throughout his albums. It acts as a mood-enhancer, like an entr’acte in an opera.
The growth in EWF’s popularity seemed unstoppable. That’s the Way of the World (1975) went triple platinum and topped the charts for three weeks. Its single “Shining Star” enjoyed a similar trajectory. Spirit (1976) did almost as well, although its recording sessions were disrupted by the death of producer Charles Stepney; White took over production duties and remained the band’s primary producer.
Next up was All ‘n All (1977), source of the hit single “Serpentine Fire” and an album that let the band explore a different angle: Latin music. One Latin-influenced track is White’s wordless song “Brazilian Rhyme,” a seamless blend of smooth soul and bossa nova groove.
Another White brother, Freddie, jumped into the family business, playing drums on I Am (1979) and Faces (1980). The latter, a two-LP set, also welcomed Toto guitarist Steve Lukather as a special guest. It’s a richly produced and eminently danceable album.
Philip Bailey’s energetic falsetto is on display in the disco-infused “Win or Lose” by lyricist Jean Hancock, the sister of jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, and composer Jerry Peters, who often collaborated with Jean’s brother.
The next huge single was “Let’s Groove,” from Raise! (1981), followed by “Fall in Love with Me” off 1983’s Powerlight album. Critics were particularly impressed by Powerlight, praising it’s “universalism” – the way it blends so many different genres into a hybrid meta-genre that welcomes everyone – plus White’s skillful and complex production values.
“Freedom of Choice” is an upbeat dance number that gets into your bloodstream and moves your skeleton, like it or not. Yet the lyrics manage to express a serious message about the flaws in our political system. After the high-pitched main vocals, it was a breathtakingly effective choice to bring in the reedy middle and lower voices at 2:40. This brilliant arrangement keeps getting better every 16 bars.
There were signs that the band’s industry heyday was waning. Neither Electric Universe (1983) nor Heritage (1990) did as well on the charts as the previous several releases. Heritage ended up being the last album EWF made for Columbia Records.
But the inevitable shift in popular taste did not affect the quality of the band’s output in the least. The baroque-like perpetual rhythm of the synth patterns in the song “Welcome” is a great example of EWF’s ability to combine a spectrum of styles and textures, from the arch to the most mainstream, into a convincing sound world.
After Heritage, the band re-signed with Warner Music. Oddly, the next album was called Millennium, even though it came out in 1993, significantly before the thousand-year mark. Or maybe it was prescient: its apocalyptic cover collage does warn of trouble on the horizon. Still, there are signs of hope in the opening song, “Even If You Wonder,” a bass-driven romantic pitch that’s intriguing for the chromatic melody of its chorus and the frequent key and mode switches right in the middle of lines.
In 1996, White took the plunge and started his own record label, appropriately called Kalimba. The company, which also houses a recording studio, has been used almost exclusively to create EWF albums. One of those is The Promise, from 2003.
Any group that lasts for 50 years has to interact with and learn from the changing world around it. EWF is no exception. The Promise, boasting a massive list of 30 participating musicians, includes a song by a decidedly up-to-the-minute band, The Roots. Besides the richly produced horns, layered voices, and funky guitars and basses, “Suppose You Like Me” also features some sweet, spiraling harmonica solos by Tollak Ollestad.
“Although Earth, Wind & Fire is technically still together (touring without Maurice White, who worked as the band’s producer until his death in 2016), they haven’t put out a new album since Holiday in 2014. But, hey, since we’re hurtling toward the holiday season, what better way to end than with a festive song from EWF? Most of the album is expected fare, like “Little Drummer Boy” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” But there are a couple of unique items, including this number called “Snow,” labeled as “Japanese traditional,” and featuring a troupe of Japanese women singing backup in their native tongue over the standard EWF funky beat.