Sunday, December 9, 2012

Earth, Wind & Fire to Electrify Retro Radio Show Boogie

On today’s show: I'll be featuring BOOGIE WONDERLAND: THE BEST OF EARTH WIND & FIRE. In the late 70s, Earth, Wind & Fire were the supergroup of soul. Few groups encapsulated pure joy on stage and on record as they did; and the group’s story is that of their leader and producer, Maurice White. Although his parents wanted him to be a doctor, when Maurice White enrolled at the Chicago Conservatory Of Music to become a music teacher, his life changed.

Born in Memphis, he’d sung in choirs since his childhood. He took up drums as a teenager and played in a local band with Booker T Jones, who would later form MGs, and David Porter who would write Sam and Dave’s biggest hits with Isaac Hayes. But when he was in Chicago, he was asked to drum on a Betty Everett session for Vee Jay Records and his skill led to more gigs and pretty soon, he ended up as a session drummer for Chess, playing on the label’s most memorable 60s sides. In 1967, he was a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

A trip to the Middle East would awaken White’s interest in metaphysical philosophy. By the end of the sixties, White, his bassist brother Verdine, and a group of like-minded individuals set about forming an outfit that chimed with the times. The original title of the Salty Peppers fell by the wayside in favor of an adaptation of the three elements in White’s birth sign, Sagittarius earth, air and fire.

They relocated to Los Angeles and provided the music for Melvin Van Peebles’ ground breaking blaxploitation epic, Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song. Signing to Warner Brothers, they went to cut two albums of dense, jazzy, funk-driven soul. Earth, Wind and Fire spawned the minor hit Love Is Life and The Need Of Love featuring the Sherry Scott-sung I Think About Loving You.

White decided to disband Earth, Wind and Fire and regroup. He recruited Philip Bailey whom he’d met on the road leading his band Friends And Love, and some hot new players including saxophonist Ronnie Laws. Signing to Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo’s management stable, they began to play to rock audiences. A slow-building crossover began.

The group were signed to CBS by Clive Davis, who’d seen their incredible act live. Last Days And Time from 1972, shows this new approach – hard driving jazz-influenced jams are very much in evidence, but new additions like Bailey’s sweet falsetto on Make It With You showed the direction the group would take. Head To The Sky continued this run of success, while 1974’s Open Our Eyes went to No1 on the soul charts and reached the US Top 30.
That’s The Way Of The World, the soundtrack to a little-remembered film from 1975 in which they starred alongside Harvey Keitel, was the album that made them American superstars. It contained three of their greatest songs – Reason, Shining Star—a No 1 soul single—and the blissful, floating groove on title track.

By later 70s, Earth, Wind & Fire were fully established in the US and increasingly in the UK, with a stage act that combined White’s serious study of Egyptology with, well, lots of space effects and levitation. A young David Copperfield worked on the shows. White was also an in-demand producer and oversaw notable hits for Deniece Williams (Free) and the Emotions (the irresistible The Best Of My Love).

By 1978’s All n’ All, the group had crossed over to white rock audiences, who, wanting to lump them in with disco, were subsequently amazed at their ability and showmanship. “All n’ All is flashy, bright and fanciful,” Rolling Stone magazine said, unsure whether to sneer or cheer. I Am will be the album that everyone remembers, given a pop sheen by co-writers David Foster and Alee Willis. Written at the height of disco, and released in 1979, it presented a confident, joyous sound – Boogie Wonderland a duet with the Emotions, was an enormous world-wide hit while After The Love Has Gone gave them a ballad to rival the Commodores’ then-contemporary successes.

Aside from 1981’s triumphant Let’s Groove and Raise, it was never quite the same again. The band took a hiatus while Bailey went solo, scoring a world-wide smash with Easy Lover, his duet with Phil Collins, and White hit the US charts with his update of Ben E King’s Stand By Me.

In 1996, Maurice White retired from the road, leaving Bailey to lead EWF, while White kept an eye on proceedings in the studio. The band still delights audiences the world over, and in 2009 they performed at the White House Governors’ Dinner, the first formal White House dinner hosted by President Obama. “When they start to look back at the history and…at our records and attendance as far as live performances, you have to give us credit,” White said in 2001. “I think overall we made a helluva contribution to the music scene in the sense of creating change, doing things in a different way, and staying true to the music.

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