Earth, Wind & Fire - Biography
By J Poet
Earth Wind & Fire is the vehicle songwriter/percussionist Maurice White used to mash up African and Latin rhythms with rhythm and blues, funk, rock, and soul. The band forged a unique sound marked by an energetic horn section, beautiful high harmonies, the soaring falsetto lead vocals of Phil Bailey, multi-layered percussion tracks and a positive, Afro-centric spirituality that struck a deep chord with listeners of all races and ages. Their mystic, polished sound made them one of the most successful African American crossover acts of their day. In their long career they’ve taken home six Grammys, 50 gold and platinum albums and sold more than 90 million albums. Earth, Wind and Fire were inducted into the NAACP Hall Of Fame in 1994 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Maurice White was born in Chicago, but moved to Memphis, with his family in 1943. He was a featured singer in his church gospel choir at six, and played drums in his high school marching band and drill team. He started a band with his friend Booker T. Jones, later of the MGs, before he graduated. White studied music at the Chicago Conservatory, playing drums in jazz clubs at night. This led to work as a session drummer at Chess Records. He played on hits by the Impressions, Billy Stewart, and Muddy Waters and traveled to Detroit to play sessions for Motown as well. Ramsey Lewis hired him for the drum chair with his trio and he was on the road with the band from 1967 until 1969. It was Lewis who introduced him to the kalimba (thumb piano), an instrument White introduced to the pop world. The Ramsey Lewis album Another Voyage (1969 Cadet) has the first recordings of White playing kalimba.
White moved to Los Angeles in 1969 and put together a band called the Salty Peppers. They made a few singles for Capitol that went nowhere. When they signed with Warner Brothers, the astrology buff renamed the group Earth, Wind and Fire. They cut two mildly successful albums for Warner; Earth, Wind and Fire (1970 Warner) and The Need of Love (1972 Warner.) They also had songs on the soundtrack for the Melvin Van Peebles film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song (1971 Stax.)
Dissatisfied with the band’s progress, White fired everyone and rebuilt the group. Clive Davis signed the new band to Columbia for Last Days and Time (1972 Columbia), but after its release, White reshuffled the band again. Head to the Sky (1973 Columbia) scored with the hits "Evil" and "Keep Your Head To The Sky," which crossed over to pop. The album slowly went gold, and in later years, platinum. Earth, Wind and Fire broke through with the platinum Open Our Eyes (1974 Columbia.) “Mighty Mighty” topped the R&B charts and was a #29 pop hit, setting the stage for That's the Way of the World (1975 Columbia.) The album was the soundtrack for a movie starring the band as a group trying to make it big in a corrupt music industry. The film tanked, but the album took off. It was #1 on the pop charts behind the singles “Shining Star,” "Reasons,” “Happy Feeling,” and "All About Love." It went platinum and “Shining Star” won a Grammy for Song of the Year.
After a sold out European tour with Santana they made the multi-platinum Gratitude (1975 Columbia) with the hits "Sing A Song" and "Can't Hide Love." Earth, Wind and Fire concerts were a huge spectacle in the 70s, with flying pyramids, levitating guitarists and band members vanishing and reappearing. Doug Henning and his assistant David Copperfield choreographed the group’s magic tricks.
Spirit (1976 Columbia) went 3X platinum behind “Getaway,” a #1 pop and R&B hit. All 'n' All (1977 Columbia) went multi- platinum as well and included "Fantasy" and the #1 "Serpentine Fire." They appeared in the horrible film of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but their cover of “Got to Get You into My Life” was a gold Top 10 pop hit. In 1978 White founded his own label ARC, distributed by Columbia. The first album on the logo Best of Earth, Wind and Fire, Volume I (1978 ARC Columbia) went 5X platinum and included a new hit “September.”
I Am (1979 ARC Columbia) included four hits, "In the Stone", "Can't Let Go", "After the Love Has Gone" a #2 pop and R&B song and “Boogie Wonderland” a #1 pop, R&B and Dance single. It was another multi-platinum success. The band spent most of the year touring Europe and Japan. The double album Faces (1981 ARC Columbia) included the gold singles "Let Me Talk,” “You,” and “And Love Goes On.” Raise (1981 ARC Columbia) went platinum and spawned the club anthem “Let's Groove.” The gold Powerlight (1983 ARC Columbia) and the electronic influenced Electric Universe (1983 ARC Columbia) brought the band’s golden age to a close.
White broke up the band and the members started solo careers of varying success. Philip Bailey’s Chinese Wall (1984 Columbia), produced by Phil Collins, went gold and spawned the #2 pop hit "Easy Lover", a duet with Collins. His gospel album Triumph (1986 Word) won a Best Male Gospel Performance Grammy. Maurice White produced tracks for Barbara Streisand, Atlantic Starr, Neil Diamond, and Cher and made Maurice White (1985 ARC Columbia), which included a cover of "Stand by Me" that was a #6 R&B entry and #11 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
The band reformed for Touch the World (1987 Columbia), which went gold with a modern hip-hop flavored sound. Hits included “Thinking Of You” and "System of Survival," a #1 R&B and Dance chart hit. They ended their Columbia years with Heritage (1990 Columbia), which included guest shots by MC Hammer, the Boyz and Sly Stone. The Eternal Dance (1992 Columbia) a three CD, 55-track compilation collected the band’s best Columbia sides.
Millennium (1993 Reprise) returned to the band’s patented sound, but it marked the continuing instability of the once great band with regular personnel shifts. Maurice White stopped touring due to ill health and Phillip Bailey became the on stage bandleader. In the Name of Love (1997 Pyramid/Rhino) was another solid, retro-sounding EWF album but it fared poorly in stores. Most of the band’s output since 2000 has been live albums on their own Kalimba label. The exceptions are The Promise (2002 Kalimba), a smooth jazz/R&B set that reached #19 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts and Illumination (2005 Sanctuary) a credible updating of their sound with the help of Big Boi, will.i.am, Kenny G. Raphael Saadiq, and Brian McKnight.
Earth Wind and Fire received the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award in 2002 and was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003. Earth, Wind and Fire performed at the White House on February 22nd, 2009 at the first formal White House dinner hosted by President Obama. They’re currently working on a new studio album. Band leader and founder Maurice White died February 3, 2016 of Parkinson's Disease. he was 74.