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In the Spotlight: Earth, Wind & Fire

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In the Spotlight: Earth, Wind & Fire

Earth, Wind & Fire

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Formed:

1969 (Chicago, IL)

Genres:

R&B, Funk, Disco, Jazz

Claims to fame:

  • The biggest R&B band of the '70s
  • Brought black consciousness and spirituality to '70s pop
  • A rare nine-piece group with three singers
  • Effortlessly melded funk, pop, and polished R&B
  • Singer Philip Bailey has one of the most celebrated falsettos in music
  • Toured with a legendary, Egyptian-themed stage show
  • Scored big hits in disco, R&B, pop, and adult contemporary

Early years:

Earth, Wind & Fire was the brainchild of Maurice White, a veteran session drummer who had, among other things, performed on Fontella Bass' 1966 hit "Rescue Me." After his original Chicago band, the Salty Peppers, flopped, White moved to Los Angeles and assembled a jazz-fusion big band, which became EWF. After two extensive revamps, a label change to Warner Bros., and several lineup changes, EWF finally scored its first hits in 1973 with "Evil" and "Keep Your Head to the Sky." White's "Kalimba Story" soon became a Top Ten R&B hit, and "Mighty Mighty" followed; their fanbase grew exponentially due to constant touring.

Success:

Having already performed a "blaxploitation" soundtrack with 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, EWF were called on when that movie's producer, Sig Shore, decided to make a film about exploitation in the music business, starring Harvey Keitel. That film, That's The Way of the World, would be the group's breakthrough to the mainstream, with the title track and "Shining Star" becoming huge hits for the band. The band became a major concert draw, not only for their virtuoso performances but an elaborate stage show featuring African-themed props and pyrotechnics designed to highlight the group's spiritual leanings.

Later years:

The group remained huge throughout the decade, adopting disco and electro funk into its repertoire in order to stay current. But the scaling-back of the music business, along with the rise of hip-hop, brought an end to big jazz/R&B bands, even ones as accomplished as EWF. Philip Bailey went solo for a while, landing a hit duet with Phil Collins called "Easy Lover," and the band continued to be popular among older R&B fans. Earth, Wind and Fire still record today, mostly in a smooth-jazz mode, and Philip Bailey still leads the group on tour, though White has not toured with the group since 1995 for health reasons.

Awards and Honors:

  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2000)
  • GRAMMY Awards (1975, 1978, 1979, 1982)
  • GRAMMY Hall of Fame (2004)
  • Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2003)
  • NAACP Hall of Fame (1994)
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame (7080 Hollywood Blvd.)

Other Earth Wind & Fire facts and trivia:

  • The band's name was chosen as a reference to the qualities of Maurice's astrological sign, Sagittarius
  • Maurice discovered Deniece Williams as well as the Emotions of "Best of My Love" fame
  • The Phenix Horns, EWF's brass section, appear on two Genesis singles ("No Reply At All" and "Paperlate") and Phil Collins' '80s solo output
  • Members of Friends of Distinction, New Birth, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Little Feat, the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band, and Donny Hathaway were all members of EWF at some point
  • The band's elaborate stage effects were often managed by magician Doug Henning and his assistant, a young David Copperfield

Covered by:

Musiq Soulchild, D'Angelo, Pomplamoose, Jerry Garcia Band, Chaka Khan, Stryper, Patti Labelle, Herb Alpert, Wynonna Judd, Girls Against Boys, Najee, Donny Osmond, Salsoul Orchestra, John Tesh, Brittany Murphy, Take 6, Prince, Norman Brown, Yolanda Adams, Point of Grace, 112, Tom Grant, Herb Alpert, Tito Puente, Black Box, the Vienna Boys' Choir

The classic Earth Wind & Fire lineup:

Maurice White (b. December 19, 1941, Memphis, TN): vocals, kalimba, percussion
Philip Bailey (b. May 8, 1951, Denver, CO): lead vocals, conga, percussion
Verdine White (b. July 25, 1951, Chicago, IL): vocals, bass, percussion
Johnny Graham (b. August 3, 1951, Louisville, KY): guitars, trumpet, percussion
Al McKay (b. February 2, 1948, Los Angeles, CA): guitars, trumpet, percussion
Larry Dunn (b. June 19, 1953, Denver, CO): keyboards
Fred White (b. January 13, 1955, Chicago, IL): drums, percussion
Ralph Johnson (b. July 4, 1951, Los Angeles, CA): backing vocals, drums, percussion
Andrew Woolfolk (b. October 11, 1950, San Antonio, TX): saxophone, flute, percussion

The Phenix Horns:

Michael Harris: trumpet, flugelhorn
Rahmlee Michael Davis (b. May 25, 1950, Chicago, IL): trumpet, flugelhorn
Don Myrick (b. April 6, 1940, Los Angeles, CA; d. July 30, 1993, Santa Monica, CA): saxophone
Louis "Lui Lui" Satterfield (b. April 3, 1937, Shaw, MS; d. September 27, 2004, Chicago, IL): trombone

Hits and important songs by Earth Wind & Fire:

#1 hits:
Pop:
  • "Shining Star" (1975)
R&B:
  • "Shining Star" (1975)
  • "Getaway" (1976)
  • "Sing a Song" (1976)
  • "Serpentine Fire" (1977)
  • "Got to Get You into My Life" (1978)
  • "September" (1979)
  • "Let's Groove" (1981)
Dance/Disco:
  • "Africano" (1975)
  • "Happy Feelin'" (1975)
  • "Sing a Song" (1976)
  • "System of Survival" (1987)
  • "Thinking of You" (1988)
Top 10 hits:
Pop:
  • "Sing a Song" (1976)
  • "Got to Get You into My Life" (1978)
  • "After the Love Has Gone" (1979)
  • "Boogie Wonderland" with the Emotions (1979)
  • "September" (1979)
  • "Let's Groove" (1981)
R&B:
  • "Kalimba Story" (1974)
  • "Mighty Mighty" (1974)
  • "That's the Way of the World" (1975)
  • "Saturday Nite" (1977)
  • "After the Love Has Gone" (1979)
  • "Boogie Wonderland" with the Emotions (1979)
  • "Let Me Talk" (1980)
  • "Fall in Love with Me" (1983)
  • "Magnetic" (1983)
Dance/Disco:
  • "Sun Goddess" (1975)
  • "Getaway" (1976)
  • "Boogie Wonderland" with the Emotions (1979)
  • "Let's Groove" (1981)
  • "System of Survival" (1987)
  • "Thinking of You" (1988)
#1 albums:
Pop:
  • That's the Way of the World (1975)
  • Gratitude (1976)
R&B:
  • Open Our Eyes (1974)
  • That's the Way of the World (1975)
  • Gratitude (1976)
  • All 'N All (1977)
  • I Am (1979)
  • Raise! (1981)
Top 10 albums:
Pop:
  • Spirit (1976)
  • All 'N All (1977)
  • I Am (1979)
  • The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 (1979)
  • Faces (1980)
  • Raise! (1981)
R&B:
  • Head to the Sky (1973)
  • Spirit (1976)
  • The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 (1979)
  • Faces (1980)
  • Powerlight (1983)
  • Electric Universe (1983)
  • Touch the World (1987)
  • Millennium (1993)
  • Illumination (2005)

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