Listening to Earth, Wind & Fire

Earth, Wind & Fire (hereafter ‘EW&F’) are a band with a long (and often illustrious) history and have been active since 1969, when Maurice White, sometime  drummer with the Ramsey Lewis Trio,  formed the original version of a band that has been through countless personnel changes and stylistic shifts over the years.

My first exposure to EW&F was via their 1975 album ‘That’s the way of the world’,  the soundtrack to a ‘warts’n’all’ movie about the music industry that sank without trace despite featuring a young Harvey Keitel.  The movie may have been dross, but the music certainly wasn’t; EW&F came across as a funk band with rock sensibilities and with a fondness for quoting John Coltrane riffs in the middle of songs – guaranteed to get my attention……

Mid-70’s Earth Wind & Fire

This was a time when black music had only just emerged from the straitjacket of black entertainers trying to be like white entertainers;  the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a golden age for soul music on record, with Motown & Stax at their peak, but many black performers, on stage at least, were still dressing in suits and tuxes and still channelling the showbiz schmaltz of a bygone era.  For all the brilliance of their recorded output, artists like Otis Redding,  Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Smokey Robinson were – to a greater or lesser extent – still locked into that whole white crooner thing.  In truth, Sinatra had probably stolen it from earlier black singers anyway, so it could be argued that they were just stealing it back again. 

Even so, it took a new generation of performers to create a stage persona that owed more to the speech, dress, values and conventions of  black communities worldwide than it did to any cheesecake Hollywood mythology.  There were a number of factors in play that helped this process; one was the way in which black Americans rediscovered their relationship with Africa, culminating in the huge mid-70’s success of Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ saga – both in book form and on TV.

Even before that, though,  jazz artists like John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Archie Shepp (to name but three) had begun to evoke the spirit of their African ancestors through their music – and sometimes via the adoption of African or Muslim names.  As the 60’s turned to the 70’s, soul artists like James Brown and Wilson Pickett  travelled out to Ghana & Nigeria to play at huge festivals – something often explained as ‘reconnecting with their African ancestors’.  Hmmm….

Dizzy Gillespie in African mode….

Also, in America at least, there was a leakage of ideas, music and attitudes between  disaffected white kids and the coming generation of black kids.  However  you view the ‘counter-culture’ of the late 1960’s, it has to be said that the hippies were generally less hostile to black people and black culture than their parents had been. On the West Coast, a band like Santana could boast a black bassist, several Hispanic musicians and a white keyboard player.   Doesn’t sound too radical in 2011, which I guess is a measure of how far we have travelled since Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat on the bus back in 1955.

I’m not enough of  a sociologist to connect all the dots in the picture of black urban life in American cities in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, but we all know about the growth of the Black Power & Black Arts movements, the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, the subsequent riots in Watts , Harlem and elsewhere and the attempts of black communities to rebuild afterwards. 

We also know about the 1969 Woodstock Festival and how a generation of young white Americans were defined (for the wider world, at least) by Michael Wadleigh’s split-screen extravaganza of a movie that appeared the following year.  But there were black performers at Woodstock, too and whilst Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix were seen (and marketed) as ‘rock’ performers, one of the sensations of the film were Sly & the Family Stone, who would have been new to most of us.  Combining earth-shaking bass with agile vocals and  punchy brass, the Family Stone were dressed to impress as well and though their impact musically was fleeting, they brought home with considerable force the idea that black could be beautiful on its own terms.  ‘Woodstock Nation’ rapidly became a myth that outstripped its prosaic origins and even survived the ‘anti-Woodstock’ of  Altamont just a few months later.  It was a groovy marketing idea, man, and the record and fashion industries weren’t about to let it go.

Sly in tassel  mode

Black Power, Black Pride, the need for inner-city regeneration and the impact of the Woodstock myth all came together with Wattstax, firstly an event, then later a movie and an album.  This wasn’t some romp in the fields of upstate New York, but a one-day concert staged at the Los Angeles Coliseum  in August 1972 to commemorate the  anniversary of the Watts riots.  Tickets were sold at $1 each and the attendance was allegedly in excess of 100,000, though it seems far less in the film of the event. Jesse  Jackson was on hand to remind the crowd of how strong they were as a community and Stax Records airlifted in many of its roster to play – The Staples Singers told people to respect themselves, veteran maverick Rufus Thomas did the Funky Chicken in an outrageous hot pink suit with short trousers whilst headliner and emergent black superstar Isaac Hayes arrived on stage wearing a lot of gold jewellery and tinselly clothes to a build-up that wouldn’t have disgraced the Second Coming.

The movie ‘Wattstax‘ appeared the following year and Mel Stuart’s direction was notable inasmuch as it gave as much time to the ordinary people of Watts as it did to the performers.  There are interviews –  sometimes jovial, sometimes deadly serious – with local young people, often aided and abetted by Richard Pryor’s clowning  and then there’s lots of lovingly filmed footage of the audience arriving in their finery and inside the Coliseum on a sunny afternoon enjoying the music.  Viewed nearly 40 years down the line, it’s this footage, rather than the musical content, that sticks with you.  Here’s our community, it seems to be saying, and ain’t we fine ?

Rufus Thomas at Wattstax

‘Wattstax’ was just the tip of the iceberg.  Elsewhere, established artists like Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye were struggling to break the chains of the Motown Charm School and speak with their own authentic voice.  James Brown was cementing his position as the man who could get down with politicians as well as with his own brothers & sisters, but there were a whole host of 1960’s soul stars – Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, The Temptations – who never really made that transition from Soul Men to Soul Brothers.  In their place came a groundswell of new bands and performers, many of whom were signed to record labels more generally associated with rock music and who blended soul and funk with jazz, latin and rock textures to form new hybrids.  As well as the eternal James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone, there was Malo,  The Meters, Tower of Power, Mandrill, Bobby Womack, Harlem River Drive,  Phil Upchurch, The Crusaders, The Ohio Players,  ex-Temptation Eddie Kendricks and Rufus (w/ Chaka Khan)  – all of whom were black performers or largely black bands making some outstanding records in the early to mid-1970’s.  Also notable was the image these bands were projecting – gone were the tuxes and process hairdo’s; instead we got Afros, leather and fringed buckskin at the hippie end of the spectrum, trending towards satin, spangles and eyeshdow among the more pop-orientated bands.

Mandrill, early ’70’s

And so to Earth, Wind & Fire, who  had moved west from Chicago and had signed a deal with Warner Brothers which saw them making little progress to begin with and undergoing  frequent personnel changes as they searched for their ‘signature’ sound.  After a tour where, somewhat mystifyingly, they supported arch-hippie and folkie  John Sebastian, Columbia bought out their Warners contract, heralding the start of their rise to prominence.  The comings and goings to and from the band over the years could keep me busy here for several thousand more words, but I would never presume to be an EW&F completist, so I will restrict myself to noting the arrival in 1972 of two key figures; vocalist Philip Bailey, whose high falsetto was such a trademark of 70’s EW&F and keyboardist Larry Dunn whose versatility and chops were so fundamental to the band’s  sound.  Dunn would later go on to guest with and produce the superb Latin/Fusion ensemble Caldera, but more of them another time.

I’ve been listening to an  album  released in  2002 and called ‘That’s the way of the world – Alive in ’75’, which demonstrates all of the qualities that made them such a class act, not so much transcending genres as obliterating them.  This live CD – as the title would suggest – was recorded at various US dates on the band’s breakthrough 1975 tour and the setlist inevitably favours the then-current ‘That’s the way of the world’ studio album, which generated a huge hit single in ‘Shining Star’  and a trademark anthem in the album’s title track.  For me it surpasses ‘Gratitude’, a 1975 double album with considerable duplication of songs, if not performances, mainly because it sounds like it was all recorded at one gig – actually it wasn’t but who cares?  There is schmaltz, of course, with Philip Bailey holding forth about lurrrvvve to all the (squealing)  ladies in the house, but this was 1975, after all and Bailey’s quasi- libidinous ramblings can’t detract from an on-the-money performance that reveals 1975-vintage EW&F to be every bit as good on stage as they were in the studio.    

EW&F on stage….

All the classic EW&F ingredients are on show, a tight rhythm section, the punch of the (then) recently-added Phoenix Horns, brilliant keyboard textures from Dunn and last but not least, Bailey and Maurice White heading up a vocal ensemble that could virtually embalm you in sugar-sweet harmonies or play it low-down and funky with the best of them.  At the core of it all is Maurice White’s songwriting and Larry Dunn’s arrangements,; all killer, no filler, as they say.

Of course, performers continued to come and go, though Dunn remained a constant , and EW&F ultimately got dragged into the black hole of Disco as the 70’s came to an end.  Such was the fate of many black funk musicians who followed the money trail.  By the 80’s, most of those early 70’s  funk bands had given up the game or climbed into spandex jump suits.  Exceptions would be The Meters, who by the late 70’s had  sorta, kinda morphed into The Neville Brothers and Tower of Power, whose horn players reassembled the band whenever they weren’t playing sessions for all & sundry. 

EW&F’s stage shows became increasingly mind-boggling with the band disappearing from the stage in pyramid-shaped spaceships; a sort of black Spinal Tap in some ways.  They were never really a disco band – as bassist Verdine White (one of three White brothers to play in EW&F) said; “I guess you could say we were at the party but didn’t get on the dance floor”.   Even so, by the early 1980’s, the die was cast and the band’s output became subject to the law of diminishing returns, with Parliament and Funkadelic picking up the baton for pure funk and outrage. 

The cover for Parliament’s UK 12″ single, ‘Deep’ – probably my favourite record cover of all time and all done pre-Photoshop

Earth, Wind & Fire still continue in some form or another to this day, but I would guess that routine has long eclipsed innovation in what they do.  No more Coltrane quotes during the instrumental passages, I suspect.

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