Earth, Wind & Fire: Progress Is The Key
July 1979 interview
By David Nathan
In an exclusive interview, Verdine White talks to David Nathan about the supergroup's latest chartbusting album, their recent tour and their targets for the future. "It's all about progress," he says. "We don't intend to stagnate or go backwards."
THERE seems absolutely no question that in terms of consistency, universal and international acceptance and popularity, Earth, Wind & Fire have no peers. They are certainly the only black group to have built a following of such major proportions that their records are now simultaneously released in most major international markets. A shipment of platinum or double platinum is almost guaranteed on release of an album in the U.S.A. and, above all, they're the one group constantly cited by other musical forces as having paved the way for acceptance for so many of their contemporaries.
The distinctive EW&F sound is such that its influence can be heard constantly on records by established and upcoming groups and performers and whether it's their own unique brand of funk, their horn lines, the vocal harmonies or the structure of their tunes, EW&F have left an indelible impression on the music of the 70s.
With their own record company now flourishing — ARC Records — under the guidance of group leader Maurice White, with acts such as Deniece Williams, The Emotions, D.J. Rogers, Weather Report and Caston & Majors as well as EW&F — the group are busier than ever. And with the release of the newest giant selling "I Am" album, EW&F show no signs of giving up their place at the top of the music scene.
We were fortunate to be able to get a few minutes from Verdine White, the group's renowned bass player and producer in his own right (he's worked on the two previous Pockets albums and just finished the next one, due out momentarily), fresh on his return from Philadelphia to attend the Black Music Association conference and naturally, Mr. White was more than happy to rap about the latest album as well as some of the other activities EW&F is involved with.
"The concept behind this album is quite simple," Verdine notes. "It's all about music — just that! It's an ongoing extension of the musical directions we've been taking up to this point. We put a lot more music into it — it's fuller perhaps — and it's an amalgam of the different styles we've been associated with up until now. We didn't actually do anything major to make it different — we just went in there and did what we always try to do — play our behinds off!"
Verdine admits that the involvement of two new personalities into the EW&F creative scene has added another dimension to the kind of sound on "I Am": "David Foster is a guy we've been knowing for some time. He used to be a member of Skylark and he's worked with all manner of people, including Hall & Oates. And Allee Willis is a songwriter who first came to our attention through one of the ladies who works in our office and one of The Harlettes. She wrote "Lay Your Head On My Shoulder" which is on the Pockets' album, and she also co-wrote "September" with Maurice. We liked the general sound that resulted so she's written on most of this new album."
With the prior success of "Got To Get You Into My Life" and "September" in the pop market, the question's been raised whether the group are veering more towards that area. "No, not particularly — we didn't plan to 'go pop' — it's just that the musical direction we've been taking resulted in music that appealed to a larger pop audience than maybe some of our other recordings did. It's like "Boogie Wonderland" (the group's latest hit featuring The Emotions). Maybe a lot of people didn't expect us to come from there but we want to always reflect what the public wants and provide good music. And the sophisticated approach that's involved in "Boogie Wonderland" doesn't make it just ordinary disco! We always feel the need to stay in tune with what the public wants and the best way to do that is to be a regular person. After all, all the stars are up in the sky and we're right here on the ground!"
The immediate acceptance of "I Am" has already indicated that this album will probably surpass its' successors as multi-platinum, "We think that the next single will probably be "After The Love Is Gone" because of the kind of response its gotten. My favourites, after that one, are "In The Storm" and the instrumental, "Rock That' which is somewhat different from the kind of cuts we've done instrumentally on our albums to date. It started out as a real rock thing and we mellowed it down a little."
The group completed an extremely successful international tour prior to finishing off the "I Am" album. "Yes, it was tremendous — I liked it a whole lot. I can't say I was completely surprised by the reaction in Europe because we've been building our base there over the last couple of years. But Japan was incredible — the people went crazy."
During their jaunts across the world, the group had a chance to stop off for a few days in Egypt and with their obvious interest in the mystical (as illustrated on the last three album covers, starting with "Spirit" on through "All 'n' All" to the latest set with its own unique cover art) Verdine was happy to give some comments: "It was very, very different. The people have their own lifestyle and, for us, it was a really interesting experience because we had to deal with a situation where a lot of the modern conveniences to which we've grown accustomed just weren't there. We got a chance to see the pyramids and other ancient works but I'd have to say that the general mystical aspect of Egypt belongs in the past — it's part of another era. I'd certainly like to go back there again, maybe on a proper expedition and spend some time because it was fascinating."
Of course, Verdine doesn't anticipate going back to Egypt yet — especially since the group are in the process of readying a domestic tour in the States. "No, it won't be one of those six months' jaunts because we really don't need to do that this time. Not that I mind being on the road — I really enjoy it because I like playing and I like everything I do! The tour will probably be about two or three months' long at the most but we're not sure exactly what yet, it's all being worked on right now so by the time this interview comes out, everything will be decided."
Until the exact dates are known, Verdine says "I don't plan to go back into the studio. Once we have our total schedule, then I'll be thinking about what's next on the drawing board. Since we just came out of the studio, we won't be going back in right away as a group but there may be a couple of projects that I'll be involved with as a producer. I just finished the third Pockets album and in fact, for the first time, I did some of the work in New York which was great. In fact, I intend to spend more time there because I dig the energy, the people and the general atmosphere — there's always so much going on in New York."
Although Verdine sees himself developing more as a producer, he's quite sure that he won't be doing a solo album any time soon. "I don't really see the point because I've been able to show my ability with EW&F so why do an album just for the sake of it. Other members may want to do solos, I really don't know, but the priority is always EW&F and as long as we continue to be accepted there's no reason for me to consider doing anything by myself."
Since the group have made such an enormous impact on the music world, the question remains as to what to they see as new heights for them to achieve. "We won't be happy until we sell 15 million records and up!" Verdine laughs. "If Fleetwood Mac can do it, we know we can because our music is as good as anyone else's that's out there! Sure, it's great to reach three million people but we know just how many people we could reach and we won't be satisfied until we do. So you can see, we're not even half way to where we want to be yet. It's just about the right channels opening up — we realize that it's about doing more television maybe and getting involved in movies — two areas we do intend to work in."
Verdine feels that "the message of EW&F in music for the 80's is simple: it's about progress — that's the key. We don't intend to stagnate or go backwards." On top of that, Mr. White says that "ARC is going to be developing — we realize the need to be consistent with the product at the company and we feel we have some strong things coming in the new batch of albums the company's bringing out."
All 'n' all, if Verdine will pardon the pun, EW&F are unquestionably staying ahead of the game and with all the activity, it's logical to wonder if the guys ever get time off and when they do, what do they do? "I play tennis as often as I can! I usually start around 8.00 am in the morning — and that's the only reason I don't spend more time in New York because the weather isn't always tennis-weather!" With the ongoing activity that has made Earth, Wind & fire and all its related projects such as ARC such a mighty, mighty force, we'd bet that whether he's on the tennis court or not, Mr. White along with his associates is going to keep on winning set after set!