Earth, Wind & Fire: Musical Giants
By David Nathan
In person interview with Verdine White, Los Angeles, Deecember 1977
ONE OF the gratifying success stories of this musical decade belongs unquestionably to a group who have literally become giants in the music world. We refer to the mighty, mighty Earth, Wind & Fire who remain at the pinnacle as the premier crossover group whose musical message has reached several million people over the last few years.
To date, their unique brand of fiery music hasn't quite broken through to the same extent in Europe but it has been left to the protegees and musical channels of folk like The Emotions and Deniece Williams to carry the EW&F message across the world where the group itself hasn't made its fullest impact.
But, without question, Earth, Wind & Fire have reached a level within the States where everything they touch literally turns to gold or platinum. And that hasn't meant any compromise in terms of what the group stands for and is saying.
At the core is their strong belief in the need to communicate a message of spiritual love and peace and songs such as "Devotion", "Keep Your Head To The Sky", "Shining Star", "That's The Way Of The World", "Getaway" and "Saturday Nite" all have a message for people: it's just up to you whether you recognize what it is and whether you choose to respond to it. As a positive force within the music world, they are unequalled and perhaps one of the most significant factors about EW&F is that, in spite of having attained such a lofty position, they are still accessible.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, EW&F still do interviews, are still concerned with their audiences and giving them the maximum in terms of the shows they perform and the records they release. Positive proof is here with their latest album, "All 'n' All" and the tour which they've just begun which should take them across the States for over three months.
At the kind invitation of CBS Records, we got the chance to see a special preview of their 'live' show which is going to totally astound and amaze everyone who sees it — more about that later! Not only that, but we did spend some time at the special press conference and got a chance to sit with Verdine White to talk at length about the group and their current activities. One of the first subjects to be discussed with Verdine revolved around the group's latest album, the sleeve of which in itself is a masterpiece. Depicting what we presume is a temple in Ancient Egypt complete with pyramid, it is certainly one of the most striking and unusual album covers we've ever seen and it comes as no coincidence that the attire worn by EW&F on stage and the climax of their performance (which involves some incredible magic) is very much tied in with the whole Egyptian concept. "We wanted to do something that relates to what we regard as our primitive heritage. At the same time, we wanted to project something that was different, rather than just being commercial for the sake of it. We're concerned at this point with the art, style and sophistication that we can present to the people," Verdine comments. "That's why the whole thing is all tied together, it goes hand in hand. You see, for us, "Spirit" represented the end of a particular era for EW&F and now we're entering a new phase where musical theatre is very much a part of entertainment. That's why we used the services of George Faison in helping put together our new stage show."
For those who may not know, Mr Faison is the very famous gentleman responsible for the choreography for "The Wiz" on Broadway as well as having put together stage shows for folks like Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson. "Our show is about one and a half hours long although in all truth, it seems like just fifteen minutes," notes Verdine. "We want to have our music reflect the urgency of contemporary music, it's got to be relevant to today. At the same time, we're about being innovative, creative and bringing up the general level of concerts so that when people pay their money, they get a good show. We feel that that way we're offering a service to the public because we have found that people are seriously affected by our music."
There is no doubt that EW&F's message has gotten over to many, many people since what can only be termed the turning point in their career back in 1975 when "That's The Way Of The World" really broke for the group. "Until then, we'd been steadily building our audiences. People don't realize that before we really broke through, we opened the show for many different people. Mandrill, Rod Stewart, War, Humble Pie — in the span of our career, we have seen a lot of people come and go, believe me. But we have always felt the need to never take our audiences for granted. We never started out to be millionaires and in fact, when we first started making any kind of money, we put it right back into the act, into our show and our accountants thought we were crazy! But, now, of course people can see the wisdom in doing something like that. Because it prepares you for the day when you can do things the way you want to."
The way EW&F do things is typified by the fact that they are now able to travel in their own plane and they can pick and choose exactly how they want their career to develop. "We've been very fortunate in that people have just kept up with us and responded so well. Take for instance our present situation: we hadn't been on the road for at least nine months and didn't have any new product since last August when we had the "Spirit" album. And yet, as soon as dates were set for this tour, it just began selling out way in advance! In fact," laughs Verdine, "I doubt that anyone else will be making any serious money once we get out there again for this tour — I think we might just clean up!"
Whilst they've been off the road, EW&F have been by no means idle. "As you know, we've been concentrating on working with Kalimba Productions, our production company. Maurice has been busy with Deniece and The Emotions and I did the Pockets project. That happened simply because someone dropped off a tape at my house and I listened to it and liked what I heard. I felt that it was time for me to get into producing — it was the next logical step because I have no desire to be out there on my own, like so many other people do once they've been part of a successful group — I want to continue to contribute within the framework that we have as well as doing selected projects myself."
After having met with Pockets, Verdine began working with the group in the studios in February of this year. “I think I was ready because I've spent quite a little bit of time in the studios over the years. And the group seemed open to what we wanted to do. Now, one thing I did stress to them was that whilst we were working we would keep it clean."
We should explain at this juncture for the benefit of those who may not know that Earth, Wind & Fire have some strong guidelines in terms of their own personal lifestyles. A good percentage of the group are vegetarians, they don't smoke or drink alcohol and they maintain principles in regard to their moral conduct. All of which may make you think that they're hermits, recluses or monks — which, of course, they are not — and in case you figure that they must be self-righteous or humorless, we can attest to the fact that the opposite is true. All of the members we've met in EW&F are warm, energetic, very positive people — and that must be saying something. We enquired whether perhaps the group used certain criteria for deciding to work with people in regard their own particular lifestyles.
"Well, let's put it like this," explains Verdine. "We are in a position now where we get people's respect for what we believe in and what we do. It hasn't always been that way and in the past, people haven't understood. But it's no longer a problem and sure, we do check people out to see where they're coming from because it's all bound up with positive energies and you can't work with people who have basic negative attitudes towards things. In view of the fact that we are spending time working with other artists, yes, we do have to have some control and choice in who we want to work with and yes, that does mean that there are some people that it would be difficult to work with because their lifestyles and attitudes — spiritually, morally and so on — are just a long way from where we're coming from. Of course, even in our personal lives, it has sometimes been a problem because not everyone understands why you do certain things — like not eating meat, not smoking cigarettes or marijuana, not drinking. But it is a personal matter so we don't sit there trying to dictate as to what people should do. It's up to each individual to do what is right for them. That's part of what 'Serpentine Fire' is all about. That feeling as to whether you want to do right or do wrong — it really is up to you. 'Serpentine Fire' itself is the name for the energy that helps you to create, being a creative individual and that's definitely affected by how you treat yourself spiritually, morally and physically."
It's generally acknowledged that EW&F have been definite pacesetters for many black groups who have really come into prominence within the last few years. "Yes, we have opened up the doors for a whole lot of people and that's because no one else tried to do the things we've done. When we first came out, we were hardly a tap-dancing black group, were we? Verdine notes. "But we don't look on everything in terms of competition like so many other people do. Sure, there are other people out here and yes, some of them have learned a great deal from some of the innovative things we've done. Now people may regard that as being an ego thing — but it isn't. It's just a positive statement about what we have contributed. And it makes us feel very good to see other people doing so well. Like The Commodores and Parliament and so on — we're really very happy for them — we don't feel anything about them being the number one groups or whatever."
"But," Verdine smiles, "The fact that we were off the road for the last nine months may have helped those groups to really clean up this year in terms of selling out at their concerts! But, on the serious side, we find that one of the negative things that happens with a lot of black groups and entertainers is that they get off into that competitive thing — about who's better than who. Do you think people like Peter Frampton and Fleetwood Mac are concerned about each other's audiences? It's hard enough for black entertainers to make it and then we go and start concerning ourselves with what the other people are doing. But you know, we feel that we've helped in that nowadays, it doesn't have to take a black group twenty years to get over. With the right attitude and the right ingredients, it can happen without all those years of paying heavy dues. Sure, you've got to pay some — everyone does — but as long as you maintain a positive attitude towards your music and yourself, everything happens when it's supposed to."
Unlike many of their contemporaries, EW&F don't dwell on whether they are a crossover act or not. "Certainly we're in a position where we cross over now more than ever but it really doesn't matter to us either way. Sure, it used to concern us — stuff like not getting nominated for Grammies and so on. But now, if it happens fine — if it doesn't, well that's fine too, because we know we have a solid base and people dig what we're doing."As long as we can continue to uplift people, keep growing and providing people with new and creative music, then people will respond. Plus we don't feel greedy about it — we want to share it with others, give other people a chance to make it, which is why it is so gratifying to see Deniece and The Emotions and Pockets doing so well."
Almost in the same tone, Verdine notes that the group aren't distressed that they haven't become a supergroup overseas as yet. "You've got to remember that we are innovative and we are a black group. Now, like it or not, there still exists a heavy psychological thing about the black male, and what he can do. It's a threat when people see what we can do by ourselves and we feel that that's one of the problems we may have in breaking through in certain overseas markets because that's a strong trend of thought. Also, to be honest, a lot of European markets haven't caught up with what we're about musically. That's why it's good to see Deniece and The Emotions doing well there because we're getting our message over through them, right?"
Verdine notes that, "yes, we do want to do some more travelling overseas because experiencing other cultures is always good. It's a way to open up your mind to what's going on in the world." All of which is why Earth, Wind & Fire remain where they're destined to remain for many years to come: at the top. And as if summing up everything that the group is all about, Verdine notes that "music is what we want to do, it's our life. We enjoy it now as much as ever, it's exciting and everything that's happening for us now is a challenge, the way everything up until this point has been. We just want to continue to bring some inspiration and happiness to as many people as possible."
With that kind of goal in view, Earth, Wind & Fire deserve every single accolade, every award, all the acclaim they get.