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Earth, Wind & Fire: 12 Essential Songs
Savor the smoothest soul and most enlightened funk from the hitmaking legends
BY MOSI REEVES, JASON HELLER, JORDAN RUNTAGH, SIMON VOZICK-LEVINSON, OLIVER WANG, CHRISTOPHER WEINGARTEN February 4, 2016
“I was writing about my life,” Maurice White once told the late journalist Timothy White. Yet in the mid-to-late 1970s, his funk juggernaut Earth Wind & Fire resonated with millions. They were arguably the biggest black rock band in the world, scoring nearly a dozen gold and platinum albums, and charting Top 10 singles like “Shining Star,” “Sing a Song” and “After the Love Is Gone.” Critics may have eventually soured on their increasingly sophisticated mix of disco, fusion jazz, Africana, soft pop and stoned soul; but their message of peace, spirituality and love, as well as their fantastic outfits and incendiary live concerts, made them one of the quintessential bands of the era.
Earth, Wind & Fire employed 10 musicians during their peak years, as well as the famed Phoenix Horns section. White was always at the center, whether singing lead vocals with the gospel-trained Philip Bailey, or working in the studio alongside legendary producer Charles Stepney (who tragically passed away in 1976). He oversaw the intricately designed gatefold covers that depicted Egyptian pyramids and Biblical symbols, and inserted references to his beliefs in his lyrics. Whether the audience understood everything he sang about or not, no one could deny the power of EWF. Here’s some of the group’s best.
“Sweetback’s Theme” (1971)
Circa 1970, playwright, poet and radical raconteur Melvin Van Peebles was finishing work on his low-budget film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The filmmaker still needed a soundtrack and his assistant happened to be dating a young Chicago transplant to Los Angeles, Maurice White, whose band Earth, Wind & Fire was still shopping their demos. As Peebles told Wax Poetics, “they were all starving to death on Hollywood Boulevard” but he enlisted their help in concocting a set of greasy funk and jazz loops that Peebles himself warbled and screeched over. The album and movie unexpectedly became runaway successes and EWF became the first musical stars of the blaxploitation era, paving the way for Isaac Hayes’s Shaft and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly.
“Maurice’s whole vision was to kinda sneak a little jazz on people,” said EWF singer Philip Bailey in a 2013 interview. Nowhere is that more evident than in “Devotion,” a minor hit but major fan favorite from 1974’s Open Our Eyes. Awash in shimmering chords, fusion-rich keys and a lusciously sinuous bass line, the song’s hooks are as subtle as they are unshakeable. It’s a tender song for a time when America felt anything but — and White’s mission to smuggle jazz into the R&B and pop charts feels more sacred here than almost anywhere else in EWF’s catalogue. Or as the song itself unabashedly states, “So our mission, to bring melody/Ringing voices sing sweet harmony.” Its most memorable version can be heard on the 1975 live album Gratitude, where the band’s rendition at the Omni Theater in Atlanta is like a gospel-funk revival.
“Shining Star” (1975)
1975 was the year Earth, Wind & Fire wrote themselves into the pop canon, and that had a lot to do with this jubilant, chart-topping smash. “Shining Star” sounds like a party – and it certainly soundtracked more than a few — but it’s really an uplifting motivational anthem along the same lines as Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody Is a Star,” riding along on a clean, bright, brassy groove that stands as one of White’s finest production jobs. In 2000, when Earth, Wind & Fire joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he remembered the single as a crucial turning point. “That’s the Way of the World really took off very slow,” he said of their sixth studio LP. “We thought it wasn’t gonna happen. Then we released ‘Shining Star,’ and it went to the top of the charts and saved the album.”
Ramsey Lewis, “Sun Goddess” (1975)
Maurice White was involved in numerous groups in the late Sixties and early Seventies, even as Earth, Wind & Fire was starting to become his main attraction. One of those groups is the band that backed popular jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis — so it only makes sense that Lewis and EWF would cross paths, which they did to scintillating effect on “Sun Goddess.” The 1974 single is a monstrously groovy funk dreamscape full of airy harmonies, ripe brass and a deeply reverential undertone — a beautiful illustration of White’s transition from sideman and session player to bandleader nonpareil.