Earth, Wind & Fire drew from various streams of black music, synthesizing soul, funk, R&B, pop, gospel and African styles into a polished, precision-tooled approach. During the latter half of the Seventies, they issued a string of albums that changed the face of black popular music, linking thrilling music with uplifting messages of racial pride, African consciousness and spiritual unity. A large and visually resplendent ensemble, its members often wore colorful African robes. The group was known for employing magic tricks (often directed by the late Doug Henning) in their elaborate late-Seventies stage shows. Even so, the anthemic power of “Shining Star,” “Serpentine Fire,” “Getaway” and numerous other crossover hits proved that Earth, Wind & Fire’s music could stand on its own.
The group was founded by Memphis-born Maurice White, a session drummer who joined Chess Records’ studio band from 1963 to 1967. Following a stint with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, he formed Earth, Wind & Fire in Los Angeles in 1969. A definitive nine-man lineup coalesced in the early Seventies around a core of White, who sang and played the African kalimba; his bass-playing brother, Verdine White; and vocalist Philip Bailey. The group’s tight, punchy horn section became a featured attraction, but the musical currents ran deeply. “Our whole vision,” Bailey has commented, “derived from the greats before us: Miles Davis and John Coltrane and all the great singers…. We were jazz musicians at heart playing popular music.” Moreover, they were driven by idealism. “The essence of this band is hope,” White has said.
Earth, Wind & Fire attracted a then-untapped audience of hip, young urban audience of blacks and whites that reacted to the energetic music and charismatic presentation. Their breakthrough album, That’s The Way Of The World (1975), yielded “Shining Star,” a GRAMMY Award-winning #1 hit on both the pop and R&B charts. Earth, Wind & Fire’s conquest of the Seventies continued with an unbroken run of multiplatinum albums: Gratitude (1975), Spirit (1976), All ‘N All (1977), The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 (1978) and I Am (1979).
In addition to overseeing Earth, Wind & Fire’s albums and tours, White was fast becoming one of the hottest producers around. He even started his own label, ARC, in 1978. Without question one of the hardest-working bands in show business, Earth, Wind & Fire found themselves physically and creatively exhausted by the early Eighties. They took a four-year hiatus, during which time Maurice White devoted himself to production while Philip Bailey launched a dual solo career, finding success in both the Christian and pop fields. The much-in-demand Earth, Wind & Fire horn players, known as “The Phenix Horns,” teamed up with Genesis and its singer/drummer, Phil Collins, on a number of hit recordings. Collins and Bailey collaborated on “Easy Lover,” a #2 hit in 1984.
The reunited Earth, Wind & Fire bounced back in 1987 with a strong album, Touch The World, and single “System Of Survival.” They became an active recording and touring entity again, albeit at a less frantic pace. A career-spanning box set, The Eternal Dance, was released in 1992. Maurice White retired from the road in 1996 but remains Earth, Wind & Fire’s producer and guiding light.