Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the most musically accomplished, critically acclaimed, and commercially popular funk bands of the ’70s. Conceived by drummer, bandleader, songwriter, kalimba player, and occasional vocalist Maurice White, EWF’s all-encompassing musical vision used funk as its foundation, but also incorporated jazz, smooth soul, gospel, pop, rock & roll, psychedelia, blues, folk, African music, and, later on, disco.
Lead singer Philip Bailey gave EWF an extra dimension with his talent for crooning sentimental ballads in addition to funk workouts; behind him, the band could harmonize like a smooth Motown group, work a simmering groove like the J.B.’s, or improvise like a jazz fusion outfit. Plus, their stage shows were often just as elaborate and dynamic as George Clinton’s P-Funk empire. More than just versatility for its own sake, EWF’s eclecticism was part of a broader concept informed by a cosmic, mystical spirituality and an uplifting positivity the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the early days of Sly & the Family Stone. Tying it all together was the accomplished song writing of Maurice White, whose intricate, unpredictable arrangements and firm grasp of hooks and structure made EWF one of the tightest bands in funk when they wanted to be. Not everything they tried worked, but at their best, Earth, Wind & Fire seemingly took all that came before them and wrapped it up into one dizzying, spectacular package.
In 1975, EWF completed work on another movie soundtrack, this time to a music-biz drama called That’s the Way of the World. Not optimistic about the film’s commercial prospects, the group rushed out their soundtrack album of the same name (unlike Sweet Sweetback, they composed all the music themselves) in advance. The film flopped, but the album took off; its lead single, the love-and-encouragement anthem “Shining Star,” shot to the top of both the R&B and pop charts, making Earth, Wind & Fire mainstream stars; it later won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group.
The album also hit number one on both the pop and R&B charts, and went double platinum; its title track went Top Five on the R&B side, and it also contained Bailey’s signature ballad in the album cut “Reasons.” White used the new income to develop EWF’s live show into a lavish, effects-filled extravaganza, which eventually grew to include stunts designed by magician Doug Henning. The band was also augmented by a regular horn section, the Phoenix Horns, headed by saxophonist Don Myrick. Their emerging concert experience was chronicled later that year on the double-LP set Gratitude, which became their second straight number one album and featured one side of new studio tracks. Of those, “Sing a Song” reached the pop Top Ten and the R&B Top Five, and the ballad “Can’t Hide Love” and the title track were also successful.
Sadly, during the 1976 sessions for EWF’s next studio album Spirit, Charles Stepney died suddenly of a heart attack. Maurice White took over the arranging chores, but the Stepney-produced “Getaway” managed to top the R&B charts posthumously. Spirit naturally performed well on the charts, topping out at number two. In the meantime, Maurice White was taking a hand in producing other acts; in addition to working with his old boss Ramsey Lewis, he helped kickstart the careers of the Emotions and Deniece Williams. 1977’s All n’ All was another strong effort that charted at number three and spawned the R&B smashes “Fantasy” and the chart-topping “Serpentine Fire”; meanwhile, the Emotions topped the pop charts with the White-helmed smash “Best of My Love.” The following year, White founded his own label, ARC, and EWF appeared in the mostly disastrous film version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, turning in a fine cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” that became their first Top Ten pop hit since “Sing a Song.” Released before year’s end, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 produced another Top Ten hit (and R&B no. 1) in the newly recorded “September.”
1979’s I Am contained EWF’s most explicit nod to disco, a smash collaboration with the Emotions called “Boogie Wonderland” that climbed into the Top Ten. The ballad “After the Love Has Gone” did even better, falling one spot short of the top. Although I Am became EWF’s sixth straight multi-platinum album, there were signs that the group’s explosion of creativity over the past few years was beginning to wane.
1980’s Faces broke that string, after which guitarist McKay departed. While 1981’s Raise brought them a Top Five hit and R&B chart-topper in “Let’s Groove,” an overall decline in consistency was becoming apparent. By the time EWF issued its next album, 1983’s Powerlight, ARC had folded, and the Phoenix Horns had been cut loose to save money. After the lackluster Electric Universe appeared at the end of the year, White disbanded the group to simply take a break. In the meantime, Verdine White became a producer and video director, while Philip Bailey embarked on a solo career and scored a pop smash with the Phil Collins duet “Easy Lover.” Collins also made frequent use of the Phoenix Horns on his ’80s records, both solo and with Genesis. Bailey reunited with the White brothers, plus Andrew Woolfolk, Ralph Johnson, and new guitarist Sheldon Reynolds, in 1987 for the album Touch the World. It was surprisingly successful, producing two R&B smashes in “Thinking of You” and the no.1 “System of Survival.”
1990’s Heritage was a forced attempt to contemporize the group’s sound, with guest appearances from Sly Stone and MC Hammer; its failure led to the end of the group’s relationship with Columbia. They returned on Reprise with the more traditional-sounding Millennium in 1993, but were dropped when the record failed to recapture their commercial standing, despite a Grammy nomination for “Sunday Morning”; tragedy struck that year when onetime horn leader Don Myrick was murdered in Los Angeles. Bailey and the White brothers returned once again in 1997 on the small Pyramid label with In the Name of Love.
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