July 1975, In person interview conducted by David Nathan with Maurice White on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle
EW&F had broken through to mainstream success thanks to the response to their fourth Columbia album, “That’s The Way Of The World.” Word of-mouth had built momentum for the group, who were on the verge of mass acceptance…
TO understand the true power of Earth, Wind & Fire, you have to understand that these are nine people with a message. A universal message which may truly be the first totally universal message in music of our decade (or for that matter, any other). You only have to take a look at their audiences. Every conceivable element is in there and to experience the unifying atmosphere that this group creates explains why Earth, Wind & Fire constitutes an explosion whose effects are just being felt. They are described in music business lingo (smile) as “the hottest group around today” but in reality, the group’s mentor, Maurice White will tell you “we have only just begun reaching people”. But once they touch you, the message in there will – to paraphrase the lyrics of “That’s The Way Of The World” – reach right down to your heart and soul.
Earth, Wind & Fire is about positive energy, positive thoughts and positive reaction. To understand where they’re coming from you have only to sit and check out the lyrics for their superb material. Love is in there in abundance, but not the usual ‘I love you baby, don’t leave me’ – that has its place and is valid. But Earth, Wind & Fire’s love extends beyond that: they generate love, as they generate music. Which, if there has to be a secret to a success, is what it is: Anyone who has listened to the very uplifting and totally rhythmic sound that the group makes may wonder that this may sound very high-fallutin or flowery. But take a little time if you dig Earth, Wind & Fire to see that whilst you might be boogeying to “Shining Star” or “Mighty, Mighty” or “Happy Feelin”, each single side has a message. “There is need for what is being said,” says Maurice White. And, amidst what seems like a truly turbulent world, who can deny that the positive projections of Earth, Wind & Fire are more than needed?
To understand Earth, Wind & Fire, you have to see that the spiritual concept behind the group accounts for their existence. Explains Maurice White: “From my youngest days, I always felt certain affinities with the idea of being a preacher and then as I grew, life’s experiences made me question the purpose behind what was I doing. On a technical level, I studied music in Chicago (the group’s hometown), I was making money through work in the studios. I had been successful but I felt the need to question why these things had been open to me. I guess it was around 1968 that I began my own personal quest to discover my own mission.” Through a process of study and travel (reading extensively on religion, philosophy and visiting the Orient in 1968-69), Maurice became acquainted with what he felt was his life’s mission. Which, if you don’t necessarily understand or believe, is worthy of investigation – after all, we all have a purpose in life and half of the world’s problems are caused because most people don’t even feel inclined to look for what it is.”
But that is a whole other thing to get into. Maurice recalls drawing an illustration of what later transpired to be Earth, Wind & Fire as it is today some four years ago whilst studying a book entitled “Laws of Success”. Without being aware, Maurice had pictured the actual line-up as it is today as well as describing the kind of music that has put Earth, Wind & Fire in the upper musical echelons. 1970 saw Maurice working with Ramsey Lewis and it was not long after that he re-located to California to form the initial line-up of Earth, Wind & Fire which ultimately changed when “we had reached certain musical heights and it was time to form a new direction”. That was some four years ago and prior to that the group (pacted with Warner Brothers) had two albums which reflected the-then group’s originality. But with 1971 came changes and into being came what is essentially Earth, Wind & Fire today, with the recent addition of Maurice’s younger brother Fred as an additional drummer, cementing the already-strongly percussive sound of the group.
Following their brief spell with Warner Bros., the newly-vitalized group pacted with C.B.S. Records and without any kind of airplay of significance and (to begin with) no spectacular promotion, Earth, Wind & Fire began to pick up unbelievable sales on their initial albums – “Last Days & Time” and “Keep Your Head To The Sky”, the latter turning gold. “It was word of mouth basically, explains Maurice. “A lot of people came to see our shows and I guess that was how a lot of it spread. Yes, we have always tried to make our stage shows particularly visual and exciting because this projects our music better and makes people more aware of us and what we’re doing and trying to say.”
One gold album led to another in “Open Our Eyes” and since climbing the charts with such items as “Kalimba Story”, “Devotion” and more recently, “Shining Star”, there has just been no stopping Earth, Wind & Fire. The phenomenal acceptance the group has enjoyed from all musical quarters can only be attributed to the universality of their message. And because they literally live the life they sing about. “There are certain disciplines we apply to our life in respect of diet and living, the way we live. There are certain aspects which have to be kept clean, things that relate directly to the Creator. By adopting a totally positive approach to our life, we can reflect this in our music – we won’t allow it to reflect any negative vibes or thoughts. All our music is ‘up’ in the sense that it is intended to bring people to that state. It is truly gratifying to know that we are finally getting to people, they are accepting us. But as yet we have one-and-a-half-million listeners – and that’s pretty small in comparison to the number of people out there! We constantly need to get to more.”
Maurice feels that the material the group performs is meant in a sense, to guide people. “No, we don’t deal in drugs in any way – it’s not necessary if your spirit is clear and your mission is positive. You attract to you what is within you and you can always get good out of any bad. Yes, it is true that a lot of entertainers don’t follow these kind of guidelines – that is may times because they are in it for the wrong reasons. You cannot have an ego and deal with it all and a lot of them misunderstand the whole purpose of their function as a performer. Yes, we do still have to deal with the industry as it is – but we are to an extent protected from it.”
With such a constantly busy and heavy schedule, one wonders how the group is able to maintain itself on a personal level. “A good night’s sleep and vitamins!” is the answer Maurice came up with for that one. “But we are human and occasionally, the fire does go out in as far as all the traveling and performing is concerned. At those times, you light a fresh log and that gets it! Earth, Wind & Fire is a family as distinct from just a group – the name itself has a strong spiritual value. It’s something people can and do relate to and the elements are reflected in it.” Maurice feels has a lot of growing to do and they obviously strive for perfection – a glimpse in at one of their rehearsals indicated that they are far from being complacent about what they’re doing, continually going over material until they are satisfied. “We are still in the process of perfecting – both as a group and as individuals and in consequence, we are therefore still perfecting our music. We all feel we have a long way to go and we must constantly remain open enough for creativity to flow. If your mind is open, your heart will be the same and what comes through will be open too.”
Having literally conquered everyone with “That’s The Way of the World” (which, if you didn’t know, is the movie score for the film of the same name in which Earth, Wind & Fire made their acting debut: it’s actually about the music business), the group are preparing a ‘live’ album for release before the end of the year. Hopefully it will capture the tremendous atmosphere and exuberance that the team exhibits and exudes on stage. To really feel the impact of what Earth, Wind & Fire are capable of, you have to see them in action. The aura of peace and creative power that the group creates has to be seen to be believed and it will be interesting to see whether they can capture the same effect when they visit Europe for the first time.
Meanwhile, the group plans to go back into the studios “around November – for an album for January release” and the new material contained promises, as always to be something really special. “Yes, have a message for Americans – we want to influence their thinking because it has such a profound effect on the world. But at the same time, we are anxious to get our message over to the rest of the world through travelling and visiting the countries concerned.”
There can be little doubt that Earth, Wind & Fire’s powerful message with its consistent rhythm and musical content is a universal one and it is only a matter of time before the world outside the States becomes aware of their unique force and drive. Without hesitation, the unity the group creates is far more apparent than with any other group – people literally of all kinds dig their sound. And that, alone, is the major and most significant aspect of what Earth, Wind & Fire conveys. Whether it is on record or in concert, the group will continue to reign supreme if only because what they are saying is so vital – not simply in musical terms but in general terms. That they will continue to conquer the world is without doubt and they may well, in retrospect, be the beginning of a whole new era of love, peace and good vibes. All they ask is that you open your eyes and keep your head to the sky!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.