SO Britain has finally tasted the elements. Earth Wind & Fire, nine piece California-based self-contained band/group, have been described by most American music journalists at some time or another as America's most exciting 'live' act. Perhaps the only unfortunate side of their recent European tour — believe it or not, they were support act to Santana — is that soul folk didn't really get too many opportunities to witness the excitement. Though it's the group's first commercial tour of this country, it doesn't make it their first time here — as we learned from Verdine White, the bass player with the band and brother of the group's leader, Maurice White. "We were here for the CBS convention three years ago," he informed us during the group's prolonged stay in London. "We had literally just signed with the company after getting away from Warner Brothers. But we were very happy with the reaction we got over here — in the States, if you're an opening act, as we were, the audience really don't take notice. They sit and talk or they go to the bar and drink with their friends. But over here everyone sat and listened to our music and they seemed to dig where we were coming from."
I confess to being taken somewhat aback that EW&F — currently one of America's hottest acts — should have to serve as crowd warmers to a band that has fallen from favour during the past couple of years. "But we accept it," Verdine was quick to retort. "We know that you can be the biggest act in America and still be a bummer somewhere else in the world. And we wanted to come here so this seemed the best way to do it. And this way it means that all of the pressure is on Santana and we just go about our show quietly without any pressure on us."
Though EW&F top the soul charts, it would be unfair to label them a soul group because they have progressed to such a point that they now have across-the-board appeal. "Sure we started out as a straight soul group," Verdine explains. "And we went into this Rock thing quite by accident. We didn't consciously plan to go into any direction — our only direction really is that we play our own music our own way. We really are a group that can play anything and everything. At first, we had problems getting across the white audiences but once they have heard us, there are no more problems. In the beginning, we were just like the Temptations, I guess — they were just about the tops at that time. I guess we started the transition when we got involved in the theatricals. That was Maurice's idea and at the time there was only one black group doing visual stuff and they were the Barkays and they were musically totally different from us. Our first gentle step was to start wearing weird clothes — like tights…that was the actual first thing we did. Then we had the idea of the flying bass player! That started at a concert in New York at Madison Square Garden — in fact, the photos in the last issue of 'B&S' came from that actual concert I believe. Anyway, we followed it through to the point we are at today. We firmly believe that it is all going back to the theatre and that people now want to be entertained and not just sung to. People want the visual thing — you know, anyone and everyone can have a record. This really is the age of sight and whilst with us music is first, we do our best to add everything else to keep our people entertained."
To date, Earth Wind & Fire have had seven albums released and they have gradually increased in sales until they finally attained the No. 1 spot on the pop listing last time out with "That's The Way Of The World". Their recording career began at Warner Brothers and although they tasted success, the company never really seemed to get to grips with the situation. "At the time we joined Warners," Verdine reflects, "Sly was just about the only black act that had progressed into the white rock area. And Warners had a middle of the road sort of appeal so it really isn't surprising that they didn't understand us nor did they know what to do with us. When we joined CBS we immediately saw the difference — the company had a fuller spread of artists and they were into the music. We immediately felt at home. They also had the benefit at the time of Clive Davis, who is an extremely perceptive guy. It was and still is one big happy family. The transition between the two companies was perhaps the hardest period of our career, really. And it's interesting to note that Warner Brothers have changed their image almost a hundred per cent since we were there. But we put a great deal of our record success down to CBS. We believe that everyone has a job to do — ours is to make our music as good and commercial as we possibly can and theirs is to sell as many as they can. Our basic aim really is to be ourselves, to please people and to sell as many records as possible."
Their current album has already spawned two chart topping singles, both of which have long passed the million mark — "Shinin' Star" and "That's The Way Of The World". Since the group has never culled more than two singles from any one LP, it means a new album can't be far away. "We've virtually finished six new sides," Verdine excitedly pointed out. "And as soon as we get home, we'll do maybe three more sides so that we can have a new album ready for release later this year. We have a string of six concerts to do on the West Coast and then that will be the end of the year for us since we like to be at home and resting over the holiday period."
Apart from their own success, EW&F — or Maurice White to be more specific — have helped fellow-CBS artist, Ramsey Lewis, back to the top. Maurice enlisted the aid of his eight fellow members for Ramsey's "Sun Goddess' album and the album has become one of the year's biggest selling jazz albums — and in a year that has seen a resurgence of jazz into the big time. "Ramsey asked Maurice to help him do the album," Verdine nonchalantly explains. "He knew Ramsey from the time when they were both with Chess in Chicago — which is our home town, by the way. Maurice was on the staff at Chess for some four years before we started the group almost five years ago. The name was Maurice's and originally there were just six of us. There was Maurice, me and our other brother, Freddy — plus Larry Dunn and Ralph Johnson, both of whom were from Chicago, too. And there was Philip Bailey, who came from Denver. Later on the other three came into it as we grew more successful. Philip brought two other guys in from Denver and the other member is from Louisville Kentucky."
To be honest, EW&F lead a branch of music that was spearheaded by Sly Stone. "Sure, Sly broke the barrier down," Verdine is quick to acknowledge. "He brought black rock into the limelight. He was the first colourless Black artist and we like to think of ourselves as being colourless now. You see, music knows no colour boundary and that's why it is so important in forging the future of our world. It will have a great deal to do with bringing human togetherness and in cooling the malice that exists in certain parts of the world. We're just happy to be part of it. It's particularly interesting that the three most played black groups of today are all what I'm calling colourless — the Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang and us."
On reflection, 'colourless' is just about the only adjective that cannot be aimed at Earth Wind & Fire — except in the strict sense that Verdine was referring to. In every other way, the group ranks as perhaps the most colourful today as far as our music extends.