Even before yesterday’s birthday celebrator Philip Bailey joined them in 1972, Earth Wind And Fire were beginning to prove themselves quite expert and bringing the music of the funk era to the people with their musical and lyrical eloquence. Band originator Maurice White maintains it was always his intention to have the vocally elastic Bailey-able to jump from a preaching tenor to his distinctive,tremolo filled falsetto at a moments notice,would do all the singing in the band. Of course Maurice felt his lower voice might benefit the band too singing along with Bailey as well. While White has forced himself out of direct participation in EWF due to the burgeoning effects of Parkisons Disease,he appears to have left his musical legacy to the one man he knew who’d remained part of the band since the day he joined: Philip Bailey. And last year Earth Wind & Fire made of or their many happily surprising comebacks and delivered an album called ‘Now,Then And Forever’-which began with another of their joyfully inspiring anthem’s in “Sign On”.
Beginning with the fan fare of the current Phenix horn members in sax player Fred Jackson Jr with trumpeters San Cracchiolo,James Ford and Christopher Gray as well as trombonists Duane Benjamin,Nicholas Lane and Reginald Young they continue to stay on the one with the songs bright,strong melody throughout through the gospel-inspired joy that oozes out of whatever their blowing from their horns. Drummer John Paris holds down an spirited marching band style rhythm with Verdine White’s bass playing its thickly percussive role alongside it. On the jazz oriented “blue notes” of the refrain,the return of Larry Dunn on keyboards and synthesizers also comes to the forefront. Lyrically this insistent groove makes complete sense considering the songs lyrical content-finding Bailey’s now smokier falsetto duetting with the creamy middle tenor of guest singer Daniel McClain. Bailey starts out singing “are you tired of insanity” and sets up an endless creative set of variations on how,if people have had enough of poverty and war they should “sign on for a better way” as the chorus suggests.
As par Earth Wind & Fire’s consistent standard of delivering what I refer to as “people music”-funk grooves with an inspiring lyrical message,this song seems to alternately refer both to humanity seeking to embrace an inner philosophy and hope and love over cynicism and uncaring. Its also been suggested that the song also references many people of a younger generation than the band members to volunteer for positive political action and,much as their song “Freedom Of Choice” had thirty years ago, to vote in both local and national elections. Far aside from being a mere propaganda song, it just delivers on what EWF always has with their customary vitality. Even outside of that,the instrumental approach tells its own meaningful story. From Prince’s Minneapolis Sound on through the hip-hop inspired neo-soul genre,the general instrumental style used for playing retro soul and funk has tended to be very stripped down and electric piano based-focusing attention mainly on the singer and the material.
On this song EWF deliver on their classic funk style as an artistic vision as opposed to a mere trend. They make sure the vitality of the very live horns and drums are mixed high with their customarily powerful vocal harmonies. Frankly I rarely here most contemporary funk numbers so heavily based on horns. Of course this is likely due to the fact that the band emerged from a strong jazz back round with Maurice White having played with Ramsey Lewis’s trio and the participation of bassist/trombonist Louis Satterfield during their salad years. Its also a testament to what they’ve always musically stood for. Even though essentially boiling down to a trio of Philip Bailey,Verdine White and Ralph Johnson Earth Wind & Fire are true musical survivors-even when a given trend seems to have left them in the dust. They keep coming back and are more beloved each time they are. And this serves as the latest examples of EWF as the musical ambassadors of the true nature of funk.