Maurice White,founder of Earth Wind & Fire and late 60’s drummer from the Ramsey Lewis Trio,passed away in his sleep yesterday morning at the age of 74. For several years now,my friend and creative consultant Henrique Hopkins have often discussed the reality of many silent and baby boom generation musical icons beginning to pass away. Many already have. Maurice lived with Parkisons disease for his final decades of life. And while his Earthly suffering is over now,he once said during EWF’s peak that while society was often too negative to beauty and love,he saw him and the band’s music as medicine. And that is the launching pad for this very special tribute.
The music of Earth Wind & Fire plays a crucial role in this particular blog. With Maurice being a musician,bandleader and producer as well as vocalist he understood the importance of the recording studio in advancing funk music’s popular notoriety. The whole notion of myself putting so much effort into taking the songs of this genre and breaking them down musically for many different people to read and potentially gain insight from was directly inspired by Maurice’s creative visions. As occurred recently,the sheer massive nature of EWF’s recorded catalog was intimidating in terms of over-viewing another of their songs. So it just flowed naturally to discuss their classic “Shinning Star”.
Brother Verdine opens the song with a ringing,shuffling and double tracked bluesy bass solo before the Phenix Horns burst right into action. A chanking wah wah follows Verdine’s continuing chunkiness on the bass line and the songs slow,slogging drums. Al McKay’s rhythm guitar follows closely with the drums. Johnny Graham plays a bluesy solo over the horns on the chorus,which continues along with Larry Dunn’s Fender Rhodes solo before a beautifully calculated funk break enters into the second refrain of the song. There are a few more repeated choruses before Bailey’s chants of “Shining star for you to see/what your life can truly be” over a jazzier bass line.
“Shinning Star” clocks in at under 3 minutes-shorter than what’s normally expected for a classic funk number. It introduced a very strong pop song structure that holds close to the 12 bar blues,yet is directly out of the James Brown school of putting all the rhythm out front. The bass,the horns and the rhythm all do their dance on this song with a wonderful sense of release. As someone who found themselves being more and more of a natural non conformist as I grew up,listening to this song provided an important world of self confidence that has surely inspired many people. The music and the lyrics both create a truly inspiring impulse to the listener.
Many people today are convinced music cannot change the world or anyone’s heart. This song represents a great moment in history when the funk music genre was actually doing just that. During the mid 70’s it was serving a similar function as gospel and folk music had in the past-as an oral engine of sociopolitical commentary and personal understanding for the listener. And most importantly,this song allowed funk to really cross over onto the pop charts. So many of EWF’s songs from the mid to late 70’s have a similarly positive effect. And on this particular song the elements within the band that bought that effect to light shinned directly through thanks to Maurice White.