Category Archives: Charles Stepney

‘Spirit’ Turns 40-Earth Wind & Fire Discovering What Imagination Could Do

Spirit

Earth Wind & Fire’s seventh studio album Spirit turns 40 in the month of September. Which by no coincidence to me considering that was the name of one of EWF’s major hit records a couple years later. Its also no coincidence today that my personal thoughts are on the now departed Maurice White-founder and conceptualist of the band. This album was released when EWF,following up their breakthrough album That’s The Way Of The World with its first proper studio followup,lost Charles Stepney to a heart attack at the beginning of the sessions for this album.

The sad part about this album was that the band members were mourning the loss of what amounted to a un-credited member in Stepney. He helped arrange for Ramsey Lewis when Maurice White drummed for his trio. And was the key to EWF’s breakthrough hits “Shining Star”,”That’s The Way Of The World” and ‘Reasons”. His production style matched White’s Unitarian style spirituality and positively inspiring lyrics. At the same time,I am reminded of a quote that my friend Henrique’s father once told him: what we don’t see is our opportunity.

In that “spirit”,the positive part about this album is that Maurice White could showcase all that he’d learned from working with Charles Stepney as a producer for the past few years. That’s because he’d be producing this album himself. And with the band,Phenix Horns and guest players such as Dorothy Ashby,Harvey Mason and Tom Tom 84,he had the wherewithal to extend on the sound Stepney had laid out for the band. I am listening while writing this to a vinyl copy of this album given to me by another beautiful human being with an amazing record collection named Scott Edwards.

Spirit is an album I’ve listened to on three formats: first cassette tape,then CD and now in its original vinyl release. As I do I think of the energies of Maurice White and Charles Stepney in an unknown world-back together creating a type of music that we the living will not hear. Also thinking of Maurice’s own words about the album being very hard to get through. This is expressed in his dedication to Stepney on the inner sleeve. He describes him having left to the next place-leaving behind much beauty and inspiration to feed upon. On a musical level,here’s what I wrote on Amazon.com about this album


Even though it was a hit there were many elements of their 1975 breakthrough that hadn’t quite defined how EWF would develop in the future. Between the sleek,very live and mic’d up production on this album and the astounding arrangements this album,coming mid decade during the bicentennial year (a great year for funk in general,by the way) this actually was the beginning of the sound most people during the late 70′ associate with EWF and also the middle ground between their mid and late 70’s period.

“Getaway” really points the way to the future as the rhythm becomes more elaborate and the funk grows a bit faster. One would be hard pressed to find a song more determinedly and genuinely positive minded than “On Your Face” and,also the chunky rhythms and point on horns and hand claps tell as much of the story of the vocals. This is also an excellent place to hear both Philip Bailey AND Maurice White singing in falsetto at the same time.

“Imagination” is one of the all time triumphs of Philip Bailey’s career as a vocalist and the orchestration and dynamic arrangement is indeed poetic and imaginative,showing once and for all with all the right parts in place how glorious mid tempo R&B/funk was and how much that style contributed to the genre during this period. The title track is a mass of layered keyboard parts and rhythms that was intended as a tribute to Stepney but also serves as a tribute to the human spirit in general.

“Saturday Night”,upon first listening comes off as a somewhat slicker production of “Shinning Star” but the upbeat hooks easily give it away as a totally different song. There’s even a tune here named for the band itself,another dynamically orchestrated mid tempo funk arrangement that puts into the play the entire manifesto of the band,a blend of their different varieties of spirituality set into something that comes very much from a terrestrial source.

“Biyo” is a very interesting instrumental as it does strongly anticipate the disco sound of the next several years but also shows you how essential funk is to that genre,kind of sealing the concept that disco was less a music than it was merely a dance style based on a certain variation of funk. “Burnin’ Bush” takes another dynamic arrangement and brings to everyone,non Christians included an interpretation of a biblical event interpreted EWF style.

Because of this albums far reaching musical and lyrical themes it’s very hard to figure out how exactly this kind of music would be totally erased from the pop charts a decade later-barely ever to return at all. I cannot say exactly why or how;there are too many reasons to go into but the fact this did exist in the context it did is likely a lesson in and of itself.


My own personal experience with this album is itself having an anniversary this year-the 20th in fact. Since I first experienced this fully during the summer of 1996 when I picked up the CD. Spirit did succeed at maintaining EWF’s mid/late 70’s commercial winning streak-with songs such as “Getaway”,”On Your Face” and “Saturday Night”. On the other hand,there was just something almost intangibly special about this album. The melodies,vocals,how they are arranged and played on are some of the most beautifully soulful and funky ones EWF ever made. And for me,that is Spirit‘s enduring legacy.

 

 

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under 1976, Amazon.com, Charles Stepney, classic albums, classic funk, Earth Wind & Fire, Maurice White, message songs, Music Reviewing, Philip Bailey

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Gratitude” by Earth,Wind & Fire

Verdine White was just 19 when he took up his brother Maurice’s offer to join his then new band Earth,Wind & Fire in LA. It may have very well been the best choice Verdine ever made in retrospect. He once discussed feeling he’d make it big for sure having met Richard Roundtree and Jimi Hendrix upon arrival. The next six year’s found the band paying their dues for the massive crossover success their funk got in 1975 with “Shining Star and the That’s The Way Of The World album. Verdine is 65 today,and sadly his brother Maurice isn’t here for the event. Still whoever lives or dies,the funk is its own reward.

During this period of working closely with Charles Stepney,EWF were on the road constantly on their first massive tour-one that included visual illusions from Doug Henning and David Copperfield. They didn’t have time to record a full studio album so they released a double album-consisting mostly of the best live renditions of their songs up to that point from their touring. There were also five new studio tracks-the two most successful being “Singasong” and “Can’t Hide Love”. The album was another major smash hit too. One track Verdine participated in as a writer was the title song ‘Gratitude”.

Larry Dunn and Verdine start off the song with a close walk down on Fender Rhodes and bass,until a muted horn breaks into the full horn charts that begin the main song. The drums have a slinky,rather slow tempo with the Rhodes,slap bass and the horn charts accenting Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s vocal turns. Al McKay plays some occasional rhythm guitar licks and,as the song progresses Johnny Graham takes turns with his amplified blues licks.Before the song fades out, the melodic pitch goes up for it’s last couple of choruses.

Musically speaking,this song is a heavy stripped down funk relative to the more filled out “Shining Star” and 1976’s “Saturday Night”. This makes sense as it was made exactly between the two. It epitomizes EWF’s funk sound while Charles Stepney was involved in their production. It had the slickest studio based variant of that ultra bluesy Chicago style funk. With the studio hits off this generally live album were huge successes,this title song seems to be a bit neglected. And that’s interesting because it’s the heaviest funk among the albums five studio tracks. Any way around it,Verdine’s bass is a major star of the show.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1970's, Charles Stepney, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Funk Bass, guitar, horns, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, Verdine White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sun Goddess” by Ramsey Lewis with Earth Wind & Fire

Don Myrick,the tenor saxophonist for Earth Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns from 1975 to 1982,passed away over twelve years ago. Today would’ve been his birthday. He played solos on key songs such as Phillip Bailey’s vocal showcase on the live rendition of “Reasons” on the bands Gratitude  album,as well their 1979 hit “After The Love Has Gone”. The mans way with jazzy harmonics was by no means limited to ballads. Myrick first met Maurice White as members of the Chicago band The Pharaohs-which also included future Phenix Horns trombonist Louis Satterfield. And it all came together for White and Myrick through the man that got Maurice’s career going to start with: Ramsey Lewis.

It was actually on EWF’s Gratitude album that I first heard the song “Sun Goddess”. It was a live version where Maurice announced that they were going to perform a song  they’d done with Ramsey Lewis. I knew of this windy city soul jazz piano master from my father playing his Don’t It Feel Good album on vinyl for me around the same time. Just before I wrote this,Henrique Hopkins informed me that the studio version of “Sun Goddess” was basically an afterthought jam. And he and EWF felt the song off the album of that same title would be “Hot Dawgit”. But in the end this song ended up redefining Ramsey Lewis as a major player on the 70’s jazz funk scene.

Johnny Graham just strums away on a thick,rhythmic guitar on two chords-going up and down note wise. Verdine White supplies the thick yet metronome like bass.. Maurice himself kicks in the song on bass drum before Phillip Bailey’s conga’s kick in. Charles Stepney himself adds both the ARP string countering the rhythm guitar while adding a Fender Rhodes solo right along with it. On the choruses,Maurice and Phillip sing a beautifully melodic Brazilian style vocalese. On the second refrain of the song Don Myrick comes in with a sometimes squonking free-bop jazz style tenor sax solo. On the third,Ramsey comes in for his own Rhodes solo which closes out the song.

For all intents and purposes, this is an Earth Wind & Fire song instrumentally. Ramsey himself acted as an arranger and producer for it. As well as a soloist. It’s a musical showcase for the sonically beautiful tonality that funk rhythms and jazz harmonies can create when combined together by great musical talents. The sound of this jam creates such a visual impression in the mind. The guitar and keyboard orchestrations Stepney provided bring to mind the rising sun on a clear and hot summer morning,at least to me anyway. And with this combination of two talent’s (Ramsey’s and EWF’s) whom I’ve always respected,this is a reminder why funk is my main and favorite basis for music.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1970's, ARP synthesizer, Charles Stepney, Chicago, Don Myrick, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, jazz funk, Johnny Graham, Maurice White, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ramsey Lewis, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, Uncategorized, Verdine White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Can’t Hide Love” by Earth,Wind & Fire

Writing Anatomy of THE Groove this week has really bought to mind how crucial the mid 70’s were to the greatest musical triumphs of the funk era. It’s a key conversational point between myself and Henrique,who’s still informing and inspiring me from behind the scenes on this blog. Watching a video of Maurice White serenading the late Natalie Cole with the song “Can’t Hide Love” inspired me to tell you,the reader how I feel about this song. Have covered a lot of EWF here. But this 1975 number is special to myself and Henrique in the entire annals of recorded funk.

Just the historical back-round of this song seems theatrical. When EWF decided to do a live album due to heavy touring keeping them from recording a whole new album after That’s The Way Of The World,they released a compilation of live versions of their songs from this touring instead. It was paired with four new studio tracks. And the song being talked about today was the last of them. The album was appropriately entitled Gratitude. The most interesting thing about the song was that it wasn’t entirely written by Maurice or the other band members.

The song started life as a song written by Louisiana born composer Skip Scarborough in 1973. It was included on the debut album for the LA based Fifth Dimension spin off group Creative Source. It would seem that Maurice White and company felt a deep connection to the song. And since Skip was already working his songwriting magic with EWF , they all teamed up to re-arrange the song in a whole new way for the band- three years after the original first came out. The result was yet another case of a re-imagined remake taking a song to an entirely different level.

The Phenix Horns fanfare into the song-accompanied at every turning by the popping,jazzy bass of Verdine White. The gentle,high pitched rhythm guitars,electric piano,drums and strings all come in to play the central refrain of the song itself. Each coming into their own climaxes with Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s righteous vocal heights. On the finale of the song? The refrain transforms into one of the most eloquently composed vocal harmonies in music history-with Bailey vocalizing wordlessly first in his natural tenor,than in his better known falsetto.

When my father asked me at age 16 what my favorite EWF song was? I told him it was this one. And each time I hear it to this day? The sheer level of musicality  in the song still raises the hairs on my back. Between the vocals,the bass of Verdine White,the rhythm guitar of Al McKay,the electric piano of Larry Dunn,the Phenix Horns and Charles Stepney’s string arrangements? It all dovetails with Scarborough’s reworked composition for a superb example of the sweetest funk can be. And on a non instrumental level,it goes even further.

Henrique and myself are in funky synergy about this song being one of the most harmonically advanced moments in  contemporary music. Especially when it comes to the final vocal choruses of Phillip Bailey.  Everything in this song is built on harmony. It deals with a man telling his lover not to deny the emotions they both have for each other. And doing so in a manner that’s both strong and empathetic. It perfectly reflects the song’s musical virtues. And if someone asked me to name a handful of songs representing the pinnacle of funk? This would be at the top of the list.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1975, Al McKay, Charles Stepney, classic funk, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, electric piano, Funk, Funk Bass, funk guitar, Larry Dunn, Los Angeles, Maurice White, Natalie Cole, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, Skip Scarborough, Uncategorized, Verdine White