Category Archives: Johnny Graham
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.
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.
Earth Wind & Fire had one important thing in common with a lot of 50’s and 60’s era black groups. Their creative and commercial momentum developed in a slower way. In their case,it seemed to be the more artistic reasons that played into this earlier on. Maurice White retained only brother Verdine on bass when he left Warner Bros. for Columbia. Their 1972 debut for the label Last Days And Time featured Ronnie Laws, the Friends Of Distinction’s Jessica Cleaves and Roland Bautista. But also introduced Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Larry Dunn-the first two of whom are still the core of the band to this very day.
After that label debut that was still somewhat in the mold of the bands two Warner Bros. albums,the band regrouped still further. Ronnie Laws and Roland Bautista left. This opened the door for successors Al McKay,who’d played with Charles Wright as well as Andrew Woolfolk on soprano sax and an additional guitarist in Johnny Graham. Still retaining Cleaves for the time being,the band released their second Columbia album Head To The Sky. It has a somewhat unique sound for them as it has their renowned slick production, but retains a lot of their more experimental musical elements. In terms of funk,it’s the song “Build Your Nest” that really stands out for me on this album.
The song actually fades in with it’s intro. Musically the intro is a round,expanding wah wah guitar with a light and lilting Clavinet in the back round. A grimy guitar solo gets the main groove of the song going. The rhythm is based around a slower swinging funk-heavy on cymbal and with a strong brushing sound. The bass has a very gruff and brittle wah wah going about it while the rhythm guitar has that percussive James Brown flavor. Organ and Rhodes piano occasionally accent this thick musical bed. On the melody,there’s a descending chord that takes the main melody into a much higher key. The song returns to it’s main choral theme as it fades out.
When I first read about the Head To The Sky album in the Allmusic guide in the early 90’s,it was described as having some of the best uptempo songs the group ever made. That’s a big statement to make for sure. But this one is still very distinctive for them. First and foremost because it’s one of the few (if any) 70’s EWF funk numbers that succeeded without the presence of a single horn,let alone a horn section. The rhythm section entirely carries the groove. Lyrically the song allows Maurice to illustrate how important it is,especially for black couples,to fight for and maintain a happy domestic life. On that level,it’s actually one of my favorites of EWF’s earlier funk numbers.