Earth Wind & Fire are one of those groups who have a number of distinct musical periods. They’re all pretty hard to define by name and sometimes pass very quickly but,much as with James Brown and The Beatles before them they always had a way of getting people on board with them. One important thing this album did do was solidify the bands classic lineup more so than the highly transitional Columbia debut Last Days & Time had. At this phase of their career, EWF hadn’t fully developed the distinction they had on albums such as That’s the Way of the World.
Still the musical flourishes of then newcomers in Maurice and Verdine’s brother Fred-along with main drummer Ralph Johnson, Johnny Graham and Al McKay really give a lot of body to this music. This album was also the step off point from where Earth, Wind & Fire went from being a more raw dog soul/funk band into one that had a certain type of lushness in the production. The one important thing to note here is that Charles Stepney hadn’t yet become involved in the production of the band yet so we find Maurice and company having to find there own way around production slickness.
One thing to be noted about this album is that there is a very intense Latin-jazz flavor to most of the music on this album;one can here the influences of similarly flavored jazz-funk then being turned out by Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith during this period on songs such as “Evil”,”Clover”,featuring Phillip Bailey singing in his lowest voice possible and the en longed instrumental version of Sergio Mendes’s tune “Zanzibar. Not only do all of these songs feature a lot of spiritually pastoral lyrical metaphors. The cover art to this album reflects the mood of the music quite well in this particular regard.
But this is also music that likewise seems to grow in terms of chord progressions and musical inventiveness. This is one of the most thoroughly instrumentally based album EWF probably ever made and even Maurice White once pointed out how this music put the band into sync with the best instrumentalists of that era. Of course, heavily reverbed,breezy psychedelic soul type mid tempo ballads such as “Keep Your Head To The Sky”,an early EWF hit and “The World’s A Masquerade” add a good change of pace to the proceedings.
“Build Your Nest” is one of the best early examples of the type of slick yet heavy bottomed funk they band would make their trademark with shortly. The elements in the music that are still being worked out are the fact the band still have a quirkiness that’s actually very random. For example-at the end of the song “Clover” someone is making a very mournful sound which is rather pained. And it provides an eerie contrast to the beautiful grooves that predominate most of this album. Maybe it was a fluke or someone’s reminder of some of the darker elements of the early 70’s
Its that and other such aspects that sets keeps Head To The Sky apart from what’s to come. And perhaps that is why it’s one of only a few 70’s EWF titles currently out of print domestically-because of it’s sense of floating between being musical creative and commercially viable. Its also the one EWF album of the 70’s where horn charts are not a heavy priority in the production. No matter how you cut it, Head To The Sky remains one of this bands most potently creative albums and for an example of the artistry of Earth Wind & Fire this might be an excellent place to go even as a starting point.
Earth Wind & Fire’s 1977 album All ‘N All is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming autumn. Today however, wanted to pick one particular song from this iconic album to talk about. And for a very special reason. Raised in Kentucky, Johnny Graham started out playing the trumpet as a child. And moved to guitar as a teenager. While touring with the new birth, Graham got contacted by Maurice White. Apparently some of the New Birth members had told White how great a guitarist Graham was. And White wanted Graham as one of his guitarists in his rebooted edition of Earth Wind & Fire.
That reboot edition of EWF debuting on Head To The Sky became basically the bands classic 70’s line up. Graham, who turns 66 today, provided a strong amplified blues flavor to EWF during its salad days. And his guitar solos on songs such as “That’s The Way Of The World” essentially added that musical element of earthiness present in their name. Another such solo turned up on the song that closes the first side of the original LP of the All ‘N All album. And a song that’s become album cut by many admirers of the band. The name of the song is “Love’s Holiday”.
A thick,cymbal heavy drum count comes in with the Phenix Horns playing a beautifully jazzy unison horn chart. Than Al McKay and Verdine White’s bass/guitar interaction comes in with the Ralph Johnson’s drum clipping along at approximately 72 beats per minutes The horns, including a muted trumpet play an accessorizing part along with very faint strings in the back round. And especially on the climbing B-section to the chorus, Philip and Maurice’s sing right along with them. Graham’s guitar solo comes in on the closing refrain-playing call and response with Maurice White’s vocalese.
“Love’s Holiday” is an example of that literal “slow jam” that EWF had been perfecting during their years with Charles Stepney and beyond. It would extend from songs like “Devotion” up through “Be My Love” from the early 80’s. By the time of this song in 1977, the band and its many musical collaborators had this densely arranged jazzy funk/soul sound down to a science. Comedian Steve Harvey even singled out this particular song as an example of what “real music” sounded like. Its one of the most melodically and harmonically beautiful ballads to emerge out of the funk era in the 1970’s.
Earth Wind & Fire’s eighth studio album Spirit is an album that did a lot to help me to personally conceive of #1 hit funk in terms of an album medium. It celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. And I’ve already covered the album itself here. First purchased it on a cassette tape about 22 years ago. At that time,I remember fast forwarding through it to get to funkier songs. Upon upgrading to a CD copy a year or so later,it became clear that this was one of those very special funk era albums. Each time I listen to these songs,they improve like fine wine with each listening. Almost to the point of transcendence.
One member of EWF,who joined up on the bands fourth album Head To The Sky in 1973 was Andrew Woolfolk. This multi reed player primarily played soprano sax within EWF. As he describes it in the documentary on the band Shining Stars, the elements that he added into the band came from the jazz and funk side. He enjoyed a strong,melodic groove. He also loved to improvise in such cases too. Throughout the years,he’s done just this on many of EWF’s most popular and enduring songs. One song from the Spirit album that amazes me to this day is the Maurice White/Al McKay composed instrumental “Biyo”.
Larry Dunn’s glassy space funk synthesizers open the song before the opening fanfare kicks in. Its full on drums,Afro Latin percussion,Verdine White’s pumping bass line,McKay’s percussive rhythm guitar and the Phenix Horns running on their usual adrenaline. Verdine’s echoed five note bass slap,Maurice’s four note Kalimba melody and Johnny Graham’s bluesy guitar accents make up the refrains. Four members of the band get a chance to solo. Woolfolk does twice-starting and at the end. Graham and Dunn do a solo that dovetail right into each other before Maurice’s Kalimba solo before its fade out.
Earth Wind & Fire added many instrumental interludes/bridges to the albums from their late 70’s crossover period. But for me this is the finest full instrumental based on their sound of that time. The production and recording is a fine example of the band making some of the best recorded funk of that era. Its a melodically and instrumentally busy number with a lot going on sonically. But the powerful Afro-Caribbean funk arrangement still leaves enough room for several amazing solos to interlock with each other. And as a showcase for Andrew Woolfolk,its one of his shining moments of the mid/late 70’s.
Filed under 1976, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Al McKay, Andrew Woolfolk, drums, Funk Bass, instrumental, Johnny Graham, Kalimba, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, percussion, Phenix Horns, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, space funk, synthesizer, Verdine White
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Filed under 1970's, Al McKay, Columbia Records, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, Philip Bailey, Uncategorized, Verdine White, wah wah guitar