Tag Archives: Maurice White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Love’s Holiday” by Earth Wind & Fire

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Earth Wind & Fire

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Time” by Deniece Williams

Deniece Williams was born in Gary,Indiana-also the home town of the Jacksons. And is very close in age to the musical family’s eldest member Rebbie. Very much like EWF’s late founder Maurice White,she initially had her eyes on the medical profession-in her case in becoming a nurse and anesthetist. She dropped out after one year at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She then recorded as a singer for a number of small labels until she joined Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove during the early 70’s.

After leaving Wonderlove in 1975,she released her solo debut This Is Niecy on the Columbia label,in the company of Maurice White and much of the Earth Wind & Fire musical crew. Her epic song “Free” really broke her into hit status,even getting her an appearance on Soul Train. She continued her association with EWF on through her followup album in 1977’s Song Bird. Discovered the album last year in the vinyl bins and became really entranced with every song on it. One particular song from the album that got my attention was the opening song entitled “Time”.

The Phenix Horns are fanfarring call and response style with the marching call like drum breaks on the intro of the song. After that,the entire musical flavor of the song thickens up with this big rhythm with a three note snare drum hit around the middle. Al McKay’s heavily reverbed guitar and Verdine White’s extended bass runs play musical hide and seek with Niecy’s vocals along with Larry Dunn’s electric piano and the Phenix horns. While the chorus merely changes the chord of the refrain a bit higher,the final part of the song finds the drums playing a more stop/start beat until it all fades out.

“Time” is the kind of intricately structured song EWF delivered in such a consistent,well oiled way during their mid/late 70’s salad days. Williams’ high and often quite loud voice literally does seem to sour and fly in her fine gospel drenched style throughout the entirety of this song. EWF were a band who had mastered their ability to be highly daring musically,often very jazzy and still leave room to accomodate singers with big voices. Like The Emotions,Deniece Williams was another such singer. And this song was a total funk triumph for her in her years recording with the members of EWF.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Deniece Williams, Earth Wind & Fire

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Turn It Into Something Good” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire generally didn’t depend too much on outside songwriters and producers-unless of course their names were Skip Scarborough or Charles Stepney. They were more musical insiders who assisted the band just out from under foot. By the time of 1979’s I Am, Maurice White was producing most of album with David Foster. With the following years Faces, they were out to make a double album set of all new studio material. So outside songwriters on this album included Brenda Russell and Valerie Carter.

Carter passed away at the age of 64 yesterday,having apparently spent some years struggling with drug addiction. A prominent songwriter/backup singer who recorded a handful of solo albums in the 70’s,she worked primarily with other singer/songwriters. In particular James Taylor.  She also made two major contributions to the funk/soul genre. She composed a  now rare B-side for the Brothers Johnson in 1984 called “Deceiver”. Five years earlier,her contribution to the songwriting for EWF on their Faces album came in its second track entitled “Turn It Into Something Good”.

A medium tempo,conga clav laden Carbbean funk drum line lays the foundation for the rhythm of the entire song. Right from the start. In full interplay within this mix are the brittle,melodic guitar of Al McKay with Verdine White’s exploratory,rhythmic jazzy bass line. Playing call and response to this are Larry Dunn on the Rhodes piano and the Phenix Horns. This represents the intro,refrain and outro of the song. On the chorus of song,the chord goes up and so does the pitch of the Rhodes as Maurice and Phillip trade off their vocals in fine style. A bass/guitar/Kalimba rhythm segues out of this song onto the next.

As the late Maurice White was quoted as saying a decade ago now,he feels the Faces album was one where EWF were really in tune with their sound. His brother Verdine called it the type of album they really wanted to cut. Valerie Carter,Maurice White and James Howard Newton all came together to create one of the greatest triad’s of songs on an EWF album-with this one sandwiched between the heavy funkiness of the opener “Let Me Talk” and “Pride”. This song mixes the Caribbean/Calypso flavor with a poppy funkiness that goes with one of EWF’s classic empowering message songs for a decade of many challenges.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Earth Wind & Fire

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sing A Song” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire really came into its own when adding New Orleans born guitarist Al McKay in 1973 for their fourth album Head To The Sky. As Verdine White himself put it, McKay was already well known among musicians for his work with Sammy Davis Jr. and the Watt’s 103rd Street Rhythm Band by the time he joined EWF. This all came together to allow McKay to bring the strong pop element Maurice White was looking for. Al McKay was also another rhythm kind in the band. And that made brought him into close musical interplay with Verdine White and drummer Ralph Johnson.

McKay left EWF in 1980 following the release of their album Faces. By that point,McKay had already co-written at least two of the bands classic hit songs. One of them came from a guitar riff that Maurice White overheard McKay working on,so the story goes. And he felt the entire band should build a song around it. The song ended up being included as one of a handful of new studio tracks on EWF’s mostly live album Gratitude  from late 1975. Its one of those EWF songs that most people know by heart,and that includes myself. The name of it is “Sing A Song”.

An eight note bass/guitar interplay countdown opens the song. Than McKay’s main riff comes in-a thick a busy bubbling melody with Verdine scaling upwards on bass right next to him. The upbeat,sunny drums and the Phenix horns accent these instrumental parts. The Phenix horns do exactly the same thing for the vocal exchanges between Maurice White and Philip Bailey on the refrains. On the chorus,Larry Dunn’s Moog plays a variation of Verdine’s bass line. On the final chorus,Maurice and Phillip sing the breakdown together before an electric piano,the Moog bass and Phenix horns fade it all out.

Everything about this song literally seems to be singing. The Phenix horns with their brassy vibrato and Al McKay’s liquid rhythm guitar throughout this song give it an enormous vocal quality along with Maurice White and Phillip Bailey. The rhythms and bright melodies have some of the “united funk” era’s heaviest sense of gospel style joyousness to it. Having known a lot of people who’ve complained the lack of “genuine emotion” in music,this song takes the cake in terms of true happiness,and the power of music during the 70’s funk era to get to you sing a song to make your day.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Al McKay, Earth Wind & Fire

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Rejoice” by The Emotions

Sisters Wanda,Pamela,Jeanette and Sheila Hutchinson (whose celebrating her birthday today) made up the Chicago vocal group The Emotions. Beginning their recording career on Stax records in the early 70’s,most notably their appearance in the 1972 concert film Wattstax. The group added youngest sister Pamela when they signed to Columbia in 1976. Their debut album Sunflower was produced by Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White. And as well the rest of their albums for the next few years,most of the EWF crew were among the many session musician greats who played on the album.

A week or two ago,I purchased a used vinyl copy of The Emotions second Columbia album Rejoice. Its one that I turned down 20 years ago on CD,and came to regret it. What it happy news is that the album is consistently strong from start to finish. Everything from musicianship,arrangement and general creativity is at a premium. Maurice White even said a decade ago that it was his personal favorite production outside EWF. Its best known song is the iconic uptempo hit “Best Of My Love”. And for good reason. That’s the first song on the record. Its final song,the title cut,is perhaps even stronger for another reason.

Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion and James Gadson’s drums start out the groove with a bouncing Afro Brazilian thump-complete with hand-claps. On the third and fourth bar,this is augmented by melodic accenting slap bass,guitar and flute. A thick wah wah guitar,string and horn arrangement come in before the first refrain. The chorus has the same basic instrumental set up only in a more conventional funky disco beat. That Afro Brazilian intro represents both the setup to and the choruses themselves. And that chorus extends itself up to the songs fade  out.

The entire vibe of “Rejoice” seems to come from the same spirit as EWF’s All ‘N All of the same vintage did. Maurice White says he got the “Brazilian bug” musically when travelling to the country with his wife at that time. And this songs mix of positive thinking lyrics and the pure gospel joy of the Hutchinson sisters really reflect some of the strongest mixtures of Brazilian rhythms and American funky soul of the late 1970’s. Its also the perfect bookend to an album that begins and ends with its strongest cuts. With much strength in between. Musically,it caps off one of The Emotions’ finest recorded moments.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Maurice White, The Emotions

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Switch On Your Radio” by Maurice White

Maurice White,one of the musical icons who passed away this year,it best known as the founder of Earth Wind & Fire-the most commercially successful of the 70’s funk bands in terms of crossover. On the other hand,the band broke up in 1984. And one of the many reasons brought up was that White had it in his mind that Columbia (the bands record label) were looking for him to do a solo album. This album got released in 1985. Its biggest single was with a (mostly) uptempo version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. But it still remains something of a footnote in EWF history.

When I first heard the album on vinyl album around 18-20 years ago,am not 100% sure it came off as anything all that exciting. Of course,that could’ve just been a case of seeking something different from it than what it was. And what Maurice White’s self titled (and sole) solo debut does is present a series of electronic,pan African rock/funk/soul fusions with a mild melodic pop new age vibe about them. The EWF message is still intact. Its just going more for an attitude than a sound by a large. The one song that always got my attention strongly was the opener “Switch On Your Radio”.

A totally electronic synth orchestration fades slowly on the intro. Than suddenly the song bursts with a bluesy funk melodic statement. And it has all the instrumental elements of the song itself. The drum machine and Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion play off the guitar,electronic hand clap and slap bass lines with this melodic electro funk wall of sound. This represents the choruses of the songs. On the refrains and the bridge,the mix is somewhat more stripped down to focus on the vocals a bit. An extended chorus with vocal ad lib’s finish out the song as it fades.

“Switch On Your Radio” has a sound that crosses a lot of musical bridges. The overall drum programming of the song has the bigness of sound that was very much of its time. Yet the live percussion accents along with Martin Page slap bass,Marlon McClain’s rock guitar and the ethereal synthesizers of Robbie Buchanan  make for a powerful sound that basically amounts to a progressive dance/funk sound. And the melody has that strong song construction White and Page are so noted for. Its an extension of the EWF sound for sure. And it also pointed to a possible future solo direction for White which didn’t continue.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1985, dance funk, drum machine, Earth Wind & Fire, elecro funk, Marlon McClain, Martin Page, Maurice White, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, Robbie Buchanan, rock guitar, slap bass, synthesizer

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

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.

Leave a comment

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

‘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.

 

 

1 Comment

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

Kalimba Helps Keep Earth,Wind & Fire’s Music Alive: An Article By Ron Wynn

KALIMBA_-_ALL-IN-ALL_+_BandKalimba helps keep Earth Wind & Fire’s music alive

1 Comment

Filed under Chris Siegmund, Dereke James, Earth Wind & Fire, Gary Tobin, Jeff Haile, Jeff Lund, John Groves, Kalimba, Maurice White, Michael Cole, Ray Baldwin, Ron Wynn, Sheldon Reynolds, Thomas Chazz Smith, Uncategorized

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