Tag Archives: Ralph Johnson

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.

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Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Let Me Talk” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire are one of those funk bands who included two guitarists and two drummers. In terms of the latter,there was Maurice White’s brother Fred and their main drummer Ralph Johnson. Johnson for his part is still an active part of EWF to this very day. Upon seeing him interviewed,he discussed his close instrumental relationship with the bands bassist (also still actively involved) Verdine White. He stated that if he didn’t play drums,he’d have been a bass player due to his close musical relationship with rhythm. And rhythm remains one of the key elements of the Earth Wind & Fire sound.

After an enormous run of successful hits from 1975-1979,Earth Wind & Fire were likely the most popular band of that time period. At the strong encouragement of Maurice White,the band traveled to Egypt among other locations the world over. When they returned to record their next album,music and not sales figures was foremost on their mind. So they cut a musically elaborate double album in 1980 entitled Faces. While it had their signature melodic sound,the rhythms were major game changers for them. The opening song really emphasized this,and it was one that Ralph Johnson co-wrote: “Let Me Talk?

Larry Dunn’s deep bass synth tone begins this song. What accompanies it are the Phenix horns riffing at hyper-speed through the musical magic of a sped up tape loop. The rhythm behind this is the same as  the refrains: a danceable Afro-Brazilian samba deep in the Latin clave. As the rhythm guitar and glistening synth accents play along with the horns and vocals,the bass hugs the rhythm tightly. On the choruses,the beat becomes more conventionally funky/pop-with synth bass taking a strong roll. That musical pattern continues throughout  this song until a quirky bit of recorded conversation concludes it.

“Let Me Talk” begins an album that Verdine White describes as them thinking “let’s cut something we wanna cut”. It was actually one of Maurice White’s personal favorite albums by EWF. And this song begins the album with a bang. With it’s Afro-Brazilian/Cuban rhythms and percussion,it’s structurally somewhat closer to the type of song EWF would’ve done in 1973-74. It still has their melodic pop craft that developed later further later in the decade though. Ralph Johnson and Al McKay wrote a song together here. And the rhythms of the song really showcase their instrumental interactions.

Thematically, Maurice and Philip Bailey make this song a lyrical dialog  about America’s escape from the beauty of and attention to blackness as the 1980’s began. Maurice is saying that a message burns within him everyday,while Philip’s part has him countering with a request to “play your role just as you’ve been told. As I write this,America is still embroiled more than ever in this attempt to deny the potency of black culture within and without it. And for both Independence Day and Ralph Johnson’s 65th birthday,its just the right funky “people music” to project for this time and place.

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Filed under 1980's, Afro Funk, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afro-Latin jazz, Afrocentrism, Al McKay, clave, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk Bass, horns, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, message songs, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, rhythm guitar, synth bass, synthesizer, tape loops, Verdine White

Anatomy Of THE Groove 5/9/14: Andre’s Pick: “Sign On” By Earth Wind & Fire

Even before yesterday’s birthday celebrator Philip Bailey joined them in 1972, Earth Wind And Fire were beginning to prove themselves quite expert and bringing the music of the funk era to the people with their musical and lyrical eloquence. Band originator Maurice White maintains it was always his intention to have the vocally elastic Bailey-able to jump from a preaching tenor to his distinctive,tremolo filled falsetto at a moments notice,would do all the singing in the band. Of course Maurice felt his lower voice might benefit the band too singing along with Bailey as well. While White has forced himself out of direct participation in EWF due to the burgeoning effects of Parkisons Disease,he appears to have left his musical legacy to the one man he knew who’d remained part of the band since the day he joined: Philip Bailey. And last year Earth Wind & Fire made of or their many happily surprising comebacks and delivered an album called ‘Now,Then And Forever’-which began with another of their joyfully inspiring anthem’s in “Sign On”.

Beginning with the fan fare of the current Phenix horn members in sax player Fred Jackson Jr with trumpeters San Cracchiolo,James Ford and Christopher Gray as well as trombonists Duane Benjamin,Nicholas Lane and Reginald Young they continue to stay on the one with the songs bright,strong melody throughout through the gospel-inspired joy that oozes out of whatever their blowing from their horns. Drummer John Paris holds down an spirited marching band style rhythm with Verdine White’s bass playing its thickly percussive role alongside it. On the jazz oriented “blue notes” of the refrain,the return of Larry Dunn on keyboards and synthesizers also comes to the forefront. Lyrically this insistent groove makes complete sense considering the songs lyrical content-finding Bailey’s now smokier falsetto duetting with the creamy middle tenor of guest singer Daniel McClain. Bailey starts out singing “are you tired of insanity” and sets up an endless creative set of variations on how,if people have had enough of poverty and war they should “sign on for a better way” as the chorus suggests.

As par Earth Wind & Fire’s consistent standard of delivering what I refer to as “people music”-funk grooves with an inspiring lyrical message,this song seems to alternately refer both to humanity seeking to embrace an inner philosophy and hope and love over cynicism and uncaring. Its also been suggested that the song also references many people of a younger generation than the band members to volunteer for positive political action and,much as their song “Freedom Of Choice” had thirty years ago, to vote in both local and national elections. Far aside from being a mere propaganda song, it just delivers on what EWF always has with their customary vitality. Even outside of that,the instrumental approach tells its own meaningful story. From Prince’s Minneapolis Sound on through the hip-hop inspired neo-soul genre,the general instrumental style used for playing retro soul and funk has tended to be very stripped down and electric piano based-focusing attention mainly on the singer and the material.

On this song EWF deliver on their classic funk style as an artistic vision as opposed to a mere trend. They make sure the vitality of the very live horns and drums are mixed high with their customarily powerful vocal harmonies. Frankly I rarely here most contemporary funk numbers so heavily based on horns. Of course this is likely due to the fact that the band emerged from a strong jazz back round with Maurice White having played with Ramsey Lewis’s trio and the participation of bassist/trombonist Louis Satterfield during their salad years. Its also a testament to what they’ve always musically stood for. Even though essentially boiling down to a trio of Philip Bailey,Verdine White and Ralph Johnson Earth Wind & Fire are true musical survivors-even when a given trend seems to have left them in the dust. They keep coming back and are more beloved each time they are. And this serves as the latest examples of EWF as the musical ambassadors of the true nature of funk.

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