In this era of too many overrated artists, and too many albums that have the shelf life of pre-washed salad, the lasting impact of Earth, Wind & Fire on musical culture really can’t be overstated. Conceptualized by drummer Maurice White, and co-founded with his bass-playing younger brother Verdine, EWF exploded out of the bustling L.A. music scene in the early 70′s. In the process they outdid their competition in musicianship and innovation so thoroughly that they were simply in a class by themselves. Nobody sounded like Earth, Wind & Fire, and no band from that era was as musically far-reaching.
The record-buying public certainly got it, and the heights of success the group reached in their first decade alone was dizzying. Racking up a run of multi-platinum albums and six Grammy awards, they added song after timeless song to the world’s collective consciousness– many of which remain as popular today as when they were first released. With elaborate stage shows and boundless energy, EWF rolled on, eventually selling a mind-boggling 90 million albums worldwide and garnering an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Countless awards and accolades followed: the Soul Train Legend Award, Lifetime Achievement awards from ASCAP, NAACP and BET, and an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. When the century turned they were still one of the world’s top touring acts, and were invited by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to perform at the White House. EWF were “rhythm and blues and pop staples for me,” Obama declared in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Although health issues have forced leader Maurice from taking an active role in recent years, the Earth, Wind & Fire journey is still unfolding, their story still being written, and their shows still selling out. This month sees their first new studio album in eight years entitled Now, Then & Forever. While their last few releases have leaned toward modern, trendy production, the new record finds the band clearly embracing their past; it’s the most vintage sounding EWF in a long time. Tunes like “Sign On” and “My Promise” could have easily been hits from their 70′s heyday, while the brilliant instrumentals “Splashes” and “Belo Horizonte” are reminiscent of the band’s trademark jazzier endeavors. Philip Bailey remains a gifted vocalist, and a quick look at the album’s credits reveals many old familiar names scattered about, including original EWF keyboardist Larry Dunn, horn arranger Jerry Hey and songwriter Allee Willis (Willis has co-written several of the band’s most iconic tunes including “September”, “Boogie Wonderland and “In the Stone”). More recent additions to the EWF fold appear as well: drummer John Paris, Philip Bailey’s son Philip Jr., and Darrin Simpson are among those on hand.
Of course, the man who puts the “Earth” into Earth, Wind & Fire is, and always has been, bassist Verdine White. From the very start, his brilliant bass playing became an important and influential voice in the musical universe. Building upon the foundation laid by Motown great James Jamerson, and mentored by Louis Satterfield, the younger White took the low-end game to a new level. He dug in deep, anchoring the EWF rhythm section with precision-perfect lines and harmonically daring staccato riffs. Armed with a jazz sensibility and a funk delivery, Verdine always found the right note or phrase, and could groove like nobody else. He raised the bar ever higher on his instrument and almost single-handedly built a bridge from old school R&B to forward-thinking funk-fusion. And now, more than 40 years later, he’s still kicking a whole lotta earth, wind and booty; there’s a good chance that no one on the planet has gotten more people up out of their seats than Verdine White.
As a live performer, he’s as riveting to watch as his playing is to hear. Witness any EWF concert and you’ll see the man in motion: dancing, strutting, spinning, soaking up the music around him in a smiling display of pure joy. And hey, what’s not to be joyful about? He’s playing bass with Earth, Wind & Fire for god’s sake. How’s that for finding the right path in life? I recently caught up with Verdine after spending a week listening to Now, Then & Forever. I was ready to chat about the first two parts: now and then. As for forever, well, there was no point in talking about that. Verdine’s legacy is already written in the stone.
Let’s talk a bit about the early days of Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s 1970, Maurice is in L.A putting together the band. He’s nearly 30 years old, already a veteran musician from his years of work in Chicago, and you’re only 19. He calls you to fly out and join the band. What did it all feel like for you at that young age?
Well, it was a really interesting thing. Maurice had just left Ramsey Lewis, and I was in music school, the American Conservatory Of Music on a four-year paid scholarship. So I figured I was gonna do that, be classical and play gigs around Chicago. And all of a sudden I get a call from Maurice in April of ’70 when he was leaving Ramsey. He asked me if I wanted to come to California, and I said hell yeah!
For me, it was really interesting because I came out there right at the height of the hippie movement and everything that was going on in California. And it was a different California, it was a changing of the social climate, music was bursting everywhere and I was part of it. But I was still getting it together. I had potential, but I wasn’t ready and I didn’t have the experience. I think being around Maurice gave me the experience, you know what I mean? It made me ready because I was thrown into it right away. And then within less than a year I had done almost three albums.
Wow, that’s a lot.
I did the Sweet Sweetback album with Melvin Van Peeples, which was one of the first black exploitation movies, and then we did the first Earth Wind & Fire album on Warner Bros. So I went from one album to the next. And in that process I learned how to record in the studio. I got beat up pretty good, you know? You gotta play it like this, you gotta do it like that, and I was learning what the concept was. So those years are really the foundation that kind of started me. The album that I kind of really found my style on was our second Warner Bros album, The Need Of Love.
And how did you handle the success?
It was happening so fast and we were doing so much music, that I was just basically concentrating on the music. And don’t forget now, it was volumes and volumes of music. So I was just always making sure I came prepared, always worked on my parts. Even on days when I wasn’t in the studio playing, I’d be there just learning. And it was a great learning process. I learned by watching how Maurice produced records, and I would help out– putting the music on the stand, going to get coffee, all that stuff– whatever I could do back in those days.
Was Maurice an over-protective older brother?
You know what? He was, yeah. But I didn’t know it at the time because he created atmosphere, so that I didn’t feel it like that. We were in our own cocoon, and we never got out of that cocoon. We were around Bob Cavallo, Clive Davis, Columbia Records people, so we were in our own world. And it was a protective world, but I didn’t really know that. It didn’t seem like it was.
I want to ask you about Louis Satterfield, who became EWF’s trombone player later on, but was your primary bass guitar teacher when you started playing.
That’s right. He was the James Jamerson of Chicago, he did all those record dates, man. Rotary Connection, Chess Records sessions. He was a bass guitar player later, but he was a trombone player first, and he and Maurice and (EWF sax player) Don Myrick went to college together.
What college was that?
That was Crane Junior College. They had a group called The Jazzmen, and so when I started playing bass guitar Reese put me with Satterfield.
On Thursdays I would take classical lessons from Radi Velah from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and on Sundays I’d be at Satterfield’s house. There’s a great bass player that came from Chicago named Richard Davis, and he studied with a guy named Rudolf Fahsbender. So I tried to study with Fahsbender, but he was retiring at the time so he gave me Radi Velah. Radi taught me technique, and he taught me how to read.
And what were some of the important lessons that Satterfield taught you?
How to stay on the one. And how to be creative with the bass, learn how to play my own lines, learn how to groove, you know? Learn how to keep it in the pocket.
Has your approach to coming up with bass lines changed over the years, or is it still basically the same process?
Well, the foundation is the same, but what’s changed is what I need. I need a work vocal, I insist on working in the proper environment, I insist on working with the best musicians, you know, that’s just a requirement. Great writers, great producers, there’s certain requirements I have now that I didn’t think about then, because it was happening more naturally then. I mean, I was around great musicians and great everything, and I didn’t know that. But now before I go into any project, I insist on surrounding myself with the most creative and best people.
So you’re saying you prefer to have the vocal there when you’re working out your parts.
That’s right, because then I can sort of visualize where the song is going. Without a vocal it’s just air, there’s no creativity, I can’t be creative. And when you’re working with great singers you have to compliment the singer. I’ve worked with great singers, like Phillip Bailey, and what I have to do on record is make sure that I’m complimenting the singer. I’ve got to hear what the singer’s doing. If I don’t hear the singer, I’m gonna play it, but it won’t have any imagination.
It’s just gonna be the track.
That’s right, and it’ll sound like a studio musician.
Let me ask you about the new album. You guys did a great job with it. A lot of it sounds like vintage Earth, Wind & Fire, and kind of made me want to go back and hear all the old stuff.
Oh, thank you. And that’s what we tried to do, that’s what we really tried to do on this one.
What was the band’s game plan before you went in?
Well, the game plan was to make it sound like Earth Wind & Fire, that was the main thing. The process started at Phillip Bailey’s home, where we started working on a bunch of stuff. Most of that that stuff got dumped after he listened to all of EWF’s music, from the Head To The Sky record to the Faces album, the really great records of that period. And then we went back in, and that’s when it really came together, all the elements. We brought Larry Dunn in, who was a big part of Earth Wind & Fire’s sound, and that made it really, really comfortable. That’s really when we got going.
Right, I noticed Larry’s back, and he’s a big part of the album. How did that come about?
We had dinner, Larry, Phillip and myself, and got together and started talking about… just us. We didn’t talk too much about music, just talked about us and made the re-connection. And had a lot of laughs! We just picked up where we left off at.
Let’s talk about some of the new tunes. “The Rush” was co-written by Allee Willis, who also co-wrote several of the band’s biggest hits. Has that song been around for a while, or is that something you recorded recently?
The track was there. After we got done with the track, Phillip had called Allee because we needed her to do the song right away, and they wrote it on sight! We were on our way to Australia and we had to get the tune done in a day. And Neal Pogue, who’s one of the producers, did a great job with Phillip and everybody. Neal, who had done all the Outkast stuff, came with us and did a great job as one of the album’s main producers. He picked “My Promise”, “Sign On”, “Guiding Light”, things like that. Really major, major.
The tune “Splashes” keeps up the EWF tradition of great instrumentals, and features the jazz trumpet of Terrance Blanchard. How did that one come together?
Phillip got Terrance, he knows him really well. One of the things that we wanted to do, like with all the songs you’re mentioning, was to try to do every aspect of what we were known for, being Earth Wind & Fire. Like the jazz thing with Terrance– because don’t forget now, we’ve got records like that too. We’ve got commercial songs on the album like “My Promise”. We’ve got message songs like “Sign On”. We’ve got ballads like “Guiding Light”, and R&B songs like “Love Is Law”. So we’ve kind of fulfilled every aspect. Another thing I like is that this will be our twenty-first studio album.
Twenty-first? Holy shit.
I know man, shit! And forty albums total. And the fact that we can still make a really good record after 42 years I think is a real accomplishment. Because it’s not easy to make a great record the longer you’ve been in the game. I don’t think it is.
Do you mind if I ask you about Maurice’s health?
Well you know he has Parkinson’s. I saw him Friday night, he looks really good. He’s had it for a long time, but he’s maintaining. His blessings are all over the record. And you know, the thing about it is, he’s the band’s creator and founder– all the creativity about Earth Wind & Fire was in his head. So we really had to go to the bottom of the well, Phillip and I, so that we could be Earth, Wind & Fire.
Let me ask you about your basses. You’re currently playing mostly Yamaha?
Right, the Yamaha BB3000. I also play Sadowsky, I love his basses, and I still have my Fender Jazz basses.
Do you still play the Jazz Bass?
I played it at the White House when we were there a couple of years ago. On this record I played the Yamaha BB3000. I have two of them. I play the white one on the road, but the BB3000 that you heard on the record I don’t take on the road, it’s just for recording.
What do you like about that bass?
It sounds great on record. Everybody that hears it, every engineer that I’ve worked with, they don’t have to do anything to the bass when they get to the mix. It just sounds great on record.
It sounds great on the new one, I know that.
And it sounds great on the other records I’ve worked on. We did one with this kid DJ Cassidy and one with LL Cool J, and it sounded great on those. I don’t take it on the road because it gets banged up. The road bangs up gear, you know? And I wanted to have a pure, clean sound.
What strings do you generally use?
I’m using Black Diamonds.
On the record I used an Ampeg. I went direct and I mic’d the amp.
Still using that, huh?
Yeah! For records, just for records.
That’s what Jamerson used.
That’s right! And that’s what Louis Satterfield used. Right, exactly!
And it’s still a great amp.
It’s still a great amp. And you know, it doesn’t get the PR that all the other amps get. But for records it still is a great amp, for records, man. Ain’t that a bitch? And then live I use SWR. I’ve got about ten cabinets that I use for the arenas, the stadiums, the theaters, all that stuff.
The new album is coming out in September, and you’re always out touring.
Yeah, we just got back from Europe on Friday, and tomorrow we’re headed to Tokyo.
You’ve got a run of September dates, including the Hollywood Bowl and Chicago Theatre. Will you keep going after that?
We’ll probably keep going until about Christmas.
Great! Any East Coast swings?
We’re playing the Beacon in September. I’ll be there two nights, so if you want to, come check it out!
Oh, I’m gonna come to that. I have one final question for you, and this is from my wife: who makes your clothes?
Okay! [laughs] My stage clothes are made by Bernard Jacobs and Louis Wells. And then my personal clothes, I wear Brioni, Issey Miyake and a lot of custom made clothes, custom made shirts. Tell her my closet looks like a store! [laughs]
Thanks Verdine, I know you’ve got a million things to do. I really thank you for taking the time.
Thanks so much Rick, and I’ll see you in September.
(cover photo credit: Mathieu Bitton)