Earth, Wind & Fire: Still in a Boogie Wonderland

Funk legends Earth, Wind & Fire speak about being hipper than ever, four decades on

Verdine White likes to give his music what he calls the “California Test”. He’ll take a drive around Los Angeles in his convertible – up Wilshire Boulevard, down Mulholland Drive, the record in question playing in the car – just to work out if it’s a fitting soundtrack for Southern California.

On a recent evening, White, 62, the bassist for Earth, Wind & Fire, and younger brother of its founder Maurice, was driving with the top down, when, he recalls, “Our new single came on the radio. I heard it as a regular listener, and it sounded really, really good. All the pieces were there: the sound, the performances, the mix. All the things that go into making a record that the average consumer doesn’t think about. No matter how long you’ve been in the business, you’re always excited when you hear your new record on the radio.”

White and his band-mates, singer Philip Bailey and percussionist Ralph Johnson, have been in the business for more than four decades. The single that passed the California Test, “My Promise”, comes from their first album since 2005, Now, Then & Forever. Released next week, it has more of their familiar blend of funk, soul, jazz and rock.

For some time, the band were at work on an LP that Bailey describes as “radically different”. But two years ago, as it neared completion, he says: “We listened to it, and to some classic Earth, Wind & Fire, and I came to my senses. People don’t want classic bands to sound anything other than classic. I thought about the Stones, the Eagles, Stevie Wonder. If you buy an Eagles record, you don’t want it sounding like Journey. We decided we needed to stop looking outside Earth, Wind & Fire for inspiration....”

What constitutes a classic Earth, Wind & Fire record remains complicated. Their comeback has coincided with a disco revival led by Daft Punk’s huge single “Get Lucky” – co-written with Nile Rogers of Chic, and featuring polymath producer and performer Pharrell Williams, who counts Earth, Wind & Fire among his influences. Meanwhile, Robin Thicke – whose “Blurred Lines” (also with Pharrell) was Daft Punk’s big chart rival this summer – recently recorded a disco-soul duet with Jessie J which she said was “a proper Earth, Wind & Fire throwback track”.

And yet, despite of their association with the resurgent genre, the band have always resisted being called a disco act. Ralph Johnson even describes their biggest single, “Boogie Wonderland” – considered a disco classic – as “totally accidental”.

Maurice White, a sometime jazz session drummer for the Ramsey Lewis Trio, founded the band that would become Earth, Wind & Fire in Chicago in pre-disco 1969. His outfit has undergone several sonic shifts over the years. “When we go to Europe everyone says we’re a funk group,” says Bailey. “But if you got to know us through ‘Zanzibar’ [from the 1973 LP Head to the Sky], you’d say we were a fusion band. If you came in on [the 1979 single] ‘After the Love is Gone’, you’d say we were a love song group. We’re a cross between all of those things. Maurice always called it ‘Spectrum Music’.”

Maurice remains a vivid presence, but after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the 1980s, he retired first from touring, and then from recording. Now, Then & Forever, their 20th studio album, is the band’s first without its founder. “Maurice was always such a huge part of the recording process that we were kind of frozen in time, not knowing where to go,” says Bailey, who has since assumed the mantle of frontman. “We’d toured successfully without him for years, but recording was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle. I didn’t know if I had the wherewithal. But once we all sat down together it seemed like a no-brainer, because all of us had been there for the classic records, after all.”

When he took the finished album to his brother’s home in LA to play it to him, Verdine says: “He was really encouraging and proud of the way it had worked out. He really liked it.”

Thanks in part to clean-living, the rest of the band seem in rude health. They’ve been touring consistently ever since their last album, 2005’s Illumination, and are attracting a hip crowd all over again. In Europe and Asia, they say, young people are attending Earth, Wind & Fire shows in their thousands, after being turned on to the band by their parents. At a recent 45,000-capacity concert in Osaka, most of the audience were teenagers and 20-somethings. “If you stick around long enough, stuff will come back,” Bailey says. “I used to wear Rod Laver tennis shoes. Now they’re back, too!”

The band’s longevity inspired the new LP’s name, says White: “We’re here right now; we were here then, back in the day; and our music will be here forever. I think we know that now. I’m not sure we did before. But one day you wake up, and it dawns on you that your work is strong enough to live on after you.”

Earth, Wind & Fire play at the Royal Albert Hall, London on 19 Oct, and the Manchester Apollo on 20 Oct

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