Earth, Wind & Fire

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Beginnings (1969–1971)

In 1969, Maurice White, a former session drummer for Chess Records and former member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, joined two friends in Chicago, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, as a songwriting team composing songs and commercials in the Chicago area. The three friends got a recording contract with Capitol; they called themselves "The Salty Peppers" and had a marginal hit in the Midwestern area called "La La Time".[13]

The Salty Peppers' second single, "Uh Huh Yeah", did not fare as well, and Maurice moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. He then added to the band singer Sherry Scott[14] and percussionist Yackov Ben Israel, both from Chicago, and then asked his younger brother Verdine how he would feel about heading out to the West Coast. On June 6, 1970, Verdine left Chicago to join the band as their new bassist. Maurice began shopping demo tapes of the band, featuring Donny Hathaway, around to different record labels and the band was thus signed to Warner Bros. Records.[13][15]

Formation and early years (1971–1973)

Maurice's astrological sign, Sagittarius, has a primary elemental quality of Fire and seasonal qualities of Earth and Air, according to classical triplicities. (Sagittarius in the northern hemisphere occurs in the autumn, whose element is earth, and in the southern hemisphere, it is spring, whose element is air. Hence the omission of Water, the fourth classical element.) Based on this, he changed the band's name, to "Earth, Wind & Fire". Maurice held further auditions in L.A. adding Michael Beale on guitar, Chester Washington on reeds, and Leslie Drayton on trumpet; Drayton also served as the group's musical arranger. Trombonist Alex Thomas completed the then ten-man EWF lineup.[1][16]

The band's self-titled debut album, Earth, Wind, & Fire, was released in February 1971 to critical acclaim, as was November 1971's The Need of Love. Both albums were produced by Joe Wissert and a single, from The Need of Love called "I Think About Lovin' You", with Sherry Scott on lead vocals, provided EWF with their first Top 40 R&B hit. In 1971, the group also recorded the soundtrack of the Melvin Van Peebles film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.[1]

The soundtrack was recorded at Paramount Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard and released on Stax Records. The band developed a growing popularity on college campuses but, in spite of this, some members of EWF started to become restless and the band broke up after having been together less than six months. With only Verdine left, Maurice decided to re-form the group.

In 1972, Maurice added vocalist Jessica Cleaves, a former member of the R&B group The Friends of Distinction, Ronnie Laws on the flute and saxophone, rhythm guitarist Roland Bautista, keyboardist Larry Dunn, percussionist Ralph Johnson, and vocalist and Denver native Philip Bailey to the group. Warner Brothers didn't know how to promote this new combo as the only other funk band on their label was Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.[1]

The band successfully auditioned for managers Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo. Cavallo's management of John Sebastian led to a series of gigs as the opening act for the pop/folk singer and The Lovin' Spoonful founder. A performance at New York's Rockefeller Center introduced EWF to Clive Davis, then the President of Columbia Records. Davis was very impressed with the band's performance and bought their contract from Warner Bros. Their debut album on CBS/Columbia Records, Last Days and Time, featured mostly original material, but Bailey had recommended that the band cover the Pete Seeger song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", and the elements also remade the Bread hit "Make It with You".[15][16] The album also includes the original (Maurice-penned) composition "Power", an uptempo eight-minute instrumental. In stark contrast to the ballads, "Power" features extended fuzz guitar and soprano saxophone solos set against a driving funk beat.

Classic period (1973–1980)

The album Head to the Sky was released in the spring of 1973 and gave the group their first two legitimate hit singles, "Evil", co-written by Maurice and Philip, and "Keep Your Head to the Sky", both of which reached the top 30 and the top 60 on the R&B and pop charts, respectively. Prior to this album's release some personnel changes took place as Roland Bautista and Ronnie Laws left the band to pursue new musical opportunities.[17][18][19] Philip Bailey had recommended his former Denver East High School classmate, saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk, to the band as replacement for Laws; Woolfolk had been busy in New York studying sax with sax maestro Joe Henderson and was about to start a career in banking when Bailey called. To fill the void created by Bautista's departure, guitarists Al McKay (who had performed with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue and The Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band) and Johnny Graham from R&B group New Birth were added to round out the new lineup.[20] Jessica Cleaves following the release of the album;[21][22] the album was also their last to be produced by Joe Wissert.[23] As some of the band's songs required lower register vocals than Bailey's, and due to the success of "Evil", Maurice altered his role in the group to incorporate that of lead vocalist.

Recorded at Colorado's Caribou Ranch Studio and released in 1974, Open Our Eyes was a commercially successful LP, selling over a million copies in the US and thus was certified Platinum. At Maurice's request, Open Our Eyes was co-produced by Charles Stepney with White. Stepney had previously worked with The Dells, The Rotary Connection, Terry Callier, Minnie Riperton, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio, to name a few.[8] Released in May 1974, the single "Mighty Mighty" became Earth, Wind & Fire's first top 30 hit on the pop charts, peaking at No. 29. Another single, "Devotion", was a song with a strong spiritual message. Following the completion of this album Maurice's younger brother, Fred White, joined the band.[24] Fred had played in Chicago clubs as a drummer with Donny Hathaway and Little Feat.[1]

On April 6, 1974, Earth, Wind & Fire performed at the California Jam, a West Coast rock festival that attracted an audience of 200,000.[25] Also in 1974, the band collaborated with Ramsey Lewis on his album Sun Goddess, which reached number one on the Billboard Jazz and Black Album charts and was certified Gold in the US by the RIAA.

In 1975, Earth, Wind & Fire was approached by Sig Shore, producer of the motion picture Super Fly, to record the soundtrack to new film about the dark side of the recording industry called That's The Way Of The World. The film also starred EWF as a new recording act known as "The Group"; they performed songs in the film and Maurice had a small speaking part, as leader of "The Group". In the film Harvey Keitel's character hears "The Group" performing and produces their first album. The film's title is repeated throughout the film as a shrug of the shoulders to the music world.[1]

When the band saw the film, they were convinced that the motion picture would be a bomb, which it eventually was.[16] To avoid being connected with the movie they released the album's soundtrack, also entitled That's the Way of the World, before its premiere. Recorded at the Caribou Ranch Studio and co-produced by Maurice White and Charles Stepney That's the Way of the World became Earth, Wind & Fire's breakthrough album, spending three weeks at number one on the Billboard Pop Albums Charts, five nonconsecutive weeks atop the Soul Albums chart.[26] That's the Way of the World was also warmly received critically. For instance, AllMusic's Alex Henderson described the album as "one of the strongest albums of the 70's" and "EWF's crowning achievement", and Billboard Magazine called it "a very tightly produced and performed package". The album made EWF the first black act to top both the Billboard album and singles charts and was certified triple platinum in the US by the RIAA.[1]

Included on the album were the hit singles "Shining Star" – which rose to number one on the R&B Singles and Billboard Hot 100 and won the band a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals – and "That's the Way of the World", which went to number five and number 12 on the R&B Singles and Billboard Hot 100, respectively. Because of the album's tremendous commercial success, the band was able to hire a full horn section, which was dubbed the Phenix Horns. The Phenix Horns, who became an integral part of the band's sound, were composed of saxophonist Don Myrick, trombonist Louis Satterfield, and trumpeters Rahmlee Davis and Michael Harris. Myrick and Satterfield both worked with Maurice during his days as a session drummer at Chess Records.