Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, 64, is in his car, driving on an errand through Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., some 40 miles east of Los Angeles. If he flicks on the radio, he could easily tune in to more than one Southern California station playing his band, likely something from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, when hits like “Shining Star,” “After the Love Is Gone” and “September” dominated. Forty-seven years after Maurice White, 74, formed the multimember group in Chicago with younger brother Verdine White, 64, on bass and Bailey on vocals, EWF’s blend of R&B, rock, pop, jazz and gospel endures, sounding as contemporary as when it was first released.
That’s why the band — already inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame — will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of this year’s Grammy Awards. (The band has earned six previous Grammys between 1975 and 1982. It has had 16 top 40 hits and has sold 9.5 million albums during the Nielsen Music era.)
And the band plays on, co-headlining a tour with Chicago that will open March 23 in Jacksonville, Fla., and considering another album. (Maurice, who is still active in guiding EWF, retired from touring after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in the ’90s.) Ahead of their Grammy honor, the three veteran members of EWF looked back on the group’s career.
First things first: Where did the name Earth, Wind & Fire come from?
Verdine White: From Maurice’s astrological chart. [Born Dec. 19, 1941, the bandleader is a Sagittarius.] He has no water in his chart; he just has earth, air and fire, so he changed the band’s name to Earth, Wind & Fire. The original name was The Salty Peppers, but it just didn’t have a ring.
What was the concept behind EWF when the group began?
Maurice White: I had a vision, and music was playing in my head that I wanted to bring through. What I had in mind was exactly what Earth, Wind & Fire became. There was an evolution, and as time went on, the sound was developed by the musicians that I brought into the group.
Verdine: We wanted to do something different, something that never had been done before. Maurice was still with [jazz composer-pianist] Ramsey Lewis, and he had an idea about starting a band that could do everything, and it morphed into quite an amazing thing.
Philip Bailey We just wanted to be the best band in the whole world – that meant we wanted to measure ourselves against the greatest and make the kind of decisions that great bands and great artists make. Maurice had a fierce work ethic, and we learned from him to have that same work ethic. He was the consummate perfectionist.
What were some of your influences at the time?
Verdine: Everything. There was radio, WVON [Chicago]. I listened to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Motown, The Beatles, Chick Corea, Stan Getz. My late father listened to Mahalia Jackson and Nat “King” Cole. We had a lot of music in our house.
Bailey: I was really enamored by female vocalists because of the emotion and passion they sang with. And instrumentally, artists like Miles Davis. As a singer, I’ve always mimicked instrumentalists in certain respects.
How hard was it to get that mix right?
Bailey: It was never overdone, you know? I think it was the power of the hook, the power of something that’s singable and commercial. And the element of surprise, too — giving listeners something that was unexpected, meaning the different chord progressions or rhythms or melodies that you don’t expect to be in a popular song.
A hallmark of the EWF sound is the blend of Philip’s falsetto and Maurice’s tenor. How did that come about?
Bailey: Initially we didn’t really know what parts me and Maurice were going to play. Maurice didn’t know if he was going to drum exclusively and I’d sing lead or what. That just evolved; it was easier for me and him to sing things than it was to go and explain it to someone else and take the time to teach people to sing it. We just melded together, like [R&B duo] Sam & Dave, and the sound of Earth, Wind & Fire became me and Maurice, vocally.
Can you pinpoint when the group finally found the sound it was after?
Bailey: That’s the Way of the World was the benchmark record. The band was a work in progress until then, but That’s the Way of the World is when we put together all the components of what Earth, Wind & Fire was to be.
Maurice: It had a strong, driving rhythm and easily remembered hooks, plus a new way of combining a lot of diverse elements so everyone found something they could relate to.
Verdine: It had that passion. It had that love, and it had that connection, and it was bigger than us.
That started the band’s golden — or, if you prefer, platinum — era, with seven million-plus-selling albums in six years and all those hit singles.
Verdine: We were just in the zone, like they say in sports. But by the time that success happened we had been out there for 10 years, honing our skills and everything. And we had support from the label [Columbia Records]. We were just doin’ it, doin’ it, all of us.
Bailey: I do kind of compare it to what ball teams talk about when they win pennants. Everything has to be clicking, not only the people you see [in the band] but the people behind the scenes — the co-writers, the musicians who played on the records but weren’t in the band [and] of course the record company. And it’s where people’s ears were at — the commercial ear at that time. Everything has to come together at the same time for you to have the kind of impact for as long as we did. Looking back on it now it’s an amazing feat, especially when you think the average life of bands is like a year-plus.
Did you think your records would cross over from R&B to pop audiences?
Bailey: We grew up color blind, musically. We didn’t care what color the musicians were, just whether it was good or not. And if we didn’t have that crossover audience, we probably wouldn’t be around anymore. I look out at our concerts and our audience is still 70 percent non-African-American. That says a lot. It says that Earth, Wind & Fire is definitely a multicultural kind of band, and we’re proud of that.
You earned your first Grammy with “Shining Star” in 1975 for best R&B vocal performance by a duo, group or chorus. What do you remember about that victory?
Maurice: I was so excited. The validation by the industry was gratifying. It felt like my position in the chain of musical history was being acknowledged.
EWF also made such an impact as a live act, with some spectacular shows. Where did that sense of staging come from?
Bailey: We went to see Broadway musicals together. And we were not only looking at the musical onstage, but we were looking at the eyes of the people and what kept their eyes glued to the stage. We wanted to bring theater to the concert stage.
Verdine: We were doing a lot of interesting things with choreography. I would fly through the air like Peter Pan. And then we got magicians Doug Henning and David Copperfield and choreographer George Faison [The Wiz] to create shows with us.
With all that stuff going on, were there any Spinal Tap moments?
Bailey: One time we were on a raked stage and we were supposed to be in this pose, and people started sliding down the rake and wiped out. (Laughs.) But we didn’t have any serious mishaps.
Is there one EWF song that you think had the greatest impact?
Verdine: That would be “September,” for sure. We did that tune in one take. And that hook — “Ba dee ya!/Say do you remember?” — Maurice just ran out of words. And [songwriter] Allie Willis, who [co-wrote] the tune, said, “We have to put words there.” And Maurice said, “No, you don’t. As long as it feels good, that’s the most important thing. It’s how it feels.” Allie told me she learned a lot from that.
Was there a point when you realized the impact that EWF was having?
Bailey: Yeah. When they told us about this award! (Laughs.) But we have really become part of the institution of music, the musical legacy, and that’s pretty sweet.
Where do you hear EWF’s influence in contemporary music?
Verdine Most recently I heard it in “Uptown Funk!” from Mark Ronson. When he got his BRIT Award last year he thanked us as his inspiration. I saw a piece on him on 60 Minutes, and he said we were one of his big influences.
What are you guys thinking about in terms of new music or a next album?
Verdine: We’re in the enviable position where we can sort of take our time. We’re not under the same pressure nowadays, and we can actually be more creative because these awards allow you to turn a page, kind of.
Bailey: We’re talking about doing a record of our classics with duets, with other artists on them. It’s just in the brainstorming stages.
Verdine: The main thing is just to be Earth, Wind & Fire and not approach it like, “We need to try and do this, try and do that.” We don’t need to do anything except be us.