Established in Chicago during the 70’s, Earth Wind and Fire formed with the group founder Maurice White, his brother Verdine and a few buddies – as the years progressed, the band picked up 6 Grammy’s, 4 American Music Awards, and a place in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, with Rolling Stone stating that the band “changed the sound of black pop”. Indeed, they did – they were the first black act to top Billboard’s singles and albums charts simultaneously.
Speaking to the EWF bassist Verdine White, I wanted to know what struggles the band encountered earlier in their career, when black music was not dominating the mainstream as it is today. “In the beginning, we were just trying to find our way. The struggles we encountered on the way were radio play, concerts… I mean, when we came to London we had a number 1 album, but we were only an opening act! So that tells you how things were. Had that been today, we would have been the headliner.”
Soul music has evolved so immensely since the 80’s, but does it still have the same essence that it was born with? “I think soul music is making a nice resurgence. Because of people like Adele and even the late Amy Winehouse. Because of what she attempted to do with her music; it is making a nice resurgence.”
I was surprised to hear Verdine mention UK artists; I expected to the bassist to say Beyonce. I pry further into his knowledge of UK music. “The young lady that everyone is looking at and a lady I love is Adele. She could have a place with the greats; Aretha Franklin, Janice Joplin, Tina Turner, you know, the greats. I could be wrong, but that’s what I get from her.”
Hundreds of artists have sampled many EWF songs, from De La Soul to LL Cool J. “Well, they have to get clearances before they use it, so we like a lot of what we hear. We don’t allow a lot of foul language on our records, because we don’t want a young audience thinking we’ve made these records.”
Speaking of foul language, many RnB acts have a very different lyrical content to what it used to be, with artists speaking of sex, drugs and money frequently. I wonder, what happened to innocence? Verdine reasons: “There is more information out there now, the younger generation have experienced a lot, so that’s what they’re writing about; their lifestyle.”
With Verdine mentioning Adele and Amy Winehouse earlier, I ask about rising US acts we should look out for. It seems like there are too many to name… “There are a lot of great artists coming up on the US X Factor here, I couldn’t name just one. I do LOVE Adele, because she comes along in a tradition of Great Music, those are the kind of artists we are coming to see come up in the future; really great singers. That’s where the next wave of Soul music and the younger generation is headed. The young generation are much more aware of Soul music and respectful of it. The earlier problems we had getting on the radio or being an opening act; you won’t have that with this younger generation because they know exactly where they are.”
Along with the bands many accomplishments, the guys have received praise from the highest of influences, including Barack Obama. Verdine exclaims with pride: “It was fantastic meeting President Obama, I have pictures of him and us on my walls downstairs. He’s great; so culturally aware. He knew all our music; he came to our rehearsal and hung out with us.”
Adding to their many awards, the band has just picked up the 2011 Soul Train Legend Award. “Winning the Soul Train Legend award – that’s a special one. It’s really great.” He laughs and jokes,“sometimes we look too young to get those awards, you know…”
Many bands break up when they realise the dynamic is not working and EWF has seen band members come and go over the years, although the main members stuck firm. The bassist explains the recipe for a successful band. “Some people get on well in a band, some don’t – that’s just a human condition. But in our case, we were able to go on in spite of that, because the music is bigger than us, you know. You need a commitment to the music and the stamina to hang in there through the long haul; it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”
The band has been going for over 30 years strong, but they won’t be taking a break anytime soon; you’ll be hearing plenty about Earth Wind and Fire in 2012. “Our new compilation album is out on January 31st and our new single just came out here in the states called ‘Guiding Light’. We’re coming out with our own headphones created by Dr Dre, they are called ‘Gratitude’ and you can find them on our website. We’re also going to be touring in 2012, so we have a lot of great things coming.”
This interview was originally shown at Flavour Magazine.