Maurice White was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1941.
He was childhood friends of Booker T. Jones, who would go on to form Booker T. & the MGs. As a teen, he moved to Chicago and started working as a session drummer for Chess Records. In 1966 he joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
He left the group three years later to start a commercial jingle company with two friends, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead. They had some success in the advertising world, which led to them being signed to a recording contract by Capitol Records.
They began recording under the name The Salty Peppers. They had one regional hit with a song titled “La La La.” They were not successful beyond that one minor hit and were dropped from the label fairly quickly.
White’s small taste of success made him want to make a bigger splash in the music industry. In 1970, The Salty Peppers decided to leave Chicago for Los Angeles. Maurice asked his brother, Verdine, who was a first-rate session bassist, to go with him and be a part of his band.
Maurice’s band now included his brother, along with his two fellow Salty Peppers members, and before leaving Chicago, he added singer Sherry Scott and percussionist Yackov Ben Israel. His vision was not to be like most groups but to have a huge band, a near-orchestra, with a horn section, a percussion section, and multiple guitarists. Once getting to Los Angeles, he began having auditions for the band. He added guitarist Michael Beale, Chester Washington on reeds, Leslie Drayton on trumpet, and trombonist Alex Thomas. Maurice was also a percussionist, Flemons and Whitehead both played keyboards, and Verdine would play bass.
Maurice felt that the name “The Salty Peppers” was not powerful enough for a 10 person group. He looked up his astrological sign, Sagittarius, and read that its primary elemental quality is Fire with the seasonal qualities of Earth and Wind (whatever all that means.) He felt these elements would give his new band’s name an epic quality, worthy of its large size: Earth, Wind & Fire.
They recorded several demos and shopped them around, eventually being signed by Warner Brothers Records.
They released their self titled debut album in February 1971.
The album is a cross between the Fifth Dimension and The Bar-kays. There are some very cool moments, mostly on side two, but it bears very, very little resemblance to the sound Earth, Wind & Fire would be known for. The final track “Bad Tune” is definitely one to check out, because it’s awesome. One drawback on the album is that it has really annoying studio chatter interludes between each track. It’s actually a pretty cool album once you get past the kinda middle of the road first side.
They quickly followed that up a couple of months later with the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles’ pioneering film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which was released through Stax Records.
The soundtrack is hard to review because it is about 50% music and 50% dialogue from the movie. It’s also recorded very lo-fi and bears no resemblance to anything else Earth, Wind & Fire would ever do again. It has some cool moments, but I’ve seen the movie, I don’t need to hear the dialogue again. I do appreciate the title of the final track, though, “The Man Tries Running His Usual Game, but Sweetback’s Jones Is So Strong He Wastes the Hounds (Yeah! Yeah! and Besides That He Will Be Comin’ Back Takin’ Names and Collecting Dues.)”
The Need Of Love, released in November of the same year, was the band’s third album in 9 months.
The Need Of Love is more jazz based than their previous stuff. The opening track, “Energy,” is an almost 10 minute song that reminds me of what Herbie Hancock was doing at the time. There is a bit of a move towards the sound that they would later have, most notably on the final track “Everything Is Everything,” but on the whole, it is kind of a mixed bag.
The non-stop recording and the lack of success that the band had (outside of critical acclaim) took a toll on the members, and the band broke up. Verdine was the only one that did not abandon his brother, and they decided to start over and build a new Earth, Wind & Fire.
They once again wanted a female lead singer, bringing in former Friends of Distinction member Jessica Cleaves. They also added guitarist Roland Bautista and horn player Ronnie Laws.
Maurice brought in Larry Dunn as a keyboardist and to be musical director of the band.
He also added percussionist Ralph Johnson.
And vocalist/percussionist Philip Bailey.
The group played at a show in Rockefeller Center in New York and the then Columbia Records president, Clive Davis, saw them play for the first time. He loved the band and worked out a deal with Warner Brothers to purchase their contract. Warner was fine with this since they did not know how to market a funk band anyway.
Their first album for Columbia was 1972’s Last Days And Time.
It’s more of what you would expect from an Earth, Wind & Fire record, but there are a few moments that kind of drone on. The vocal dynamics did not work as well with Jessica Cleaves in the group. The final track, “Mom” is far and away the best song off the album.
Their 1973 album, Head To The Sky, was their first commercially successful album, going platinum.
It contained their first two R&B chart hits “Evil” and “Keep Your Head To The Sky.” It’s not bad, but the funky sound still isn’t there yet. There is still a lot of jazz-based stuff on this album, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not what you come to an Earth, Wind & Fire album for.
Cleeves, Bautista, and Laws all left the band after the completion of the album. Maurice needed to find replacements, mostly for a saxophone player and a guitarist and not so much a female singer.
Philip Bailey recommended an old high school friend that played sax, Andrew Woolfolk. Maurice agreed to bring him in.
They hired two new guitarists. Al McKay and Johnny Graham
As they started to record their next album, Maurice called his youngest brother, Fred White, who was playing drums for Donny Hathaway, to come join the band.
The band’s fifth album Open Our Eyes, was their biggest success yet.
All of the personnel changes made Open Our Eyes the first “real” Earth, Wind & Fire album. The sound that they became known for is there on the album’s opening track “Mighty, Mighty,” which was their first top 40 hit as was the second track “Devotion.” It is a good album and while I don’t love it, it is worth giving a listen to.
It was their first time to reach #1 on R&B Albums Chart and it made it to #15 on the Pop Albums Chart, eventually reaching platinum status.
Based on the success of their last two albums, producer Sig Shore, most famous for producing the film Super Fly, asked Earth, Wind & Fire to compose the music and to co-star in his upcoming film That’s The Way Of The World.
The film would star Harvey Keitel as a record producer that is producing an album for “The Group,” who would be played by Earth, Wind & Fire, but he is contractually obligated to work with a white, adult contemporary group that the label wants to promote in the place of the black funk band.
The band went into the studio at the Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado during filming to work on the soundtrack. Maurice had brought in Charles Stepney, who he had worked with back when he was with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, to co-produce and, in part, co-write the album with him. The group ended up with 8 songs to be featured in the film.
After they saw the finished film, they all thought it would be a huge bomb, so the band hurried to release their soundtrack album months ahead of the film’s release so that the album wouldn’t get swept away in the bad reviews of the film.
The Album Cover:
The cover has a black and white picture of all nine members of the band with Dunn, Maurice, Bailey, Verdine, and Johnson on the front. The band’s name is the only thing in color on the front. Interestingly, the front cover of the album makes no indication that this is a soundtrack album, possibly to distance it further from the movie that they did not like.
The back cover has the rest of the members pictured: Woolfolk, Fred White, McKay, and Graham. I do think it is interesting that the newest members of the band are relegated to back cover status. Despite my extensive knowledge of music and film, I had no idea that this was soundtrack album until reading it on the back when I first bought this album.
The one color item on the back is the Earth, Wind & Fire symbol in the bottom left corner.
The tracklist is in the right corner. There are not any credits outside of the band name on the front.
There is a gatefold which has is a large black and white picture of the entire band.
The innersleeve has lyrics on one side and an odd symbol that looks like a ‘4’ or ’21’ on the other, I’m sure it means something, but I can’t find any info on it.
I am reviewing the vinyl LP release of That’s The Way Of The World released on Columbia Records in 1975.
(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs. As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)
I looked at the track listing, so I’ll go ahead and say it before even listening: the awesome opening track streak continues!
That’s because the album opens with Earth, Wind & Fire’s most famous song and the funk classic “Shining Star.” I’ve always loved how clear the production is on this track. Ya know, I never really realized how positive this song is. It should be used by motivational speakers as their intro song.
The guitars, horns, and synthesizer all mix so well together into one amazing track.
That transitions immediately into the title track (or would it be theme song?), “That’s The Way Of The World.” It might actually be my favorite song on the album. I’ve always felt it sounded like “night music” There is a “night music” feeling that some songs have that I’ve never been able to quite explain. I can picture listening to Venus Flytrap on WKRP playing this on air at midnight.
“Happy Feelin‘” is another tightly produced track. It’s more of a dance-funk track than the first two songs. In fact you can just picture the Soul Train dancers gettin’ down to this. Another good one.
There is a weird transition with just random keyboard sounds at the end of “Happy Feelin.'”
The last track on side one, “All About Love” sounds like a ballad that would be in a 70’s movie montage of two lovers walking together and stuff. It is the first song from the album that has just one person singing. It is a very good and lovely song.
There is a reprise of that random keyboard sound transition, which I’m guessing was used in the movie as a scene transition or something. It’s kinda annoying.
Side two opens with “Yearnin’ Learnin’” A very funky track that reminds me a little of Funkadelic. Pretty cool stuff.
That transitions immediately into “Reasons.” Philip Bailey sings lead in his falsetto. A toned down (of sorts) soul ballad. This is love-makin’ music. Good stuff.
“Africano” Ahhh…now this is funk. It’s an instrumental, basically jazz-fusion track. Even though the ballads they do have been good so far, I wish there was more of the funky stuff. More of this, please guys.
“See The Light” is kind of a space-funk/gospel hybrid. I’m not feeling Bailey’s voice on this. I don’t think the high pitch works as well as someone else’s voice would for this song. It’s not a bad track, but I like the music much more than the vocals. It’s not the best idea to end the album on the weakest song.
We get a reprise of that weird keyboard stuff from side one, with some African chanting and some laughing. I’m still not sure what it is all about. Though, after listening to the first few albums before this one, I know they like to include those little interludes between songs. As I’ve mentioned several times before, I’m not a fan of that stuff.
I don’t dislike anything on the album, most everything was great. It is a nice mix of soul and funk. It’s funny because with one real exception it has no feeling of being a movie soundtrack. That means the band succeeded in not linking themselves with a movie that they thought stunk.
The group was correct on both of their beliefs: the movie did bomb and they had recorded a great album.
The album’s first single “Shining Star” shot up the charts becoming the group’s first #1 pop and R&B hit. The title track followed it by reaching #12 on the Billboard chart. With the help of its two hit singles, the album reached #1 on the Billboard albums chart staying there for 3 weeks in the summer of 1975. It was the third best-selling album of 1975, eventually reaching triple platinum status. “Shining Star” also won the group a 1976 Grammy for “Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.”
The success of That’s The Way Of The World allowed Maurice to add even more people to the band, adding 4 new members to the horn section to give them an even bigger sound. He named their horn section “The Phenix Horns.”
They wanted to immediately capitalize on their success, so they went into the studio to record a few new tracks to add to some live tracks from their 1974 and 1975 concerts. The group released the double LP Gratitude in November 1975.
It contained three live sides and one studio side. The studio side contained two eventual top 40 hits “Can’t Hide Love” and the top 5 hit “Sing A Song.” The album became their second consecutive Billboard #1 album and their second consecutive triple platinum album. They also received three 1977 Grammy nominations for the album.
They had their fifth consecutive platinum selling album, Spirit in late 1976.
With their growing popularity, the band’s concerts became more and more elaborate. They hired magicians Doug Henning and David Copperfield to direct their stage shows. They began using pyrotechnics, laser lights, levitation (that included the entire group ascending in a pyramid,) and an illusion that made the entire band disappear right before your eyes.
1977’s All ‘N All became their sixth straight million selling album, eventually going triple platinum, led by the top 20 hit “Serpentine Fire.”
The band once again proved that they were better at picking songs than picking movies to appear in, as they played themselves in yet another movie bomb, the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton vehicle Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Although, it should be noted that Earth, Wind & Fire had the biggest hit off of the movie soundtrack with their cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life,” which reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won the group yet another Grammy.
The band released a new single to accompany a greatest hits package, The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 in 1978. The single, “September,” was yet another top 10 hit, and it was one of their biggest worldwide hits. The Best Of album is their biggest selling album to date, going quintuple platinum in the U.S. and platinum in both the UK and Canada.
The band had their 8th consecutive million selling album with I Am in 1979. It was more of a disco album than anything they had done previously. It sold over 2 million units fueled by yet another top 10 hit “Boogie Wonderland” which they performed with the female R&B group The Emotions.
The 1980 album Faces put an end to their string of platinum albums as the band started going for a more electronic sound. However, their next album Raise! did sell a million copies on the strength of the top 5 hit “Let’s Groove.”
The band went on hiatus for a few years starting in 1983. During his time away from the band, Philip Bailey recorded a duet with Phil Collins, the Billboard #1 hit “Easy Lover.”
Maurice White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1988. The band had re-formed by that time and he continued to tour with them until 1994 when his illness prevented him from going on the road.
Altogether, Earth, Wind & Fire is one of the best-selling bands of all time, selling over 90 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. All of the members from the classic 1974-80 period, including Maurice, appeared at the ceremony and performed on stage that night.
A few months later, at the request of President Bill Clinton, the band performed for the visiting King of Morocco at the White House, who in turn was so impressed he asked the group to come to Morocco to perform at his palace for his birthday celebration.
They continue to perform concerts all over the country to this day with most of the same members that were with the band during the classic years. I saw them most recently performing at the 2013 central time zone New Year’s countdown show, butchering the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne.”
My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:
RS:“Before he got into African thumb pianos and otherworldly philosophizing, EWF founder Maurice White was a session drummer at Chess Studios. EWF’s sixth album is make-out music of the gods.”
What the hell does that first sentence have to do with this album at all? I have no clue what they thought they were going for there. It is like they were going to write a whole paragraph about the history of the band, but cut it down to 2 sentences and left the wrong sentence in. I also think it would be hard to make out to “Shining Star.” You put that track on, and you gotta boogie, baby!
Individually every song with the exception of the last track is great. I did not like those weird keyboard/synthesizer transitions on the album and while the songs are all very good, the album just does not have great flow. It is just a bunch of songs that, while great, don’t really go together. I don’t want to sound negative about an album that I like a lot, but I am just explaining why I am not rating it closer to a 5 star album. I do recommend it, though, as there is nothing bad at all on the album.
4.25 Stars out of 5, recommended
My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:
1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses
2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
3. KISS- Destroyer
4. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters
5. ZZ Top- Tres Hombres
6. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up
7. Outkast- Aquemini
8. Earth, Wind & Fire– That’s The Way Of The World
9. Hüsker Dü- New Day Rising
10. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign
11. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs
12. Public Enemy- Yo! Bum Rush The Show
13. Cyndi Lauper- She’s So Unusual
14. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!
15. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail
16. Eurythmics- Touch