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Earth, Wind & Fire

Reviewed on this page:
Earth, Wind & Fire - The Name Of Love - Last Days and Time - Head To The Sky - Open Our Eyes - That's The Way Of The World - Gratitude - Spirit - Flowers - All 'N All - Rejoice - Sunbeam - I Am - Come Into Our World - Faces - Raise! - Powerlight - Electric Universe - Chinese Wall - Maurice White - Inside Out - Touch The World - Heritage - Millenium - Philip Bailey - Greatest Hits Live - In The Name Of Love - The Promise - Illumination

At the beginning of the 70s, jazz drummer Maurice White decided to start a spiritual soul/rock band (the band's name was based on the astrological signs of the original members). After a few mutations, they ended up as one of the decade's most successful bands, topping a funky rhythm section (including the amazing Al McKay on rhythm guitar) with piercing horns, soaring vocal harmonies (thanks to Philip Bailey) and sophisticated orchestral arrangements. I once read a classical music critic who said rock is an inferior art form because it can't communicate joy - he'd obviously never listened to EWF.

Philip Bailey has done several side projects, which I'm finally starting to review, Maurice White's solo album is also discussed, and during the band's peak period they worked on several albums for the Emotions - I've reviewed some of those here as well. And I've been directed to a pretty good fan site: Marcus Ceravolo's Brazilian Rhyme page. (DBW)

Personnel: Maurice White, producer, vocals, kalimba; Philip Bailey, vocals, drums (started in 1972); Verdine White, bass; Al McKay, guitar (left in 1980); Johnny Graham, guitar (left after 1981); Andrew Woolfolk, saxophone; Ralph Johnson, drums; plus the EWF Revolving-Door Horn Section.

Earth, Wind & Fire (1971)
Maurice White had the idea of what he wanted to do, but didn't really have it working yet. The atmosphere is there, and the soulful blending voices, but the horn and rhythm arrangements are routine: there are no tight, carefully worked out instrumental passages, and no memorable compositions. He's already using segues, but mostly they're just uninteresting conversation snippets. Functional funk and roll ("Fan The Fire," "Bad Tune"), but nothing exceptional. My LP doesn't list band credits, and I think several of the core 70s members weren't yet on board. (DBW)

The Need Of Love (1972)
At this point the band was Maurice and Verdine White with Wade Flemons and Sherry Scott (vocals), Don Whitehead (piano), Michael Beal (guitar), Yackov Ben Israel (percussion), Chet Washington (sax) and Alex Thomas (trombone). Like the previous record, there are some atmospheric jams ("Energy," with a spacey spoken invocation), and this time the arrangements are more sophisticated ("Everything Is Everything"; "Beauty," with spiffy vocal harmonies). On the other hand, there's nothing as invigorating as "Fan The Fire," let alone the classic songs the next incarnation of the band would soon come up with. Scott contributes one ordinary soul ballad, "I Think About Lovin' You"; the bulk of the disc is by White, Flemons and Whitehead. Produced by Joe Wissert. (DBW)

Last Days and Time (1972)
- A big step forward. Philip Bailey's falsetto arrived just in time, complementing the sax-driven "Make It With You" (yes, the Bread hit) and Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" Then there are some tight jams with complex percussion interplay ("Power," "Mom"). Best of all is the scorching psychedelic funk of "Remember The Children" - topped off with a social consciousness message. Produced by Wissert. (DBW)
- Frustratingly uneven. The big War-style funk jam "Power" compelling, leading off with a hot guitar riff later stolen by David Bowie on his "Fame"; the soulful "Make It With You" is solid A side material with marvelous harmonies, a squawking sax part, and an amusing burbling clavinet; the quality message tune "They Don't See" has a romantic Temptations-like sound; and "Time Is On Your Side" is an utterly groovy dance number that foreshadows their mature hit formula. But side 2 has some excruciating, over-orchestrated, Chicago-ish pop songs like "I'd Rather Have You" (unredeemed by Jessica Cleaves' wide-ranging lead vocal), the lyrically bathetic "Remember The Children" (otherwise much like "Make It With You"), an incongruous Hollywood-style orchestral "Interlude," and their painfully corny lounge lizard take on "Where Have All The Flowers Gone"; only the gentle, bossa nova-flavored ballad "Mom" redeems it. Bailey's sometimes superb but sometimes oversings, and some of the flower-power guitar solos fall flat. (JA)

Head To The Sky (1973)
Maurice White is finding his way as a composer, focusing on uplifting lyrics with songs like "Keep Your Head To The Sky", where short-term band member Jessica Cleaves adds an even higher voice than Bailey's. (Actually, I don't know if the lyrics of "Build Your Nest" are uplifting - I can't understand them at all - but the song rocks.) Most of side two is a 13-minute Latin-flavored jam ("Zanzibar") that generally succeeds in holding your interest but never really takes off. The last Wissert production. (DBW)

Open Our Eyes (1974)
The band took over production, and the result was the first instance of the classic EWF sound: transcendent backing vocals, jabbing horns, White's kalimba, layers of percussion, and infectious guitars (original guitarist Roland Bautista was gone, but Al McKay and Johnny Graham more than make up for it). The two marginally successful singles were an inspirational ballad ("Devotion") and a gorgeous funk number ("Mighty Mighty") - two areas that would continue to be the band's bread and butter. The title track is a beautifully rendered spiritual earlier recorded by Funkadelic, and the band funks memorably on "Tee Nine Chee Bit" (co-written by Charles Stepney, formerly with Rotary Connection, who would be a close EWF associate for the next few years). There are also some tunes that get way too corny for my taste ("Feelin' Blue," "Fair But So Uncool"). The one instrumental segue is the frantic jazz fragment "Spasmodic Movement." This went platinum, as did all their subsequent 70s releases. (DBW)

That's The Way Of The World (1975)
Soundtrack to a film starring the band, this was their pop breakthrough, soaring to #1 (as did the rock-pop single "Shining Star"). Similar to the previous release in tone, but everything's a bit sharper, and the compositions include some of the greatest songs the band ever recorded: the title anthem, Bailey's signature ballad "Reasons," and the preachy but irresistable "All About Love." However, the disc is padded out with a number of second rate songs ("Happy Feelin'," "Yearnin' Learnin'"). (DBW)

Gratitude (1975)
Half live (produced by White and Wissert), half studio (produced by White and Stepney). The live versions include reworked, funkier versions of their hits, plus a new, lengthy instrumental suite ("New World Symphony") and a magnificent reworked version of a song they'd recorded with Ramsey Lewis ("Sun Goddess" - don't get Lewis's original, you'll be disappointed). The studio cuts are uniformly excellent: the pop-soul "Singasong" (a Top Five single); the midtempo, funky title song; the Skip Scarborough ballad "Can't Hide Love." Plus an awesome 30 second segue (uncredited) - listen for it. The band's second and last #1 album. (DBW)

That's The Way Of The World: Alive In '75! (rec. 1975, rel. 2002)
Like it says. (DBW)

Spirit (1976)
You don't hear people talk about this one too much, and I'm damned if I can figure out why. The singles (both uptempo) are pleasant if not the band's best work ("Getaway," "Saturday Nite"), but the real highlights are the slower numbers. "Earth, Wind & Fire" and "On Your Face" could almost define EWF's sound: lovely like ballads, but with the electric power of funk. The lengthy closing anthem "Burning Bush" is gorgeous, and the title track features what is perhaps Bailey's most affecting vocal. The arrangements are lusher than before, with big string sections cropping up, but it never sounds schmaltzy or overproduced. The album is dedicated to Stepney, who's listed as producer (with White) but died before the album was released. (DBW)

Flowers (The Emotions: 1976)
The Emotions were made up of the three Hutchinson sisters (Jeannette, Wanda and Sheila); their first records were produced by Isaac Hayes in the late 60s, after which they kicked around for several years. Then Maurice White got involved, and for the next several years produced an album a year for them, featuring EWF personnel as prominently as the band's own releases. But at first White was too tame: most of the tunes are slick love songs with cutesy lead vocals ("I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love," "You've Got The Right To Know" - both co-written by Wanda). Even the catchier, uptempo stuff sounds contrived, though pleasant ("No Plans For Tomorrow"). The high points are "How Do You Stop Loving Someone" (also by Wanda), a lost love song that gets under your skin, and the title track (the only song here written by EWF members, namely White and McKay), which has a full-voiced background chorus presaging "Best Of My Love." But with only 7 four-minute tracks (plus a couple of brief interludes), there's not really enough going on here to warrant tracking the album down. (DBW)

All 'N All (1977)
Sharp horn riffs, guitar-driven funk, schmaltzy ballads, a huge album-ending climax - everything to love about Earth, Wind & Fire is here. The singles "Serpentine Fire" and "Fantasy" are hook-riddled marvels, "Jupiter" is unrelenting excitement, and Bailey's voice never comes across better than on "I'll Write A Song For You." I couldn't do justice to the exuberant love feast "Be Ever Wonderful," so I won't try. As elegant, sophisticated, and danceable an album as the 70s produced. Starting here, Maurice White took sole responsibility for production. (DBW)

Rejoice (The Emotions: 1977)
The big hit of the five albums White did for the Emotions. It's very much like a classic EWF record only with female vocalists: elegantly produced ballads (Mann & Weil's "A Long Way To Go"), spiritual anthems ("Blessed"), supercatchy pop ("Best Of My Love," which was #1 for six weeks and later inspired Mariah Carey's hit "Emotions") and serious funk ("Love's What's Happenin'" by Sheila Hutchinson). All the usual collaborators are here, from Larry Dunn to Skip Scarborough to Paulinho Da Costa, and this is a must-have for any EWF fan. Pam Hutchinson fills in for Jeannette, who was pregnant during recording (though that never stopped Chaka Khan). (DBW)

Greatest Hits (1978)
A routine collection of gold singles, worth picking up for the phenomenal non-album "September," and you'll also find the Beatles' "Got To Get You Into My Life" transformed into an EWF tune. (DBW)

Sunbeam (The Emotions: 1978)
The followup to Rejoice, and it sounds like a rush job: it sticks very close to the EWF formula - positive-minded pop ("Smile"), sentimentality crossed with street lingo ("Love Vibes," "Ain't No Doubt About It"), and funk ("Whole Lot Of Shakin'") - and none of the tunes are brilliant, though none are awful. The arrangements are mellower than usual, and it may take a while before you get into it, but there are lots of small pleasures here. Again, several tracks are by one or more of the Hutchinsons ("Time Is Passing By, "My Everything") while the balance are by EWF members or fellow travelers. (DBW)

I Am (1979)
The opening side picks up right where All 'N All left off, and is maybe even better (mystical funk "In The Stone," the moving hit ballad "After The Love Has Gone," rhythm guitar wizardry on "Let Your Feelings Show"). On the second side, things droop a bit with the disco hit "Boogie Wonderland" (featuring the Emotions) and second-rate material ("Wait"), though there are more wonders like the ballad "You And I." Most of the songwriting is by Maurice White in collaboration with Allee Willis and David Foster (Jay Graydon co-wrote "After The Love Has Gone"). (DBW)

Come Into Our World (The Emotions: 1979)
The fourth record White produced for the Emotions, and a substantial rebound. The energy of the opening "What's The Name Of Your Love" is contagious, and there are more treasures like the anthemic "On & On," Wanda Hutchinson's funky "Layed Back," and White's "The Movie," which overcomes a tortured lyric. Even Marlo Henderson's "I Should Be Dancing" is fun despite its extreme similarity to a certain Bee Gees hit. The closing "Yes I Am" seems like it must have been intended for the similarly-titled concurrent EWF album; it's a decent but unexceptional love song. About as strong as Rejoice though it's lacking a hit single; good fun for EWF fans. (DBW)

Faces (1980)
The limitations of White's magic formula become apparent on this double album - there's one carefully-produced three and a half minute pop song after another ("Take It To The Sky," "Share Your Love"), but he's stopped experimenting, and it all starts to sound the same. Perky funk here, a bouncy ballad there. Still, there are so many memorable melodies and irresistable grooves ("Win Or Lose," "Let Me Talk," "In Time") you won't be sorry you picked this up. Most of the songwriting is by bandmembers, though Brenda Russell cowrote "You," "Song In My Heart" and "And Love Goes On." This still hit the Top Ten, but was their first record in years not to go platinum. (DBW)

Raise! (1981)
The first album without dynamic rhythm guitarist Al McKay. "Let's Groove," with its classic synth-voice bass line, became the group's last major single. There's a bunch of other enjoyable material in both funk and ballad veins, but they're covering real familiar ground. A commercial rebound, sailing into the Top Five and going platinum. (DBW)

New Affair (The Emotions: 1981)
By now even the main EWF project was a bit unsteady, and I don't have high hopes for this, the end of White's association with the Emotions. But I'd still love to get my hands on it. (DBW)

Powerlight (1983)
Lead guitarist Johnny Graham left, replaced by the returning Roland Bautista (Beloyd Taylor also plays on several tracks). This missed the Top Ten, presumably because the public was tired of their sound. It is very much like their earlier work, but it doesn't sound like a retread, partly because the band is so enthusiastic (the single "Fall In Love With Me"), and partly because the tunes are so good ("The Speed Of Love"). It's remarkably focused and consistent: there isn't a weak track except for the album closer "Miracles," where the cornball factor goes out of control - by the time the off-key children's chorus comes in you'll be begging for mercy. Many of the songs are by White with Emotion Wanda Vaughn and Wayne Vaughn, I believe her husband. (DBW)

Continuation (Bailey: 1983)
Philip Bailey's first solo album, produced by George Duke. (DBW)

Electric Universe (1983)
I don't know why White felt he had to crank out another LP so soon after the last one; I can't imagine he thought anything here was so important it merited rapid release. The usual formulas are followed, but half-heartedly: the inspirational numbers fall flat ("Moonwalk," "Spirit Of A New World"), the ballads are corny ("Touch"), the attempts to keep current are embarrassing ("Electric Nation"). All the qualities that made the band so great have temporarily gone sour: the razor-sharp arrangements have devolved into synth-and-drum-machine pap; the soaring vocals have lost their sincerity; the memorable melodies are nowhere to be found. You get the feeling White was fighting himself here, maybe slogging through a crisis by pretending everything was just fine. The last recording of the classic lineup; subsequent EWF releases have featured Maurice White, Bailey and whoever else they could get into the studio. (DBW)

Chinese Wall (Bailey: 1984)
Bailey's sophomore effort made a big stir, mostly because Phil Collins produced (he and his trademark reverb snare sound were hotter than hot back then) and sang co-lead vocals on the huge hit single "Easy Lover" (which Collins co-wrote with Bailey). The rest of the songs are either horn-backed attempts at EWF's sophisticated funk ("Go"), or ballads ("Show You The Way To Love"), but the material (contributed by a horde of writers) isn't up to snuff. Also, Bailey doesn't take as many chances vocally as before, which is peculiar for a solo effort by a member of a band. He's still a fine singer, though, and the tunes aren't horrible, they're just ordinary - okay for fans. The closing track is the best, a moving social comment in traditional EWF style ("Children Of The Ghetto" by Chris and Eddy Amoo). The same band appears on every track: Collins on drums, Nathan East on bass, Daryl Stuermer on guitar, and Lesette Wilson on keyboards. (DBW)

Maurice White (White: 1985)
Often enjoyable, but generic and over-programmed. There are some nice tunes: "Life," "Jamboree" - and a beautiful coda on "Lady Is Love." Basically, though, there's nothing stylistically, lyrically, compositionally or performance-wise that you can't find done better on an EWF record. There's also a cover of Ben E. King's 1962 hit "Stand By Me," released just a year before King's own version became a top seller all over again. A zillion top session players are featured, including Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, longtime collaborator Jerry Hey on horns, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and the ineluctable Paulinho da Costa on percussion. (DBW)

Inside Out (Bailey: 1986)
Bailey's second solo effort was produced by Nile Rodgers, and guests include Collins again, George Duke, and Ray Parker Jr. At this point, Rodgers had a formulaic, high-tech approach to production that steamrollers most of the charm of Bailey's voice: the frantic "Welcome To The Club" and gimmicky "Special Effect" are a complete waste of time. On the up side, Nile's "Don't Leave Me Baby" is a memorable love song with insistent synth strings, and Baileys's pleading falsetto makes "Take This With You" (which Bailey cowrote) a pleasure. The less interesting tracks aren't annoying, they're just ordinary (the rocker "Back It Up" featuring Jeff Beck, the ballad "Long Distance Love"). Not nearly as good as a "real" EWF record, but not a horrible disappointment. (DBW)

Touch The World (1987)
EWF's comeback record after White and Bailey took a break to do solo projects, and it's a good one. The dance hit "System of Survival" (by Skylark) and the title song update EWF's patented sound (heavy use of synth and drum programming) without compromising it. "Evil Roy" was also a single; the fine "You And I" is not a remake of the 1979 tune but a different song with the same title. And there's more: the classic feel-good ballad "Thinking Of You," "Money Tight." Even the segues swing ("New Horizons"). (DBW)

Heritage (1990)
Maurice White seems like such a nice guy I hate to say anything bad about any of his records, but this is one of those times when nothing he tries works. He tries to bridge the generation gap by bringing in Sly Stone with then-hot MC Hammer (enough said) and The Boys, younger rappers who White thought were going to be successful at some point (maybe they still will). It's a spectacular failure - kind of like an office building collapsing. It took guts to take a project like this on; it would've taken more talent than White had available to pull it off. (DBW)

Millenium (1993)
None of the ambitious experimentation of the previous album, so it's more listenable but there are no surprises. The luscious single "Sunday Morning" is the only real find here - I'm also partial to the Prince-penned African-American anthem "Superhero," but then I'm a Princeaholic. Sentimentality reigns ("Two Hearts" co-written by Burt Bacharach, "The L Word" - gag me), the arrangements are uninspired and often disappointingly robotic. The better tracks just run the band's trademark sound into the ground ("Even If You Wonder"). This time around, Sheldon Reynolds was added as a full band member. (DBW)

Philip Bailey (1994)
No looking back for Bailey: for his first solo effort in several years he goes with Terry Riley-style New Jack Swing, with plenty of synth hooks, vaguely hip hop beats, and his trademark yearning falsetto. Though it's all derivative, it's a highly effective combination, largely because the tunes are catchy: almost every track on the record sounds like it could've been a single ("Stay Right Here," "Love Me Tonight"). There's not as much variety as you might want, just synth pop ("I'm Ready") and synth ballads ("A Diamond Just Like You"), but it doesn't fall into a rut, and Nadirah Ali's duet vocal on "Yours" adds some interest. The one really lame track is Brian McKnight's dull, sappy "Crazy Things You Do For Love." There are several different producers here, including PM Dawn, Chuckii Booker, McKnight and Robert Brookins, but they're all following the same basic recipe. If you like New Jack Swing and you like Bailey's voice (who doesn't?) you should enjoy this. And, since it flopped abysmally, you should be able to find it real cheap. (DBW)

Greatest Hits Live (1996)
A high-energy, predictable live set, packed with monster hits - "September," "Can't Hide Love," "Shining Star" - and everything is from the peak 1974-1979 era except "Let's Groove" and "System Of Survival." The only offbeat number is a fun instrumental cover of Parliament's "P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)" (uncredited). The performances are crisp and fresh (some nice new horn arrangements) although the backing instruments, especially guitars, are mixed dangerously far back. Bailey takes some startling risks on vocals, soaring up into Mariah Carey territory on his features "Fantasy" and "Reasons." If you've been missing the joyous, funky EWF of old, this record's for you, although novices will want to head back to the original discs. (DBW)

In The Name Of Love (1997)
After more than ten years trying to incorporate current musical trends into EWF's traditional sound, Maurice White's finally caught up: this disc sounds fully contemporary and reassuringly retro at the same time, with tricks like full horn sections stuck inside Babyface-style ballads ("Cruising") and guest raps competing with high harmony vocals (the single "Revolution"). At times White's production is frighteningly good, up to his 70s tricks of using link tracks and interludes to shift moods, and dropping in loud electric guitar when you least expect it (the heavy funk "Rock It"). The tunes themselves are mostly catchy but never monumental like the band's best days - they still have their sense of fun but not their missionary zeal - and once again they overdo their attempts to sound hip and street ("Keep It Live"). Still, with fewer embarrassments and more solid tracks than any record they've done since Faces, this is a must for fans, and worth a try for anyone who wants to hear a modern spin on old school soul and funk. (DBW)

Soul On Jazz (Phillip Bailey: 2002)
A jazz album. (DBW)

The Promise (2003)
The band here is Maurice, Verdine, Phillip Bailey and Ralph Johnson; Gregory Curtis co-produced many of the tracks with White and also wrote a couple (the Bailey ballad feature "Betcha'"). Right from the opening "All In The Way," you know what you're going to get: a pleasant, hummable, inconsequential rehash of the classic EWF sound. "Never" reuses melodic elements from "Fantasy," and they even reuse a title or two ("All About Love," "Wonderland"). But if you're not looking for anything groundbreaking, it's easy to be seduced by smooth numbers like "Why?" (a ballad with acoustic guitar that's right out of Babyface's bag). Two songs are left over from 1978, Bill Meyers & Ross Vannelli's lush "Where Do We Go From Here?" and White's funky "Dirty." Guests include Angie Stone ("Wonderland") and most of the Emotions. (DBW)

Illumination (2005)
None of the band members wrote or produced anything here; contributions come from Jam/Lewis ("Pure Gold"), Raphael Saadiq ("Show Me The Way"), Organized Noize ("This Is How I Feel") and the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am ("Lovely People"). Apart from Bailey's vocals ("Elevated," also featuring Floetry), there's nothing remotely distinctive or praiseworthy about this overprogrammed, underwritten collection of midtempo R&B/hop-hop/soul mush ("Love's Dance"). The one song that really sounds like EWF is "To You," written by and performed with Brian McKnight... and that's because it's a rewrite (however affectionate) of "I'll Write A Song." Reaching a new low in originality, the bonus track is a Wlater Afanasieff-produced cover of Outkast's "The Way You Move" that's mostly an excuse for endless Kenny G soloing. The least essential EWF project to date... at least on Heritage, they were trying. (DBW)

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