Earth, Wind & Fire: North Charlestons 40th anniversary celebrated with 40 years of elemental funk
North Charlestons 40th anniversary celebrated with 40 years of elemental funk
By Stratton Lawrence | Wednesday, June 20, 2012
If you go
What: Earth, Wind & Fire, part of North Charleston’s 40th anniversary celebration
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: North Charleston Coliseum, 5001 Coliseum Drive
For more info: www.north charleston coliseumpac.com
When the city of North Charleston began looking for an appropriate band to celebrate its 40th anniversary, the options were limited. The pool of well-known bands still performing from 1972 grows smaller by the year.
“We had the challenge of coming up with somebody that was well-known in the ’70s. The older we get, that gets more difficult to find,” explained North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey. “Fortunately, Earth, Wind & Fire announced they were doing a tour.”
The parallels between the band and the city are strong, with their tenures coinciding almost perfectly: Earth, Wind & Fire rebooted under leader Maurice White in 1972, reforming with a new lineup that includes the three members who still front the band today.
Singer Philip Bailey, percussionist Ralph Johnson and bassist Verdine White (Maurice’s younger brother) make up the heart of a group that’s held strong since beginning their career together with 1972’s “Last Days and Time.” And despite the departure of founder Maurice in the mid-1990s because of Parkinson’s disease, the trio has continued to record and tour without any lengthy pause.
‘Now, Then & Forever’
Fans will remember Earth, Wind & Fire for its constant string of hits throughout the ’70s and ’80s, including songs such as “Shining Star,” “September” and the disco-tinged “Boogie Wonderland.”
“We were never a disco band,” clarifies Verdine White, emphasizing the group’s legacy as a funk ensemble while talking from his tour bus on the way to a show in Philadelphia last week. “Of course, ‘Boogie Wonderland’ came out of that disco era, but it never stopped being funk.”
After Maurice White’s retirement from performing in 1994, fans might have expected the group to dissolve, perhaps reuniting for a reunion tour sometime down the road. Instead, the group soldiered on with Maurice as an invisible mentor, even performing a show at the 1997 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland that led to international re-awareness of the band.
Following the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, Earth, Wind & Fire performed at the White House for President Bill Clinton that same year, an experience the Chicago-based band revisited as the first group to play at the White House after President Barack Obama took office.
“He came to our rehearsal and loved the tunes,” Verdine White recalls of his experience with Obama. “He knows all the music and everything. He’s a cool guy; a very great guy. He got up and danced and was doing his thing, you know?”
Resisting any temptation to morph into a tribute band of its own music, Earth, Wind & Fire released the studio album “The Promise” in 2003, followed by an appearance at the following year’s Grammy Awards.
Over the course of its career, the group has won six Grammy Awards, garnered from 17 nominations. It also has won four American Music Awards from 12 nominations.
For its 19th studio album in 2005, “Illumination,” the band managed to reach a new generation through collaborations with the likes of Big Boi, Brian McKnight, Kelly Rowland and the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am.
In September, it will release its 20th disc, “Now, Then & Forever.” Taking a cue from the success of “Illumination,” the group has called on friends and fellow musicians from The Roots to Justin Timberlake to contribute to a compilation that doubles as a peer-chosen greatest hits collection and an introduction of new songs, including current single, “Guiding Lights.”
“The first part of the album will be the curator part, with people like Lenny Kravitz and David Foster giving comments on the songs, and then the other part of the album will be brand-new material,” White explains.
Even though the single “Guiding Lights” contains the same soaring vocal harmonies and smooth horn lines that highlighted hits recorded decades ago, White said that neither the decision to record retro-sounding new tracks or to incorporate new artist such as Will.i.am are conscious decisions to change or keep the sound the same.
“We don’t think too much about the past. We just keep it moving,” he said. “Between myself and Philip (Bailey) and Ralph (Johnson), we’re still right there with each other when we play.”
Earth, Wind & Fire’s tour includes a full string orchestra, in addition to 12 band members on stage.
Once famous for elaborate stage set-ups, including mystical and Egyptian-themed props, lasers and levitating musicians (the group’s show-designers even included a young David Copperfield during the ’70s), Earth, Wind & Fire now relies more on its expansive band to carry the show.
“There’s no pyramid, but it’s just as powerful,” said White, adding that he still dons his sequin-studded suits when he gets on stage. “I’m rocking. I look good up there, too.”
Among White’s favorite bass lines to play during the shows are the 1977 single “Fantasy” and the following year’s Grammy-winning remake of The Beatle’s “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
Summey, who has his regular seats secured at stage level, is most looking forward to hearing the band play “Shining Star.” And considering that the genre-defining funk track opens up the group’s “Greatest Hits” disc, there’s a good chance the mayor will get his wish.
White said that he’s particularly excited to play North Charleston, combining the legacies of the city and the band into one event.
“It’s going to be a great celebration for both of us,” he said.