In the early 1970s, Earth, Wind & Fire's mastermind, Maurice White, had a vision of creating a new, global sound with a mystical root that would inspire people.
"Cosmic consciousness is the key component of our work," he explained in an interview. "Being joyful and positive was the whole objective of our group. I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before. We were coming out of a decade of experimentation, mind expansion and cosmic awareness, and I wanted our music to convey messages of universal love and harmony without force-feeding listeners spiritual content."
A former studio drummer at Chess Records in the 1960s, backing greats like Etta James and Willie Dixon, Maurice went on to become a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Earth, Wind & Fire members Verdine White (from left), Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson will light up the Maui Arts & Cultural Center stage Sunday.
Photo courtesy Maui Arts & Cultural Center
While working with the legendary jazz pianist, he discovered the African thumb piano, the kalimba, an instrument whose hypnotic sound would become an essential ingredient in much of Earth, Wind & Fire's music.
Interested in combining elements of jazz, rock, and soul to create a widely appealing, universal sound, Maurice formed Earth, Wind & Fire, choosing the name after the three primary elements in his astrological chart.
Since its early days, Earth, Wind & Fire has defined the genre of high energy pop funk, as well as contributing some of the most endearing romantic ballads to the contemporary American music scene.
And while founder Maurice is long retired (he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease), his brother and bassist Verdine White, percussionist Ralph Johnson and lead singer Philip Bailey have carried on with great success, continuing to enthrall audiences around the world in concert.
"We've been real fortunate," says Verdine. "I'm appreciative because people now come up and thank us for making the music, for having the fortitude of making the music. What we're keeping alive is just good music."
Channeling funk grooves blazed by James Brown, the progressive vision of Sly Stone, and the improvisatory spirit of jazz fusion bands, Earth, Wind & Fire changed the face of popular music - leading Miles Davis to call them his favorite band. With their trademark horns, smooth, layered vocals, Bailey's extraordinary soaring falsetto, hook-laden melodies and intricate arrangements, they became an unbeatable force.
"We just mixed a little of this and that, appreciating all different forms of music," Verdine continues. "Our intention was just to make good music with good lyrics, and be the best we could be."
On their self-titled debut album, the band laid the seeds for a musical style of sound that would eventually captivate audiences worldwide. Artistically daring and innovative, they closed their self-titled debut album with song featuring the kalimba. A 13-minute jazz/Latin rock fusion song, "Zanzibar," was a highlight on "Head to the Sky" in 1974. One year later, "Open Our Eyes" was the first album to feature the line up that would vault them into superstardom, scoring the band their first top 40 single ("Mighty, Mighty"), and their first album to sell one million.
This classic featured gems like "Kalimba Song," and the superb "Devotion." But it was the brilliant "That's the Way of the World" album that transformed them into multi-platinum superstars.
A soundtrack to an ill-fated film, "That's the Way of the World," gained the band their first No. 1 single with "Shining Star," and their first Grammy Award for a recording that included funky hits like "Yearnin' Learnin'," the gorgeous ballad "Reasons," and the powerful, empowering title song.
Their irresistible hit singles continued with "Can't Hide Love," "Gratitude," "Fantasy," "Getaway," "September," "Boogie Wonderland," "After the Love Has Gone," and "Let's Groove."
Besides creating impossibly catchy original material, they could take a Beatles' song like "Got to Get You Into My Life" and make it uniquely their own. The band contributed this exuberant cover to a film version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
"When I ran into George Harrison years later, he thought that was the best version he had ever heard," says Verdine. "It was the biggest song on the movie. We had the only No. 1 record out of the Bee Gees and Aerosmith and everybody."
In concert, as captured on the live album "Gratitude," they were spectacular. Hiring magicians Doug Henning and David Copperfield to design their stage shows, they bedazzled audiences with band members levitating, disappearing, and emerging from Egyptian pyramids and space crafts, while drum sets and synthesizer banks would flip upside down.
"It was like Carnival, Mardi Gras, Broadway, Vegas and Cirque du Soleil all at once," Verdine remembers.
Besides their stage wizardry, the band moved audiences with their jubilant messages.
"I think one of the beautiful things about Earth, Wind and Fire is that the choices we've made to lyrically sing messages that were positive and uplifting and that several generations can sing and enjoy," Phillip Bailey recalled in an interview.
"It is something that we will always look to as being very proud that we made that choice, because it's really redemptive in terms of when we look at our legacy. It's something we can look back and say that was a good decision to follow our hearts, and say what was on our hearts that was uplifting and brought some life."
In the 1990s, and into the 21th century, the band continued to release exceptional albums. In 1993, "Millenium" included a super funky Prince song composed for Earth, Wind & Fire, the African-American anthem "Superhero;" and memorable tracks like "Sunday Morning." "In The Name Of Love" (1997) bristled with hot tunes offering a modern spin on old school soul and funk from the opening "Rock It" to the dreamy, closing "Avatar."
Their most recent album, the critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated "Illumination," released in 2005, found the innovative band teaming with an ensemble of young, neo-soul stars like Raphael Saadiq, Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am, Floetry, Big Boi, and Brian McKnight. As Rolling Stone magazine praised, highlights included, "two Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis tracks, 'Love's Dance' and the characteristically dreamy 'Pure Gold,' " which sounded as gloriously riveting as their past hits."
"It was cool, it was great," says Verdine about working with a brood of young artists. "They were all big fans of ours, and so they insisted on us being ourselves."
Over the years, numerous artists have sampled their music, from Beyonce, Jay Z and the Black Eyed Peas to Snoop Dogg, Cee-Lo Green and Nas.
Earth, Wind & Fire will release a new album, "Now, Then & Forever," in early September. They had planned put out a new recording before the 2012 presidential election, but the musicians weren't satisfied with the songs.
"We have a lot more bells and whistles in place now and the record is better," Bailey reported. "I said, 'Let's go back to the drawing board.' It's a great representation of who Earth, Wind and Fire is now, but not departing from the classic sound."
Anyone who has witnessed the group on stage knows that the band is still one of the most musically adventurous and exciting live acts around.
A Seattle Post-Intelligencer review raved: "From a teasing and tantalizing keyboard overture to the straight-ahead soloing of the horn section, EW&F brought it all together at the crossroads where R&B, funk, soul, jazz and gospel collide in one great eruption of musical joy."
And Utah's Salt Lake City Weekly praised: "The funk pioneers managed to turn their sold-out Deer Valley gig into a steamy dance party. EWF threw down hit after hit, monster-sized songs ranging from straight funk and R&B to Latin soul and rock & roll. It's easy to see how EWF ended up in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a decade ago: The band's music incorporates virtually the entire canon of American pop history."
Besides longtime members Bailey, White and Johnson, the 12-piece band includes keyboardist Myron McKinley, percussionist B. David Whitworth, Philip Bailey, Jr. on background vocals, guitarists Greg Moore and Morris O'Connor, drummer John Paris, and the Earth, Wind & Fire horns - saxophonist Gary Bias, trumpeter Bobby Burns, Jr. and trombonist Reggie Young.
Known for his high energy on stage ("a miracle of perpetual motion" noted a review), Verdine credits years of yoga practice and meditation with keeping him rejuvenated.
"It's just something I like doing, we're from that era where it started," he says. "I'm just one of the many who discovered it. There was a great section in Vanity Fair (magazine) about 20 yoga masters, and it just lets us know we are truly a one-world, multicultural society, and I think Earth, Wind and Fire had a lot to do with that."
* Earth, Wind & Fire perform at 7 p.m. Sunday at the MACC's A&B Amphitheater. Gates open at 4 p.m. Tickets are $65, $79, $89, and $129, available at the box office, by calling 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.