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Earth, Wind & Fire - Illumination


"Do you remember...." the first time you heard Earth, Wind & Fire? Was it in 1971 when they blew out of Chicago by way of Los Angeles with their self-titled debut album and its soul-stirring single "Love is Life?"

Maybe it was in 1975 with their breakthrough film score That's the Way of the World that introduced the now-classic hits "Shining Star" and "Reasons," or later in 1980 when they lit up dance floors around the globe with the techno-funk of "Let's Groove." Do you remember the sheer energy flowing like cosmic current through the thrilling ensemble arrangements of "Runnin'," "Faces" and "Pride?" Do you remember the stirring lyrics of "Head to the Sky" and "Mighty, Mighty?" Perhaps your first memory of Earth, Wind & Fire was in concert - being there or via their 2-Lp live set Gratitude that made you feel like you were there. Do you remember the masterful musicianship and otherworldly theatrics? Do you remember the spiritual aura that elevated your mood and expanded your consciousness?

Well, 35 years later - after earning eight Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards, eight double platinum/Top 10 Pop albums, eight #1 R&B singles, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a year 2000 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement honors from the NAACP, ASCAP and BET - Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) and their music remains as inspirational and influential as ever. Their relevance to the landscape of pop music remains evident from their recent electrifying performance at the Super Bowl, two consecutive summer concerts on 'The Today Show,' and a knockout team-up with stellar hip hop duo OutKast on the Grammy Awards.

On their Sanctuary Records Group CD Illumination - the 23rd of their extraordinary career - Earth, Wind & Fire collaborates with generations of appreciative artists that have gleaned profound inspiration from their work. The influence is crystal clear when Black Eyed Peas leader Wil I Am shouts, "Jump up, freak or hustle / Do what you want, just move every muscle," then mimics EWF's peppery horn and kalimba lines on his rousing "Lovely People." The reverence is sun-gold in crooner Brian McKnight's fusion of key elements from EWF's ballads "You," "Love's Holiday" and "After the Love is Gone" to create his own epic, "To You."

And the quality is as strong as ever, proven by the album's first single "Show Me The Way," which earned a 2004 Grammy nomination.

"Throughout our career, we've strived to push the idea of illumination," states EWF founder Maurice White, "...of being on top of things and the vibration of positivity. This album is a continuation of that concept."

For Illumination's star-studded new single, EWF bounces to the ATL for the hip hop-laced party joint "This Is How I Feel," produced by Organized Noize, featuring rapper Big Boi of OutKast, singers Sleepy Brown and Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child in a duet with EWF lead singer Philip Bailey. This steamy invitation to boogie was also used this year in the Will Smith romantic comedy, Hitch.

Elsewhere, super producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, former members of the band The Time, tip their trademark hats in tribute to the horn-laced ensemble sound of The Fire with the gently uplifting "Pure Gold" plus the sexy flirtation "Love Dance" (playfully utilized in the animated film, Robots). Acclaimed female poetry/soul duo Floetry bring their conscience cleansing balm to the soothing motivator "Elevated" (produced by Darren Henson and Keith Pelzer). R&B futurist Vikter Duplaix laces the joyously tropical instrumental "Liberation," which features tantalizing bursts of EWF's wondrous wordless vocal melodies. As a bonus, the pied piper of soprano sax Kenny G guests on a cover of OutKast's infectious, instant club classic, "The Way You Move."

Finally, Raphael Saadiq, the producer/songwriter who is also the leader of Tony Toni Tone' and Lucy Pearl, produced four songs on Illumination, including the first single "Show Me the Way" - a duet he sings with EWF leader Maurice White. He also contributes the samba-rooted "Work it Out," a lovely showcase for Philip's falsetto titled "Pass You By," and the vibrant opening track "Love Together".

Reflecting on working with Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire in the studio, Saadiq states, "I can't even believe I'm standing next to him sometimes...especially when we are on the mic singing together or he's letting me write stuff for them and actually liking it. As huge as Earth, Wind & Fire has been for coliseums full of people, I feel like that million-and-one person when I'm watching him in the studio."

The seeds of Illumination's origin sprang from an idea Philip Bailey had of collaborating with a new generation of soul artists for his next solo album. However, reflecting on the success Santana had in collaborating with today's on his award-winning Supernatural album, it became clear that this was a golden opportunity to fortify Earth Wind & Fire's position in today's marketplace. "I was 22 when I joined Earth Wind & Fire in 1973," Philip shares. "I'm 53 now. It's the 22 year-olds' time now...Usher' time! What Santana did was a masterpiece, but it would not have gotten played the way it did without the guest artists that he had. Superstars are coupling with other artists because the playing field is so competitive now. Earth Wind & Fire collaborating with the new soul movement made sense because the thrust of their music is still about playing instruments and utilizing vintage sounds, only in today's setting."

The linchpin of organizing this fusion for Earth Wind & Fire was Damien Smith, a musician who came up through the managerial ranks of the West Coast record industry, establishing critical ties to the hot young music makers of today. Philip knew him since he was a childhood friend of his oldest son's back in Denver. Ironically, the man who once mentored Damien now found himself leaning on his pupil for keen, fresh insights into today's industry. "These new artists are Damien's peers and respect him," Philip stresses. "He started reaching out to them to see if they'd be interested in working with us. Then it snowballed and other artists wanted to be down. It became very exciting and competitive...the different artists hearing what the others had done and trying to top each other. Suddenly, we had a project that was indicative of the momentum we had back in the day. In the`70s, everything we touched turned to gold not because we were trying so hard, but because we were in the moment. You spend your whole life trying to duplicate situations like that, which is futile. So, today, it was apparent that we had to reinvent ourselves."

Singer/percussionist Ralph Johnson adds, "The most important thing for us to understand going into this was wrapping our heads around the concept of being produced by outside writer/producers. It was about getting people who really 'got' Earth, Wind & Fire, then leaving all egos at the door and allowing the record to happen with the artists we called on board. 'This is How I Feel' with Sleepy Brown and 'Lovely People' with the Black Eyed Peas...those are hit records. They got it!"

Though the outside contributors handled all of the songwriting, the core members of Earth, Wind & Fire were meticulously involved in the shaping and arranging of the music. Co-Manager Damien Smith shares, "Their presence in the proceedings laid the blueprint for the artists to dig into. For instance, 'Elevated' with Floetry originally had verses for Philip and Maurice to sing. Philip suggested they try something different. He said, 'Natalie, why don't you just rhyme the verses and Marsha and I will sing around you and Maurice will play the kalimba.' It made the song fresh."

Maurice White concurs. "This was an exciting opportunity for us to grow - to peek into the new ventures of different artists. It was quite an adventure."

The result is Earth Wind & Fire's most vibrant and contemporary album in years. The synergy surrounding the project is going to make for a bountiful series of concerts with the current incarnation of the band that includes Russian guitar virtuoso Vadim, energetic singer/percussionist David "Tigg" Whitworth (both Berklee School of Music alumni) and Musical Director Myron McKinley. This summer, Earth Wind & Fire will re-team with pop rock legends Chicago for a double bill that was a knockout sell-out at the box office last year. The group will follow that up with a tour of their own featuring special guests from the Illumination album and beyond. A TV special is also being pursued. And in his time off the road from the group, Maurice White, in collaboration with Maurice Hines, is working on a theatrical production called 'Hott Feet".  In addition to incorporating a number of Earth, Wind & Fire hits, White is composing new music with former behind the scenes EWF associates Allee Willis and Bill Meyers.

Surveying today's musical landscape, Philip hypothesizes, "What R. Kelly was able to do with Ronald "Mr. Biggs" Isley recently is the same thing we were able to do with Ramsey Lewis in 1974 with 'Sun Goddess.' The bottom line is this: if you have the respect of younger artists and don't take advantage of it, you're missing out. We've taken some chances, but we have more legitimate buzz now than I can remember."

Reflecting on all the years of music-making, history-making and memory-making, Verdine concludes, "Along with Maurice, Philip, Ralph and I are like brothers now. It's one thing to be able to hang out and talk, but it's another level when you play music together. It's definitely an out of body experience...all about accessing the spirit. Being together this long, we've had a chance to do that and then some, let alone the contributions we've had the opportunity to make to the music scene in general. Now, there is this re-interest in Earth Wind & Fire. People are really checking for us again. That's kinda cool."

Earth, Wind & Fire

The History

When Memphis-born Maurice White left his plum gigs as a Chicago session drummer and member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio - as the `60s became the `70s - he had a plan. He wanted to form a band that abolished the lines between musical genres, freely borrowing from all styles without regard to convention. "I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before," Maurice explains. "Although we were basically jazz musicians, we played soul, funk, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and dance music...which somehow ended up becoming pop. We were coming out of a decade of experimentation, mind expansion and cosmic awareness. I wanted our music to convey messages of universal love and harmony without force-feeding listeners' spiritual content."

Following a move to Los Angeles, Maurice called upon his younger brother, Verdine White - a 19 year-old classically trained bassist - to join him. Their initial name was The Salty Peppers. Maurice rechristened the 10-piece outfit Earth, Wind & Fire, inspired by "the elements" of his Sagittarian astrological chart. Their self-titled 1971 debut album Earth, Wind & Fire, followed by 1972's The Need of Love (both released on Warner Bros. Records), as well as the score for Melvin Van Peebles' pioneering black film, Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song (on Stax) were steeped in bedrock jazz, rhythm and blues that netted the up-and-coming band a loyal but primarily black underground following. With this foundation laid, Maurice exacted a bit of urban renewal on the group, switching out all of the Chicago-based members and pooling resources from Los Angeles, California and Denver, Colorado. Among the stellar cast of new additions was a super versatile drummer-percussionist-vocalist from L.A. named Ralph Johnson, and a percussionist from Denver with an amazing four-octave vocal range named Philip Bailey. Maurice's charismatic baritone voice and Philip's stratospheric falsetto set EWF's vocal identity "in the stone."

Earth, Wind & Fire made a crucial move to Columbia Records where their next three albums, Last Days and Time (1972), Head to the Sky (1973) and Open Our Eyes (1974), ushered them onto the radio. The group put major stock in their live shows, performing in any and every club, college and theatre that would book them, typically on double bills with bands from the rock, jazz and soul arenas. A broader demographic within their underground following began to amass, but it was the soundtrack to an ill-fated film that broke EWF wide open. That's the Way of the World (1975) was a stiff at the box office (twice), but Earth Wind & Fire's galvanizing 8-song Lp was a sales and cultural phenomenon. The group earned its first #1 single ("Shining Star"), first Grammy Award and first double platinum sales award from that now-classic album.

Gratitude (a half live/half studio double Lp released just in time for Christmas 1975), Spirit (1976) and All 'n All (1977) cemented Earth, Wind & Fire's status as superstars. Hit singles began to flow: "Can't Hide Love," "Getaway," "Serpentine Fire" and "Fantasy." Then there was "Got to Get You Into My Life," their thrilling R&B arrangement of the Beatles' classic from the otherwise all-star rock film odyssey Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that expanded their audience even further. Relentless international touring followed. The pace was so frenetic that band members found themselves composing during sound checks and in hotel rooms, even recording on precious off-days. "The Fire" was blazing hot by then, even scoring a smash with "September," one of two new songs included on their first greatest hits set, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire (a quadruple platinum seller). It wasn't for nothing that this 1978 compilation was subtitled Volume I....

The hits kept on coming with I Am (1978), the double Lp Faces (1980), Raise! (1981) and Powerlight (1982), including "Boogie Wonderland" (a duet with the Emotions featured in the movie Roller Boogie), "After The Love Is Gone," "In The Stone," "Let Me Talk," "Let's Groove," "Fall in Love with Me" and "Spread Your Love." As if THAT weren't enough, Maurice White (in a divine partnership with the late, legendary orchestrating genius, Charles Stepney) produced hits by Ramsey Lewis ("Sun Goddess"), Deniece Williams ("Free") and The Emotions ("Best of My Love"), all of whom also opened for Earth, Wind & Fire on tour.

Of course, any well-rounded musicologist knows that there is nothing...nothing...like an Earth, Wind & Fire concert. Along with Maurice, Verdine is often the mastermind behind-the-scenes live, and is arguably in possession of the most energetic stage presence of any performer on the planet! Just as "The Fire" vowed to go where no other band had gone before on records, they hired magician Doug Henning and his then-unknown assistant David Copperfield to design their bedazzling stage shows. Band members levitated, soared and disappeared, later to emerge from Egyptian pyramids and space crafts. Meanwhile, drum sets and synthesizer banks flipped upside down, and Maurice battled "The Force" with a light saber while scores of whirling lights and lasers winked in sync. With precision and panache, Earth, Wind & Fire and their legendary Phenix Horns section high-stepped through some seriously athletic choreography, never missing a lick on their instruments. "It was like Carnival, Mardi Gras, Broadway, Vegas and Cirque du Soleil all at once," Verdine proudly exclaims.

Ever-outfitted in eye-popping costumes, they morphed from muscle-hugging tights and shiny metallic space suits to magnificently colored Afro-centric attire. Earth Wind & Fire continues to take great pride in bringing African culture to pop culture. Their signature Motherland trademark is the handheld thumb piano known as the "kalimba," a sound that has blessed every one of their albums.

Following a huge dip in sales for the numbingly synthesized Electric Universe (1983), Earth, Wind & Fire took a much-needed break after nearly twelve years of non-stop recording and touring. Individually, they explored other avenues of musical expression. Maurice released an eponymous solo album and produced pop stars Barbra Streisand (Emotion) and Neil Diamond, among others. Philip Bailey recorded two jazz albums and four gospel albums, including the Grammy-winner, Triumph (1985). He also cut four soul/pop albums, including the Phil Collins-produced Chinese Wall (1984), which featured their smash duet, "Easy Lover." Verdine White, who produced albums by the funk band, Pockets, in the `70s, turned his attention to critically acclaimed English funk-rock band Level 42 in the `80s, producing their album, Standing in the Light. And Ralph Johnson (with former EWF guitarist Al McKay) co-produced the Temptations' 1984 Lp Truly for You, which had the hit "Treat Her Like a Lady." This year (2005), Ralph also realized the dream of an album of his own as leader of the band, Audio Caviar; "smooth jazz with R&B edge and world music diversity."

The time apart did everyone good. Reinvigorated, "The Fire" roared back with Touch the World (1987) and its new jack hit, "System of Survival," followed by The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. II (1988). A final Columbia studio album, Heritage (1990), came next, as well as the phenomenal 3-CD box set retrospective, The Eternal Dance (1992). A one-off return to Warner Bros.' Reprise label yielded Millennium (1993), which contained the Grammy-nominated "Sunday Morning." All the while, a revamped band reintroduced audiences around the world to the glory of Earth, Wind & Fire's live shows. During a 1996 stint in Japan, Maurice's "farewell from touring" performances were captured for CD and DVD on Greatest Hits Live.

Free from the rigors of the road, Maurice White built a state-of-the-art recording studio and produced several projects, including a pair of smooth jazz albums by the all-star Urban Knights collective, led by Ramsey Lewis and the late, great Grover Washington, Jr. He also unveiled the boutique label, Kalimba Records and lent his signature soul vocal exclamations to bassist Marcus Miller's song "Scoop" (from The Sun Don't Lie).

Though hit singles have been elusive for Earth, Wind & Fire of late, they have recorded some strong albums with the studio projects In The Name of Love (1997 - Pyramid) and The Promise (2003 - Kalimba), both of which had fans and critics alike championing their return to an organic sound. Just as thrilling was the surprise release of Live in Rio (2002 - Pyramid), which documents The 70's edition of Earth, Wind & Fire at the height of world dominance from their 1979 "I Am World Tour."

The music and showmanship of Earth, Wind & Fire remains a natural for traditional media and new media alike. VH1, HBO and the Arts & Entertainment Network have all aired top rated concert performances with A&E releasing its 1999 Live By Request program on DVD. The Eagle Vision video company released the EWF documentary Shining Stars, which contains rarely seen historic video footage along with in-depth interviews with the band members. As always, EWF continues to appear on numerous network television shows from "Oprah" to "Leno." And Hollywood continues to have a love affair with their mass appealing music, commissioning new Earth, Wind & Fire music for films such as Roll, Bounce ("Love Together"), Robots ("Love's Dance") and Hitch, ("This is How I Feel"), as well as tapping their classics for films such as Be Cool ("Fantasy"), Soul Food ("September") and Muppets in Outer Space ("Shining Star").

Sony Music's Legacy Recordings has been re-releasing Earth, Wind & Fire's landmark albums in deluxe CD editions, digitally re-mastered and supplemented with additional material from the original sessions. Among the juggernaut was a particularly inspired repackaging of the band's transitional 1976 classic Spirit, as well as the generous, career-spanning double-CD collection, The Essential Earth, Wind & Fire.

The honors seemingly never end. Longtime fans got a mind-blowing glimpse of Heaven when the classic, nine-piece '70s edition of Earth, Wind & Fire reunited for one night only in honor of their induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. EWF also had the honor of performing at the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, pegged unanimously by band members as a brilliant career highlight. And for the past two years, EWF has been touring in a wildly successful double bill with the band Chicago for unforgettable evenings in which both bands play separately, then come together for a grand finale switching off on each other's tunes. Philip's live lead on Chicago's classic ballad "If You Leave Me Now" was so sweet, it was added as an enticing bonus to Chicago's 2005 Love Songs compilation.

Summing up the 35 years of achievement that have led to Illumination, Maurice reflects, "I wanted to create a library of music that would stand the test of time. 'Cosmic Consciousness' is the key component of our work. Expanding awareness and uplifting spirits is so important in this day. People are looking for more.

I hope our music can give them some encouragement and peace."

(ASG - 2005)

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