Elements – Earth, Wind and Fire on Soul!

Since finishing the book, and this blog post about Maurice White, I’ve been digging through some of my other archives. I found an amazing live performance from the groundbreaking WNET show Soul! broadcast on January 10th, 1973.

The accompanying video, the shows are available via pbs.org in some regions, and via WNET Thirteen, if you can access them. A low res version of which can be seen below via Youtube, is perhaps remarkable for a number of reasons. It documents a group in the midst of change.

The original Earth, Wind and Fire had recorded two albums for Warner Brothers, and then fell apart, as many groups do, with arguments over this, that, money etc. in 1972. This performance featured the core members of what had become EWF 2.0. Cleaves would move on, Ronnie Laws had billing on the recording, but had already quit, others would be added over time.

Featured in this recording were:

Maurice White – Kalimba, Vocals and Percussion
Jessica Cleaves – Vocals
Philip Bailey – Vocals and Congas
Johnny Graham – Guitar
Verdine White – Vocals and Bass
Larry Dunn – Organ and Electric Piano
Ralph Johnson – Drums
Andrew Woolfolk – Sax and Flute

This is the group, plus Andrew McKay, that would go on later in 1973 to record their 4th album, Head to the Sky.

Their dress style hadn’t started evolving yet, here they were dressed, as you’d expect for early 1970’s, their performance style had though. As the last number finished, the group disappeared from the stage, leaving just Ralph Johnson.

Musically, the group show what would become their trademark for the next 10-years, across albums and countless hit singles. The performance opens with one of the best  videos of Maurice White playing the Kalimba; his fingers and thumbs rapidly producing what would become a trademark, and unique sound.

Philip Bailey shows his amazing vocal range on, as far as I’m aware, their only recording of , James Taylors Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight. There is, as there alway would be, the omni-present, bare chested, Verdine White and his amazing bass playing.

The group is already tight and the tracks here, some from the 3rd album Last Days and Time including the opening song, Power.

Overall, for me, this recording has all the elements that made Earth, Wind & Fire. Enjoy.

Earth, Wind and Fire; life and guidance

foto_20190111_100904Over the year-end I read the Maurice White, Herb Powell penned autobiography, “My Life With Earth, Wind & Fire”. It was both an interesting read, and revelatory.

While my early teens were heavily influenced by David Bowie, my late teens and in some respects the rest of my life was heavily influenced by the sound, and especially the mystical guidance that seemed to be coming from the group, led by it’s founder and bandleader, Maurice White.

White’s spiritual approach gave endorsement to my own uncomfortableness with my Christian upbringing and doubt that a single “God” existed. I never met White, but in the way you idolize someone, I thought I knew him through his music. I didn’t at all.

The book itself covers all the key phases of his life, and especially the struggles and troubles he wanted people to know about. His youth in Memphis was shocking. Yes, I guessed it wouldn’t be good, as a black kid in Memphis in the 40’s and early 50’s but it was worse than a white kid from England born in the 50’s could imagine. In many ways, I assume the events described, meant that Maurice spent much of his life searching for meaning, and examining ways to find context for what had happened to him.

As well as his long path through music until he hit success with Earth, Wind & Fire, the books chronicles Whites, obvious to me, struggles with commitment and identity. We all need stories in our lives to make sense of them, to understand  why you are, who you are, and the book covers Whites journey to understand his stories. Notwithstanding all that Whites’ story really had some great commentary and lessons on surviving in the music business.

Rocks Back Pages has a revealing and frank interview with Maurice, by Cliff White, from I assume London during the 1979 tour, which I attended. RBP also has a list of articles which contains some useful background.

Surprisingly, NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), doesn’t seem to have an interview with Maurice, but it does have interviews with Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, and Larry Dunn, all of which are really interesting and add great context.

ewf tatooI came to Earth, Wind & Fire in 1974, via Ramsey Lewis Sun Goddess album in 1974 and then their Open Our Eyes album, and shortly afterwards, That’s The Way of the World.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I saw them live, but in the “long, hot” UK Summer of ’76, I stopped one afternoon in Dunstable to get a drink. We’d been out at the disused quarry on the A5, practising motocross. I was riding my Honda XL125.

Nextdoor to the corner store/newsagents I’d stopped at, was a tattoo parlour. Back in the 70’s tattoos were not the fashion items they are today, my dad had a traditional, simple knife and heart tattoo on his left arm, but few people I knew did. I walked in, hand drew the logo that I’d seen on EWF albums, and asked for a tattoo. Not only had the tattoo artist not seen the shape/sign before, I had no idea what it was.

These days of course, with the pervasive internet, you’d just google and look up tattoos on pinterest and see what you can find. Of course these days I know it’s the astrological sign for Jupiter.

Like many, my interest in EWF faded in the Mid 80’s as the group fragmented, and the focus drifted. As I work to digitize my entire vinyl collection though, I’ve once again found their tight music, soaring vocals, and inspiring lyrics a great launching point for many parts of my own story, which started on the 23rd night of September. Kalimba.

Listening to music

Sometime contact and innovative UK Dj/Producer Greg Wilson has a 33-minute interview, I assume based on his Living to music series that he has been running for a couple of years now. Greg talks about actually sitting and actually listening to the music, while not doing anything else. Greg makes a good point about being able to focus while listening.

Which reminds me of being about 14, and converting my clothes cuboard in my bedroom into a mini-recording, listening booth. I had a small stool, papered the walls in music newpaper and magazines, wired up a small red light, and I’d retreat in there, close the doors and listen to albums. At the start of Greg’s interview he talks about hearing early reggae and Trojan singles. Which brings up another thread, which is how influential the West Indian and Jamaican immigration to the UK was in the 1950’s.

While it was far from easy for those who came to help rebuild Britain, after the second world war, what’s true is that they had undeniable impact on music and culture. Don Letts Subculture series covers the impact and the musical impact, Robert Elms talks about the impact on fashion and clothing. The whole sub-culture was so anti- the main stream of the time.

That 1960’s impact certainly opened up minds and wallets to the Jazz, Funk and eventually disco in the 1970’s. Fascinating stuff seen in retrospect, in the fourth episode, Letts nicely shows the how that merged with the Punk music revolution, the subject of my last blog post, which on the Roxy Club, where Letts was the DJ.

The complete Letts six part series Subculture, is available via the Fred Perry Subculture website. If you are interested in this fasset of British culture, I’d recommend watching it all. My personal story is in the latter part of Episode-3, Episode-4 and the early part of Episode-5. I managed to acquire these as MP4 files and look forward to watching them all in sequence one day.

For the record, my Dad, Frank Cathcart, almost always wore white socks and September 23, 1973 was my 15th birthday and the first All Nighter at Wigan. As Robert Elms says in Episode 4 of Letts Subculture, Soulboys, “there was a line across the country about Luton, and you didn’t cross it.” – We lived on that line, often straddling it.

Greg Wilsons latest Living to Music was Shuggie Otis ‘Inspiration Information’. Its a great album, give it a real listen.