Earth, Wind & Fire: Forever in the groove

Sarah L Kaufman

LOS ANGELES (THE WASHINGTON POST) – For 40 years, Earth, Wind & Fire’s (EWF) irresistibly bouncy dance anthem September has rocked countless bodies at weddings, proms and other celebrations. It has launched hundreds of millions of Spotify streams and inspired 21st of September parties around the globe.

But if you asked EWF founder and guiding force Maurice White why he put such a passionate and specific call in the lyrics to remember the 21st night of September, he would always say there was no reason. That date was simply the number that sounded the best in the song.

He was lying.

“He immediately sang the 21st night of September” when working on the song, said Allee Willis, who co-wrote it with him and guitarist Al McKay. Willis persuaded White to try other dates, but “the 21st, for some reason, was the most in the pocket.” She accepted his non-chalant explanation for why he gravitated to that date, until last year, when Willis went to lunch with his wife, Marilyn.

As the two dined, an autograph seeker interrupted to ask Willis about the significance of the 21st.

Kennedy Center Honor recipients Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, original members of Earth, Wind & Fire. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“It happens 15 times a day,” she said. “I said what I always say, ‘Nothing. It just sang the best.’ It breaks their hearts.

“But then Marilyn said, ‘Are you kidding? There was total significance. Our son was supposed to be born on that day.’ “

Willis had worked closely with White, collaborating for a month on September without ever knowing the backstory of his son Kahbran, named for the writer and artist Kahlil Gibran. (The boy ended up arriving early, on August 1, 1978.)

“It took this random thing at a restaurant for me to learn what it meant,” she said. “But when Marilyn first heard the song, she felt like he did it for her, which I’m sure he did. He was a pretty private guy.”

White died in 2016 at 74, having lived with Parkinson’s disease since the 1990s. His absence from the festivities on December 8, when Earth, Wind & Fire receives the Kennedy Center Honours, makes the prize bittersweet for the band he formed nearly 50 years ago.

“The only thing that we wish is that Maurice was here to celebrate with us,” said vocalist and bongo player Philip Bailey back in the early fall, sitting alongside drummer Ralph Johnson and bassist Verdine White, Maurice’s younger brother. The three EWF original members, all 68, were gathered in a dressing room at the Hollywood Bowl, where they would soon stroll onto the stage for the last of two sold-out shows. The night before, under a full yellow moon, 17,000 fans screamed when the band appeared, and eagerly helped turn their first number, Sing a Song, with its up-tempo, doo-woppy guitar intro and cheerful horns, into a euphoric, full-throated singalong.

Fronting an ensemble of nine other musicians, Bailey, Johnson and Verdine White sang all the familiar favourites and bounded around as if they were caught in a time warp. In the 1970s and ‘80s EWF was known for shows that included elaborate magic tricks, flying pianos and exploding pyramids. Now there’s another kind of magic, an ebullience of dance energy and vocal power that looks and sounds as if the band has never aged. White, his long glossy hair falling to the shoulders of his white frock coat, pounded the stage like a man who’d downed a dozen espresso shots. Bailey, famous for his four-octave voice, sent his falsetto soaring in such songs as Reasons and Fantasy. Johnson stepped away from the drums to spend much of the set singing and dancing on the front line.

September was the finale, punctuated by fireworks. It was tempting to believe that somewhere in that brightly lit night, as the earth rocked and the wind sang and fire streaked through the sky, Maurice White was still around.

EWF, one of the most distinctive, innovative and best-selling bands of all time, is the first African American band to be awarded the Kennedy Center Honours. But accepting the Honours without Maurice, EWF’s drummer, singer, songwriter, producer and conscience, puts the remaining original band members in a situation sadly similar to the Eagles in 2016, when three members received the Honours without co-founder Glenn Frey, who died a few weeks before White in 2016.

“We were surprisingly thrown the responsibility of carrying on the legacy,” says Bailey. White “started the fire, and we’ve kept it burning.”

A collective identity was forged in that fire. Bailey, Verdine White and Johnson, all a decade younger than Maurice White, have spent more of their lives together than apart. They have been making music together since they were barely out of their teens.

They learned to get along when they were crammed into a station wagon in the lean early years.

“Except they wouldn’t let me drive,” said White, feigning annoyance.

“Don’t get me started,” says Bailey, parrying with a laugh. “He just wasn’t the best driver. And we’re driving from city to city, and you had to have those navigating skills. Your phone wasn’t telling you which way to go.”

“Philip was the best driver,” White says magnanimously, and there’s agreement all around.

“We’re very fortunate that the chemistry between us is harmonious,” says Bailey. “And it’s not fake or phony. That’s a real treat, because you know marriages don’t …” He shoots a look at his bandmates, and they all bust out laughing.

“Don’t last that long,” Johnson finishes for him.

“Mine didn’t,” says Bailey, reflecting on two marriages that ended in divorce.

“We’re like brothers,” says White. “We learned together and learned music from each other, and life. And so when we get together now it’s beautiful. It’s just really like, we’re having this conversation now but we’re not even talking. We feel each other.”

“The key word, as Philip said, is chemistry,” says Johnson. “You don’t get that in all groups. You just don’t.”