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Music Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

EWF: An Elemental Legacy
By Mark Anthony Neal— Contributing Editor
May 9, 2007, 17:11

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When a young Maurice White was a drummer for the Ramsey Lewis trio, he was perhaps simply hoping to be able to sustain himself as a musician. Some 40 years later, White is internationally known as the figurehead behind one of the most popular bands ever produced in the United States. Some would have us believe that Earth, Wind & Fire was little more than a funk and soul band from the 1970s, but their peers were not Kool & the Gang or the Dazz Band, but legendary pop bands like The Eagles and Chicago. White’s highbrow spirituality befit an era tailored for heady optimism and even headier creativity in the music industry. The product was one of the singular musical entities of the post-Civil Rights era and, at their musical peak in the late 1970s. Earth, Wind & Fire embodied that best that Americana offered. Thus is only fitting that the legacy of Earth, Wind and Fire is finally treated to the musical tribute it so richly deserves with the recently released Interpretations: Celebrating the Music of Earth, Wind & Fire (Stax).

Earth, Wind and Fire’s legacy is best understood in two parts: before and after Charles Stepney. The group was largely the brainchild of Stepney and White. In the late 1960s, Stepney was a producer and arranger at Chess Records and, in that capacity, he produced a multiracial band known as Rotary Connection. The band, which included a young Minnie Riperton as featured vocalist, consciously pushed the boundaries of soul and 60s rock. With the subsequent demise on Rotary Connection, Earth Wind & Fire was, in part, an attempt to build a better band, which shared Stepney’s eclectic vision of popular music. What Stepney and White achieved in those early days, with albums such as Last Days and Time (1972), Keep Your Head to the Sky (1973) and Open Our Eyes (1974), was an example avant-garde soul, that largely remains unmatched save examples like Fertile Ground and The Family Stand. That’s the Way of the World (1975), which includes breakthrough commercial hits like “Shining Star,” “Reasons” and the title track, remains the highpoint of Stepney’s collaborations with the group. But with the sudden death of Stepney in 1976 (at age 43)—during the recording of Spirit (1976), Earth, Wind & Fire transitioned into the hit-making entity that it is remembered for today. Tracks like “September” and “After the Love is Gone” are far cry from songs like “Mighty, Mighty,” “Evil” and “Devotion,” but the post-Stepney Earth, Wind & Fire established itself as the quintessential pop band, equally at home with The Beatles (Sergeant Pepper’s “Gotta Get You Into My Life”) and disco (“Boogie Wonderland”).

Interpretations was an idea that Maurice White brought to the table himself and according to the artist it was more about celebrating the legacy of the music as opposed to the group itself. Thus White and his fellow collaborators can be forgiven for choosing Top-40 playlist staples like the aforementioned “September” (ably covered by Kirk Franklin), “Reasons” (an expected overwrought effort by Musiq) and “After the Love is Gone” from the tragically underrated Mint Condition. While All ‘N All (1977) era such as “Be Ever Wonderful” and “Love’s Holiday” are thankfully elevated to the high status they deserve within the Earth, Wind & Fire oeuvre, the performances by Angie Stone and Lalah Hathaway, respectively, largely stay close to the original script.

Interpretations ultimately finds its voice with those artists who take Stepney’s legacy to heart. Ledisi, who incredulously still toils outside of the mainstream, offers a bright cover of “Devotion” that echoes Yo-Yo’s “You Can’t Play with My Yo-Yo” as much as it does the Earth, Wind & Fire original. “Can’t Hide Love” could have easily been done straight by Bilal (backed by the Randy Watson Experience), but the enigmatic vocalist first takes the track on a churchified pimp-stroll, before giving it up to the ghost of Eshu-Elegbara (by way of Brazil). But as usual, it is Meshell Ndegeocello who pulls the dual-labor, making “Fantasy” wholly relevant to the realities of the moment (with requisite snipes at the Iraqi conflict and Haliburtonization of the world), while rendering the song as something aesthetically distinct from the original. Ultimately, the legacy of Earth, Wind & Fire and its music is not its continued presence on the playlist of your local “classic R&B” station, but in its ability to equip the generations behind it to believe that music can capture the complexities of their lives.

A longtime contributor to, Mark Anthony Neal is the author of four books and is Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, where he also directs the Institute for Critical US Studies (ICUSS).

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