Sunday, February 7, 2016

Earth Wind & Fire - The Columbia Masters (2012) - Review

Maurice White passed away this week at the age of 74 from complications of Parkinson's disease which he had been diagnosed with as far back as the early nineties. As the band leader, producer, songwriter and lead singer of the band Earth Wind and Fire, he created a vision for a band whose uplifting songs entertained millions around the world across the generations, encompassing funk, soul, jazz, rock, pop, disco, African and Brazilian music. For casual listeners or people who aren't familiar with their work, let me walk you through the Columbia Masters, a box set released in 2012 that showcases their catalog from 1973 to 1990.

Maurice had the idea for a new band while he was still in Chicago during the late 60's. And after a stint playing drums with the Ramsey Lewis trio, he convinced his brother Verdine to move out to LA with him. Naming the group after his astrological signs, they got signed to Warner Bros Records and released three albums in 1971, including the soundtrack to Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song. But the band splintered and Maurice had to reassemble a new lineup, which eventually would include mainstay Philip Bailey. Their first album with the new lineup, Last Days and Time was released in 1972 and features a sparse version of the group with only Ronnie Laws playing all of the woodwinds and brass. It also included rare EWF covers of Pete Seeger's Where Have All The Flowers Gone and Bread's Make It With You. The two standout tracks for me were originals, Power and Mom.

In 1973 Head To The Sky gave EWF their first burst of success on the soul charts with Evil and Keep Your Head to the Sky. Their Brazilian influence was heard most clearly on the album-ender, Zanzibar written by Brazilian singer, Edu Lobo. They were now being identified as a strong soulful rhythmic group the band, so with 1974's Open Your Eyes they added a deeper horn section and had great success on the pop charts with the funky Mighty Mighty and the ballad, Devotion. This is the album where Maurice started taking over more of the production duties working with mentor Charles Stepney. Mighty Mighty, their first Top 40 hit, really showcased what Philip Bailey could do. Listen to him hit those ridiculous high notes towards the end of that song. Another one of the standout tracks on the album is Kalimba Story, with Maurice explaining in song how he fell in love with the thumb piano as it opened up a new world for him. The Kalimba would be featured on almost every EWF album thereafter.

With the band standing on the edge of superstardom Maurice decided to take on a new project where the band would be the star of a movie featuring Harvey Keitel called That's The Way Of The World in 1975. Although it was a soundtrack it was also one of their crowning achievements and it features the absolute monster, Shining Star, which ended up as their only number one on the pop charts. Thank God I live in a world where people could all decide for at least one week that this was the best song in the land. I don't think there is a better intro in pop music than the first 15 seconds of Shining Star. (Too bad Elaine couldn't dance to it.) And would there be a Lenny Kravitz without the title track's easy groove permeating the airwaves back then?

Maurice had now created an almost a perfect blend of pop and funk, a formula they would use for the next 10 year reign on the charts. With a big crossover success, Maurice wondered what to do next and how better do you showcase a band at the height of their powers than with a live album? Gratitude, which featured three sides live and one side studio, released in late 1975 kept their number one album streak going while also giving listeners a glimpse of what the band was like on stage. One of the best moves Maurice ever made was hiring Philip Bailey to be in the band. If you need further proof listen to his version of reasons on this album he absolutely kills it. Their version of Ramsey Lewis' Sun Goddess also is one of my all time favorites. Between Don Myrick's sax solo and Larry Dunn's chilled out Fender Rhodes, I could listen to this forever. Also listen to the crowd response as the band switches from Keep Your Head To The Sky into Devotion. It still gives me chills.

One of Maurice's strengths is that he could create music with positive messages and optimistic outlooks for the mainstream without coming off corny or trite. Gratitude's studio side has great examples, such as Sunshine and one of my favorite singles of theirs, Sing A Song. It is so damn good it makes me cry with joy especially when they get to the chorus and double up with Moog bass. The studio portion also contained one of their best known ballads, Can't Hide Love, which I'm sure created lots of babies in 1976. It's also one of their most covered songs of all time.

During the recording sessions of Spirit in 1976, Charles Stepney passed away and Maurice fully took over the production reigns. The Phenix horns as the section was now called, took over on big hits, Getaway and Saturday Nite. EWF was now in control of both the pop and soul charts and making lots of headway on the disco charts as well. 1977's All N All tightened up the group's sound as well as expnaded it with a string section. Nine guys totally grooving effortlessly as one complete unit on their next two hits, Serpentine Fire and Fantasy, one of my absolute favorites. The album also includes one of my favorite jazz fusion nuggets, Runnin', which earned the band 2 Grammys. Each album took their sound to the next level and Maurice did this It also contains two of my favorite ballads of theirs, Be Ever Wonderful and I'll Write A Song For You. All N All - an absolute triumph.

In the Mid 70s, Columbia Records gave the busy Maurice the opportunity to produce other artists on the label. He chose The Emotions and gave their flagging a career a boost with the 1976, Flowers, which produced hits out of the title track and I Don't Want To Lose Your Love. But it wasn't until 1977's Rejoice, that Maurice wrote and produced the biggest hit of his career, Best Of My Love, which spent a month on top of the Pop and Soul charts. This often imitated, never duplicated track (See Mariah's Carey's Emotions - oh I get it, good one) was a great gift from Maurice and one his proudest accomplishments. 1978 was the only year in the decade that didn't EWF did not release an album of original material. But they made up for it that Christmas with their first greatest hits collection, The Best Of Earth Wind & Fire, Vol. 1. How many lucky boys and girls got that one from Santa, featuring their megahit, September and Got To Get You Into My Life from Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack, both Top 10 hits on the pop charts and #1 hits on the soul charts? I like to think that Paul McCartney heard Maurice's version of the Beatles song and beamed at his vision fully realized of mixing pop music with horns.

Their 9th studio album, I Am, released in 1979, was probably their most solid and best produced records of the decade. As a band that had most of its success with up-tempo records, they also knew how to make a slow song simmer and burn. After The Love Is Gone was biggest EWF hit that Maurice didn't write, but it garnered the band another Grammy, reaching #2 pop, unable to unseat the steamrolling My Sharona by the Knack. (As an aside, does anybody remember After... getting played by Venus Flytrap on the episode of WKRP In Cincinnati where Johnny stands up Bailey for a date? And come to think of it, wasn't Tim Reid's Venus, just a riff on Maurice's look?) The band was so polished at this point they could also dip their toe into the Disco world and produce classy singles such as Boogie Wonderland, featuring Maurice's best pals, The Emotions and Can't Let Go.

The under appreciated double LP, Faces is an interesting album in the EWF catalog as it was the first one to not generate any pop hits, since 1973's Head To The Sky. But that doesn't mean it's not solid album. Songs like the swinging You, politically energized Let Me Talk and the proto-disco And Love Goes On are great tunes. The problem was that it didn't have that one giant hit to push it over the top. Maurice made sure that didn't happen with 1981's Raise. Beginning with a vocoder riff and breaking out with slices of bright horn stabs, Let's Groove, was not only of the biggest hits on the pop and soul charts, it was one of their biggest all over the world. The mid-tempo swing ballad, Wanna Be With You was a catchy follow-up but songs like Lady Sun really kept the party going.

1983 saw two new releases from EWF - Powerlight, which features their last pop hit, the Top 20, Fall In Love With Me and summer BBQ anthem, Side By Side and Electric Universe, which saw Maurice stripped down to a more New-Wave minded sound with tracks like Magnetic and Spirit of A New World.

EWF went on hiatus for a few years while Philip Bailey carved out a pretty good solo career straddling the secular as well as contemporary Christian music worlds. Maurice released his one and only solo album in 1985 which generated 2 soul hits, I Need You and his cover of Ben E. King's Stand By Me. By 1987, EWF was back with Touch The World, but the band was almost unrecognizable with the most of the instruments programmed or synthesized. They still had two big hits on the soul side, Thinking Of You, which had nighttime vibe that I've always loved and the political anthem System Of Survival which hit #1. By the time 1990's Heritage came out, EWF seemed to be chasing trends rather than setting them, releasing 'duets' with The Boys and MC Hammer, although they could still put out string material like the title track.

After this album, Maurice had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease but he kept it private for a number of years. With a long respectable career, Maurice could have called it quits, but instead he marched on and kept working. And although he stopped touring with band, he still continued to write, produce and sing right up until 2014's Holiday. The 1993 album, Millienium, produced possibly one of Maurice's last best tracks, Sunday Morning, a sequel of sorts to their 1976 hit, Saturday Nite.

Maurice worked with many artists over the years such as Deneice Williams, Weather Report, Barbra Streisand, Atlantic Starr, Neil Diamond, James Ingram, Urban Knights and others. But it will always be his work with Earth, Wind & Fire that will continue to resonate for he was the heart and soul of that group. EWF has been so influential to the generations of artists in hip hop, soul, dance and pop, it's now party of a fabric that can't be separated. The band may continue his vision without him, but Maurice White was and will always be ever wonderful, their shining star.

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