It’s a feat that thousands of musicians have aspired to, and that only a handful have even come close to achieving. Take the musicianship of jazz, add the irresistible hooks of pop and the deep emotions of soul, and, oh yeah, make it danceable, too. But that’s exactly what Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) have managed to do — and do consistently — for five decades.
When Maurice White and his brother Verdine White came together to form the band in Chicago in 1969, they were both in-demand session players and sidemen in the Chicago recording scene, which meant they could do just about anything, from sophisticated cocktail jazz with Ramsey Lewis of “The In Crowd” fame to down-and-dirty blues recordings at Chess studios. But soon enough, Maurice White left Chicago for Los Angeles, and within a couple of years, Verdine had arrived as well. Hard work, inspiration (it was, after all, a pretty cool time to be a musician), and belief in the viability of their concept kept Earth, Wind & Fire going through some personnel changes, a label or two, and a handful of promising singles, including 1974’s “Mighty Mighty,” a funky-as-hell black-power anthem that broke into the top 10 on the R&B charts.
A year later — and through the unexpected success of the soundtrack to a movie that flopped — Earth, Wind & Fire struck the music world like a lightning bolt. The album was called That’s the Way of the World, and it produced three of the most powerful songs of the decade: perennial dance-floor-filler “Shining Star,” the unforgettable Philip Bailey ballad “Reasons,” and the title track, which, along with a handful of other songs, many also by EWF, inaugurated a genre of FM radio that would come to dominate the right side of the dial in the 1980s: the laid-back mix of R&B and disco known as “urban contemporary.”
From then on, Earth, Wind & Fire managed to keep it together (unlike so many talented others in that time) and to remain creative, producing hits in multiple decades and becoming world-renowned for the state-of-the-art production values of their always high-energy live shows. When I spoke with Verdine White, the innovative bassist who has taken the helm of the group since brother Maurice’s passing, he emphasized the degree to which EWF lives in the present.
He said that he loves Santa Barbara and can’t wait to get to the Arlington, or to his upcoming six-night stand at the Venetian in Las Vegas. How many musicians are in the group? Not an issue for White, who jokingly replied, “Don’t ask me, I don’t count ’em!” His bass playing remains among the most distinctive aspects of EWF’s signature style, and his flashy stage clothes and sense of humor can’t hide the fact that White is one remarkably committed cat.
He didn’t study with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a teenager for nothing, and he’s among the first musicians to truly understand and exploit the degree to which the Fender Precision Bass would transform popular music forever. Catch him while you can, along with however many other guys are with him, this Tuesday at the Arlington.
Earth, Wind & Fire play Tuesday, May 8, 8 p.m., at The Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). See axs.com or call 963-4408.