Everybody knows Earth, Wind & Fire, right? The jazz-meets-R&B orchestra who polished funk so much it went pop. The Afrocentric band with their heads in the stars (not always in a good way). The funk band devoid of funk. Well, that was only the Earth, Wind & Fire who stormed the charts in the mid-'70s. Bandleader Maurice White had inaugurated the band back in 1970 with a core trio of advanced musicians who did Sly & the Family Stone one better by working R&B positivity into a sophisticated jazz-oriented approach.
Born in Memphis and an early acquaintance of Booker T. Jones and Isaac Hayes, White moved to Chicago by his teenage years, playing percussion at local clubs while not attending the Chicago Conservatory of Music. He gradually worked himself up to a position as a studio drummer for the mighty Chess Records. He played on dozens of sessions, and in 1966 he also took a gig as part of Chess' Ramsey Lewis Trio, just after "The 'In' Crowd" became a hit.
He must have learned a lot playing those countless supperclubs with Lewis, because when he split in 1969 and headed to Los Angeles, he soon formed plenty of ideas for his own band. Joined with a pair of veteran singer/songwriters, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, plus his brother Verdine on bass -- and enough other members to form a tentet, with enough room left on his coattails for actor Jim Brown, who financed the collective -- White recorded one single as the Salty Peppers that was picked up by Capitol, then changed the group's name to something with a little more gravitas -- Earth, Wind & Fire. (Water is the only element not present in his astrological chart.)
Mainstream success for the group was still five years (and two labels) away, but Warner Bros. saw some promise and signed them up for what turned out to be two albums. The first was Earth Wind and Fire, and it's the gem in their catalogue, an assured record that blends rough and smooth, abstract and direct, positivity and energy, funk groove and jazz brass. It's the work of a mellower, intellectual Family Stone, content to groove you along slowly instead of motivating you to dance. Granted, it's a little more abstract compared to the pop juggernaut that was Sly Stone, but the experience and finesse on display were impressive; both Flemons and Whitehead were long-time songwriters, and Flemons had cracked the Top 20 twice as a solo act back in the late '50s.
So why did it take a few more years for the group to really break through? First and foremost, there wasn't a hit to be seen on this LP; these were catchy songs, but they were far too loose and free-form to conform to the pop market. And Warner Bros., savvy as they were, may have had some difficulty marketing this ten-piece R&B group with a dynamic sound but no discernible singles. (Their only charting single from the album, "Love Is Life," was one of its weaker cuts.) And unless you had the name recognition and commercial inertia of Marvin or Stevie or Curtis, it wasn't easy to make a breakthrough in the R&B charts with such forward-looking material.
Success was just around the corner, though. One of Earth, Wind & Fire's early gigs was in Denver, where a band led by Philip Bailey opened for them. He must have made a good impression, since he stayed in White's mind long enough to get a call in 1972 when he ditched the entire lineup (except for his brother) and hired some young guns to change directions slightly. A new contract with Clive Davis and CBS beckoned, and the rest is pop (if not exactly funk) history.
- "Moment of Truth"
- "Fan the Fire"
- "C'mon Children"
Also, check out the first Debut Dungeon piece (on Jefferson Airplane) right here.