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From 1988: How Maurice White made Earth, Wind & Fire a band for the ages

HARTFORD, Conn. — It was inevitable, this realignment of the elements, when Earth, Wind & Fire reunited after a four-year hiatus. Throughout its previous incarnations, Earth, Wind & Fire represented the sound and vision of one man: Maurice White. Sure, it was a collaborative effort, as any group this talented must be, or should be. But no one questioned that Maurice was the man in total command.

Nicknamed and known by the group as “Reese,” Maurice was the one who formed Earth, Wind & Fire in Chicago almost 19 years ago. Fascinated by his studies of Egyptology and cosmic spirituality, he named the group after the elements in his astrological chart. Of the four ancient elements — earth, air, fire and water — White’s chart didn’t include water. He thought “Wind” was more dynamic than Earth, Air & Fire.

It was White who moved the group’s home base in 1971 to Los Angeles, where the music industry was thriving as it was declining in Chicago. The group recorded two albums for Warner Bros., neither of which sold very well, and then disbanded.

Maurice, however, wasn’t finished. He recruited an entirely new band as Earth, Wind & Fire, retaining only his brother Verdine White as bassist. Like Verdine, most of the new recruits were 10 years or so younger than Maurice, and they included a sweet-singing percussionist named Philip Bailey.

The new group signed a contract with Columbia Records, changed their musical direction from what Maurice admitted had been “kinda wild, almost avant-garde,” and proceeded to sell almost 40 million records during the ’70s. Maurice produced all of them, co-wrote and sang most of them, charted the course of the group’s music direction that would keep it in tune with the times. It was White who orchestrated the elements; the rest of the members of the group were Reese’s pieces.

In the ’80s, when the group’s sales started to decline, it was Reese who felt the pressure hardest. “I wondered what was going on, after selling millions of records, to be considered a failure with a gold album,” he admitted, as we sat in his Hartford hotel suite, a few hours before the new edition of Earth, Wind & Fire hit the stage. He had reorganized the group for its first tour in five years.

The last album before the split, 1983’s “Electric Universe,” didn’t even go gold, and failed to produce a single hit. As an attempt to keep pace with synthesizer technology, it was an inspired effort that represented a new direction for the group — one that its old fans and radio supporters seemed to reject. Maurice decided he’d had enough, and Earth, Wind & Fire was put on hold.

“Reese had been our leader, our father, our brother, our guru, our candlestick-maker,” Bailey said with a laugh, as we sat in his suite a couple of floors below Maurice’s. “It was time for people to get out of one another’s lives and out of one another’s hair, to find out who we were, to grow up.”

Bailey uses “we” a lot more often than “I.” It may be partly because he is so conscious of Earth, Wind & Fire as a team, one that merits his loyalty, pride and commitment even after he has enjoyed success in his solo career. It may also be a sign of his modesty, a measure of the man who was content to remain in Maurice White’s shadow until 1985’s “Easy Lover” made him a star in his own right.

“The time away has allowed us to appreciate one another more and what we’ve contributed over the years,” Bailey continued. “It’s also been very important that we’ve been able to go out and do things apart from one another, and that they’ve been successful. That’s been very, very important from the standpoint of us being able to get our own sense of self-confidence, independent of one another.”

By “our own sense of self-confidence,” Bailey could only mean his own sense of self-confidence, for White’s solo album was a comparative commercial stiff and none of the rest of the members did much of anything on his own. Bailey enjoyed a chart-topping smash with “Easy Lover,” in collaboration with a longtime fan named Phil Collins. Listeners had long been familiar with Bailey’s voice, through his distinctive falsetto background vocals and occasional leads with Earth, Wind & Fire , but now they knew his name, knew his face.

Though White remains the dominant creative force in Earth, Wind & Fire , it was Bailey who pushed harder for the group to reunite. And it was Bailey’s solo success that ensured him a greater role in the group than he had previously enjoyed. While the majority of the tracks on the new “Touch the World” album were produced by White, three of them credit Bailey as co-producer. One of them, the album’s title track, was written by Bailey’s frequent collaborator in his gospel career, the Rev. Oliver Wells. A couple of other tracks are showcases for Bailey’s solo ballad artistry.

“Our whole understanding of re-forming the band was to use everybody’s resources at their best,” Bailey said. “What that entails is that Maurice allows the rest of the members to be an integral part of making decisions and contributing in many different areas.”

Although the cover of “Touch the World” depicts a five-man band, Earth, Wind & Fire at the time of the recording was simply Maurice and Philip, whose vocal blend remains the most identifiable feature of the group’s eclectic, progressive style. It wasn’t until the album was well in hand — with songwriting, production and musical input from a bunch of West Coast studio hotshots — that White decided to recruit a new edition of Earth, Wind & Fire to tour behind the album.

“It was important to set a direction first, see which way we’re gonna go,” explained White , “instead of having a lot of bodies to carry. . . . This time it was different for me, because I was more or less searching for a direction. I wanted to allow the pieces to come together, so I opened up this time, to allow new things in, to absorb new things.”

White’s eagerness to absorb new inspiration, his ability to adapt with the times, have been the keys to his longevity within the music industry — where the span of a career is often shorter than an athlete’s. Most of those who have enjoyed Earth, Wind & Fire ‘s music have little idea of the breadth of White ‘s background.

Now 46 years old, the trim, wiry White was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn., where he sang in church and learned the drums. As a teenager, he formed what he remembers as “a cookin’ little band” with organist Booker T. Jones, his boyhood friend. Jones later became a session ace for Memphis’s Stax Records and leader of Booker T. and the MG’s.

Moving to Chicago, White committed himself to a career in music. He lived with his family in the comfortable South Shore neighborhood, enrolled in the Chicago Conservatory of Music and began building a reputation as a session drummer. He became a fixture at Chess Records, where his credits ranged from “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass and “Tell Mama” by Etta James to some Muddy Waters recording dates.

He also played on “Wade in the Water” by Ramsey Lewis, which led to a four-year stint as the drummer in the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Touring and recording with Lewis, whom White still calls his “mentor,” the young drummer learned the music business and saw the world. He began formulating plans for a progressive, inspirational group that would transcend the usual boundaries of musical categories and audience appeal.

“I’ve got gospel in me, I’ve got blues, I’ve got rhythm & blues, rock, pop,” White explained. “I’ve got all of those inside me.” With Earth, Wind & Fire, all of them came together.

While White had a wealth of musical experience he could draw from, Bailey was a comparative innocent when he joined Earth, Wind & Fire in 1972. A Denver native, Bailey had studied operatic baritone at the University of Colorado and played percussion in local jazz bands. He sang in an R & B group that opened for an Earth, Wind & Fire concert in Denver, and White remembered his voice when recruiting his second edition of EW&F.

“My whole school, musically, comes from Earth, Wind & Fire ,” Bailey explained. “Everything I know about how to produce, how to record, the record industry and everything else. It was a fabulous school.”

And Reese was the schoolmaster?

“Very much so,” Bailey said. “Reese has a great ability to lead. You can get a bunch of cats together, as talented as they may be, and they wouldn’t be half as successful as Earth, Wind & Fire.”

Aside from the changes in the balance between White and Bailey within the new Earth, Wind & Fire , it’s apparent that both of them have changed as well. While the group was on hiatus, White broadened his musical horizons by producing both Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. Though his “Maurice White” solo album went nowhere commercially, White enjoyed being free to explore new directions and to escape the responsibility of running Earth, Wind & Fire.

Bailey experienced the peaks and the valleys of a solo career while away from the group. “Easy Lover” showed him how great a chart-topping hit could feel. The commercial failure of the followup album, 1986’s unjustly ignored “Inside Out,” left him feeling lower than he ever had with Earth, Wind & Fire.

“It was heartbreaking for me,” he admitted, “’cause I felt that the album I did with [producer] Nile Rodgers was a very, very good record, but it just didn’t get any support. It was hard to figure out why, after getting a No. 1 record with `Easy Lover’ and the enormous success we had with that album.”

When Bailey continued to push White to reunite Earth, Wind & Fire, it wasn’t simply because his success as a solo artist had taken an unfortunate turn. “Even when I was doing a promotional tour for `Chinese Wall’ [the album with `Easy Lover’] and it looked as if I would never have to look back, I was still commenting in all the interviews about my desire to work again with Earth, Wind & Fire,” he said.

“It’s a very special unit. And with all those things that I was learning from working with Phil (Collins) and Nile (Rodgers) and George (Duke, another Bailey collaborator), I saw it as a great opportunity to be able to bring those things back to the Fire. Back home. Earth, Wind & Fire is home for me, and no matter what you go out in the world to learn, you always want to be respected at your home.”

Bailey eventually convinced White that the time was ripe for their reunion. Although both agree that their initial attempts to work together again in the studio were a little clumsy, they were soon making music that was recognizably Earth, Wind & Fire’s.

“If you put Philip and me together, it’s gonna sound like Earth, Wind & Fire,” White said. “The only thing I had to concern myself with was to relate to what was going on right now, to make sure I made a statement in today’s society.”

White said that he remains as interested in astrology and cosmic themes as ever, but he and Bailey determined to focus more on social issues for the “Touch the World” material. With more outside assistance than ever before in songwriting, production and musicianship, they made an album that revitalized their familiar style, made it sound contemporary.

“Music is something that no one really owns,” Bailey said. “It’s an expression of what’s going on right this minute, and it’s important that you do records that are in the groove. By in the groove, we don’t just mean having the right beat. There’s a groove of certain times, a certain identity that epitomizes the time.

“We realized that we had to draw on resources around us, using our experience and our expertise and who we are as Earth, Wind & Fire, but at the same time being what’s now, what’s today. That’s something I attribute to the wisdom of Maurice . You utilize whatever abilities you have, which is the ear to know a great song and how to make it fit your particular style, what you are.”

On “Touch the World,” songs of “Fantasy” and “Serpentine Fire ” have been supplanted by material steeped in the realities of crack houses, unemployment and the Iran-contra hearings. In concert, however, the new material is saved for the end, while the older, more familiar fare dominates the two-hour-plus performance.

For the tour, bassist Verdine White and saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk have returned to the fold, guitarist Sheldon Reynolds was recruited from the Commodores, and additional musicians have turned the concert band into a 12-man extravaganza.

As before, Earth, Wind & Fire continues to combine musical spirituality with razzle-dazzle showmanship in concert. From the “Star Wars” introduction, with the descending globes from which the members of the band emerge, to the dazzling lights to a bit of magic that brings the concert to its climax, the staging offers the sort of spectacle that was much more common in the ’70s.

Most often, groups who utilize effects to such an extent are suspected of diverting attention from the music, hiding a lack of originality behind a cloud of smoke. Earth, Wind & Fire uses showmanship to solve an opposite sort of problem. “We had to give the audience something to watch,” White said, “because some of the music is so complex, we were afraid we’d lose them.”