The musical secrets of Earth, Wind & Fire
Fifty years after their self-titled debut album, the R&B legends share the stories behind 10 of their biggest hits.
The Write Stuff is EW's occasional series where songwriters reveal stories behind their biggest hits.
When the elements came together for Earth, Wind & Fire to release their self-titled debut in February 1971, there was indeed a new force of nature in the music world. Fifty years later, the visionary band founded by Maurice White — who died from Parkinson's disease in 2016 — has its own shining star in the galaxy of all-time R&B greats.
"When you start, you don't know if you're gonna get to 50 — you don't know if you're gonna get to five," says Maurice's brother, bassist Verdine White, 69, who has been in the group for all 50 years.
"We're very blessed and thankful that the music has really stood the test of time and … put us in places that we never would have dreamt as young men," adds Philip Bailey, 69, who joined the band with his falsetto of the gods in 1972.
Drummer/percussionist Ralph Johnson, who also began his EWF journey in 1972, only wishes Maurice were here to celebrate the half-century solar return of his baby. "He was in fact the de facto leader," says Johnson, 69. "He had the vision."
In honor of Earth, Wind & Fire's 50th anniversary, Bailey, White, and Johnson tell the stories of 10 of the band's golden gems.
"Keep Your Head to the Sky" (1973)
This spiritual — and spirit-lifting — ballad from Head to the Sky was written by White during EWF's "time in the light," says Bailey: "Maurice wanted to use the music in a way to uplift people and 'to render a service to humanity.' That's his direct quote. We wanted to leave positivity and enlightenment."
As for the glass-shattering whistle notes he hits at the end, Bailey says, "I was a fan of Minnie Riperton. I used to listen to that album Come to My Garden and [Riperton's earlier group] Rotary Connection. At that time when we did Head to the Sky, Jessica Cleaves was in the band, and so at the end, we just started playing around with how high we could sing."
"Shining Star" (1975)
EWF's first and only single to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — and the song that won the group its first of six Grammys — had a prophetic title. "'Shining Star' was the song that broke a lot of barriers, that crossed over," says Bailey, who co-wrote the tune with Maurice White and Larry Dunn, the band's former keyboardist.
The track — like the rest of That's the Way of the World — was recorded at the same Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado where Elton John made Caribou. "We were in the mountains, so it was great," recalls Verdine White, adding that Maurice was inspired by the star-filled skies. "We all had ranch houses, and then there was one big studio that you could just walk over [to]."
"That's the Way of the World" (1975)
The title of this song — and its namesake 1975 album, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — comes from a movie starring Harvey Keitel in which Earth, Wind & Fire appeared as a band simply called the Group. Although it was essentially a soundtrack, Maurice didn't want the album to be heavily promoted as such. "He didn't want to put a big banner across the front of the album at the top [saying] 'soundtrack,' " says Johnson, who played drums on the title track. "If you look on the back cover of That's the Way of the World, in very small print it says, 'This is the soundtrack from the movie That's the Way of the World.' Maybe he had some kind of premonition because, as it turns out, the movie flopped, but the album is one of the best — if not the best — we've ever done."
The inspiration behind this epic slow jam isn't as romantic as many fans might think it is. "It's funny 'cause people say, 'We played that song at my wedding,' and I'm like, 'Did you listen to the lyrics?' The song is talking about a one-night stand," explains Bailey. "Me and Maurice were talking about the on-the-road life, what was going on at that time being young men. It's totally lust for the moment. It's a screw record. It's our version of 'Between the Sheets.' "
The song "took on a new life," adds Bailey, when Earth, Wind & Fire recorded it for their 1975 live double album Gratitude. Applauding Don Myrick's saxophone solo, Bailey uttered the words "He plays so beautiful, don't you agree?" — a compliment that would later be referenced by everyone from Eddie Murphy (in Coming to America) to Jay-Z. "It's just something that I said in the moment that went viral," says Bailey. "I'm the original."
"l'll Write a Song for You" (1977)
As lovey-dovey as it sounds, this songwriter's declaration from 1977's All 'n All wasn't penned for that kind of sweetheart. It was written as an ode to Bailey's now 42-year-old daughter Pili — whose mother is the Emotions singer Jeanette Hutchinson — after he found out that he was going to be a dad. "I was in Florida, and I got the news that Jeanette was pregnant with Pili," says Bailey. "And I happened to have that track that Al [McKay, former EWF guitarist] had sent me and wanted me to write lyrics to. So when I got the news that she had been conceived, that inspired me to write those lyrics."
For this mystical voyage, Maurice took a cue from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But a close encounter of a different kind almost kept Bailey from singing. "I used to play basketball and run every morning," he says, "and on the day that I had to sing the lead to that, I was playing with my best friend. He elbowed me and knocked my front tooth loose. So I had a busted lip and a loose tooth when I did the vocal that night."
"Got to Get You Into My Life" (1978)
Johnson stepped up from drummer to hype man, percussionist, and background vocalist thanks to this hit 1978 Beatles' cover. "We were asked to participate in a movie called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and each band that was performing was asked to cover a Beatles tune," he says. "So we covered 'Got to Get You Into My Life,' and we're on the stage because they're getting ready to shoot us performing the tune. At that time, we had a choreographer by the name of George Faison, who was famous for choreographing The Wiz on Broadway. So George is out front looking at the camera setup on the shot and out of nowhere he says, 'Ralph! Come off the drums, stand right here next to Maurice.' And that was my entry into being out front."
"What was great about that song is that Al — we called him Sweets — always was working on this lick," says Verdine White. "Al always was in the pocket." But when Maurice and co-writer Allee Willis were having trouble coming up with lyrics for the chorus, they decided to just "let it be a vibe," as White says, with that famous "ba-dee-ya" hook. "When we didn't have words for different stuff, we would 'ba-dee-ya' the melody," explains Bailey. "And so once they kept doing it, Maurice just said, 'You know what? If it's grooving, just leave it alone.' "
Since then, the song has been bopped to at countless cookouts, family reunions, and weddings. "Beyoncé and Jay-Z — that was their first dance when they got married," says White. And now the 21st night of September will always be remembered with its own special place on the calendar: "Sept. 21 is actually Earth, Wind & Fire Day in Los Angeles," says Bailey of the declaration made in 2019. "We went down [to City Hall], and they made it official."
"Boogie Wonderland" (1979)
Although it had people kicking up their boogie shoes, this hit from I Am wasn't designed to be the disco anthem that it became. "We were not chasing after the disco trend. We cared less [about that]," says Johnson. "Matter of fact, that tune was cut for another group — Curtis, the Brothers — that Al McKay was producing. Maurice heard it, and he said, 'Hey man, I gotta have that tune.'"
It was Maurice's idea to have the Emotions — who were signed to his Kalimba Productions — join the party. "We were all in the family, so it wasn't anything strange," says Bailey of collaborating with the "Best of My Love" group. "We knew that that was gon' be hot with them singing the chorus."
"After the Love Is Gone" (1979)
Before legendary producer-writer David Foster worked with superstar divas like Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion, he co-wrote this EWF ballad that found big love on both the pop and R&B charts. "Foster was one of the biggest session piano players in the game; he met Maurice and had 'After the Love Is Gone,' " says White. "But we weren't the first to record it."
In fact, the song had been recorded by its co-writer, former Chicago member Bill Champlin, for his 1978 solo debut Single, but was ultimately pulled from that album because Maurice wanted it for his band. "When we did it over, it came out great," says White, noting that Foster also played piano on the track. "He played on the majority of the I Am album with us."
And when Earth, Wind & Fire became the first African-American group to be inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors in 2019, Foster was there to pay tribute to them. "That was beautiful," says White. "David was very close to Maurice, so it was just great."