When I tune into a Zoom call with the surviving members of Earth, Wind & Fire—Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, and Philip Bailey—on a rare sunny Friday in May the mood soars. “I wanna see who I’m dealing with,” Johnson teases as he puts on his glasses. White expresses the same comedic sentiment, as he jokingly adjusts his own pair. As soon as Bailey joins, Johnson quips, “Well look who’s here!” The first thing Bailey says to his longtime bandmates and close friends after a few seconds of dramatic silence is, “Shut up, girl.” At that point, everyone falls into a laughing fit. “It’s a tough crowd around here,” White summarizes, a big smile on his face. And that’s just the first five minutes.
We know EW&F as the creators of eternal bops like “Shining Star,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and “September.” They’re the innovators who merged R&B-soul with traditional kalimba beats and horns that never stagnate. The trio, in fact, refers to the band as the “Traveling College of Music” because of how much they evolved every day especially while playing on college campuses. They give a lot of the credit for that growth to the more experienced members of the group who were active during the early days. Started by the late Maurice White in 1969, White recruited his younger brother Verdine for a funk-and-soul-oriented debut. However, by the mid-1970s, the band pivoted to a more mainstream pop and jazz sound in order to reach wider audiences, influenced by the music the White brothers and new members Johnson and Bailey grew up listening to.
What takes us back to this pioneering group again and again, though, is its elemental joy and the energy and life members bring to their music and performance. The immediate sense of that lightness between the members is what you hear in the music of the band. When you hear an EW&F song, it takes you back. Back to the ’70s, when it first aired on the radio. Back in the ’80s, when they were playing it in their first sold-out shows. Back in the ’90s, when the compilation albums dropped aplenty. Back to the ’00s, when they regained their charting mojo. And back to the 2010s, when they became one of the most consistent touring acts in the world.
As the group prepares to join Lionel Richie for their Sing A Song All Night Long tour this summer, they promise the same feel-good vibe they’ve brought every time they’ve hit the stage for decades. Johnson says, “We are very, very consistent, because we are very disciplined,” while Bailey quips, “I’ll be taking off my clothes.” Every show to them is a chance to celebrate with fans old and new the music that has made them timeless.
“The pandemic made us more grateful, made us have more heart. It brought people together,” White says, citing tough times as their reason to keep going. Johnson agrees, adding the band’s mission is and has always been “to let [listeners] know through the messages in our music that it’s all going to be alright.” Like the legacy they’ve created, like the elements they’re named after, Earth, Wind & Fire will remain and reign not just on the 21st day of September, but every other day of the year as well.
Sing a Song All Night Long Tour kicks off August 4, 2023.
Photography Juan Veloz
Fashion LC Johnson
Wardrobe Assistant Varsha Paturi
Editorial Direction & Casting Czar Van Gaal
Editor Kala Herh