By Gillian G. Gaar
Earth, Wind & Fire fans have had to be patient. After an eight-year wait, the legendary group is back with a new studio album, “Now, Then & Forever” (Legacy). And with an album sounds like classic EWF — snappy horns, funky grooves and sweet harmonies, topped by the unmistakable falsetto of co-founder Philip J. Bailey — the wait was worth it.
But bassist and co-founder Verdine White — brother of now-retired EWF co-founder and bandleader Maurice White — doesn’t take the band’s success or legacy for granted.
So what has kept EWF going strong for 40 years? Verdine White offers his take.
Goldmine: I saw Earth, Wind & Fire in Seattle in the late ’70s.
Verdine White: Oh, that’s a long time ago.
GM: What are your memories of that period?
VW: Oh, God! To go back that far! The ’70s was a great era. Obviously, they consider it our “heyday,” whatever that means. But it was a great era, a lot of fun, a lot of excitement, a lot of creativity, things like that.
GM: What was it like working on the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” movie? [EWF appears in a concert sequence, performing “Got to Get You Into My Life”].
VW: Chaotic. I remember it, because we shot it on Maurice’s birthday. There was a lot to do, and we only had one day to shoot all of it. It was a long day. It was cold out there, and we had to choreograph it, stage it and film it all in one day. And no rehearsal! It turned out good.
GM: Did you get to choose the song you performed?
VW: Yeah, we did. George Martin was actually the producer of the soundtrack. He worked with the other acts, the Bee Gees, Aerosmith. But he didn’t have time to work with us. So he said “Why don’t you guys just your own thing?” And we did, and it sounded like us.
GM: The film didn’t do very well, but your song was a Top 10 hit, as well as topping the R&B charts.
VW: Yeah, it was the biggest song in the movie. We had the biggest song of the whole soundtrack!
GM: There have been a lot of changes in the music industry since there. What do you think have been the changes for the better?
VW: Well, music is more immediate, of course. It’s more interactive. And everybody now has adjusted to the new digital ways. And it’s made music more universal.
GM: Your last album, “Illumination,” came out in 2005. Why was there such a long break between albums?
VW: I don’t think we consciously thought about it — that we looked up, and suddenly it was eight years later. This record actually took about two years to do. So it really was like six years, probably, when we decided to go back in and do an album. But during that time there would be TV shows we’d do, there’d be traveling; there were a number of other things we were doing. But we finally got around to doing this record.
GM: What for you are some of the major themes of the record?
VW: Well, it sounds like Earth, Wind & Fire, that’s the major thing … It sounds like us, and it sounds like us without being dated. And it sounds like us without us trying to be anybody but us.
GM: You still have a pretty organic sound — saxophones, trumpets, trombones, not too many electronics.
VW: Yeah! That’s what’s going on. That’s our sound, that organic sound.
GM: The opening song, “Sign On,” is uplifting, sending a positive message (“Sign on, no more war/no more greed, if you agree/Sign on for a better way”).
VW: Yes. When you first hear it you say, “That’s EWF, that’s EWF.” And I think by the time you get to “My Promise,” I think you say, “OK, this is a really good record.” I think by the end you say, “Wow!”
GM: Will the fans have to wait eight years for another album?
VW: We’ll see. I don’t think we’ll wait that long.
GM: You’ve not only played for one president, you’ve played for two. (President Bill Clinton on June 20, 2000, and President Barack Obama on Feb. 22, 2009).
VW: We’re President Obama’s favorite band! So that was beautiful. We took pictures with him, and it was really perfect. And we had a chance to talk with Bill Clinton. He’s cool. He’s very cool, very aware.
GM: Well, they’re both known as being music fans. They’re both younger presidents, and grew up during the ’60s listening to rock music.
VW: Exactly. And they went to concerts going to college, and things like that. They understood music.
GM: Did Obama ever see you live before?
VW: No, he didn’t. He did mention that he was a big fan. He asked, “What are you going to do tonight? Which album are you going play from? Are you going to do ‘Reasons’?” [From 1975’s “That’s the Way of the World.”] So that was cool.
GM: It’s not the kind of gig you expected to play when you started out.
VW: No, not at all, not at all.
GM: What do you think you have left to accomplish?
VW: Oh we don’t think about it like that. We don’t think like that.
GM: There have been numerous changes to the lineup over the years; what’s kept you together?
VW: I think we just admire each other and we respect what we’re all doing.
GM: How’s your brother doing? [EWF co-founder Maurice White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and retired from live work in 1994.]
VW: Maurice is good. He’s looking good and he sounds great.
GM: I think the album’s title really sums up your story.
VW: Yeah. We’re here now, we were here yesterday, and we will be here forever. Even if we’re not here, our music will be here. GM