Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gone But Never Forgotten

I’ve been on a rather lengthy and unintentional hiatus from EW&F.

On June 20th I arrived in Atlanta after a four and a half hour redeye flight during which I listened to a little less than a third of the songs in my Earth Wind & Fire itunes library (I have 14 hours of just EW&F music). I live in Los Angeles but I flew home because my mother was having surgery and my plan during this vacation was to catch up on a few things I’d pushed aside, particularly this blog and my book about the band. I got off to a very slow start and for the first three days I hadn’t done a thing. Then on Thursday, June 25 at 5:30 pm EDT, Robert Siegel of the National Public Radio news show “All Things Considered” led with this: “We’re hearing the news now from multiple outlets citing many sources that Michael Jackson has died.” I was paralyzed.

Ever since then and certainly until Tuesday’s memorial service, I have attempted to grapple with this huge loss and I’ve come to understand that the ONLY thing that will help me get over the shock of his death is time. All day yesterday and the day before, I was glued to the television and for the last six days I’ve listened to nothing but the music of MJ and the Jackson 5…until today.

As I lay awake in this morning’s predawn hours, I began redirecting my focus to EW&F and how during every painful episode of my life, I’ve been able to turn to their music. It came to me in an instant that the record “Spirit” was dedicated to Maurice White’s collaborator, producer, songwriter, arranger, musician, and friend Charles Stepney, who died an untimely sudden death at the age of 45 in 1976. The sadness, anguish, and sorrow are palpable from the opening notes but by the end of the recording there is an angelic vocal and instrumental celebration that would uplift the heaviest heart. In a very rich way, EW&F’s requiem to Stepney embodies what Michael’s music and life have come to represent: brotherhood, friendship, humanity, love. I am hard pressed to find another record that speaks so magnificently to the grief that we are all sure to experience at some point in our lives and when we do meet that moment, we’ll want to be still, stand in love, and pay attention…

Our spirits perpetuate
Our spirits meditate love and faith…

Look into each other’s eyes
Humanity will arise
In love…
And our spirits, they will be one.

The song was written for Charles Stepney and I dedicate it to
Michael Joseph Jackson 1958-2009.
Rest In Peace.

Spirit - Earth, Wind & Fire

Monday, May 25, 2009

Just Give Gratitude

Three days ago a friend of mine and I were engaged in a serious debate. I made the following bold statement: “Earth Wind & Fire’s album ‘Gratitude’ is the finest live R&B album ever recorded.” Now, for me that’s a no-brainer but for him, that was a challenge. His reaction was to start hollarin’ about P-Funk Live from 1977, which in my opinion doesn’t even come close (and I LOVE Parliament Funkadelic).  We discussed Stevie Wonder’s “Natural Wonder”, “These Songs for You: Donny Hathaway Live” (both of which are phenomenal recordings); and the live recordings of Bill Withers and Tower of Power came up in the conversation too. I mentioned Frankie Beverly & Maze “Live in New Orleans” also a great record, he and I agreed, but none of these eclipse “Gratitude.” He eventually gave in, finally realizing that there really is no greater live R&B concert recording.

It is absolutely true. I am an Earth Wind & Fire devotee so for me, their worst album is probably gonna be pretty good but “Gratitude” is that rare jewel that never gets dull. It remains classic in every respect and will always stand the test of time. Play it today and it sounds just as solid and organic as it did right before Christmas 1975 (the season of giving, I might add) when it was released.

There are many reasons this album is extraordinary: five of them are the studio-recorded songs that were included (there were also two musical interludes). Of those, two were released as singles “Singasong” and “Can’t Hide Love” (I’ll write more about “Can’t Hide Love” later).  The other three were fantastic too, especially “Sunshine” which you’ll just have to hear for yourself if you don’t know it. But the real shining moments of this record are the all-time heartbreaking live version of “Reasons” (I’ve discussed my fixation with this record in an earlier post—“He plays so beautiful don’t you agree?”); the nine-minute “New World Symphony,” which I can’t even find the adjectives to describe; “Devotion” (the same live version of this record with the original “Head to the Sky” intro is part of the box set compilation “The Eternal Dance” released in 1992 and is so lively it’s mind numbing); and “Sun Goddess,” a tune that some of the members of the band originally recorded with jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis on his album of the same name.

For a short time back in the sixties, Maurice White had been the drummer with the Ramsey Lewis Trio but until 1974, by the time EW&F was formed and had already developed a pretty strong following of their own, Lewis hadn’t had a hit record since 1967. His collaboration with “The Elements” resulted in “Sun Goddess,” a song that to this day is one of the funkiest jazz recordings ever made. So by late ’75, when EW&F included it in their live shows and on “Gratitude,” hard core R&B fans found themselves grooving to a number that was decidedly jazz. In fact, the live version is almost better than what they recorded in the studio. In every way it establishes the members as bonafide, thoroughly trained jazz musicians. The vocal melody is unforgettable; the saxophone solo in both the live & studio recordings are virtuosic; and the guitar riffs, bass, keyboard, percussion, drums, rhythm, everything about this record is timeless. It’s impossible for me to imagine a summer without it.

So, here are some instructions: Stop whatever you’re doing and find “Gratitude." At the very least, download and listen to “Sun Goddess” right now! If you don’t begin bobbin’ your head, snappin’ your fingers, and/or tappin’ your feet, we might need to check whether you have a pulse. 

Sun Goddess - Earth, Wind & Fire

Thursday, May 14, 2009

It Is Written

We all better recognize…
the omens. (If you’ve read “The Alchemist,” then you know what I’m talking about).
Check this out:
For the last two weeks I’ve been seriously out of rhythm. By that I mean all the things that help me maintain a certain ebb and flow to my life have been somewhat topsy-turvy. To be sure, I’ve been almost entirely disconnected from my current obsession, which as my closest friends know, is eating, breathing, and sleeping anything that is Earth Wind & Fire. After working 10 to 12 hours a day, studying for mid term exams, dental implant surgery, and all the other various mundane affairs of everyday living, I’ve had very little time to do anything, let alone read & write for pleasure. What I have been able to do, however, is listen. Everyday I’ve listened to one EW&F record, the same song over and over and over again. But I’ll come back to that in a minute.
I was having one of those sleepless nights, which for me is extremely rare. Generally, I never have a hard time sleeping but for one particular night this week after some very, very long days, I just couldn’t drift off. I’d been feeling a little neglectful of a few things, but mainly I was regretting that I hadn’t spent much time on my EW&F projects. So around 1:30 am, I’m tossing & turning; I get up, walk around, get back in bed and toss & turn some more. I turn the TV on, channel surf, nothing, turn it off. Pick up a book, lose interest. Flip through this week’s Time Magazine, boring. (This is rare for me so I really don’t quite know what to do.) I turn the TV on again (as if I wanna give it one last chance), channel surf and land on VH1 Soul, the channel that runs black music videos all day and all night long. It’s 2:00 now and I hear the familiar little jingle for the show “Soul Story” which is an hour-long string of videos by one artist or group. What I saw next literally made me jump out of bed! A concert video of Earth Wind & Fire singing “After the Love is Gone” from 1979. (Gasp! Could it be that EW&F are the featured act on this episode of "Soul Story?" We'll see with the next video. Then...BAM!) From the 1987 album “Touch the World” was the video from a song which featured the Emotions singing background vocals “Thinking of You.” The rest were songs from rather late in the band’s career since music videos weren’t yet a common media in the 1970s, and by the mid 80s EW&F’s popularity was also beginning to wane. Interestingly, as far back as 1977, the band had done what were then called “Promotional Videos,” which were usually un-elaborate performance presentations shot by the record companies to showcase album releases. But despite all that, I immediately knew the videos were a sign. It was a most profound omen that instantly registered a powerful message: get back to the Elements of the Universe!
So a few hours later, just as I’m about to head to work, I get in my car, turn on the engine, and hear the following:
Do you believe, my friend, in what you claim?
People of the world all doubt the same.
Bringing questions of their own,
Truth is written in the stone.
Truth is written in the stone. This is the song I’d been playing over and over and over again. Between hearing that and considering those music videos from a few hours earlier as an omen, there is no greater affirmation to finish what has taken me 44 years to start.
A little more about the song:
When the album “I Am” was released in 1979, EW&F was becoming disco/pop oriented but “In the Stone” is a record that although it has pop elements, remains true to the EW&F ethos. Maurice White even said that this album was difficult to record because it followed the multi platinum “All-N-All” (which is arguably the best R&B album ever made—right up there with Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”) and the band was trying to toe the line between art & commerce. The 50 second introduction, with its rhythmic instrumentation, horns, bass, guitar, and percussion, is used to this day as background music to television news, sports, and entertainment show segments and is a staple performance piece of every major marching band at Historically Black Colleges throughout the country. There’s absolutely no way you can hear it without standing, lifting your head up, and feeling like a champion. As the lyrics exclaim, love, truth, and strength are written in the stone.

In The Stone - Earth, Wind & Fire

Friday, May 1, 2009

Now my heart can fly...

I’ve spent the last several days contemplating the topic for my second blog post. The fact that I’m writing about Earth Wind & Fire comes as a real surprise to some. But those who know and understand me well, appreciate my motivations and see this for what it actually is: a humble beginning to the ultimate completion of a mission I was born to fulfill.
In addition to sharing my reflections about the music, history, band members, lyrics, and culture of EW&F, I want to express a few of my new meditations relating to their old recordings. There are dozens of EW&F songs that I consider favorites. I could never just choose one but for now, there’s one in particular over which I’ve ruminated for the last few weeks. (Any diehard fan may remember this one, vaguely).
“Take It to the Sky” from the album “Faces” 1980
Learning to fly, it seems, is learning to live your dream.
Although two of the singles from this album “Let Me Talk” and "And Love Goes On," received nominal airplay in comparison to other earlier hits, I purchased “Faces” when I was in the 10th grade expressly for the song “Take It to the Sky.” It is classic EW&F in every sense - melody, arrangement, and lyrical content. It’s a song about knowing what we want and praying about it to the Creator, whoever or whatever we perceive him or her to be. Just like back in 1980, I don’t simply hear this song; I FEEL this song. It profoundly speaks to me and yet there’s nothing exceptional about it. As I recall, the album didn’t sell very well either. It was a double album with 15 songs recorded on the Caribbean island of Montserrat and it followed the multi-platinum, almost impossible to eclipse “I AM.” I think a lot of people, except me and a few others perhaps, thought it was too much, too big, too long, too commercial, too everything. It was misunderstood but “Take It To The Sky” might be one of my top five EW&F records. Oh, and Maurice’s vocal fills and add libs are sick!
Regardless of the band’s relatively low record sales for this album, “Faces” was an enormous achievement, particularly given EW&F’s ability to survive the era of disco. There’s a lot more I could comment about “Take It to the Sky” but the truth is you’re better off hearing it for yourself. Trust me, just as it is when listening to most of their records, you’ll come out of the experience feeling like a better human being.

Friday, April 24, 2009

I'm Not Running Anymore

“We are people of the Mighty, mighty people of the Sun.
In our heart lies all the answers to the truth you can’t run from.”

-from Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Mighty Mighty”

There isn’t a single major event of my life among the highs and the lows, the successes and the failures, or the triumphs and disasters that I can’t associate with an Earth Wind & Fire melody or lyric. It is very likely that during some of my most desperate moments of struggle or in my celebrations alike, I was actually listening to one of their recordings. It’s like this for any fan who finds an artist or a band or a piece of music in which to dwell. But for a devotee to the most significant R&B soul funk jazz collective of the seventies & eighties, it isn’t enough to just adore as a fanatic would the musicians and their music. My higher purpose is inextricably bound to understanding and analyzing the reasons their music had the impact that it did during the time that it did and why even today they maintain an almost Brahmin status, most especially in black music vernacular.

There are two things I remember most about the year 1975: Attending Exploration ’75, a two-week academic summer camp for gifted children between the ages of 8 and 15 at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia and the song “Reasons." I couldn’t wait to leave Atlanta and join the boys and girls from all over the state to live in dormitories, eat cafeteria food, and pretend we were college students. The biggest draw back was probably that my twin brother was also attending. At that time, going everywhere together was beginning to cramp my style. Still I remember the drive: my father took us in the family car, a deep green 1965 Ford Galaxy 500 and as we turned onto the road leading to the campus, I could see all the other participants with their parents dragging their suitcases toward the check-in area. As vividly as I remember this scene, I can remember humming the melody to “Reasons” almost every minute while I was there. In fact, I became such an annoyance to my brother, that I barely saw him again for the remaining two weeks. As I encountered other kids, before long they would also hear me humming this curious little tune. The two or three black kids who I’d met were probably a bit more familiar with the melody than the dozens of white kids who heard me. In a few short days, I’m sure I was getting on everybody’s nerves.

I had no idea of the meaning of the lyrical content of “Reasons” back then. It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I realized it’s a song about a one-night stand! There were very few words that my 10-year old ears could even make out at that time: “Reasons, the reasons that we’re here...after the love game has been played...(something else about a parade) La la la la la la la la la...the reasons…the reasons…” that was about it. What mattered to me was how from the opening notes Philip Bailey’s lilting falsetto wrapped around those lyrics. How the harmonies and instrumentation swirled in my mind and danced in my heart. How at the end of four minutes and 58 seconds of magic, I would feel sad and lost…until I’d hear it all over again on the radio.

Earth Wind & Fire are so tied to my childhood that it’s hard to imagine growing up without them. My memories of the band are as vivid as the times when my mother worked two jobs or when my father was reading books about astronomy, the history of mankind, or animal behavior. I can scarcely think of a moment when the Elements of the Universe weren’t on the radio.

At that time, radio was something I loved. AM stations were very popular and because my parents didn’t buy a lot of what would have been considered contemporary R&B, it wasn’t something that we heard a lot in the house…except for on the radio. My father had an eclectic music library. A jazz lover, he had albums by Dizzie Gillespie, Getz/Gilberto, Charlie Parker, and Abby Lincoln; he had eight-track tapes (which were the newest of technology) by Herbie Mann & Maynard Ferguson, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Gloria Lynn. He also had a reel-to-reel tape player connected to a Marantz receiver with recordings of artists from Miles Davis to Big Maybelle. So while my father was downstairs, my mother was upstairs playing nothing but Al Green on the cabinet console player, a large, floor-to-waist phonograph that was encased in a long, wooden centerpiece. On Saturday mornings we did our house cleaning chores to music like “Love & Happiness”, “For the Good Times”and “Let’s Stay Together." This was really all we heard in terms of contemporary R&B.

EW&F came into my life in two significant ways: the radio, of course, and through my cousin, Aaron. Right out of graduate school, he came to Atlanta from Clarksdale, Mississippi to find a job. (My brother and I had left Clarksdale-the town of our birth-and moved to Atlanta with our parents when we were less than a year old, and frequently made trips back to Clarksdale a few times each year – a practice that continued until we were about to enter high school). Aaron was already 11 years old when my brother and I were born, so he and my older brother Larry were charged with feeding and babysitting duties during our visits to Clarksdale. Knowing that his aunt, my mother lived in Atlanta in a large family home, Aaron lived with us on a temporary basis until he found permanent employment. Prior to then, my relationship with Aaron was more or less fashioned by our family visits to Clarksdale during the holidays.

From the moment of Aaron’s arrival, it was clear to me that life in our home would be different. He had an amazing record collection and since he was living in our basement, he had access to the stereo equipment. Even though his stay was temporary, he traveled with a fairly large collection. The Bar Kays, The Isley Brothers, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, New Birth, Mandrill, Melba Moore, The Ohio Players, and a ton of others. One of the first albums I touched was “That’s the Way of the World.” The album cover completely captured my imagination. There was something interesting about the question in Ralph Johnson’s expression and body language or the ecstasy in Maurice White’s smile or how half of Larry Dunn’s body floated on the front side of the cover. When I flipped it over (or opened it out) there was the rest of Larry’s body as were Al McKay, Andrew Woolfolk, Johnny Graham, and Fred White floating too. Every song on the album had a unique sound and flavor and when I discovered “Reasons” among the list of them, I knew instantly that I was somehow enmeshed in an everlasting relationship.

Since the time of Exploration ’75 and Aaron’s temporary then permanent then temporary stays with our family, in the course of hardships and achievements, and through my own human evolution, a constant presence has been EW&F. Following Aaron’s example, I’ve always kept a collection of their recordings in my personal possession no matter where I’ve been. And now as I revisit the memories and the feelings that these songs evoked, I have no other choice than to commit my recollections to paper in a lengthy love letter to the baddest band that ever was.