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Music

In praise of Earth, Wind & Fire, purveyor of black excellence for a half-century

Earth Wind and Fire
Verdine White, from left, Ralph Johnson and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Earth, Wind & Fire hadn’t been booked to perform Tuesday afternoon at City Hall, where members of the veteran R&B band took part in a ceremony designating — what other date? — the 21st of September as Earth, Wind & Fire Day in Los Angeles.

But that didn’t stop Philip Bailey from grabbing the microphone at an official-looking lectern set up near the building’s steps as a DJ spun “September,” the group’s late-’70s classic about a night when “love was changing the minds of pretenders.”

To the delight of a few hundred city workers on their lunch break — including some wearing T-shirts that read “DO YOU REMEMBER?” — the frontman proceeded to bust out a couple of lines over the ecstatic funk groove that’s been elevating moods on contact for decades.

It was almost enough to make you forget you were in the spot where the City Council settles matters of municipal land use.

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Tuesday’s ceremony wasn’t the only time Earth, Wind & Fire will find itself in such a serious setting this year, nearly half a century after the band was founded in 1971 by the late Maurice White, who died at age 74 in 2016. In November, the group’s surviving principals — Bailey, drummer and singer Ralph Johnson, and Maurice’s brother, bassist Verdine White, all 68 — will be honored alongside Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Smithsonian’s American Portrait Gala in Washington, D.C.

Then they’ll be feted at the Kennedy Center Honors, the annual awards event meant to recognize artists and performers who’ve helped shape American culture. (This year’s other recipients are Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Tilson Thomas and the folks behind “Sesame Street.”)

All the high-minded accolades are well deserved for a Grammy-winning act designed by Maurice White to “render a service to humanity,” as Bailey put it. The singer was referring to the essential optimism of sophisticated yet irresistible EWF songs like “September” — streamed on Spotify and YouTube almost a billion times — and “Shining Star,” which carried ideas of what’s now called black excellence into the pop mainstream throughout the 1970s.

“I often think about Maurice’s intent,” Bailey said, adding that the awards seem to him a “testament” to White’s determination to “give something very positive to people.”

Earth, Wind & Fire
Earth, Wind & Fire at Los Angeles City Hall.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

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Yet as the event at City Hall demonstrated, Earth, Wind & Fire shouldn’t be thought of as a museum piece. The group, whose flashy road show made it a must-see in its heyday, is still a nimble live act capable of putting over beloved tunes that blend soul, rock, jazz and African music. (Maurice White, who’d suffered from Parkinson’s disease, stopped touring with EWF around 1996.) This weekend the band will perform two shows at the Hollywood Bowl, a venue that’s become something of a regular haunt for an outfit based in L.A. since virtually the beginning.

“The room is as iconic as we are,” Verdine White said.

More remarkable, these Rock & Roll Hall of Famers aren’t just playing to the same aging fans over and over again, as former peers such as War and Kool & the Gang do. Not unlike Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band, who’s broadened his fan base through collaborations with the likes of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, Earth, Wind & Fire has been embraced by younger artists and listeners who readily acknowledge the group’s importance.

Bailey’s new solo album, the tender and spacey “Love Will Find a Way,” features appearances by Bilal and the acclaimed saxophonist Kamasi Washington, both of whom have worked with Kendrick Lamar. And if you’ve ever seen Bruno Mars perform with his large touring band, you’ve witnessed the legacy of EWF’s festive yet meticulous live attack.

Asked if he sees anything of himself in Mars’ presentation, Bailey laughed. “I’m not necessarily going no place trying to see myself, you know what I’m saying? But I did enjoy his show. They were giving the audience what they don’t usually get — a live band with horns and chord changes.”

The singer was sitting with Johnson and White in a conference room at City Hall; they’d already received a set of plaques from Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson (who called EWF “America’s greatest band”) and would soon pose for photos with people standing in a line that stretched down a very long hallway. Each man had dressed with a different sense of occasion: Bailey in a black-leather vest, Johnson in a crisp patterned blazer, White in a dark jacket that seemed to come from somebody’s yacht.

Earth, Wind & Fire
City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, second from left, with Earth, Wind & Fire.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Yet the three agreed on what makes Earth, Wind & Fire still worth experiencing in 2019. It’s the details, they said, in songs as rhythmically and harmonically complicated as “Boogie Wonderland,” “After the Love Has Gone” and, of course, the deathless “September,” whose prominent use in the recent animated film “Trolls” was just the latest example of its enduring appeal.

“Those little things make it legitimate,” said Bailey. “We still rehearse,” added White, who described sessions of 10 or 12 hours.

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That long to practice tunes they’ve played thousands of times?

“You can never get to the point where you take it for granted,” Johnson replied. “You wouldn’t understand,” Bailey said, chuckling but not kidding, “unless you’re a musician.”

The men also pride themselves on being able to read their audiences, which they say can vary night to night — blacker, whiter, richer, poorer — depending on the city or the venue.

“There’s not gonna be too many poor folks” at the Bowl, Bailey figured. “You can’t afford to get in there. It’s country club.”

“But we can play for anybody,” Johnson said. Two years ago the band headlined a fundraiser for the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine in South Los Angeles — a “love-fest for the neighborhood,” as Bailey described it.

What unites the crowds, Johnson said, is their desire to hear the hits — one reason Earth, Wind & Fire is in no hurry to make a new studio album. (Its last one, the so-so “Now, Then & Forever,” came out in 2013.) Most fans don’t care about songs they don’t know, Bailey explained, especially given that the band can’t even squeeze all the ones they do know into a 90-minute set.

“The same is true for the Stones and McCartney and the Eagles,” White pointed out. “Groups from our era, all of us deal with that.”

Explicit political statements are something else the group avoids. “We never really wanted to do that, as an activist, because it’s a band, and everyone has different viewpoints,” Bailey said.

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Has President Trump’s rhetoric — not to mention many of his actions — changed the way they view their platform?

“At the end of the day it’s about the music,” White said, but his point seemed to be that EWF’s music is the protest some fans might be looking for.

“We’re following in the same tradition as John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Duke Ellington — or James Baldwin,” he said.

“We’ve paid the dues to do that,” Bailey concluded.

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Earth, Wind & Fire

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.

Tickets: $14-$201

Info: www.hollywoodbowl.com


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