EARTH, WIND & FIRE / “That’s The Way Of The World”

"If there ain't no beauty, you got to make some beauty" "All About Love" from That's The Way Of The World
There is never only one road, and certainly, life’s highways are never straight. Roads criss-cross. Even on expressways we sometimes have to make U-turns and double-backs. And sometimes we get into the thick of our emotional connections to others. To our disappointment but not necessarily discouragement, we find that there often are more than a few cul-de-sacs, moments when everything comes to naught. Days when there is no light. But then there are also those special times when we glow and step lightly, a smile on our lips, a song in our heart. Earth, Wind & Fire's music is a soundtrack for those special feelings. ewf 02.jpg This is a selection and a blend of music from the band we used to simply call 'The Elements.' Back then, when you said 'The Elements,' everybody knew exactly who you meant. They might even start to hum a favorite song. Even if you weren't a big fan, at least one or two of their compositions gave you a special buzz, like that third glass of chilled cream sherry or whatever culinary, herbal or pharmaceutical item you habitually used to facilitate attitudinal adjustments. Earth, Wind & Fire. A Chicago band that got their start on the West Coast. A pop band that was deeply invested in spiritual studies. Soul singers who also dug jazz on one hand and doo-wop vocal harmonies on the other. EWF is one of the quintessential bands in which musicians sang, danced and played their instruments, all at the same time and with an elan that was charming and captivating. Plus, they wrote some catchy songs. Often as not in the Seventies, it didn't matter where you happened to be; you’d find your voice reaching upward, cracking as you tried to get into the stratosphere where Philip Bailey soared. The band’s guru was Maurice White, but the specific sound people generally associated with EWF was the beauty of masculine falsetto. While all the guys could croon, it was Philip Bailey that set a standard for what male soul singers could achieve in the arena of sensitive songs. philip bailey 01.jpg Well over three decades after bursting on the scene in the Seventies, Philip Bailey is still able to do his vocal magic. Unlike almost every other famous lead singer in a group, Philip Bailey never had a major career as a solo artist. He is forever associated with EWF and they with him. It is profoundly significant that a group of Black men could hang together for what amounts to a lifetime. Beautiful. I’ve grabbed a handful of songs, some of them among their best, others gems that I happen to like including the obscure “Dreams,” which was released relatively recently. Listening to this reminds me of how much breadth our popular music used to exhibit. So wide, so varied, so many different influences, so many cool sounds. That’s our legacy, our history, aspects of our being that is frequently lost in the instant-gratification orientation of 21st century nu-soul, neo-soul, or whatever one might choose to call popular Black vocal music. (Isn’t the need to label itself a reflection of the limitation of labeling?) Back in the day, we just used to turn on the radio and pour our hearts out as we sang along with the angelic sounds flowing from the speakers. Seems like a whole other world away now. Yet EWF used to be as common and welcomed as sunshine in late February; spring was coming and it felt good, really, really good. Once upon a time, that was the way of the world…. —Kalamu ya Salaam            Pop? No way         Kalamu sees Earth, Wind & Fire as a pop band, albeit one deeply invested in spirituality. I suppose that's a reference to EWF's lightness of sound and the polished style of their instrumentation. But for my generation—meaning, today's young adults who first heard this music when we were kids—Earth, Wind & Fire is classic, classic soul. EWF is Stevie Wonder and War. They're Maze, Teena Marie, Al Green and Donny Hathaway. That real stuff. The stuff that made us feel like we were going to be alright even if their was madness on the television and craziness in the streets. Earth, Wind & Fire was an integral part of the soundtrack to my growing up. Pop? No way. Listen to the 'rap' on "All About Love." Listen to when my man breaks it down: "You are as beautiful as your thoughts. Right on?" That's some black-ass shit! You'll never find a pop record where the lead singer breaks out psuedo-intellectual, street-corner wisdom like, "You study all kinds of sciences and, you know, strategy, mysticism and world religion and so forth, you dig? And like, uh, coming from a hip place all of these things help because they give you an inside to your inner self, have mercy." You can't help but laugh listening to that. But if you really understand where my man is coming from, you're laughing in a good way. You're laughing with him, not at him. Get out your steel toed boots, pick-axe and that hardhat with the little light on it. My man's  trying to take you deep. "Trees and birds," he said. Trees. And birds! Come on, y'all. If you're not feeling that, what's wrong with you? Actually, if you're not feeling that, tell me what's right with you? You dig? Have mercy. —Mtume ya Salaam             Pop or Not Pop          You know I'm not going to get too caught up in labels, however, I do find it interesting that you concede that EWF has a "lightness of sound and [a] polished style," which we both would credit to a pop orientation. I, of course, did not mean to denigrate EWF by saying they were a pop band, maybe I should have said one of the best pop bands ever, or a very deep pop band. Anyway, regardless of what we call them, we both agree on how we would characterise their sound. But then, Mtume, you go the next step and infer that their "spiritual" subject matter is too hip to be pop. I think pop can be deep even as I recognize that the overwhelming majority of pop music is shallow. I think EWF are deep. None of the above withstanding, I know (and I'm pretty sure you know also) that EWF was heavily invested into reaching a crossover audience. In fact, ironically, That's The Way Of The World is partially a soundtrack album for a movie 70s (it may have been early 80s) movie on the music industry. One of the major plot lines in the movie was the trials and tribulations of a Black band trying to cross-over. In the movie the band was EWF and "That's The Way Of The World" was one of the featured songs. Whether EWF is pop or not is not my argument. For sure they made Soul music. But there is a deeper issue. I don't consider "pop" a negative category. So, Mtume, here is my intentionally provocative question: what do you have against pop? ;->) Inquiring minds what to know. —Kalamu ya Salaam         What do I have against pop?         What do I have against pop? Nothing. I like a lot of pop music. I just don't think Earth, Wind & Fire is an example of it. When I think of pop music, I think of music that isn't aimed mainly at a black audience. I think of music that, if it charts, charts most successfuly on the pop chart as opposed to the R&B chart. EWF doesn't qualify - I don't care if their sound is smoother than the grittier soul acts. Whether or not they would've liked to have crossed over more than they did, their records always seemed aimed at black folk first. To me, that makes them a soul band. But like I said last week, I listen to pop music all the time. —Mtume ya Salaam  

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8 Responses to “EARTH, WIND & FIRE / “That’s The Way Of The World””

Rudolph Lewis Says:
March 11th, 2007 at 8:52 am

I have a CD of Earth, Wind & Fire that I’ve tried to listen to several times and I usually popped it out of the drive before the first selection finished. I rejected the sound. They were just not doing it for me. It was curious for I liked the group and their music during the time they were popular.

Your discussion is enlightening and has helped me get a better grip on what was happening in my ejections. As I recall, EWF was fresh at the time. They were a kind of reprieve group. A reprieve from Funk/Soul. A reprieve from Motown dancing groups. A reprieve from disco. Bands were in. The Age of Aquarius. They functioned for the times. Their sounds however do not have a timeless quality, that is, speaking and functioning to present issues and present sentiments. Maybe "Reasons" is an exception. Though they have excellencies I find their "lightness" now a rather boring artifact of times past. One can say that even the Stevie Wonder of the period comes off rather bland and innocuous. Maybe there will come another time in which such artistic productions will find a more receptive ear.

      Mtume says:    

These comments (not just Rudy’s, but some of Kalamu’s as well) are really surprising to me. I never realized EWF wasn’t respected right along with the other greats of Seventies Soul. Rudy says "Reasons" may be an exception but that the balance of EWF’s catalog doesn’t continue to speak to our present issues and sentiments. To me, that’s an amazing statement. It’s hard to understand how something like "Keep Your Head To The Sky" (my all-time favorite EWF record) is irrelevant today. I was about to "in these trying times," but really, depending on who you are and what your perspective is, I think all times are trying times. It’s just a matter of where your head is at. (Not to mention your pocketbook.) As Bob says, "Who feels it, knows it."

When I’m feeling down about what’s going on out in the streets or over in Iraq and Afghanistan or just about my own personal shit, EWF records like "All About Love," "Head To The Sky" and "Can’t Hide Love" are part of the soundtrack I turn to to get me back on track. Those records remain as relevant to me today as they ever were. And I know I’m not alone on that. Maybe EWF just ain’t for revolutionaries. I don’t know. I’m sitting here, baffled, trying in vain to come up with explanations for something that seems inexplicable. This is CLASSIC black music, man!

And Rudy, I can’t help but notice what you slipped in there about Stevie. I HAVE to assume you’re talking about Eighties-era Stevie. If we’re talking about the Seventies, we’re talking about Music Of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Songs In The Key Of Life, Fulfillingness’ First Finale. (The latter having been immortalized by Eddie Murphy as "Fulfillin’, Fufillit, Fulfingly…fuck it! You know, the good one!") How can you possibly be referring to those albums as "bland and innocuous"? Stevie’s Seventies-era output is as good as soul ever got. If those records are bland and innocuous, soul music itself is bland and innocuous!


I remember a couple weeks ago we were talking about Bob Marley and, all of a sudden, Kalamu threw Stevie under the bus. We weren’t even talking about Stevie! And now you too, Rudy? What the hell’s going on? It’s like I’ve stumbled into an alternate universe where left is right and down is up. emoticon



         Petit Bourgeois Funk         

Make my funk the P-Funk / cause I like my funk uncut!

OK, Rudy, let’s go there—"there" being the deal on EWF, Motown, disco and a bunch of other stuff from that period—but let’s take a back road so we can see the landscape a little better.

First, read Mtume’s take on De La Soul. Think of EWF as De La Soul and think of P-Funk as Public Enemy and NWA all rolled into one. You might ask, how could that be? The answer is simple and obvious once you look at the context. Parliament was Public Enemy and Funkadelic was NWA. Of course there are important differences but right now I am addressing a structural similarity.

If you go back and look at the P-Funk albums from that period, they were dissing EWF in a similar way that De La Soul got dissed except those cartoons on the P-Funk albums were scandalous.

Second, here’s an anecdote. One night in New Orleans back in the seventies, EWF was playing a major concert in the Superdome. About a 1.5 miles away, P-Funk was having a major concert in the Municipal Auditorium. I was boarding the mothership. Later for the disappearing pyramid.

If you compare the sounds of both groups it’s really, really clear who was the heavy hitter and who was the lead-off hitter proficient at getting on base but seldom hitting home runs. (Yeah, yeah I know I’m mixing a lot of metaphors and skating on thin ice but “Aqua-boogie, baby”!)

In all seriousness I used to refer to EWF as "petit bourgeois funk," with all the strengths and weaknesses thereof. Now both were into a form of metaphysics except P-Funk was just tripping out and funking around. It wasn’t like they seriously believed in a mothership. But EWF, well, they were seriously into their metaphysics.

There are probably about eight to ten other EWF tracks I really like but beyond that, the deeptitude factor falls off or should I say drifts away on the breeze. As drugged out as P-Funk was, they were clearer about who and what the enemy was, about the systemic nature of our oppression. Free your mind and your ass will follow! Like that. Our problem was not that we didn’t understand astrology. Our problem is that we didn’t understand capitalism.

EWF and Motown (in spades) were busy pursing the American dream, both were equally aware of the fabled pot of gold atop Monkey Mountain, it’s just that Motown was straight up assimilationist and EWF was alternative.  Their “sound” reflected their worldview. I’ve got a couple of really, really funky demos that EWF put together, so funky you would swear it wasn’t EWF. That’s part of what makes me certain that the lightness of their sound is by design. They knew how to get down and dirty, but they preferred pretty shit.

Now if you check the various regional sounds of that period you will hear in the music a range of attitudes about the system. Philly Soul was the most advanced politically. As hip as What’s Going On is, it is really an anomaly as far as the Motown sound goes, which is why Gordy didn’t want to release it. But if you want a hard edged political statement you had to go to Chitown (do I have to say Curtis Mayfield?) or even to Philly (see, yall going to make me pull out O’Jays Ship Ahoy—now that was a popular/political record! ("Money, Money, Money.")

OK, got it.

Third, the above not withstanding, EWF in their prime was a great band. If, as Mtume suggests, the rule of thumb for what pop is revolves around the question of what audience the music is aimed at and who are it’s primary supporters, than it’s easy to see EWF fading to pale as the years wore on. Even in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down Curtis Mayfield stayed the course. Like he said: if you had a choice of colors, which one would you choose, my brother?

Every up has a down and vice versa. By that I mean even though EWF was a little too light to bump (unlike Bertha, of whom it was said she had too much rump to bump), still we needed their vibe to complete the 360 of our music. Just like we need doctors and lawyers, even though we don’t need their identification with the ruling class, we need the beautiful sounds that an EWF at their best offers to our community. In fact we need all the best from every element

Obviously I’m giant-stepping through this argument and not stopping to connect the dots, but it ought to be clear that Motown was never going to produce heavy funk precisely because they were courting a crossover audience, but hey, “That’s The Way Of The World.” BTW, Yall really ought to see that movie!

—Kalamu ya Salaam

P.S Mtume, I just read your Stevie Wonder question. I think you’re deifying Stevie. There’s a stretch of about 8 or so albums prior to Innervisions that is… well, let’s just say Stevie Wonder doing beach music is not a particularly hip listening experience. But you know what we’re really talking about here is local, national and international conditions and the response of individual artists to those conditions. Artists are human beings, and like all humans, artists respond and react to their social conditions in a variety of ways ranging from outright rebellion and revolutionary struggle to total identification with the big house and all the inhabitant therein. During the seventies Black folk locally, nationally and internationally were in high motion and the music we made, filtered through the individual consciousness of various artists, reflected the prevailing forces (positive, negative and contradictory) of their time period. Or to paraphrase a more contemporary artist: the music is a sign of the times. What the signs says depends on the moving finger of the artist doing the writing.

Rudy, there’s a big difference between not liking EWF and thinking that EWF is not worthy of being liked. Not liking EWF is a matter of taste and opinion. Not recognizing that EWF was extremely good at what they did is a matter using politics to make aesthetic judgments.


Big E Says:
March 11th, 2007 at 4:14 pm

Let’s just say this: “That’s the Way of the World”, is one of the few albums that can be played from top to bottom over and over again. Good Luck trying to find that movie, (I haven’t seen it myself) but that soundtrack: KICK-ASS MUSIC!!!!!

Mtume Says:
March 11th, 2007 at 7:10 pm

I’m deifying Stevie? Beach music? Baba, you’re talking about Stevie in the Sixties. That’s why I specifically said the Seventies. I don’t even own a Stevie Wonder album that came out in the Sixties. Here are the albums I’m referring to, in order:

1971 Where I’m Coming From
1972 Music of My Mind
1972 Talking Book
1973 Innervisions
1974 Fulfillingness’ First Finale
1976 Songs in the Key of Life
1979 Journey Through the Secret Life of Plant

Those are the core seven Stevie Wonder albums that I’m talking about. Those are the albums that made Stevie’s legend as one of the leading soul musicians to ever record.

Rudy said, “One can say that even the Stevie Wonder of THE PERIOD comes off rather bland and innocuous.” What period was he talking about? Well, he referred directly to Earth, Wind & Fire, a band whose first album didn’t come out until 1970. That’s why I assume Rudy had to be referring to either the Seventies or the Eighties. EWF weren’t around before that.

And just for the record, I’ve never heard Stevie At The Beach (Motown, 1964), nor do I care to. If y’all are calling pre-1971 Stevie bland and innocuous, I’ll have to say ‘no comment,’ but I don’t know a thing about pre-1971 Stevie other than what I’ve heard on the radio.

– Mtume.

Rudolph Lewis Says:
March 11th, 2007 at 8:51 pm

You guys probably got the music history down better than I. My memory is a bit vague. I may have gone too far in my comments on both EWF and Stevie. The point I wanted to make was that I do not listen to either Stevie or EWF, anymore. I just saw Stevie on TV recently and I just walked away. I thought he was mimicking himself. And I liked both Stevie and EWF, once. And I really admire Stevie for what he did in supporting making MLK’s birthday a national holiday. Presently, I’m into fighting music. I want aggression against what’s happening now. I want the rough edge cutting through the fog. I want working class ideological music like the blues and the bluer the better. Nothing else will satisfy. And it’s got to be more than the words and nice sentiments, the overall sound is gotta want to bring the house down. . . . People can listen to whatever turns them on. I want the blues and the more country it is the better I like it. Where guys are being as real as you can be. Or I listen to jazz, blue and radical. . . . In this week’s music what turns me on is Miles and what comes after.

Jarvis Says:
March 12th, 2007 at 12:45 am

Kalamu, I read an article about Stevie by Joel Selvin that was published in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2004 Anthology. Selvin describes what happened immediately after Gordy threw a huge party for Stevie’s 21st birthday. Stevie had a lawyer call Gordy to say he was “disaffirming” all his recording, publishing and management contracts with the mogul and demanding to be paid in full. According to sound engineer Malcolm Cecil, Stevie had learned years before then that all the contracts he made prior to age 21 could be nullified once he turned 21. “Since he was 18 years old,” Cecil said, “he had been saving songs in his head because he knew if he played them, Jobete (Motown’s sound publishing arm) would get 100 percent of them. He had been holding off on them for three years. He had not played them to anyone. They were bursting out of him.”

That, to me, is a very revealing quote. It suggests that he was a “genius” in a way that hasn’t been previously acknowledged. By the way, the first album he released after he negotiated new terms with Gordy was “Music of My Mind.” So, yeah, you can dis the songs that came before then if you want, but I think you’ve got to acknowledge that he wasn’t his own man then. He was a boy. He didn’t write the word “SLAVE” on his face like one of his more famous successors, but he was clearly not going to let Gordy pimp him the way Gordy would have liked to have pimped him.

And I know this is supposed to be about EWF, but the talk about Stevie deserves a response.

Tina Greene-Martin Says:
March 12th, 2007 at 12:37 pm

Speak the TRUTH! EWF is the baddest band ever. Their lyrics, musicianship and showmanship is incomparable. If you aint feelin’ EWF, you simply aint got no soul. Born of the EARTH are natures children, fed by the WIND, the breath of life and judged by the FIREy, hands of God. Now those are lyrics.

Ukali Says:
March 13th, 2007 at 8:38 am


Wow… all this quibbling over EWF! EWF!

Yeah… they were good.

Yeah… their songs were popular and catchy.

Yeah… there was a message — a spiritual message — in their music.

I think it’s sufficient to say EWF earned a place in the broad spectrum of Soul Music. That place, that niche, was special to them and to us.

Kalamu’s mention of Curtis Mayfield (my favorite artist) is important here, but only for the sake of contrast – not judgment. In summary, EWF played up the things we had all heard before: nice, inoffensive platitudes that bordered on being universal truth. Curtis, on the other hand, dared speak the unspoken truths coursing within the hearts of Afrikans in America (USA). We could also add Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk to this mix – but we won’t.

In the end, however, we have enjoyed and learned from all of these messengers. And if their lessons are meaningful, we who listen (and heed) will work to make the world better and more beautiful.

Karen Says:
March 14th, 2007 at 1:00 pm

As a woman/child of the Seventies, EWF defined a point in time for me and my peers. The “Elements of the Universe” (true, later shortened to “The Elements”) became our generation’s Coltrane or Miles. EWF spoke directly to our spirits and showed us a positive, transcendent way of living and thinking.

Now, when we were feeling angry and rebellious, we smoked some good weed and got on the Mothership; when we wanted to dance until our ‘fros became a damp, sticky, Afro-Sheened mess, we sought out Soul Brother #1, Mr. James Brown; but when we needed an uplift or were “Feelin’ Blue” (a song I keep in personal rotation to this day) or were “All About Love,” we went to “that Fire.”

My introduction to EWF came about in 1971, as the dueling soprano/falsetto of Jessica Cleaves and Philip Bailey harmonized their way through “Last Days and Times.” That duo even took white Bread’s love song, “Make It With You” and infused it with soul, turning a piece of pop pap into a love call for our people. Then, several years later on “Head to the Sky,” Jessica and Philip melded their clear, respective high Cs into an original work that tingled one’s spine (you couldn’t even hear the note on some cheap speakers).

A lot of baby sisters tore up their vocal cords trying to get down to Ms. Jessica’s alto and then climb the note steps to a particular high note featured in “I’d Rather Have You.” (Al Sharpton’s wife — ex-wife now? — Kathy, my high school classmate, made a good run at that song back in the day, but couldn’t quite hit the C.) I was a bit disappointed when Cleaves left the group (the rumor then was that Jim Brown had thrown her down a flight of stairs after a lovers’ quarrel) because her voice represented a major part of the “true” group as we knew it.

Yeah, EWF sold their souls to the crossover devil, but they — twirling drum kits, levitating pyramids and all — were true musicians. Their live shows built upon the studio arrangements to add more depth to their work. I don’t want to be overly nostalgic and not look at the group in the proper context, but you can give me Curtis, give me Donny, give me Aretha on any day as the epitome of soul excellence, but when my spirit is low, I need Maurice’s kalimba over some meditation to see me through.

I played “That’s The Way of the World” three times straight as I wrote this with a smile on my face. Thanks Kalamu and Mtume for taking me back… :

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