EARTH, WIND & FIRE / “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. 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. 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"If there ain't no beauty, you got to make some beauty" —"All About Love" from That's The Way Of The World
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