Earth, Wind & Fire

Three of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band’s founding members—Ralph Johnson, Philip Bailey and Verdine White—talk about working on their first studio project together in eight years.

Ralph Johnson has performed with the group for more than 30 years. As a child, the California native played drums and dreamed of playing in the Forum arena. While honing his skills with a local showcase, he impressed brothers Maurice and Verdine White and later received a follow-up call that would chart his course for years to come. During an EWF hiatus, Johnson worked with Motown and produced the Temptations hit, "Treat Her Like A Lady." He's also produced and performed on several artists compilations.

With his four-octave range, Philip Bailey is best known as the lead vocalist of the Grammy-winning group. He's also had a successful solo career, with pop and gospel recordings to his credit. As a teen in Denver, Bailey pursued his dream of being a percussionist. He played in the high school jazz band and was also in the school choir. In college, playing in a band at local clubs, he met the then-fledgling EWF. He later reconnected with them and was invited to help rebuild what would become the legendary band.

Verdine White is a founding member and the energetic bassist of the supergroup Earth, Wind & Fire. At age 19, the classically-trained musician was persuaded by his older brother, Maurice, to leave Chicago—for the first time—to come to Los Angeles and help put together a musical group. The end result was an ambitious band that defied boundaries of color and categorization. White has also produced other artists and directed videos.

EWF's latest studio offering is “Now, Then & Forever"—the powerhouse group's first new album in eight years.


Tavis: I was about to read a long introduction to describe y’all, and I don’t think anybody in the country, in the world, needs that. The Elements are here – Earth, Wind, & Fire. Ralph Johnson on the end, Philip Bailey in the middle, Verdine White to my near right.

Of course, anybody and everybody knows the whole band, knows the guys, and I’m delighted to have you guys back on the show again.

Verdine White: Thank you.

Philip Bailey: Thank you.

Ralph Johnson: Thank you very much.

Tavis: I was about to read this long introduction, which basically said that for so many of us you are the soundtrack to our lives. You define generations, plural now, of listeners. Does that make you feel old, Ralph?

Johnson: No, not at all. It’s just you know what, Tavis, it’s the way it turned out. When we started this whole thing with Maurice back in, like, ’70, ’71, we had no idea that we’d still be in it 41 years later.

Tavis: Yeah.

Johnson: So we’re thankful for the time in and we’re having a great time.

Tavis: Speaking of Maurice, I always read liner notes and anything on the inside before I listen. It’s just my way of doing it. Oftentimes I’ll pull the stuff out and start reading it as I’m listening to the project, whatever couple tracks are. I’m reading while I’m listening.

But I love these words from Maurice on the inside, since you mentioned Maurice White: “As we see today’s technology uniting the World Wide Web, sometimes it seems that the hearts of men are growing more distant from each other. It is my hope that this music will continue to tie past to future, reminding us of the love that unites us to our ancestors and to our descendants and to each other. Peace, Maurice White, Earth, Wind, & Fire, 2013.”

Powerful words, inspiring words as always, Philip, from your friend Maurice White.

Bailey: That’s just quintessential Maurice White.

Tavis: Yeah.

Bailey: From the lyrics to the philosophy to the intent, the reason for Earth, Wind, & Fire being something that’s more than just for ourselves, and 41 years later it’s still fulfilling his dreams and aspirations, because it was bigger than just himself. It was bigger than just doing music for the reason of getting the bling-bling and just getting the accolades. But he wanted to really render a service to humanity through the music.

Tavis: Whether it’s the Elements, Earth, Wind, & Fire, whether it’s Stevie Wonder or a few other artists I could name, that notion of humanity and service, but most importantly the notion of love, it has always been at the epicenter of the work. Why love at the center, Philip?

Bailey: Well, it’s really basically, it’s the need that we all have that never grows old, and that’s just so true and it’s something that as we, one-on-one, love one another and teach each other to love, that next person, that next person, that next person, then we’re all fulfilled.

If we find the need, and that’s exactly what Maurice did. He said, “Man, people really need to experience jazz and they need to experience more Afro-Cuban, Latin. They won’t need to experience more depth in the music, but in a commercial way, how do I do that?

People have a philosophy about musicians being a certain way, so I need to change that up. So what do I do? It’s like, no, we’re not going to be about this, that, and the other. We’re going to be about this. Forty-one years later, we’re still able to do that, and it’s almost like it’s new.

Tavis: Yeah. Verdine, there are a lot of people that influenced you all, no doubt, when you started.

White: Right.

Tavis: Now you’ve influenced a whole bunch of other folk over these four decades. So how’s it feel now to be on the other end, as the influencer?

White: Well, you know what happens, all through the whole country, airports, at concerts, now people come up and they thank us for making the music. They tell us where they were.

They said, “I just got through listening to you all on the radio, I just say you on television.” It makes us feel good because as Philip said, what Reece wanted to do was to make music that everybody would love, that would bring a lot of people together.

Because we are entertainers and we are musicians, and Reese would always say, “It’s not about really being famous or a celebrity, but everybody can serve.”

Tavis: Right.

White: I think what he instilled in us to serve, even after 42 years, with all the concerts that we’re doing, and we do a lot of concerts all over the whole world, so it keeps us – and it’s a good reminder for us too.

Tavis: To your point about “anybody can serve,” the minute you said that my mind goes to the quote from Martin Luther King Jr., that, “Anybody can be great, because anybody can serve. All it takes is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”

White: Yes.

Tavis: We’re back to the love.

White: Yes.

Tavis: Back to the service, if you want to be great.

White: Right.

Tavis: Speaking of, how is Reece doing, how’s he doing?

White: Reese is good. I see him every Saturday when I’m in town, and he is funny as ever. He’s doing well, and he’s really proud at this CD, because this is the first CD we’ve done without him.

Tavis: Yeah.

White: The whole process of this CD, “Now, Then, & Forever,” started at Philip’s home two years ago.

Tavis: So Philip, Verdine is challenging me, because I was just about to ask what it was like – first of all, why so long? Why eight years?

Bailey: Well –

Tavis: It ain’t like y’all been doing nothing.

Johnson: Well, exactly, we’re in that –

Tavis: (Laughter) You ain’t been touring around the world. What took so long, man?

Bailey: We’re kind of in that enviable position that we don’t really need to do a new project to tour, to work.

Tavis: Right. That’s a good (unintelligible) to have, man.

Bailey: It is. It’s great, it’s a real blessing.

Tavis: Yeah.

Bailey: But in terms of this project, I think that the 20 years next year that we’ve been doing this without Maurice, it’s taken that long to actually get the courage to do a traditional, classic-sounding Earth, Wind, & Fire record, and it’s taken a lot of soul-searching, it’s taken a lot of going back and listening.

It’s taken reminding one another, my son, Philip Doron, reminding us of the essentials that have to be there in order for it to be a classic Earth, Wind, & Fire project.

Neil (unintelligible), Larry Dunn, young writer named JR, from the Los Angeles area, we all collaborated on the project to try to return to a classic-sounding Earth, Wind, & Fire record.

Tavis: What are those essentials as you see it, and when you say “We did this without Maurice,” does that mean Maurice didn’t hear it while it was in process, that he didn’t offer commentary about it? What’s that mean, really?

Bailey: Well, he really didn’t. He pretty much trusted –

Tavis: Just let y’all handle it.

Bailey: – just let us have it.

Tavis: So what are those essentials, Ralph, that make up –

Johnson: Well, of course there’s that very heavy rhythmic bass, okay, that tie-in between the drums and the guitars and the bass playing. There are the very articulated horn lines, there are the very melodic lines you hear within the songs, the chord changes within the songs, but it’s all very, very, very rhythmic bass, starting from the ground up.

Tavis: Right. Over the years, has the lyrical content changed much? Have the times forced the lyrical content to change? I ask that, Philip, in part because when you put on an Earth, Wind, & Fire record today, so much of that stuff is as relevant now as it was 30, 40 years ago.

Same would be true of Marvin Gaye and some other artists I could name. Talk about lyrical content, though, in 2013.

Bailey: Well, when we think about Trayvon Martin and the world economy and the unrest all over the world, it’s like our message is timeless. Because we’re saying that we all have to see the good in one another, we all have to live together.

We all got to find a way for equality and motivate one another to a higher level of consciousness. So it’s still the same, it really is. It really is still the as me.

Tavis: We know that, Verdine, you are the bass man. Everybody knows that, of course, all the fans. Yet I want to talk about the horn section.

We were talking before we came on air tonight. I ran into Tower of Power the other day. They’re celebrating 45 years in the business. There are really just a handful of bands nowadays still out there who have these horn sections that just make you back office.

It’s impossible to hear “Dance Floor” and stay still, on this new project. You can’t do it. But this horn section has been so critical to the success of Earth, Wind, & Fire. Let’s talk about horns.

White: Well really, the horns – the concept of the earth and the fire horns really came, really with Maurice, from Chicago.

Tavis: Right.

White: Because we had the Phoenix horns back in the day. There is no Earth, Wind, & Fire record without the horns. You got people that come up and they hum the horn lines. When I first met Quincy Jones he hummed the horn lines of “Can’t I Love,” because him being an arranger.

Tavis: Yeah, mm-hmm.

White: That’s a big part of the sound. Then on top of the sound, of course, is Philip’s voice, because he has such a recognizable sound. These are elements, if you will, that people recognize before they almost even hear the first verse.

So I think that was not only the joy but also the challenge of making an Earth, Wind, & Fire CD in 2013, to make sure that we sound like EWF.

Tavis: Given that nobody, and I say nobody, I don’t mean literally nobody, Ralph. But given that nobody’s doing it, what makes horns, or makes the band thing that horns still matter today, that they’re still relevant, that they still can move an audience?

Johnson: Well, the horns are there to add that extra I’ll say harmonic to what you’re doing, that overtone. Man, it’s interesting, but if you look back, people have always been enamored with horn bands. I’m talking about if you go back to, like, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Tavis: Sure, mm-hmm.

Johnson: But they’re there to enhance and broaden out your sound, so for us it’s absolutely key, and it’s been an integral part of what we’ve done for the longest.

Tavis: Philip, to Verdine’s point, your voice is as much an instrument in this band as any instrument is that’s played. How have you protected it all these years? The record makes it clear you still got it. (Laughter) But how have you protected it all these years? Especially that range.

Bailey: First, by the grace of God, really. Health and strength come from above. But I think that you learn. I’m always learning my instrument and learning more and more, just discovering what’s there.

I never feel as if I’ve arrived with my instrument. It’s a matter of just opening up and allowing the creative powers to be present, and just kind of go with it.

Tavis: I’m glad you feel like you haven’t arrived. That’s a good attitude to have. But breaking news – you have arrived. (Laughter) Y’all arrived a long time ago, as evidenced by the point you made earlier, that one does not have to, if you’re Earth, Wind, & Fire, one does not have to go into the studio to do a record to have a catalogue big enough and bad enough to do a show. So many hits, so little time.

Bailey: Yeah.

Tavis: Which raises a whole bunch of questions, the first of which is if you don’t have to do it, then why do it? Why do “Now, Then, & Forever” if you don’t have to?

Bailey: Well, you have to be able to – you have to dig in the well to be able to continue to give and to grow and to, you know, just live. It’s just about living our music that is – really makes you really want to do more creative things, and just – so we got the opportunity to do it with Sony Legacy, and we looked at it as a great opportunity, and we embraced the challenge this time.

Tavis: From conception to being in my hand, Verdine, how long did it take to pull this one together?

White: About a two-year process.

Tavis: Right.

White: As I said earlier, we started at Philip’s house, and then he went back in the well and actually started listening and researching our own music. Once we – from all the way to the “Faces,” the “Faces” CD.

Bailey: “From Head to the Sky” to “Faces”

Johnson: Right.

White: Right. But once the process got going, it really was fluid. We’re sitting here, we’re kind of cool right now because we’re talking deep, but we had a lot of fun doing the record, you know what I mean? You know what I mean. (Laughter)

Also, too, Larry Dunn put the middle pieces together for us, (unintelligible) put them sounds together. In the studio, you got a lot of joy in there. It really translates on that CD.

Tavis: Right.

White: We’ve always had that kind of thing going on in the studio where me personally, I can’t wait to get to the studio, especially when it was this kind of material, and the songs, and working with these gentlemen. We were just in the same mind-set. We just kept going forward, and it was really fluid.

Tavis: To Verdine’s point, Philip, when you were in your house and listening to the old stuff, I know you guys play a lot of this stuff every night. A lot of it you don’t get to play because people want to hear certain hits, and I get that. We’ll come that a little bit later.

I’m talking about the playlist, and how you guys figure that out with all the hits that you have and the limited time that you have on stage. But when you’re going back listening to Earth, Wind, & Fire stuff now, you’re listening to “Head to the Sky,” you’re listening to “Faces,” what do you hear now that you didn’t hear 25, 30, 40 years ago?

Bailey: What I didn’t hear even two years ago, really. You know what? I had to sit down and listen to Earth, Wind, & Fire as if I was never in it to really appreciate all of the essentials and the significance of what it is.

It all came together when I really began to realize that if you picked up a Stevie Wonder record, how miffed you’d be if it sounded like Musiq Soulchild or the Stones sounding like Journey.

Just accepting the reality that Earth, Wind, & Fire’s music is significant to the world, and the music that they’ve grown to love and listen to for 40 years is what it is.

So at first we started the record, doing it listening to everything but Earth, Wind, & Fire. So we had to correct that and do the record listening to Earth, Wind, & Fire and stay focused on that. And Neil (unintelligible) and Larry Dunn and my son, Phil Doron, we all – and Ralph, we all helped to just kind of focus and stay focused on what it is, who we are, and just be true to that.

Tavis: So Ralph, set your modesty aside for just a second, just a second, and tell me what it is that you think Earth, Wind, & Fire has brought to the music game. What is it that you all ought to be given credit for?

Johnson: Innovation.

Tavis: Right.

Johnson: Innovation in our approach toward what we did in terms of our recordings and production, innovation in terms of how we approached our songwriting, and innovation in terms of how we approached our live presentation.

Tavis: It occurs to me that I know people that I was talking to four years ago that I don’t talk to no more. (Laughter) Y’all been together 40 years –

Bailey: Forty-one, yeah.

Tavis: – and y’all still – 41, and y’all still talking to each other. We might not make it to 42, but we’ve made it to 41, and how is that possible? I’m being funny, but we can all think of a litany of bands that not only did they break up, they can’t stand each other, they don’t speak to each other, they’ve sued each other. If they see each other, somebody going to get killed. (Laughter) It’s like –

Johnson: No doubt. No doubt.

Tavis: How are y’all still talking after 41 years, much less making music together?

Bailey: It’s a very unique chemistry that we have, and it boils down to just acquiescing to the other, giving the other their space and respect and dignity, love. We dance well together. We don’t even have to talk about it. But when we do have to talk about it, we know how to do it.

Johnson: Right.

Tavis: Speaking of talking, though, I would assume that this point on stage you all can communicate nonverbally.

Bailey: Most definitely.

Johnson: Yes. Yes.

Tavis: You just look and you know what that means.

Bailey: On and off.

Johnson: Exactly, exactly. (Laughter)

Johnson: There’s a lot of that that goes on, absolutely.

White: Even when we’re quiet, we’re having a conversation. We might be talking about you. (Laughter)

Tavis: Wow.

White: And you won’t even know it. You won’t even know it, dude. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’ve got to watch this tape when I get done and see what they were saying about me that I didn’t see in the body language while I was talking.

White: On stage, Philip, he can cue so fast, that’s why I have to watch him, we have to watch him on stage.

Tavis: Right.

White: He can cue the next song while he’s singing the song he’s singing at the same time.

Tavis: What’s the trick, Philip, why do that?

Bailey: It’s just –

Tavis: I want to catch it next time you do it.

Johnson: You know what? Look quickly.

White: Look quickly.

Bailey: It’s a matter of – I’m kind of like the pastor in the band. I got to read the house.

Tavis: Right.

Johnson: Yeah.

Bailey: So I’m taking the temperature of the house as we’re moving along and stuff, and I know exactly what should not happen with this audience.

Tavis: Hold up, wait a minute.

Bailey: Right.

Tavis: What I think I hear you telling me is that you can change the playlist or the order of the playlist in real time?

Johnson: Yes.

Tavis: And give a cue without ever saying that?

Johnson: Right.

Bailey: It has to happen. It has to happen, because you’re not playing to the same audience every night.

Johnson: Right.

Tavis: But how does the band just jump from one key to another –

White: They (unintelligible) –

Johnson: Well, that’s where you have to be paying attention.

White: Exactly.

Bailey: Yeah, you have to pay attention. But that comes from Maurice too though, because we learned –

Johnson: We learned – right.

Bailey: We learned that back in the day. (Laughter)

White: (Unintelligible) yeah.

Johnson: Being up under him.

White: And Reece was – back in the day, if we made a mistake we would have rehearsal after the concert.

Tavis: Wow.

White: Reece was, he was – he’d be back in the – writing the songs, and Ralph would be driving the station wagons, because he had already done that. Reece already had set the template.

The last time I saw Reece for dinner, I said, “You really played a dirty trick on us. You produced such good music that even we had to come up to our own level.” That’s how, the level. So he taught us all those little things being out there on the road, all those concerts.

Tavis: I hear your point, Philip, and I think you’re right about that. As a band, as a public speaker, you don’t ever want to miss your house.

Bailey: Yeah.

Tavis: You cannot miss your house and every house is different. But what are you feeling, what are you looking for, what are you trying to sense on any given night that lets you know which way to go?

Bailey: It’s body language and energy. It’s energy. There’s certain audiences and there’s certain houses, they are waiting for the ballads.

Tavis: Right.

Bailey: They are waiting for that time in the show –

Tavis: So the audience tells you when to slow it down?

Bailey: Yeah, they’re waiting for that time where it’s like man, they want to hear “Can’t Hide Love,” they want to hear “Love Holiday.” This audience wants to, and they want to just kind of marinate in it.

Tavis: Right.

Bailey: Then there’s certain audiences that they –

Tavis: They want to just dance all night.

Bailey: They want to dance all night.

Tavis: Right, right.

Bailey: So you have to read that audience, and you can’t pull that, you can’t pull something that isn’t there out of an audience. You can’t take a dance audience and try to make them a ballad audience or whatever.

Tavis: So I referenced one track already, “Dance Floor.” So I’m going to run down the line here. Ralph, I’ll start with you. Give me one ballad that you think from this is going to be added to the pantheon of stuff that you’re going to have to play years down the road.

White: Can I chime in?

Johnson: Go ahead, chime in, yeah.

White: “Love is Law.”

Tavis: That would have been my vote.

White: “Love is Law.”

Tavis: That would have been my vote.

Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.

Tavis: All right. Philip, give me one dance track –

Bailey: Oh.

Tavis: – you’re going to have to play, add to the pantheon.

Bailey: “Dance Floor.”

Johnson: “Dance Floor.”

Tavis: “Dance Floor?”

Johnson: “Dance Floor,” no doubt.

Tavis: Yeah.

Johnson: No doubt.

Tavis: Yeah. So let’s take those two tracks right quick. I only got a few minutes left. Take those two tracks and just take me back and give me, since we picked one ballad and one dance track, the genesis, the back story for how they came to be on the project.

Bailey: Well, “Dance Floor” was a song that was written by my son, Philip Doron, and actually his wife, Sondria. Phil just really – and he also co-wrote “Guiding Light.”

But he’s a – not only did he grow up in this music thing, but he actually, being a musician, he studies what makes up each song. So he listened very intently to “Boogie Wonderland,” and because he’s 30, he’s listening to how do we translate that now.

How do we give a “Boogie Wonderland,” but do it now? So that’s really what, where “Dance Floor” came from.

Tavis: All right, “Love is Law,” Verdine?

White: That’s JR Hudson.

Bailey: Mm-hmm.

White: Our manager, Damien Smith, our great manager, hardworking manager, Damien Smith, brought “Love is Law,” and it reminded him, he said, of the Chicago feel.

It turned out really good. The bass line specifically, when Neil (unintelligible) said, “Hey, man, do that bass line like you were doing when Reece was producing The Emotions. So it kind of brought us back to the south side of Chicago. It kind of sort of has that kind of feel.

Tavis: Yeah. Can I just tell you, I’ve been rocking “The Best of the Emotions” for like a year and a half.

Johnson: Right, yeah.

Bailey: Great work.

Tavis: In my car. I can’t get out of it.

Johnson: Yeah, it’s good stuff. Yeah, it’s good stuff.

White: Another Maurice White work.

Tavis: That’s what I’m saying. What Reece did with The Emotions (unintelligible) out of Chicago, just was unbelievable.

Johnson: Yup, incredible stuff.

Tavis: It’s amazing. So the touring continues?

White: Oh yeah.

Johnson: Yes it does. Starting in San Diego September 6th.

Tavis: Right, for the new project.

Johnson: Yes.

Tavis: Then you just keep going from there.

Johnson: Yes we do.

Tavis: But you no longer –

Johnson: We’ve been very busy already, but it’s going to continue.

Bailey: Hollywood Bowl.

Johnson: Yeah, Hollywood Bowl coming up September 13th, 14th, 15th.

Tavis: I got my tickets, I will be there.

Johnson: Three nights, with the orchestra.

Tavis: I will see you there. I will see you there.

White: And we’re in Chicago September 21st.

Tavis: That’s a lot of horns and strings.

Johnson: Oh, yes.

White: Yes.

Tavis: At the Bowl, yeah.

White: Two nights in New York, Beacon Theater, September 23rd and 24th, I believe.

Tavis: Please tell me you ain’t driving a station wagon no more, though.

Johnson: No, no, no, we’re beyond the station wagon. (Laughter)

Tavis: I mean you having to drive, that’s what I mean.

Johnson: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No more driving for me. My driving days are over.

Tavis: Yeah, you are a founder, man; I hope you got somebody else to do that now.

Johnson: We have drivers, thankfully. (Laughter) (Unintelligible) out.

Bailey: But we’re still in the station wagon. (Laughter)

Johnson: Yeah, right, right, right, right. Just have a driver for the station wagon.

Tavis: But that means you’re managing money really well.

Johnson: Yeah, right.

Tavis: Yeah. Ralph Randolph Johnson, I thank you, man. It’s always good to have you on the program.

Johnson: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: You know I had to go there – Ralph Randolph Johnson.

Johnson: Thank you, sir.

Tavis: Philip Bailey, I love you, good to have you here. Verdine, love you as well.

White: Thank you, man.

Tavis: Verdine White, good to have you. These are the founding members, three of the founders of Earth, Wind, & Fire. The Elements have a new project out, it’s called “Now, Then, & Forever.”

I don’t know how they make the choices now what to play on any given night. I hear Philip’s point about following the audience, but again, so many hits, so little time. I don’t know how you’re going to add this to the playlist.

Bailey: Going to start that tonight.

Johnson: Some of it is already in, actually.

White: Exactly.

Tavis: But your concert’s going to be, like, six hours long.

White: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: You keep adding stuff. But I love it. Glad to have you guys here.

White: Well, thank you.

Johnson: Thank you. Thank you, Tavis, thank you.

Tavis: And congrats.

Johnson: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: September 6, 2013 at 4:05 pm