Songwriter Interviews

Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire

by Greg Prato

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Judging by such hits as "September," "Let's Groove," and their cover of "Got To Get You Into My Life," Earth, Wind & Fire is one of the great vocal groups in pop music history. So it makes perfect sense that their 21st studio offering overall is a holiday album, appropriately titled Holiday.

Founded by Maurice White in 1969 and today led by longtime members Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson (Maurice has been sidelined with Parkinson's Disease since 1994), Earth, Wind & Fire has racked up countless impressive accomplishments throughout their career, including seven Top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 and seven Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1975-1981.

Verdine spoke with Songfacts shortly after the release of Holiday. He discussed the album, songwriting, the stories behind some of Earth, Wind & Fire's best tracks, and how a famous concert trick of the '70s was a collaboration with a late magician.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the songwriting work in the band back in the '70s? Was it a collaboration or was it mostly single songwriters?

Verdine White: It was a little bit of both. Of course, Earth, Wind & Fire is the brainchild of my brother, Maurice White. So really he is the creator, the conceptualist, the whole thing. So some of the process would be collaborations that we would all do together. Sometimes he'd bring the song in if he thought it was great. Maurice and Al McKay wrote "September" and a few other songs together. Allee Willis came to help with lyrics. On the I Am album, of course, David Foster brought "After the Love Has Gone," and he performed with us on the I Am album, wrote "In the Stone," all those great songs.
Al McKay is the former guitarist of Earth, Wind & Fire. He has also performed or served as songwriter/producer for Ike and Tina Turner and the Temptations. Songwriter Allee Willis penned tunes for a wide variety of artists (including Pet Shop Boys, Boy George, and Cyndi Lauper), as has songwriter David Foster (Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, and Chicago).
So it's been different types of process to come up with the Earth, Wind & Fire songs. And, you know, two of the biggest songs we've ever had, we didn't write them. "After the Love Has Gone," we didn't write and it was recorded before we did it. And "Got To Get You Into My Life" is of course the Beatles, Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Maurice taught us to be aware of a great song, wherever it came from.

Songfacts: What would you say, of all the lesser-known Earth, Wind & Fire songs, is the most underrated?

Verdine: "Turn It Into Something Good." We have quite a few of those: "Imagination," "Sailaway." We're known primarily in the general public as "The group that did 'September'" and "The group that did 'Boogie Wonderland.'" But then there are a lot of jewels. If you really dig deep in our catalogue, a lot of good music will show.

Songfacts: One song that I've always loved is "Can't Hide Love." I'm surprised that wasn't a huge hit single when that came out.

Verdine: It was for R&B. It came out in that period before crossover was big. Crossover hadn't happened - that was late '70s. "After the Love Has Gone," Earth, Wind & Fire, Donna Summer, the Commodores, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson. That's when our music hit the mainstream. But "Can't Hide Love" was quite popular in the African American community.

Songfacts: I'm a huge fan of the very end of the song, with the vocals that keep going on.

Verdine: They're brilliant. When we play for our audiences and they know the song, they do that end without us. We just put the mike up there, our whole audience knows those whole chord changes, man.

Songfacts: Which Earth, Wind & Fire song was the most difficult to get right in the studio?

Verdine: Probably "After the Love Has Gone" and "Getaway."

Songfacts: Why were those so difficult to get right in the studio?

Verdine: Well, "Getaway," originally, we played it the way the writer had it, in a rock way. Then we ended up doing it the Earth, Wind & Fire way.

"Getaway" was written by the songwriters Peter Cor and Bernard Taylor. Cor, who has composed many works for commercials, TV shows and films, told us the story:

"We wrote the tune and recorded it in a more progressive rock style with still a funk feel behind it. Bernard Taylor and I listened to a lot of that genre, but still loved funky grooves, so I think Verdine is probably alluding to the fact that it was a challenge to put their style on this tune, but they knocked it out of the park.

Ironically, while we were writing the tune, even before connecting with EW&F, we told each other that we could hear them doing it. The engineer on our demo lived in the same apartment building as Verdine and a couple other group members, played them the demo we made, and they created their arrangement from that. Also, their producer, Charles Stepney, passed away while they were working on our tune, which could not have helped them any, but they finished it and three months later, it was on the radio everywhere."
And "After the Love Has Gone," the track was based on a vibe. We cut it about six, seven times, and Maurice just said, "No, it's not right yet. We'll come back and get it tomorrow. It's not right yet."

And then one day we nailed it, and it was right. The way it felt. It sounded like Earth, Wind & Fire. And that's what's interesting about this Christmas record: even though we're doing Christmas songs, it sounds like an Earth, Wind & Fire record. It's a very identifiable sound.

Songfacts: As far as the hits, which song is the most fun to play live still for you?

Verdine: Oh, wow. "September" is always fun. "Let's Groove" is always fun. Because the audiences, they know the words better than we do. [Laughing]

Songfacts: And which song do you feel showcases your bass playing the best?

Verdine: "In the Stone." Because it's on the back end of the show, and I'm a little looser on the back end than the top end, you know.

By 1976, Earth, Wind & Fire had achieved superstar status, selling millions of albums and filling arenas on tour. Their stage shows were literally magical: a pyramid would appear on stage alongside a team of glimmering, helmeted space roadies that would usher some of the band inside. The act was devised by Doug Henning, the preeminent illusionist of his era (his assistant: a young David Copperfield).

On the artistic end, George Faison handled the choreography. Faison, who won a Tony Award for his work on the 1974 musical The Wiz, put the steps together for the band that would become their signature moves. Audiences were in awe. Reviewing a stop at Wembley Arena in London, Pete Wingfield wrote in Melody Maker: "Earth, Wind & Fire on stage set a criterion of excellence against which to judge any other contemporary music act."
Songfacts: I remember in the '70s there was a live gimmick where you would start to levitate. How did that whole idea come up?

Verdine: Well, it was a progression, it wasn't overnight. We were doing little things here and there. We collaborated with George Faison and the late Doug Henning. We collaborated with both of them to come up with a really great show.

And don't forget, at that time E.T. and Star Wars were big. And then we had come up with the All 'N All album [released in 1977]. All 'N All went #3 pop. It was a big album for us, right before The Best Of, Volume I [1978] and I Am [1979]. We worked on that show for about 12 weeks, every day. We rehearsed for 12 weeks on that show! 12 weeks, like a Broadway production.

Songfacts: Looking back at certain songs you co-wrote, what do you remember about the song "Mighty Mighty"?

Verdine: We did it in the studio up at Caribou Ranch. We were working with the late Charles Stepney. It was on the Open Our Eyes album.

I remember we just got into a groove, man. We just got into it. You know what I mean? That was one of our favorite songs to record and play. We haven't played it in a while, but it still is a great song.

Songfacts: What about the song "That's The Way Of The World"?
1975's That's The Way Of The World was a soundtrack composed by Earth, Wind & Fire for a film of the same name. Directed by Sig Shore, it starred Harvey Keitel, Ed Nelson, and even the members of the band. The film's storyline focuses on the music biz, and specifically, record executives. The album proved to be much more of a success than the film, as it topped both the Billboard Pop Albums Chart and Soul Albums Chart, and spawned such classic tunes as the title track, "Shining Star," and "Reasons."
Verdine: Oh, that was part of the That's The Way Of The World album, it was a movie soundtrack. That whole record was a breakthrough for us. That was right after the Open Our Eyes album, and it was a great record for us.

Songfacts: And also "Serpentine Fire," what sticks out about that song?

Verdine: It was different. "Serpentine Fire" was totally different. Different. Off the way, off base a little bit.

Songfacts: Lyrically, isn't "Serpentine Fire" a yoga concept?

Verdine: Actually, yeah. I don't think it was known then as a yoga concept, but as we've gotten along in our society, everybody's aware of Hatha yoga, Kundalini yoga, things like that.

Songfacts: What about the song "Fantasy"?

Verdine: Great song. Great, great song. Eddie del Barrio, myself, Maurice, and just a great song to hear later. Hard song to record, but a great song when it was done.

Songfacts: What about the song "Kalimba Story"?

Verdine: That was basically from live jams.

Songfacts: What are some of your memories of the California Jam in 1974? Earth, Wind & Fire was on the bill, as were a lot of hard rock bands, like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.

Verdine: Well, it was fast, very fast. We came on second (after Rare Earth). What I remember is that it was a big deal for us. I think we were the only group of color that was on that day, if I remember. The Eagles were on with Linda Ronstadt before they were "The Eagles." It was great. And in those days, as soon as you got off, you couldn't stay after the show. You had to leave the whole place because it was a big rock & roll show. I think we played for a quarter of a million people.

Songfacts: So you didn't get a chance to stick around and watch Black Sabbath?

Verdine: No, because in those days they were trying to keep the festivals very organized. So when the groups got off, they went back to the hotel.

Songfacts: Did you have any idea when the song "September" came out, that it was going to be such a popular wedding song?

Verdine: No. When it came out, it was a really good song, but it wasn't as big then. Because don't forget, we had "Boogie Wonderland," "After the Love Has Gone" later on. "September" got bigger later than it did when it came out. Amazing, isn't it?

Songfacts: It is. Because there's not a single wedding that I've been to over the years where that song wasn't played.

Verdine: Right. Because people now are getting married on September 21st. The stock market goes up on September 21st. Every kid I know now that is in their 20s, they always thank me because they were born on September 21st. They say it's one of the most popular songs in music history right now.

Songfacts: How did the idea come about to do a holiday album at this point?

Verdine: Well, Adam Block, the president of Sony Legacy, about three weeks after we got done with Now, Then and Forever [2013 album], he said, "Listen, we'd love to have a Christmas record by you guys next year." And we said, "Wow." Because we had just got done with Now, Then and Forever. You know, when you get done with one album, you sort of wait before you go in. At least in our case.

So we said, "Yeah." We started the process around the beginning of the year, which is really, for us, three or four months after Now, Then and Forever came out. Philip Bailey and Myron McKinley, our musical director, and Philip Bailey Jr. went over some songs that could be interesting to do for the record, and we went in and cut the tracks in about a two/three week period.

And we went old-school like we did on Now, Then and Forever. We played live musicians, tracking. Paul Klingberg was the engineer. And then we did all of the vocals later when we got back off of a run in late spring, and before we went to Europe we got all the horns and strings done.

When the record was completed, our manager, Damien Smith, brought the CD over to me to the house, and Philip wanted me to listen to it. I sequenced the record to put the final touch on it, and then we delivered it to Sony Legacy. This process moved quite fast.

Songfacts: And the last question I have, how is Maurice currently doing?

Verdine: He's okay. He's doing good. He has Parkinson's. As a matter of fact, I'm going to be in the City tomorrow, because they're honoring Maurice at the Apollo with Herbie Hancock and Clark Terry. But he can't make it, so I'm going to accept the award for him at the Apollo on Friday night.

November 12, 2014. For more Earth, Wind & Fire, visit the band's official site.
Photo credit: Randee St. Nicholas
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Comments: 3

  • Shawn from MarylandWow! Amazing history and insight in to songs that I've loved for so long. I would love to be able to sit down for a few hours and ask, "What about this? What about that?"
    Thanks for the interview!
  • Charly from Rome Italythanks so much to Songfacts, to Greg and to MAurice and all of u EWF, thanks to my mum that inject this in my vein as i got it in my dna and so in my own songs adn music :-)
  • Glow Worm from Long Long IslandSuper groovy cool. Would have liked to know they felt loking and listening to the young Ronstadt. Much more interesting than their take on the dudes from Black Sabbath. All due respect to Ozzie.
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