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In 1970, Maurice White called his younger brother, Verdine, from Los Angeles: I’m starting a band, he said. Want to join me? More than 45 years later, that band–known today as Earth, Wind & Fire–is considered one of the most successful recording groups of the 20th century. Not only has the band sold more than 100 million records–it also helped bridge the gap between black and white music in America, fusing genres from soul and funk to electronic and pop. Bassist Verdine White talks with Derek McGinty about the band’s beginning’s, losing his older brother to Parkinson’s disease and how Earth, Wind & Fire is still evolving.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYThanks for joining us. I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane Rehm. More than four decades ago now, I heard my very first song from a little known group with a quirky name and an eclectic sound that seemed to say, we are not your average black band, Earth, Wind & Fire. And this song, "Evil," and the album it came from "Head To The Sky," offering just a hint of what was to come, a little avalanche of distinctive, genre-busting music synthesizing funk, jazz, Latin and pop into something unique, the sound of Earth, Wind & Fire.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYWell, today, that band has sold more than 100 million albums, won countless awards and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the same time, though, EWF's music also helped bridge the gap between black and white music in America. Joining me now from NPR in Los Angeles, Earth, Wind & Fire bassist, Verdine White, founding member of the group who, today, on his 65th birthday has spent more than four and a half decades making music. And I have to note for you that of those 100 million albums sold, 11 of them are in my basement, tattered but cherished in their original vinyl.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYVerdine White, so great to have you with us. Thanks for calling in.
MR. VERDINE WHITEGood morning. How you doin'? You know, I'm a big fan of yours. I've been watching you for a long time, Derek.
MCGINTYOh, you're kidding me. Oh, that's great.
WHITEYeah, I've been watching you for a long time, you know, so it's all good. I was going to mention, you didn't get eight-tracks, you know? You didn't get...
MCGINTYNo. You know, I was just a little bit after the eight-track thing. Just a little bit.
WHITEWell, I got mine so don’t -- so it's all good.
MCGINTYYeah. I hear you. I hear you. I love my vinyl. You know, but first of all, I want to say happy birthday to you.
WHITEThank you so much. Thank you for noticing.
MCGINTYAnd I also, on the other end of things, have to offer you the belated condolences to the loss of Maurice White earlier this year.
WHITEWell, thank you very much. You know, he was my big brother, first of all, and my mentor, my best friend and I don't think anybody could've had a better big brother than I had, you know. And you know, him starting a band and just -- he was just a cool guy, you know. You know, back in the hood, you know, he was the epitome of cool.
MCGINTYYou know, I actually watched your memorial service. It's on YouTube, believe it or not.
MCGINTYAnd I think it's safe to say, even just listening to the stories that if there had not been a Maurice White, there would not have been and Earth, Wind & Fire because he had the concept of what he wanted to do right from the beginning.
WHITEYes, you know, now Maurice was originally was a drummer. There's a lot of people don't know that those first records, like, you know, "Evil," those things you were talking about earlier and, you know, Rice was the drummer on that, you know, 'cause we come from at the -- my brother, Freddie, also played drums with Donny Hathaway and -- but Rice did all of those first records, but he was originally a session drummer for Chess Records and then, he went from there to Ramsey Lewis and then, you know, he stayed with Ramsey for, like, about five years.
WHITEAnd then, he told Ramsey -- which Ramsey does talk about in the memorial -- he was going to start a band and, you know, fly through the air and play all kind of music, jazz, rock, soul, everything, gospel. And Ramsey told Rice to take two aspirin and go to bed. So obviously, Rice didn't take those aspirins, you know.
MCGINTYNo, he did not.
WHITENo, he didn't take those aspirins.
MCGINTYWell, it's a good time, I think, on your birthday to point this has been a lifetime journey for you, 45 years or so. Where did it all start and how did you pick up the bass guitar?
WHITEWell, you know, we're from Chicago, originally, you know, and my late father was a doctor and my late mother was a school teacher -- teacher's aide. And, you know, Chicago, you know, is a very -- being an urban city, you had gospel, you had jazz and all those different genres of music. And one day I went to the orchestra room and I saw this upright bass. And I used to think I picked it, but I think it picked me. And I was a teenager, although I had started messing around with music when I was about 10.
WHITEBut it was like when I was about 13, 14, that's when I saw the upright bass and I just took to it really fast, you know.
MCGINTYYeah, yeah. But now you trained classically, as you say, on the upright, but when did you decide, I'd really rather play electric bass?
WHITEWell, what happened was actually almost around the same time because it was kind of making its transition because I was like doing, like, you know, clubs and things like that. But the bass guitar teacher was a great, great, great person named Louis Satterfield, the late Louis Satterfield who was actually a trombone player. And he went to college with Maurice, but he also played on those hit records with Maurice. So I would go to his house every Sunday and take bass guitar lessons from him.
WHITEAnd there's a commercial that runs now called "California Soul" that was by Marlena Shaw and that's Maurice on drums and Satterfield on bass guitar. So I was very fortunate to have some really wonderful mentors and so he kind of taught me -- he taught me everything I know about bass guitar.
MCGINTYYeah, and I want to get to that and talk a little bit about your style and how you play, but you did get a call, at some point, from your brother who was already forming bands. And he said, hey, Verdine, I want you to come out and play with us.
WHITEYeah. What happened was he kind of, you know, wrecked my plans, you know. I was in college and I had got a four-year paid scholarship to the American Conservatory of Music downtown in Chicago. And Rice had left Ramsey and -- in April, 1970. About a month later, he called me and asked did I want to come to California. I said, yeah, you know. And I came out June 6, 1970. And mind you, when I came to California, it was right in the explosion of America, you know. Hippies and all the movements that were going on socially and that was Woodstock. So I was throwed right in the midst of that to kind of find my place.
MCGINTYYeah, and you had all kind of influences, including some of the people that Maurice was dealing with. You said he liked Miles Davis, Coltrane, Motown sound. It was all over the place.
WHITERight. All over the place and he knew Miles and he knew Barry Gordy so Rice was right -- he was right in the mix because, you know, although he hadn't gotten, you know, big famous in terms of the -- what he ultimately ended up doing, but all the musicians and all the producers knew who he was. He was on his way. They knew who he was, you know.
MCGINTYOkay. Let's talk about the beginning of the actual band, Earth, Wind & Fire. When did he say to you, hey, this is what I want to do? This is my concept and we're gonna do this band.
WHITEYeah, he said it exactly like that. And don't forget I was 18 so I didn't understand anything he was saying. So he just kind of threw me in there and that was around -- that first band were older people, Wade Flemons, Don Whitehead, Sherry Scott, that was the first Earth, Wind & Fire. We did two records on Warner Brothers. And then, in the process, we did this soundtrack, "Sweet, Sweetback," Melvin Van Peeples. It was actually the first black exploitation movie and it was right after...
MCGINTYI remember that movie.
WHITE...yeah, remember they were kind of, you know, off the left of center, you know. And Mario Van Peebles, the great director, was in it. He was a kid at the time. And that was the first record I had ever done, you know, big time, you know, with Maurice. So and after that came "Shaft," you know, "Super Fly," things like that. And so it was really -- he just kind of basically threw me in. He kind of basically threw me in those first two records, yeah.
MCGINTYYeah, now you were borrowing from all these musical genres and I got the sense that it made it very difficult for the record company to figure out what to do with you. Like, how do we promote these guys? What are they?
WHITERight, right. Well, see, we came along really early, but the person that really blew the lid off of it that opened the door was Sly Stone. He really was the one that really kind of let us know that there's possibilities for a band like us, you know. And then, afterwards, we did those two records with Warners. We went and we were an opening act for John Sebastian. Our managers at the time, Bob Cavallo, the great Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo, we were opening for John 'cause they were managing John.
WHITEAnd Clive Davis came to see John, but he saw us and he auditioned us, you know. And at that time, you auditioned live. You know, it just wasn't a record, you know. They wanted to know what you could do live. And so Clive, you know, came out to California and that's really when it started for us at Columbia Records, "The Last Days and Times" record and then, after that "Evil," that you mentioned in the introduction. And we just kept going and going after that, you know.
MCGINTYYou know, you mentioned that -- those first two albums that, you know, now I think is one of those things collectors go back and buy 'cause a lot of people didn't know about them when they first came out. You had a woman in the band there, Jessica Cleaves.
WHITEThat's right. Jessica came on the "Last Days and Times" record and she was with a group called Friends of Distinction, Jessica was. And a beautiful singer. She was in the same class as Minnie Riperton, for all those who don't know who Minnie is. And after Minnie, of course, you know, we heard Mariah Carey and that same kind of genre. But Jessica was fantastic. She was really a great, great singer.
MCGINTYShe had a tremendous voice and I think we're going to hear a little bit of "I'd Rather Have You" from the first album where she shows off what she can do. But what happened? Why did she leave Earth, Wind & Fire?
WHITEWell, I don't know if Jessica -- I don't know if it was a perfect fit for her, you know. And it was the beginning and we didn't really have groups at that time with a female in it around a bunch of males, you know. And so -- and we were going so fast, you know. Maurice was driving that ship 100 miles an hour, you know. We didn't really have time, you know, to worry about anything. We just had to get to the music 'cause, you know, he was on a mission and he was going to get this thing done, you know.
MCGINTYRight, right. Now, sorry to say, I did read that Jessica Cleaves had passed away recently.
WHITEYes, she did. She did. She passed away last year. And she was a wonderful soul and she was actually Sagittarius just like Maurice. Maurice was Sagittarius, too.
MCGINTYWell, that's interesting you bring that up 'cause that goes, of course, to the origins of the name Earth, Wind & Fire, right?
MCGINTYAll right. I'm talking with Verdine White. He's a founding member of Earth, Wind & Fire. He's with the band for 45 years, plays the bass very well, I might add. I'm Derek McGinty. We're going to continue the conversation on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYAnd welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Derek McGinty and we're chatting with Verdine White, bass player for Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the greatest rock bands ever. Verdine, let me ask you this, let's fast forward if we can to 1975 and "That's The Way of the World," where…
MCGINTY…a lot of people would say that was your seminal work. Did you see that as the best album you guys have ever done? And -- 'cause you had done six -- it was -- I guess that was your sixth studio album. What was it about that one?
WHITEWell, that record was sort of a breath-through record for us because, Derek, at the time, you know, on that record it was -- we had "Shining Star" on that record…
WHITE…"All About Love," it was just a great record. And at that time we were working with the late Charles Charles Stepney, who actually -- him and Maurice produced that album. And it was actually for a movie soundtrack, you know.
WHITEAnd the movie didn't come out. It wasn't really a great movie, but out of it came that great record, the sound, the performances on the record. And those other records prior to that were leading up to that record. But it was really the record that was a break-through record. It was a number one record straight across the board for, like, three weeks on all the charts, which is highly unusual at the time for a group of color to have something like that happen.
MCGINTYIt was a crossover before much crossed over, is what you're saying.
WHITEThat's right, before people understood what that meant or what people were discussing at that time. So it really actually set the pace for other labels to sign other groups of color, black groups, to be able to do the same thing, you know.
MCGINTYYeah, just a side note, very quickly. I actually bought a 45 from that album that was "Shining Star," and on the other side was "Yearning Learning," which was another hit. You couldn't almost put out a single because you had so many hit records on that album.
WHITEAnd the thing about it is the record companies, note -- 'cause the records were taking off so fast they didn't know what to do. So disc jockeys at the time were taking the B sides and flipping them over, you know.
WHITEAnd they would have the A side and the B sides and they would just flip them over on their programs. So it was a record -- it broke through radio. And then don't forget, now, radio was changing to FM stereo.
WHITESo the way Reese mixed those records, those records sound as good today as they did back then. So it -- the whole thing was changing, the technology, the music, how people were receiving music was different. So that album was really the catalyst for a lot of other things that happened later.
MCGINTYAnd then you had the live album, "Gratitude," which…
MCGINTY…also was a huge hit for you.
WHITEYeah, what happened with "Gratitude," really, we did "Gratitude" because we didn't have time to cut a new record.
WHITEIt was moving so fast that the label needed another album. And so Reese came up with the idea of doing a live album, a double record of those songs, which turned out to be the "Gratitude" album. And out of the "Gratitude" album came "Reasons," which was a huge -- it was a huge hit. But, you know, "Reasons" was never really a single. A disc jockey turned it over and he loved the live version. And that's where -- that's how that song got so big.
MCGINTYYeah, now, I did read in Philip Bailey's memoir, he talked about the popularity of "Reasons," and that people seem to have a misunderstanding as to what that song's really about it.
WHITEYeah, it was lie, that's what Philip said was -- it was, Derek, it was a lie. And when people go to concerts and they hear the song, they're dancing and they're, you know, and they meet their, you know, they meet their future wife and things like that. And then Philip says, no, you don't get it. It really wasn't designed like that.
MCGINTYNo. It was -- he talked about that. He won't get into the details. But he explained…
MCGINTY…exactly why he did it. Now, I gotta ask you this other question, speaking of Philip's memoir.
MCGINTYHe said that touring in the early days was tough, but it only got dangerous when Verdine White got behind the wheel.
WHITEYeah, it got real dangerous, yeah. We used to all take turns driving. So Ralph really was the best driver, Ralph Johnson. And, you know, he loved driving. So we all took turns. So when my turn came, you know, I'd -- we were driving somewhere and we might have been in D.C. And I drove over this embankment or something like that at a gas station. And they threw me out of the car and put me in the back. And I never drove -- they never let me drive ever again.
MCGINTYSo were you really a bad driver, Verdine? I hope you've gotten better. It's been a long time.
WHITEWell, I have a driver now, so obviously I haven't. You know what I'm talking about.
MCGINTYOh, there you go. That's what I'm talking about.
WHITEBut no, it was -- those days were a lot of fun. And we were building it together and, you know, it was a great time to start a band and a great time to be in a band.
MCGINTYYeah, you know, I want to get some phone calls, but I have to ask you one other question about "Gratitude."
MCGINTYBecause I remember when that album came out. And I remember how much we were waiting for the next album to come out.
MCGINTYBecause "That's The Way of the World" and "Gratitude" had been so big.
MCGINTYDid you, as a band, feel a lot of pressure at that point, that you had to do something special to follow up on those two huge records?
WHITEWell, you know, it was happening so fast. I don't think we felt the pressure. I think Reese probably did, you know, being the leader and the older brother and the producer and dealing directly with the label. So I'm sure he probably felt the pressure that we didn't feel. You know, we were younger. So we were sort of like basking in the glory of it, you know.
WHITEAnd getting gold and platinum records, which was huge in those days.
WHITEAnd so yes, I think he probably felt the pressure.
MCGINTYBut you did, unfortunately, have to deal with, as you mentioned, the death of Charles Stepney, who had been producing…
MCGINTY…with you. And that album actually had a song dedicated to him on that album.
WHITEYeah, and the "Spirit" album. And really the "Spirit" record was when Charles passed away and -- but then we went into "All and All," and that's kind of like when, you know, we all kind of started growing up and we had to really get down and dirty and really make some really good music.
MCGINTYDo you think that it hurt you musically to lose Charles Stepney?
WHITEWell, he gave us so much that we were pretty much ready. You know what I mean? You know, we talk about it today that if he had -- still was alive, I'm sure we would have done some different kind of music with him, you know. And -- but he started us writing and producing. He insisted that we would work on songs and produce records and stay in the studio, even after we got down with our work. So he was really -- him and Maurice really pushed us to be writers and producers as well, you know, and participate, you know, as much as we could.
MCGINTYAll right. I can't hog up all the Verdine White. Let's go to the phones and talk to Mark in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hey, Mark.
MARKHey, how are you doing today?
MARKGood. Oh, I'm a big fan. I've been a big fan of you guys forever. And Maurice is like the coolest guy in the planet. He brought a lot of love and fulfillment to my life. And I think a lot of people's lives. As a white guy, half Japanese, I wanted to be Maurice White. He was so cool.
MARKHe was the baddest dude and I thought I want to be him, you know, that's just how he was. And I'll tell you, the concerts were always great. They were just over the top and it still continues. So I just love that.
MCGINTYAll right. Thank you, Mark.
WHITEThank you, thank you.
MCGINTYHe's speaking of the concerts. You guys did from the very beginning try to make it an experience, let's just say.
MCGINTYYou had the costumes. And I remember in the '70s you'd be playing up in the air. They'd lift you up into the air to play music. And maybe the drummer would go up and spin around, too.
WHITEThat's right. We worked with Doug Henning and David Copperfield and they were such a big help for us, in terms of writing those shows. Actually, one of the people that were in there taking notes was Michael Jackson. And he ended up working with Doug Henning later for his shows. And those shows really were the -- that put us on the map live.
WHITEAnd actually it really has extended all the way up to here. Whereas now, we have like five generations of people that come to see our concerts. And it's sort of an interesting thing with us. It's almost like we're like a cult band. And that when you go in everything -- the shows are sold out. We just got back from Europe. And we did this great festival, Glastonbury, about two weeks ago in London. And it was great. And we had kids out there, Derek, who were like eight or nine, on their parents' shoulders. And then one of them had a sign called, "Long live Maurice."
WHITEAnd so it was -- so the music, you know, what Maurice wanted to do was to have a band that appealed to everybody. And he -- when I see that, you know, it reinforces that he really accomplished what he set out to do.
MCGINTYYou know, you mentioned the music. And one of the big facets that I think helped make Earth, Wind & Fire what it was was the horn section. You had the Phenix Horns…
MCGINTY…who really provided a special thing. And when you recorded "Got to Get You Into My Life," which was for another movie that came out that wasn't that great, that song was a remake of the old Beatles' tune, but I thought the Horns is what made all the difference. And we'll listen to it for just a minute.
MCGINTYAlways so impressive to hear that record and the Horns, wherever they're playing. Talk a little bit about gathering those horns together and what they meant to the band.
WHITEWell, what happened, first of all, the Phenix Horns comprised of Don Myrick, Louis Satterfield, as I mentioned earlier and Rahmlee Michael Harris (sic) and -- so that was a great Michael Harris and Rahmlee Michael Davis, sorry about that. And they were from Chicago. And just really great, great horn section. Funny guys and added so much to us.
WHITEAnd then the Sgt. Pepper tune -- George Martin came to us about the movie, about doing the -- for the Sgt. Pepper movie, which started the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Billy Preston, Aerosmith was in it. And -- but George didn't have time to work with us. And so he said, you guys just throw something together. And so, you know, we did the rhythm section and the Horns came in and did their thing. And in our business it's called a head chart. So that was a head chart. There was no notes involved. And it ended up being a number one record. I think we were the only ones that have a number record of a Beatles song outside The Beatles.
MCGINTYYeah, that was an impressive remake. And it didn't sound like the original that much, which is what made it, I thought, something.
WHITEYeah, when I met Paul McCartney he mentioned it. He said he was really impressed and he thought we did a better job than they did, you know.
MCGINTYLet's talk to Jim in Lansing, Mich. You're on the air, Jim.
JIMHi, Derek. I love you. You do a great show. And, Mr. White, I just had to make one comment…
JIM…that a few years ago my daughter got married September 21st. And she walked into the reception to that song. And it meant an awful lot to our family.
MCGINTYThat the first time you've heard that one?
WHITEWell, I hear it a lot. I was at the airport in London the other day and the guy said the same thing. And then a woman came up to me and then another person came up and said my kids were September 21st. So it was really, yes, I hear that a lot, you know.
MCGINTYNow, I was told -- and you can correct me if I'm wrong -- there was nothing special about that date from your perspective. That that was just a date that was picked.
WHITEIt was a date -- actually, to be honest, we cut the song on September 21st, the year before it came out.
WHITEBecause it was part of a greatest hits package that we were doing.
WHITEYeah, we went and -- it was a greater hit -- greatest hits volume one.
MCGINTYI remember it well.
WHITEDerek, yeah, I don't think we got to volume two, you know what I mean. We were so busy that we knocked out volume one. But it was in that era, on that time.
MCGINTYYou're listening to Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire and this is "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's keep on with a few more phone calls. Norman in Columbia, Md. You're on the air.
NORMANHi. It's fantastic. Thank you. I just want to know if -- where did you come in compared to 5th Dimension? I mean, who was first? I mean, I'm from that old era. I'm old Detroit, Middletown person. But…
NORMAN…and my very good friend, Marcus Gordon, was their producer. Did he produce anything for you?
WHITENo, he didn't, no.
MCGINTYAll right. Thank you, Gordon (sic). J.B. in East Hampton, N.Y.
WHITEHey, J.B., what's up?
J.B.Hey, Verdine. How you doing my friend?
WHITEHow well, you brother.
J.B.It's so great to speak to you.
WHITEThank you very much.
J.B.I'm a native Brazilian. Around 16, 17, I got my (word?) and I hit the road. I'm working on weddings, birthdays and you name it. And you guys were my number one pick. And…
WHITEDo the thing, do the thing.
J.B.…I played you guys all the time. And then I would buy white jerseys and draw in the back Earth, Wind & Fire with the sun just rising and I would sell to all my fans. And it's really great to hear your voice and know you guys are still active. It's -- my kids grew up with your music and Jim "Bo" Horne, another gentlemen that I'm big fan of. And we love you guys. Keep up the good work. And thank you very much for all you guys did because it did make a difference. And it will make a difference in the future, as well, because…
J.B.…the music you guys produced is unique. And…
WHITEThank you very much. Thank you.
MCGINTYYeah, and I hope that you won't chase down J.B. for his copyright infringement there, selling your t-shirts.
WHITENo. We gonna get him. He's cool. We gonna get him.
MCGINTYI'm curious about…
MCGINTY…one of the issues, one of the things about the band, the kalimba, the sound.
MCGINTYYou actually did a song about the kalimba, the musical instrument, called "Kalimba Story," from the -- it was "Open Our Eyes" album. But I'm thinking that Maurice White really did not see it in a store one day and think it might make him play future music for all to hear. I gotta ask you…
WHITENo, no, no. It, you know, it sounds good on record.
WHITEYou know how we say in the business, it sounds good on paper.
MCGINTYWhere did it come from?
WHITEBut no, Reese started playing it in Chicago and he would do it when he was at Ramsey. And he would do his drum solo, then got off the drums, then do a kalimba solo and then go back to the drums and finish his solo when he was at Ramsey, in the Trio. And then, of course, he took that to -- he brought it to California. And he put the kalimba in popular music, you know.
MCGINTYYeah, no, he…
WHITEHe's the only one that ever did that. And the only one that ever could play the kalimba really.
MCGINTYYou know, I'm thinking that. And I always wondered why no one else ever took it up. And I think it was in part because he made it such a signature sound…
MCGINTY…that's it hard for somebody else to put that on their song.
WHITEAnd then the rhythm, too. See, Reese was a drummer. So he had a, Derek, he had a different kind of rhythm with it, too. You know, that's not something you just pick up, you know. And then, you know, it's actually technically called the African thumb piano, you know. And it's the rhythm that he brought to it too, you know.
MCGINTYYou know, speaking of Ramsey Lewis, there was the story of how "Sun Goddess" became…
MCGINTY…a hit, which Ramsey told, again, at the memorial service and…
MCGINTY…we -- I want you to get into that a little bit for us, but we're gonna take a -- okay. And I wonder if you could explain. "Sun Goddess" was never supposed to be a hit.
WHITENo. What happened was there was another song that was supposed to be a hit called "Hot Dawgitt." And everybody just knew it was a smash. So we went to Chicago to record this song with Ramsey and the tune flopped. I mean flopped. And then what happened was Reese said I got another song, but it doesn't have any lyrics. And it was called "Whale." And so he renamed it "Sun Goddess." And what happened was "Sun Goddess," the song was flying out of the stores, flying. And I think the song did -- the "Sun Goddess" album did two million albums for Ramsey.
WHITEAnd then don't forget, now, Ramsey had had big hits with "Wade in the Water" and "The In Crowd." You know, million selling records. And this was bigger than all of them. And then Reese graciously put Ramsey on our tour. We had a great time. And Reese and Ramsey were always close, even after they left the Trio.
WHITEYou know what I mean? He was always very supportive of Maurice's work.
MCGINTYI was lucky enough to see that concert at the old Capital Center, here in Washington, D.C., back in the mid-'70s.
WHITEOh, yeah, it's a parking lot now, right? A shopping center.
MCGINTYYeah, exactly. It is. We're gonna take a break. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." This song is called "Build Your Nest."
WHITEYeah, it was -- from '83 to like '85 -- no, '87. And I think it, as I mentioned earlier in other interviews, it was good for us. It was time, you know, I think we had sort of like, sort of reached a peak. I think we needed to sort of like get some space. And then for us it gave us a kind of time to kind of check the landscape out, you know. 'Cause we had been rocking it for like about 15 years nonstop. That was a long time.
WHITEAnd so -- but it was good. We came back in the late '80s actually, you know. And sort of reinvented ourselves and -- 'cause we came back in another musical era. 'Cause the era was changed quite consistently and fast. But we were very lucky to be able to come back to another generation.
MCGINTYYou had a bit of a tough transition, though. Because you had come out with "Electric Universe," the album.
MCGINTYAnd that was probably the one that -- I don't know, maybe you wished it had been a little different, in terms of how that turned out. And…
WHITEWell, I think for our audience it was very electronic. You know what I mean.
MCGINTYRight, right, right.
WHITEAs we were trying -- we were trying to anticipate where it was going. You know, when I listen back to certain songs on that record now, there was a lot of great songs that didn't get a chance to have the opportunity to be listened. And but then we came back with "Touch The World," with "System of Survival."
WHITEThat came in number one. So we were really lucky to be able to kind of regroup and really take the music to another level. And at that time, when we left the scene, we had sold like 46 million albums. And then later on in our career, we ended up selling 60 million more, you know. Which is interesting.
MCGINTYSo you were able to come back. You were able to revamp yourselves, at that point, even though…
WHITEWell, we sold more in the back end than we did in the front end.
WHITEYou know. And then another generation caught onto us and then television did. And then we did these HBO special in '94. That was the year that Maurice decided not to go out because of Parkinson's. And a lot of kids on HBO saw us who had never saw us before, you know.
WHITEBecause, you know, we were not part of the video wave, you know.
WHITESo there were a lot of kids that didn't know what we had done. But when we started doing, you know, television, HBO specials and things like that. And then they were putting our songs in films and "September" became a hit again because somebody did a movie called "Dancing in September." So we were really fortunate. A lot of people caught on and music -- people like Stanley Clarke, who were scoring films, would put a song of ours in his films. So it was -- so we -- it was a really kind of lucky -- we kind of caught a lucky break.
MCGINTYI'm curious. Speaking of lucky breaks, that song you mentioned, "System of Survival," now, there's a story out there that that came to you on a cassette tape left on one of your doors by some fellow by the name of Skylark.
WHITEIt came to Philip and Maurice. Yeah, it came to Philip and Maurice. And it was on the hotel door.
WHITEAnd Skylark ended up -- he's with The Doobie Brothers. And that tune became big. And it was a commentary on the time.
WHITEYou know what I mean. And -- which Maurice was always hip to, the commentary, you know.
MCGINTYI always wondered, why you didn't do any more Skylark songs, since that one did so well.
WHITEWell, I don't know. Because I don't know if we saw Skylark again.
WHITEYou know, he probably submitted some other songs, but, you know, in the, you know, when you pick songs you might nail one and then you send some and you don't nail the others. You know what I mean?
WHITEAnd -- but needless to say, that was a big record for us, you know.
MCGINTYMaurice in Detroit, Mich. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MAURICEYes, sir. Thank you very much. Such an honor to talk to Verdine White. Verdine, I'm a homeboy from Chicago, around 87th and Cottage Grove. So…
WHITEAll right. Yeah, we're Chappel, South Shore.
MAURICEYes, sir. But thank you for the music and the memories. I wanted to comment on the importance of the artwork of Earth, Wind & Fire. I'm from back in the day when we would take the albums out of the covers and we would use the album covers -- we would get thumbtacks and place them on the walls of our bedrooms. And we always looked -- I always looked forwarded to the new Earth, Wind & Fire album to see what kind of magnificent artwork you have. And a comment I wanted to ask you -- or a question I had for you is of all Earth, Wind & Fire's albums, which one evokes the most meaning to you?
MAURICEAnd a comment I have, additionally, on the -- Prince once lamented the absence of craft in today's musical landscape. And my question is what are your thoughts on "craft" as a necessary component in the creation of today's music?
MAURICEAnd again, I want to thank you for the music and the memories.
MCGINTYAll right. A couple of questions there, Verdine.
MCGINTYFirst, your favorite album.
WHITEHe threw about five questions in there.
MCGINTYYeah, he did.
WHITEYeah, you know, they're all great records. They all are great records. You know, they're all different. You know what I mean? They all evoke -- they all did the same for me personally because they were such statements, you know. And regarding craft, you know, it's important to learn the craft of music. There's always debates on new generations and older generation as to what craft is. And which is constantly being redefined every day in terms of what the craft of music, you know. And part of the craft of music is listening to music and staying abreast of what's going on. I think that's a big part of the craft, too.
MCGINTYAll right. Jerry, in Manassas, Va. You're on the air, Jerry.
JERRYWell, hi. How's it going? Verdine, it's such a pleasure to talk to you. I can't even believe it.
WHITEH, Jerry. How are you? Good morning.
JERRYI'm well, thank you. I've been playing bass since I was 13 years old. And I can't tell you how much of an influence you were on me in my early years. I'm a white kid from suburban Springfield. And I heard Earth, Wind & Fire, I heard Bootsy, "Bitches Brew" by Miles Davis and it just changed my life.
JERRYI used to go to downtown to listen to Chuck Brown and everything else. Ride the bus down there.
WHITEOh, Chuck, yeah, yeah. The go-go music vibe.
JERRYOh, my God, yeah. It was just wonderful. I have a really funny story for you. I bought tickets to go see you, Earth, Wind & Fire that is, I think it was Capital Center. And I bought four tickets and nobody would go with me. So I was sitting by myself. And…
JERRYAnd Richard Pryor opened the show for you guys.
JERRYYes. And he came out and he was very angry at his agent or something and got the crowd whipped into a frenzy about something, and the usher came down…
JERRY…pointed a flashlight at me and said, let's go. I mean, I was a white -- I was a pearl in a sea of black, to be honest with you. And it was so funny. He escorted me out to my car and said, I just saved your life. Get in your car and leave.
MCGINTYOh, my goodness.
WHITERight. And you got out there of safely and you're talking to me now. So you had the nice game.
JERRYWell, I did. But I came to see my hero, man. It was just -- oh, my God.
MCGINTYOh, man, Verdine.
WHITEThat's all right, man.
MCGINTYThat's something else. I gotta be honest with you. I've been known to play a little bass myself, Verdine. And…
WHITEOh, wow. I didn't know that.
MCGINTYYeah, yeah, well, I wouldn't have brought it up because it's, you know, you're you and I'm just me, but the fact is your style of playing is fascinating to me. Because as a friend of mine described it, you're the most in-the-pocket bass player that he knows. Right. You have a way of sitting in there and feeling out the groove that I think very few bass players can do. And I wondered how you came upon that.
WHITEWell, you know, Maurice always said, you know, you gotta keep it on the one, you know. And, you know, keep it, you know, keep it on the one. And I've tried to keep it on the one, you know, particularly on records. 'Cause playing on records is a little bit different than performing live, you know. 'Cause live, you know, I'm playing those bass licks and I'm doing choreography and…
WHITEThere have been rumors out that I'm not playing on stage and I've -- there's a tape behind me and I'm playing, you know, things like that. Which is not true. And that -- and for a long time they said that there was somebody else behind the curtain playing, you know. And I said, well, the guy behind the curtain would have said something by now, after all these years. You know what I mean? He never would have let me get away with it all these years. You know what I mean? Without getting broken off. You know what I mean?
WHITEYou know, so -- but I've been -- I've tried to, you know, create a style that is, you know, my sound and the Verdine White sound, yeah.
MCGINTYYou know, I noticed that -- to stay on this for a minute -- that a lot of the songs, to me, that have the more interesting bass lines, have not been the songs that everybody knows. You know, for example, on "Gratitude," "Sunshine" has a really cool bass line.
MCGINTY"Happy Feeling," on "That's The Way of the World," has a cool bass line. "Running -- go ahead.
WHITERight, right. Well, "Happy Feeling," that's right. Well, "Happy Feeling," I got that because we were shooting the roller rink in Jersey for "That's The Way of the World" movies. So I would see these -- the kids, you know, skate. And I would -- I did the bass line around the skating.
WHITEYeah, yeah, and it became "Happy Feeling."
MCGINTYThat's fascinating stuff. Well, what about…
WHITEYeah, yeah, you know…
MCGINTYGo ahead, yeah, yeah, yeah.
MCGINTYI was just gonna ask, what about "Sunshine?" Who wrote that bass line? Was that you?
MCGINTYYeah, you know, most of the lines I wrote, you know. You know, during the studio I'd write some notes out, you know. And then I would just take it from there. You know, they were not like really -- you really couldn't write those notes out, you know. They were kind of a little unorthodox, you know.
WHITEYou're not, you know, you're not gonna sit and write those notes out. When I look at music books today, the notes that I played aren't in those music books. There's just half of them, you know.
MCGINTYDo you ever listen back to old records and go, you know, I could have played that better now?
WHITEYeah. Yeah, there's a lot of them that I was intending on going back in the studio and cleaning them up.
WHITEBut I never had a chance to clean them up. You know what I mean. And I would joke Maurice about it. And even all the way until recently when he passed, one of the rules of when I came to live in California, you know, Reese said, if you get on drugs I'm sending you back home. I'm sending you back home. And he was a little more explicit than that, but you catch my drift.
WHITEAnd the last the time I saw him -- I always joke him about it, you know, 'cause we talk about the Lifetime Achievement Awards, the Grammy Awards and I said, Reese, you still gonna send me back to Chicago? He said, I'm thinking about it. And we would just bust up laughing. And I would give him a big hug, you know.
WHITESo we always had that kind of fun humor with each other, too. 'Cause we went through so much, you know, putting a group together. And, you know, you realize it's not as easy as you think. You think, yeah, I'm gonna put a band together. I'm gonna be great, blah, blah, blah, etcetera, etcetera. And then you realize that you are one of the lucky ones to be able to do that.
MCGINTYHow difficult was it, then to see him begin to get sick and realize that at some point you're gonna have to continue on?
WHITEWell, it was a big deal for the three of us, for Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and myself 'cause we had worked so closely with him. And we knew that we would see what we had as individuals. And, you know, the space that Maurice left was so huge, his aura was so big that we had to grow into it. You know, we -- it was a learning curve. We didn't get it overnight. You know what I mean? We were a little more shaky, a little bit more insecure. And then as time went on we got better at it and better at it.
MCGINTY'Cause that was a big space to fill, right?
WHITEUm-hum, huge, huge. I mean, 'cause don't forget now, he was big on his own, you know, as an artist. You know, he was like Elvis, you know, for us. You know what I mean? He had that whole thing. And don't forget now, he created Earth, Wind & Fire, you know, totally from -- as I always say, from the clay of his soul.
WHITESo, you know, so it was a big, big, big deal, you know.
MCGINTYVerdine White, bass player for Earth, Wind & Fire for the last four and a half decades. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to let a few more listeners get involved here. Richard, in Louisville. You're on the air.
RICHARDHey, hey, guys. How you doing? Good morning.
WHITEHi, Richard. How are you?
RICHARDJust, Verdine, big fan. I've seen you almost every time you've come to Louisville. And just want to share a couple things real quick. We were -- I grew up in the housing projects here in Louisville. And I just remember how me and my buddies would always try to hit, like, Philip Bailey's high notes, sitting on the front porch. And…
WHITERight. How'd you do?
RICHARD…just argue over who did it best. And I don't know if I've missed it, but you guys, your music was spiritual in so many ways. And I was in high school, I think, when the "Spirit" album came out. And you guys just -- I wasn't in church. But you guys just rang my bell with so many of those songs…
RICHARD…that lifted me up and just kind of kept me in a good place when (unintelligible) things could have been so bad.
MCGINTYVerdine, can you talk about that a little bit? I mean, the spiritual nature. 'Cause Earth, Wind & Fire overall was a very spiritual band.
WHITEYeah, you know, it was a universal love, you know. Universal spirituality that encompassed everybody, that brought everybody together. And Maurice was a big proponent of that. And then don't forget now, you know, we came along at a time where it was the universe, you know, the universe kind of brought everybody together and society was changing. So Maurice was able to tap into that, you know. And everybody from all walks of life could get together and love each other.
MCGINTYYou know, I know your band is still touring, Earth, Wind & Fire is still touring. You got a big series of concerts…
WHITEOh, yeah, yeah.
MCGINTY…coming up in Japan. I mean, and today's your birthday. Do you think -- ever think, well, you know, at some point I'm gonna have to stop doing this. Or I'm gonna want to stop doing this?
WHITEMan, it's kind of hard now, 'cause, you know, you probably haven't seen us in a while, Derek, but, you know, we have like 30,000, 40,000 people come see us at these (unintelligible).
WHITEAnd, I mean, we were on with Kendrick Lamar in Bonnaroo last year. We did Glastonbury, as I mentioned before. We did three sold-out nights at the Hollywood Bowl. And, you know, it's not something that you just throw away and say…
WHITE…I'll just come back to this, you know. We were fortunate. And now we've got -- kids some now. You know what I mean? So it's like five generations. We have the first generation that came to the Cap Center. I don't think they come see us anymore. Now, their grandkids is coming.
MCGINTYRight, right, right.
WHITEYou know what I'm saying?
MCGINTYYeah, I was young enough for the Cap Center. I needed a ride to the Cap Center 'cause I was too young to drive when I went out there to see you. So…
WHITEAnd, you know, and what's happening is the audience that came to see us back in the day, when they come see us now, they are so blowed away. They can't believe that it's that many people out there. And it's all kind of people out there. It's white, it's black, it's straight, it's gay, it's everybody that comes to see Earth, Wind & Fire.
MCGINTYIt is interesting that music is no longer as segregated as it used to be. When I was growing up, I remember one of the music award shows many years ago, they asked members of the crowd or whatever, who's your favorite band. The white folks all said The Eagles.
MCGINTYThe black folks all said Earth, Wind & Fire. And I was struck by that.
WHITEOr The Eagles or The Beatles.
WHITEWell, because don't forget now, it was polarized.
WHITEYou know, and whereas if you asked that same question now they would give you like three bands or four bands.
MCGINTYYeah, be all over the place. It'd be all over the place.
WHITEBecause -- well, because now we're in a multi-cultural society today that you didn't really have at the time. And I'd have to say that I think that our music was big in bringing that out, you know. And then also, too, what I've done, too, and you know, translated to kids and, you know, the Verdine White Performing Arts Center that we've done with my family and my wife, Michelle and my son, Warner and my daughter-in-law, Ariel. So we're doing our part to help with the younger generation, as well, too, you know.
MCGINTYArt, in Sioux City, Iowa, you're on the air.
ARTHey, Verdine. I gotta chance to turn the tables on you.
WHITEHi, Art. Okay.
ARTI don't -- I know you're not gonna remember me. But about a few years ago you called me on my birthday. Somebody had called you -- I never found out who it was, but they told you what a nice guy I was supposed to be. And what a fan I am. And now I get to a chance to do this on your birthday. So I just want to tell you, not many people have a chance to do their bucket list twice. Thirteen Earth, Wind & Fire concerts. I'm signed up for 11/11, when Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire come to Sioux Falls. And I can't wait.
WHITEThat's right. We're on a -- we'll be there this fall, yeah.
ARTSo I'm just glad I get a chance to wish you a happy -- pardon me?
WHITEWe'll be there on the 3.0 Tour with Chicago this fall, yeah.
ARTLooking forward to it. I already got my tickets, Row A. So…
WHITEWell, thank you so much for the birthday wish.
ART…it's gonna be another Earth, Wind & Fire show.
MCGINTYArt, that's so nice.
WHITEThank you so much.
MCGINTYWe really appreciate it.
WHITEThank you, Art.
MCGINTYAnd, Verdine, as our time is running out here, I just want to say thank you so much for talking with us. And you've been really open and interesting. And I appreciate filling in all the gaps and all the questions he had about one of our favorite bands.
MCGINTYAll right. Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire. I'm Derek McGinty.
WHITEThank you for having me.
MCGINTYAnd you've been listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
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