A vintage promo photo of Earth, Wind & Fire
Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment

Earth, Wind & Fire

  • Philip Bailey
  • Larry Dunn
  • Johnny Graham
  • Ralph Johnson
  • Al McKay
  • Fred White
  • Maurice White
  • Verdine White
  • Andrew Woolfolk

Earth, Wind and Fire drew from various streams of black music, synthesizing soul, funk, R&B, pop, gospel and African styles into a polished, precision-tooled approach.

During the latter half of the Seventies, the band issued a string of albums that changed the face of black popular music, linking thrilling music with uplifting messages of racial pride, African consciousness and spiritual unity. A large and visually resplendent ensemble, its members often wore colorful African robes. The group was known for employing magic tricks (often directed by the late Doug Henning) in their elaborate late-Seventies stage shows. Even so, the anthemic power of “Shining Star,” “Serpentine Fire,” “Getaway” and numerous other crossover hits proved that Earth, Wind and Fire’s music could stand on its own.

The group was founded by Memphis-born Maurice White. His father was a doctor, and his grandfather was a New Orleans honky-tonk piano player. White studied at the Chicago Conservatory, then became a session drummer with Chess Record from 1963 to 1967. He recorded with Muddy Waters, the Impressions and Fontella Bass, among others. After leaving Chess, he played with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, from 1967 to 1969. He then formed a band called the Salty Peppers with Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead. They signed with Capitol Records and released two singles: “La La Time” and “Uh Huh Yeah.”

White then moved to Los Angeles and invited his brother Verdine, who played bass, to join him in L.A. In 1971, they formed Earth, Wind and Fire. The name was derived from Maurice White’s astrological sign, Sagittarius, which does not have any water signs. The group’s original lineup included Maurice on vocals, African kalimba and drums; Verdine on bass; Whitehead on keyboards; Flemons on electric piano; Michael Beale on guitar; Phillard Williams on percussion; Sherry Scott on vocals, and Chester Washington and Leslie Drayton on horns. The band signed with Warner Bros. Records and released its first album, Earth, Wind and Fire, in February 1971. That November, the band released another album, The Need of Love.

After that second album, Maurice White reconstituted the band, retaining only Verdine from the original lineup. The group also left Warner Bros. and signed with Columbia Records. Earth, Wind and Fire’s second Columbia album, Head to the Sky, came out in 1973. It reached Number 15 the following year, and included two hit singles, “Evil” and “Keep Your Head to the Sky.” Then, in 1975, the group released what would become its breakthrough album, That’s the Way of the World, which yielded “Shining Star,” a Grammy Award-winning Number One hit on both the pop and R&B charts. Earth, Wind and Fire’s conquest of the Seventies continued with an unbroken run of multiplatinum albums: Gratitude (1975), Spirit (1976), All ‘n All (1977), The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 (1978) and I Am (1979).

Earth, Wind and Fire’s definitive nine-man lineup coalesced around a core of the two White brothers and Philip Bailey on vocals. The group’s tight, punchy horn section became a featured attraction, but the musical currents ran deeply. “Our whole vision,” Bailey has commented, “derived from the greats before us: Miles Davis and John Coltrane and all the great singers.... We were jazz musicians at heart playing popular music.” Moreover, they were driven by idealism. “The essence of this band is hope,” White has said.

Earth, Wind and Fire attracted a then-untapped audience of hip, young urban audience of blacks and whites that reacted to the energetic music and charismatic presentation. In addition to overseeing Earth, Wind and Fire’s albums and tours, Maurice White was fast becoming one of the hottest producers around. He even started his own label, ARC, in 1978. Without question one of the hardest-working bands in show business, Earth, Wind and Fire found themselves physically and creatively exhausted by the early Eighties. The band took a four-year hiatus, during which time White devoted himself to production, while Philip Bailey launched a dual solo career, finding success in both the Christian and pop fields. The much-in-demand Earth, Wind and Fire horn players, known as the Phoenix Horns, teamed up with Genesis and its singer/drummer, Phil Collins, on a number of hit recordings. Collins and Bailey collaborated on “Easy Lover,” a Number Two hit in 1984.

The reunited Earth, Wind and Fire bounced back in 1987 with a strong album (Touch the World) and single ("System of Survival"). They became an active recording and touring entity again, albeit at a less frantic pace. A career-spanning box set, The Eternal Dance, was released in 1992. Maurice White retired from the road in 1996, after coming down with Parkinson’s disease. However, he remains Earth, Wind and Fire’s producer and guiding light.

Earth, Wind and Fire was inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1994, and the band received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the following year. In 1997, Earth, Wind and Fire released its 17th studio album, In the Name of Love, on the Pyramid/Rhino label. Then, in 2003, the band issued another studio album, The Promise. It reached Number 19 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Two years later, in 2005, Earth, Wind and Fire released Illumination. The album included the single “Show Me the Way,” which featured a guest appearance by Rafael Saadiq and which was nominated for a Grammy. The album also included appearances by will.i.am, Kelly Rowland and Big Boi.

Yet another Earth, Wind and Fire album, the group’s 20th studio album, is set for release in September 2013. It will be called Now, Then & Forever.

Over the years, Earth, Wind and Fire has won numerous awards and honors. The band has been nominated for 17 Grammys and has won six; it has been nominated for 12 American Music Awards and has won four. In 2002, the group won the BET Lifetime Achievement Award, and the following year, the band was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. In 2011, Earth, Wind and Fire received the Legend Award at the Soul Train awards show, and Maurice White and Philip Bailey have received honorary doctorates from the Berklee College of Music.

Earth, Wind and Fire Inductees: Philip Bailey (vocals, percussion; born May 8, 1951); Larry Dunn (keyboards; born June 19, 1953); Johnny Graham (guitar; born August 3, 1951); Ralph Johnson (drums; born July 4, 1951); Al McKay (guitar, percussion; born February 2, 1948); Fred White (drums; born January 13, 1955); Maurice White (vocals, kalimba, drums; December 19, 1941 - February 4, 2016); Verdine White (bass; born July 25, 1951); Andrew Woolfolk (sax, flute; born October 11, 1950)

Read full bio