The Great I Am: Inside Earth, Wind & Fire’s Unsung Album and the Pulse to Disco
After Maurice White’s unfortunate passing and with the media spinning stories about Spike Lee’s research on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, another classic disco album is next in line to be appraised
This week, I got a chance to watch Spike Lee’s bio-doc insider on Michael Jackson’s unusually overlooked 1979 LP, Off the Wall. It offered a pretty good analysis of a burgeoning Michael Jackson seeking independence from his limited success as a frontman of Motown’s bubblegum pop, the Jackson 5, and positioning himself for greatness. As good as Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall is, it certainly had its flaws. One of the vital segments of the film was that it told the story of the Jacksons’ Victory album, which was also released on Epic. There would be no ‘Off the Wall’ tour, so Jackson focused his album promotions during that tour. All of these bits, including recent interviews with Jackson’s brothers Marlon and Jackie, were included in the storyline and proved to be precious to the storytelling. But I didn’t want to hear Kobe Bryant rapping about how MJ’s musical capabilities and drive towards excellence translated into undefinable wisdom on the court. And there just was a serious abundance of historical knowledge of the Off the Wall sessions missing. If it had been treated like a “Classic Albums” documentary, I think it would’ve been gravy. Without having Rod Temperton’s feedback or the inclusion of other important players during the interviews (like Patti Austin, David Foster and musicians like Rufus’s Dave Wolinski, Wah Wah Watson and John “JR” Robinson), Lee’s storytelling seemed like an easy PR statement. Lee also failed to revisit those holy destinations of the album’s creation, like L.A’s Cherokee Studios or Westlake Audio. Nor was there any access to Off the Wall rehearsal tapes or an appropriate timeline of when the songs were fully formed and recorded. An early demo of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was played, but most of us had access to that audio when grabbing deluxe editions of Off the Wall. Lee was smart in framing the conversation around this album being an absolute underrated piece of music and for championing its grandeur for being one of the most influential pieces of work in R&B. It also opened up about how meaningful this event was to Jackson, who fully embraced a more rhythmic-driven set that celebrated Studio 54 partylife and the magic of disco and funk. He would use this as a way to reinvent his own solo career.
It also revealed a very important piece of information in that it was once suggested by Epic executives for Maurice White, the chief architect behind Earth, Wind & Fire, to produce Jackson’s first solo album for Epic. Now imagine for one second a Maurice White-produced Off the Wall. Would it had worked? Would it have been just as imaginative and life-changing as Jones’s final piece of work? Well, the answers may lie in another piece of overlooked, underappreciated and undervalued work that was released around the same time.
In June of 1979, three months ahead of the Off the Wall release, Earth, Wind & Fire dropped their ninth studio album, their seventh with Columbia Records. It resembled much of their ambition of merging sophisticated jazzy chords and non-pop time signatures into their bold framework of universal funk (grab ahold of the instrumental “Rock That!” for a good example). And their love for mind-blowing, busy brass sections designed by the genius of Jerry Hey and Tom Tom 84 (real name Tom Washington) are all aglow on the openings of “Let Your Feelings Show” and the album opener of “In the Stone.” The latter features a rousing prelude that comes with big pageant-like orchestrations akin to Disney pomp and circumstance. But there is a bolder musical direction on I Am than what defined the previous EW&F albums.
For the most part, this was Earth, Wind & Fire’s unapologetic allegiance to disco. Aside from the calming love ballad “After the Love Is Gone,” a piece submitted by David Foster, the first half of the album was buoyantly uptempo. That trait would also be used on Jackson’s Off the Wall first side. Track after track, I Am feels like it’s been tailor-made like a never-ending disco mix. When you flip over to the album’s B-side, you’re met with “Boogie Wonderland,” a song that plays with Eurodisco extravagance. Inside its lyrics though is a cautious tale of smoke and mirrors inside disco’s aural magic. “Midnight creeps so slowly into hearts of men who need more than they get,” sings White on the opening verse. He’s singing about the allure of clubland while uncovering the hubris of wild sex and the dangerous lifestyles of party drugs. “Daylight deals a bad hand to a woman that has laid to many bets,” he adds. After looking into a mirror, the listeners are too afraid to confront their realities, so they take off into this wonderland of boogie where “all the records are playing.” White and falsetto king Phillip Bailey is joined at the hip by the Emotions, the gospel-trained Chicago sisterly group that pumped out other White masterpieces like “Best of My Love” and “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love.” Together they turn this song about escapism into a mantra of disco. As much as Earth, Wind & Fire tried to distance themselves from disco after 1980, especially when disco markets were met with the upheaval from rock radio programmers after the “Disco Sucks” revolution spurred into action after Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in July 1979, there was no mistaken that they wanted to join in with the proliferation of disco product. On many occasions, White distanced himself from the disco label. Others members of Earth, Wind & Fire did also.
“We weren’t that big fans of disco,” Bailey told Yahoo! Music in 2013. “We thought it was a little simple for what we were doing, but we found this song [Boogie Wonderland]. Al McKay had produced it on another band. Maurice produced it for Earth, Wind & Fire, and adding the Emotions to it, we did the elaborate arrangement and – whoa, it became one of the biggest songs of our catalog.”
“Boogie Wonderland” was huge. It soared to number six pop and number two on the R&B charts. Only the ballad, “After the Love Is Gone,” proved to be better on the charts. As to why nothing else from the album made a huge dent on the charts, no one really knows for sure. Because I Am contained a hefty amount of delicious danceable funk and dancefloor fireworks. “In the Stone” and “Can’t Let Go” were also released as singles, but failed to crack the Top 40. “Can’t Let Go” is enriched with White’s fervent and impassioned vocals. Towards the end, a zesty horn arrangement blazes from the speakers. Clocking in at four minutes, it’s an impossible song to shake and feels like it’s been robbed of getting the extended remix treatment. At least, “Boogie Wonderland” was extended for a disco maxi single.
There are other glorious moments aboard that round out the collection. “Star” dazzles with its sweet hybrid of Big Band jazz and soulful gospel tapestries as it plays with The Wiz-like melodies. Doo-wop soul falls upon “Wait” while the culminating sounds of “You and I” – a melodic midtempo jam co-penned by White, legendary songwriter Allee Willis and Foster – bubbles with enough radio-ready sonics to have deserved a single release. Actually, unlike most of the previous albums, I Am focused much of the songwriting around White’s collaborations with White and Foster. Foster, who had his hand in Cheryl Lynn’s solid self-titled debut LP and who would eventually move on to produce hit AC-friendly records in the Eighties for Chicago, contributed mightily on I Am. That muse heard on big Chicago hits like “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re My Inspiration” wound be stoked on EW&F’s “After the Love Is Gone.”
The song was originally meant for Bill Champlin’s solo record, according to co-writer Jay Graydon. “David recorded it with Champlin, maybe three different versions,” he told Songfacts.com. “He got one that he really liked, though. But then David was also writing with Maurice White for the I Am album. He played the song for Maurice and he loved it. David called me and says, ‘Hey man, Earth, Wind & Fire wants to record it, but I don’t want to tell Champlin that it’s gonna have to get pulled off his record. Will you do it?’ I said, ‘I sure will.’ Needless to say, that song still generates good money.”
“After the Love Is Gone” would score EW&F two big Grammy wins: one for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group and the other for Best R&B Song. It would also become Foster’s first Grammy win as a songwriter and would continue onward with his long succession with Chicago. Champlin, who continued to show off his insatiable abilities as a songwriter with the Grammy winning “Turn Your Love Around” for George Benson in 1982, would later join the group Chicago. With Champlin and Foster connected to Chicago, this began their family tree association, something only enhanced when the two paired up for the best-selling dual-headlining tour. Today the group still perform together as the Heart & Soul Tour 2.0 continues to trek across the globe. They also enjoy singing one another’s songs in their sets and culminating their concerts with a rousing medley of their bigger hits.
“September,” also recorded during the I Am sessions, was regulated to the group’s first “greatest hits” compilation. On its own as a released single, the ode to Virgo life was a monster smash. It vaulted all the way to number one pop and R&B. It also was saturated in the goodness of disco magic. Its origins go back to 1978 when Allee Willis, a struggling songwriter based in Los Angeles, got a call from White to begin co-writing with him on the band’s next album. She thought it was a hoax. When she arrived at the studio, the genesis of “September” began to shape up. “We went through all the dates: ‘Do you remember the first, the second, the third, the fourth…’ and the one that just felt the best was the 21st,” Willis told NPR Radio. “I constantly have people coming up to me and they get so excited to know what the significance was. And there is no significance beyond it just sang better than any of the other dates.” And now that famous line “Do you remember the 21st night in September” is now heard in wedding reception parties all over. It also remains one of the group’s most popular songs, spinning over one million times across U.S radio and television.
The songwriting team of Willis and Foster with White would be disbanded for the ambitious double LP Faces, an album that White hailed as his personal favorite. Foster would return on that very collection, working alongside the likes of Brenda Russell and Larry Dunn (“And Loves Goes On” and the single “You”), but the chemistry was never the same. Willis would matriculate onward to other successes, like the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” and much later for the Emmy-nominated, Friends theme song “I Will Be There for You.”
Another strange coincidence about I Am was that many of its musicians helped shape Jackson’s 1979 album. Foster played keyboards and synths, even co-writing “It’s the Falling in Love.” Jerry Hey and EW&F’s horn section was also aboard. Members of Toto also helped with both collections: Steve Lukather was on I Am, while Steve Porcaro and Greg Phillinganes worked on Off the Wall.
When it comes to accolades, Earth, Wind & Fire has earned plenty of them. For some it may have been a cold blow when the Academy only squeezed in an acapella tribute to the late Maurice White, who died in his sleep at the age of 74, at the last minute. The nod featured Grammy golden boy Stevie Wonder and the virtuous sounds of Pentatonix singing “That’s the Way of the World,” but apparently that wasn’t good enough for avid EW&F fans. But let it also be said that the legendary funk/R&B/soul outfit is far from being unsung. With over 100 million albums sold worldwide, eight Top Ten albums, fifteen Top 40 hits, six Grammys to their name, the group has been bestowed with virtually every honor there is. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, way before Steely Dan, Michael Jackson and Queen. Chicago’s turn is this year. And it’s due time for them. The group, known for sporting one of the greatest guitarists of all time (Terry Kath), big jazzy and brassy explorations, Peter Cetera’s glowing pipes and their subtle ties to EW&F, will finally earn their just due.
White, who stopped performing in the group in the 1990’s due to his battle with Parkinson’s disease, would occasionally appear with the band, but hardly stopped working with them in the studio. He contributed heavily on 2003’s The Promise and 2005’s Illumination, including lead vocals. White hardly slowed down. Nor did the band. They still march onward, even without their fearless leader and visionary. Like leaders of great bands before, White’s death did not mark the end of EW&F. It did mean a closing of a chapter, but EW&F – who has released two new studio albums in the last two years – are far from seeing the end of the road. In the hands of White’s brother Verdine and surviving members Phillip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, the band continues to make their presence known to a generation that hardly knows of the magic of golden R&B.
In Defense of a Band’s Need to Disco
When critics comb through the many Earth, Wind & Fire albums, they hardly hail I Am to the same standard as That’s the Way of the World or the more ambitious All ‘n All, not even Spirit, the last album that featured arranger Charles Stepney before his unfortunate passing. No, it’s usually considered by them to be lightweight, a second-tier album that leaned too heavily on disco. And that last trait is something rock historians quickly point out, particularly when they have up to now have regarded disco as fluff or too bubblegum for their ears. No wonder White distanced himself from the disco label, even when “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” seemed like safe bets for being disco royalty. All of this reminds me when Chicago also tried their hand at full-fledged disco with their cover of Rufus’s “Street Player.” In 1979, the group also wanted in on the boogie wonderland and decided to take an underrated Rufus/Chaka Khan track and pimp it out with a dancefloor glow and vivid horn displays, accented with trumpet solos from Maynard Ferguson.
“On the band’s earlier European tour, I came up [with] the idea of rearranging a song Hawk and I had written years back called ‘Street Player,” former Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine wrote in his memoir. “Hawk had gone on to record the track with his band Rufus, but I thought it might be a great tune for [us]. I wanted to mold it into the ultimate dance song. Rod Stewart had recently released his hit single ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ and disco was in full swing. I intended to revise ‘Street Player’ in the same rhythmic vein, but give it a higher level of musicianship. I talked the concept over with [producer] Phil Ramone, and he loved the idea.”
The nine-minute offering made its way to discos, but almost spelled the end of Chicago entirely. It even failed to crossover to black audiences, stalling at a dismal number 91 on the R&B charts. “It was a hot new sound for the band and everyone felt it was going to be a smash hit on the dance charts…but it didn’t play out like we thought it would,” Seraphine added. “’Street Player’ came out and absolutely stiffed. To add insult to injury, it was burned along with a mountain of other disco records in Chicago at a Comiskey Park promotion called ‘Disco Sucks.’ By then, the disco trend was dead and buried. Chicago had missed the party. Our stylistic departure left a lot of our fans scratching their heads. In the end, we were trying to be something we weren’t.”
Despite “Street Player” aging gracefully (being sampled heavily in dance hits by Kenny Dope’s Bucketheads and Pitbull) and with this being their sole jump into disco, critics initially barked at the move. Their closest jazz-loving, rock-reveling fans, some who had been with them from the very beginning of time, also didn’t approve. They didn’t give them the same kind of grace that Rod Stewart got with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” or Barry Manilow with “Copacabana” or the Rolling Stones with “Miss You” or KISS with “I Was Made for Loving You.” It was okay in their eyes for rock bands to do one or two disco tunes, but only if they continued their allegiance to their first love, which was rock. But Chicago wasn’t blessed with that same kind of favor. Chicago 13, the disc that featured “Street Player” performed poorly and their 1980 follow-up also failed to make noise. Blame on the label’s languishing promotions of the disc was echoed in the pages of the industry news, especially as no hit singles were heard from Chicago XIV. “The thrill was gone as far as they were concerned, I think,” Robert Lamm said in 1982. “Especially after Jedd Wald, who managed us in 1978 and 1979, kind of bullied them into signing a ridiculous multimillion dollar contract where every time we delivered an album, they had to cough up a million bucks. CBS didn’t get close to recouping their money, and they wanted to get out of the deal.”
Because of their connection to disco and hoping to erase that stain from their resume, the band used to forfeit the album and the song “Street Player” from their memory. Thanks to its sudden popularity in the realm of sampling and the resurgence of disco in the last decade, Chicago has come around to fully embracing the song. They even performing it in their live shows. Despite the homophobia and racism that often prevailed in the rhetoric of “Disco Sucks” promotions in the late ‘70’s, disco is no longer a dirty word. And critics and historians are now coming around to embracing Chicago’s brief foray into disco, Michael Jackson’s brilliant Off the Wall, and even Earth, Wind & Fire’s “disco album.” Off the Wall, a full-fledged disco entry now acclaimed by virtually all music critics, is now looked at with the same homage as Thriller. It’s now time for Earth, Wind & Fire’s I Am to be poised with the same type of greatness as their more familiar works of art. If there’s one maxim in the story of Earth, Wind & Fire that is considered unsung in their biography, it is that I Am should be considered one of the greatest contributions to disco. Without I Am and Off the Wall, mainstream audiences would have only thought the Bee Gees and a slick Tony Manero from the film Saturday Night Fever was all disco had to offer, limiting it to only being a silly fad. These two contributions set underground disco ablaze and opened up the floodgates for younger generations to hear pristine disco done with the fierce soulfulness of R&B and with the altitude of crossover funk.