ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Earth, Wind & Fire has a new CD called "Illumination." For the new project, the super group collaborated with contemporary artists like Raphael Saadiq and Brian McKnight to give their latest songs a more modern sound. Still, there's no mistaking that classic Earth, Wind & Fire brew.

(Soundbite of music)

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) So take this love.

Mr. RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) Baby, I surrender.

EARTH WIND & FIRE: (Singing) Take this love.

Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Just love me tender.

GORDON: Maurice White founded Earth, Wind & Fire in 1969. The band quickly evolved from a small-time rock 'n' soul act into a powerful live ensemble. EWF recorded some of the most definitive popular music of the 1970s and '80s, and decades later, band members Ralph Johnson, Verdine White and Philip Bailey recall what first brought Earth, Wind & Fire together.

Mr. RALPH JOHNSON (Earth, Wind & Fire): The one commonality that we all had was when--I remember when Verdine and Maurice came over to the house and asked me to be a part of the group. I did mention to them, I says, `You know what? There's one thing. I want to have the best band in the whole world.' And they looked at each other, smiled and said, `You're in.' We all had that same common goal, and it wasn't about the bling, it was about the music.

(Soundbite of "Fantasy")

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) Our voices will ring together until the 12th of never. We all will live, love forever as one. Come to see victory, in the land called fantasy, loving life, for you and me, to behold, to your soul in ecstasy.

GORDON: When you talk about the dream, Ralph--and I'm gonna do something. We had Ramsey Lewis on the program with us recently.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

GORDON: And he talked about--and many people didn't know that for a time, Maurice was part of the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's correct.

GORDON: And he talked about talking to Maurice about his dream. I want to play a little bit about that and then talk to you about when Maurice shared this vision with you, too, and what you thought.

Mr. JOHNSON: OK.

GORDON: Let's hear from Ramsey Lewis.

(Excerpt from interview)

Mr. RAMSEY LEWIS: I thought this group would be a jazz trio, jazz quartet, 'cause he's playing all this hot jazz. And one night, he said, `No, no, no. You know, we're gonna do magic, we're gonna do R&B, we're gonna do pop, we're gonna do horns, we're gonna have dance steps, magic.' I said, `Maurice, you know, take a couple aspirin, sleep it off. I'll see you at rehearsal tomorrow.' Well, the rest is history.

GORDON: And the rest is history. When you--you know, we laugh about that now, but at that time, people thought, you know, what are you talking about?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, if you think about that concept that 'Rice was talking about at that time, no one else was really doing that, OK? And Maurice wanted a group that had a great presentation on stage. He wanted to take it to the next level, you know. So we set about, you know, we started with the costuming. Later on, we had enough money to add production, you know, laser lights and special effects and magic, and it all worked out. It all came together.

GORDON: Based on his dream.

(End of excerpt)

(Soundbite of "Jupiter")

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) The name is Jupiter, from the galaxy. I came to meet you, to make you free, deliver to you a flower from a distant planet, from where I come. Keep your eye on Jupiter, such beauty in the sky. We will wait for your return in the by and by. Keep your eye on Jupiter, memories we shall fulfill, just view a brighter day and do a righteous will. Hey!

GORDON: Verdine, anyone who has a long career, has what many people see as artistically their peak where you have a string of three or four albums that run together that just--really, it's like a ball player in a zone, you know. And you all had a period where you all kicked out album after album after album with no filler in it. I mean, from the front of that album and when you flipped it over for us old folk and you started again till the end, it was Earth, Wind & Fire at its best. Is it amazing to you the kind of music you kicked out?

Mr. VERDINE WHITE (Earth, Wind & Fire): Well, you know, Philip brought up something yesterday in conversation that, you know, everything--in order for that to work, everything has to be aligned. And everything was aligned, from the environment of recording and--to the production to the record company. And, you know, there is a period where you have a great environment, there's a period where you have to regroup. You know, and if you have a long career, you're going to have peaks and valleys, and that's what really sustains you because you have to stay with it when they don't feel it.

(Soundbite of live performance)

GORDON: Philip, I want to turn to you and suggest the reasons the live version really superceded the recorded version in terms of its popularity and what people looked to, were you feeling it that night or was it just one of those instances that, you know, I turned a great performance and we happened to capture it.

Mr. PHILIP BAILEY (Earth, Wind & Fire): Well, for Earth, Wind & Fire, we would often say that the band was more dynamic live than on record. And we were in a zone, and there were so many people that made that magic happen.

(Soundbite of "Reasons")

Mr. SAADIQ: Oh, baby, the reasons that we hear...

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) ...the reasons that we fear, our feelings won't disappear...

Mr. SAADIQ: ...they won't disappear. And after the love game has been played, all our illusions were just a parade, and all the reasons start to fade.

GORDON: I want to talk about the latest project that you have, collaborations with many of the great young artists of the day, and I know was a big kick for them. Two of the ladies that you dealt with on the new project, the wonderful women of Floetry, who we'll be talking to soon on our program--they have a new project coming out. But we asked both of them what it was like to work with you, and I think we have Marsha up first. Let's hear from her.

(Excerpt from interview)

MARSHA (Floetry): My earliest memory of Earth, Wind & Fire was watching their live show when Darth Vader came out, and there was a eagle hologram flying above the stage. And I think the drummer was spinning around, like, almost suspended in air. It was like magic to me.

(End of excerpt)

GORDON: All right. Here's what Natalie had to say.

(Excerpt from interview)

NATALIE (Floetry): I've never heard something of theirs and not gone on a journey, and not traveled. And the artwork, not just the music, the artwork, the presentation, the package, the entire experience, is just--I don't know of another experience that has been that consistently outstanding.

(End of Excerpt)

GORDON: And, Philip, that's much of what we talked about when we talked about the songs of Earth, Wind & Fire. It was not just sitting and listening to music. There are many of us who sat in our parents' basements or drove in the car, and it was like going on a journey.

Mr. BAILEY: Right. Well, you know, one form of music that actually takes you on that journey every time is jazz. And what we are is really a fusion band made commercial. You know, it was a winning formula.

GORDON: This formula for the new CD, Ralph, is interesting because what you guys have captured, as I listened, is the fine mix of being current but still having that true Earth, Wind & Fire sound.

Mr. JOHNSON: The interesting thing about this project is that writers and producers that came aboard to help us do this, they were fans of the band. And they all have stories about seeing our shows back in the day, you know, how it affected them. So I think it really had a great effect on the end result, the final product, you know, definitely.

Mr. JOHNSON: The gen--I'm sorry. The genesis of this CD really came from Philip. And he came up with the brilliant idea of putting all of these artists together. And the nice thing about it is, it's different artists but it sounds like EWF, sounds like the Fire.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) And I am open wide and vulnerable where ever since (unintelligible) take me, girl, I'm so ...(unintelligible). Just show me, yeah.

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) Show me the way to your heart.

Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) I won't let go, I promise to protect you, (unintelligible). Just show me, yeah.

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) Show me the way to your heart.

Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) I won't let go. These feelings I'm possessing can never be reflected.

GORDON: I'm gonna ask what I am admitting right now is probably an unanswerable question, but if you had to pick a song that exemplified for you what the group is, what would it be?

Mr. JOHNSON: I'd say "Imagination." That song is incredible from the beginning to the end. That is, in listening to Marsha and Natalie's interview, an experience. Every time I listen to that song on the radio if I'm in the car late at night, I have to pull over 'cause it takes me to another experience. And because we recorded it, it don't even feel like I was in it. I'm an observer of something we participated in, "Imagination."

(Soundbite of "Imagination")

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) So I imagine my heart with you, see what imagination can do. It's not hard to conceive, love ecstasy, imagining you with me.

GORDON: And, Verdine, I would be remiss without asking about Maurice. So many people know that he's had some health difficulties over the last few years and, of course, so many prayers in the corner. And we were so happy and glad to see him able to get back out there a bit and obviously contribute greatly to this CD.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, he did a great job on it. And, of course, he's had his health challenges, but, you know, he is doing well. He's doing fine. He's blessed us, blessed this project. And earlier, one of the challenges for us in the long career was how to go out without him. So that was a big thing for us to kind of feel our way. But, thankfully, the audience loved it. And every time we're out there, Philip sends a shout out to him, and the audience always is just saying we're praying for 'Rice.

Mr. BAILEY: Well, thank you.

GORDON: Philip, let me ask you, finally, man. Your voice has been compared to an instrument, it's so unique. But as Father Time goes on, many people marvel at the fact that with your register, many people who had that same register when they were 25 can't continue down the line. What about what you've been able to do and, you know, keep "Reasons" and all the wonderful songs we know are identified with your voice there?

Mr. BAILEY: Oh, well, for me, understanding and rediscovering my instrument is an ongoing process. And, fortunately, you know, it's continued to improve, continued to learn more about it.

GORDON: You wanted to say, Ralph?

Mr. JOHNSON: I was gonna say, you know, Philip has only gotten better over the years. I mean, I've heard his range increase tremendously, you know. So it's--we marvel at him when we watch him on stage.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, sometimes we forget to play. We stop because we're completely...

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, right. We we're listening to him, going, `Man, where he does he get this?' You know?

Mr. WHITE: Exactly. We're looking at each other...

GORDON: Well, listen, fellows, it is so great to talk to you. The new CD is "Illumination," and as I said moments ago, for those of us who love the traditional Earth, Wind & Fire sound, it's there. For those of you who feel like you got to have something current, it's there. The collaborations are great. And I'm just so glad that not only do we get to hear the wonderful music that we all know and love, but you continue to churn it out. And so for all of us, Verdine White, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, and please extend this to the rest of the fellows in the group, not only is it personally good for me to have you here, but we thank you for years and years, decades of great music.

Unidentified Panelist #1: Thank you, Ed.

Unidentified Panelist #2: Thank so much, Ed.

Unidentified Panelist #3: Thank you for having us.

Unidentified Panelist #2: It's been a pleasure being here.

(Soundbite of song)

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) (Unintelligible)... Let's have a party, everybody. Let's have a good time...

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. You can hear any story from today's program or previous programs at npr.org. Just click onto Archives at the top of the page.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Lovely people.

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: La, la, la...

Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Lovely people, babe.

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la...

Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Lovely people, lovely people, babe.

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la...

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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