The Internet is rife with tips and lists about persevering through adversity, but there’s nothing quite so inspiring as examples from real life.
Even when they’re pre-Internet examples.
Especially when they’re pre-Internet examples.
Here’s one from 1971.
Somewhere between the beginning of that year and the end of the year prior, Chicago-born brothers Maurice and Verdine White formed a 10-piece R&B band in Los Angeles that released two albums and recorded a movie soundtrack in a span of no more than 11 months.
Then the band abruptly broke up, purportedly because eight of the non-brothers didn’t see eye-to-eye with the two brothers.
Thus it was that Earth, Wind & Fire almost ended after a smattering of well-reviewed but hardly earth-shattering recordings.
Singer-songwriter Maurice and bassist Verdine could have given up and moved back east.
No one would have blamed them.
“Thank God I was young,” Verdine White said in a phone interview. “I was 19. Ignorance is bliss. You know what I’m talking about.”
It wasn’t easy to get records made in those days, White said, so he knew he must have some talent.
“So I said, ‘I’m staying in California. This is what I am going to do,’” he recalled.
“I was getting good at what I was doing. And I started looking like a musician: sideburns, platform shoes, you know what I’m saying? Bell bottoms. People would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, are you are musician?’ And I’d say, (White lowers his voice) ‘Yeah, I’m a musician, man. I’m a musician.’
Added White, with a laugh: “Most musicians are broke anyway, so I fit the bill.”
Earth, Wind & Fire, of course, eventually became the sort of musical force that hardly needs to be described by any self-respecting feature writer to any self-respecting reader.
The band performs Wednesday, Aug. 26 at the DTE Energy Theatre in Clarkson, Michigan.
The hits endure, but the band’s achievements go far beyond the persistence of its repertoire.
“It was a big deal,” he said, referring to the group’s eventual success in the ‘70s. “You have to understand — people talk about the music, the songs and the sound, but we were really the first group of color that solidified a certain aspect of the music business.
“We had no infrastructure prior,” he said. “It was because of the work Maurice did and his vision. He enabled other groups to have a career. He enabled record companies to start black divisions for a certain kind of music.”
Were it not for Earth, Wind & Fire, White said, there may not have been a Commodores or a Dazz Band or a Prince.
“A template was established,” he said. “Our contribution was not only to music but to the music business.”
Maurice had a vision, White said, and he “matched up (the people) with what was in his brain.”
That included vocalist Philip Bailey, who Maurice invited to join the band in 1972.
“Philip came over to the apartment at that time,” White recalled. “Maurice wasn’t there so Philip spent the afternoon with me. We talked about music. He played harmonica. He was so talented. I called my mother — my late mother — to tell her about him.
“It was down to Philip and another gentleman and I said, ‘No, you should get Philip. He’s not only talented. He’s a great guy.’”
Character is as important to Maurice as talent, White said.
“In order for us to take this long journey, you not only had to be talented,” he said. “You had to be a good person and a strong person. He had all those qualities.”
When Maurice stopped touring with the band in 1994 due to Parkinson’s disease, it was Bailey who took over as bandleader.
Maurice may not be making as much music as he used to, but he is still in charge, White said.
“He’s got it under control,” White said of the Parkinson’s. “He’s the patriarch. He’s the icon.”
One of the ways a person can appreciate the full scope of Maurice’s artistic genius is to listen (via YouTube, for example) to a range of singles, from “La, La, La” and “Uh Huh Yeah” in 1969 (by Maurice’s early group the Salty Peppers) to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Mighty Mighty” in 1974.
With “Mighty Mighty,” the band’s first top 30 single, Maurice had found the sound he’d been imagining, a sound like no other before or since.
“We made such a great progression from the first album in 1970 to 1979,” White said. “There was great growth from song to song, great maturity. You hear it record by record.”
The digital age means the same things to Earth, Wind & Fire as it does to other bands: Less interest in new recordings and less interest in paying for old ones.
But White says he is grateful for YouTube.
“People actually can go about going back to the past and seeing the work we’ve done,” he said. “There’s so much information on the Internet now. It’s actually helped extend our career.
“You don’t have to tell people what you did,” White said. “If we didn’t have that, you wouldn’t know.”
Some acts chafe against the prospect of having to tour on their greatest hits, but Earth, Wind & Fire’s position may be unique: The band’s catalog has a rather singular perennial freshness and buoyancy.
White said he saw a survey where “September” ranked fifth on a list of most popular songs in the history of popular music.
He hears “September” everywhere he goes, even at a recent college graduation ceremony, he said.
“We were in the stands and the band way down on the field played Bruno Mars’ ‘Uptown Funk’ and ‘Happy” by Pharrell. And my wife said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if they played ‘September’? And that was the very next song.”
The band didn’t know White was in attendance of course.
“So I go down and thank them for playing it,” he said. “They about dropped their instruments. It was like Superman coming down.”