Interviews

MAURICE WHITE, PHILOSOPHER AND TRUTH SEEKER - AN APPRECIATION

Friday, 05 February 2016 11:16 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

MW_suit"I started out as a kid being very religious. I wanted answers to a lot of questions that I had and I took the mystical route and did research on a metaphysical level to find the truth." So said Maurice White, a musical visionary whose group Earth, Wind & Fire was a groundbreaking aggregation that fused soul, big band funk, pop and Latin music with metaphysics, mysticism and a cosmic consciousness. It was a unique combination of elements and although there were, certainly, esoteric components to EW&F's unique aesthetic values, the positivity of their central message that espoused  love, peace and understanding was never too obscure for the masses and they managed to make music that was attractive and infectious enough to appeal to a global audience. "We were trying to bring together all different types of music," Maurice White told me in 2004 when I interviewed him for Blues & Soul magazine. "We were definitely trying to make the band appeal to a universal audience. People loved our sound. It was very important to us."

Though Earth, Wind & Fire experienced phenomenal success from the mid-1970s right through to the early '80s, it took several tough years of graft and toil to get to that point. If we rewind to the mid-1960s, Maurice White - born in Memphis, Tennessee, but then living in Chicago - was a session drummer at the Windy City's fabled Chess Records. "I played the drums on Fontella Bass's 'Rescue Me'  and also Billy Stewart's 'Summertime,' Little Milton's  'We're Gonna Make It,' and Betty Everett's 'You're No Good.' Also, Jackie Wilson's '(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.' There's a lot of tunes I played on. I was soaking up playing with everybody." Another musician had his eye on White as he worked in the studio - keyboard maven Ramsey Lewis. "He used to come down to the studio all the time," recalled White, "and I would be playing for some act on the label. He'd kind of sit in and listen. I didn't know he had me in mind until he formed the group (the Ramsey Lewis Trio) and he called me. It felt great. It was an exciting time."

But after three years on the road with Ramsey Lewis, Maurice White wanted to form his own band. That was in 1969. He formed a group called The Salty Peppers. "We made commercials together and signed to Capitol. It didn't work out with Capitol and then we changed our name to Earth, Wind, & Fire and signed to Warner Bros," White said in 2004.

After two patchy and largely unfocused albums for Warner - "there was a lot of experimentation," confessed White - he completely revamped the band. "I changed them for a younger group of guys; guys who were a little more innovative. We wanted a younger sound, a more contemporary sound." That was when singer Philip Bailey, White's younger brother, bassist Verdine, and drummer/percussionist Ralph Johnson joined. The group signed to Columbia and released 'Last Days & Time,' which fused soul and rhythm and blues with funk and jazz as well as adding a piquant soupcon of African and Latin sounds. It was a heady, polyglot brew - and they even had a female singer at that point, Jessica Cleaves - but Maurice White's all-encompassing vision to make music with a universal appeal eventually smoothed out the rough edges and unified the disparate elements so that they would soon coalesce into the band's unique sonic imprint. A major part of their sound was the group's vocals. After Cleaves left, White - who would rather have stayed behind the drum kit - was drafted in to do vocals opposite Philip Bailey. "I never wanted to be a singer," the drummer disclosed in 2004. "I sang while I was a kid in a gospel group when I was six but I stopped singing when I was twelve and changed to a musical instrument.  It just so happened that some of the songs that we were writing and playing were not high enough for Philip so I had to step in and sing the songs. Then we got a hit record so then I had to come out front. I found it difficult."

Another crucial element of the band's sound was their use of the African thumb piano, otherwise known as a kalimba. Its percussive, metallic tones were featured in several of the band's tracks (and it also inspired  the name of White's Kalimba production company). Said White in 2004: "The kalimba has great significance and contributed to our original sound and will always be something that I use as a trademark with the group. Now it's a sound that you can only think of us. I started to play around with it and couldn't put it down."

Despite White's initial reluctance to lead the group from the front of the stage, he became a charismatic and assured front man and his smooth baritone combined with Bailey's soaring high tenor was a key feature of the group's appeal. As the '70s progressed, the band honed their sound with each successive LP. As a consequence, their songs became more direct  and tightly structured, the choruses more memorable, the grooves ever so danceable and the vocal harmonies lush yet crisper. By the time that 1975 arrived, Earth, Wind & Fire had upped their game and were on the cusp of greatness. That was the year they released the catalytic 'That's The Way Of The World,' a record that yielded several hits (including the anthemic title track) and brought them to a wider public consciousness (it was also originally the soundtrack to a forgettable movie).

The movie might have been a turkey ("Don't see the film, it's horrible," laughed White) but from that point, Earth, Wind & Fire - spearheaded by the captivating twin vocal attack of Maurice White and Philip Bailey - produced a succession of bestselling singles ('Shining Star,' 'Sing A Song,' 'Getaway,' 'Saturday Nite,' 'Serpentine Fire,' 'Fantasy,' 'Boogie Wonderland,' 'September,') and albums ('Gratitude,' 'Spirit,' 'All 'N All,' 'I Am'), dominating the latter half of the '70s.

The band found the '80s harder to conquer, though there were still big hits along the way ('Let's Groove' and 'System Of Survival') and Maurice White even found time to make a solo album ("it was something that I needed to say," he told me). As the '80s became the '90s, the group's recordings began to dry up and though they continued to tour regularly, Maurice no longer went on the road with them. His absence was initially attributed to him wanting to spend more time in the studio with production projects and given that his CV as a producer featured sessions with Deniece Williams, The Emotions, Jennifer Holiday, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, no one doubted his motives. It later emerged, however, that White was suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Even so, he continued to have a strong degree of creative input on some of the group's later studio recordings though sadly he wasn't able to contribute to the group's most recent efforts, 'Now, Then & Forever' and 'Holiday.'

Looking back over his and the band's career in 2004, Maurice White clearly stated that his proudest moment was "being inducted into the rock-and-roll Hall Of Fame. That's been the highlight."  But awards and record sales while impressive don't tell the whole truth about how important Earth, Wind & Fire have been - they were sonic trailblazers who dissolved musical barriers with their transcendent messages of love, harmony and togetherness and that's why their hopeful, optimistic songs still resonate in the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world.

Following White's passing, Earth, Wind & Fire will receive a special award at the Grammies on February 15th. His autobiography, Keep Your Head To The Sky: My Life With Earth, Wind & Fire will be published later this year by Amistad.

Maurice White was the Yin to Philip Bailey's Yang and his rich, earthy baritone voice was the perfect counter to Bailey's celestial falsetto. If Bailey represented the soul of the band then Maurice White was its undoubted heartbeat. Sadly, that heartbeat is now silent but Earth, Wind & Fire's - and Maurice White's - musical legacy will live on.

We'll leave the final words to the great man himself, who, contemplating his contribution to the world, told this writer twelve years ago: "It's really been a joy to create the music and inspire other people. That's the whole intent of it: to inspire and to celebrate life."

Last Updated on Saturday, 06 February 2016 09:06

 

Coming Here To Tempt You - Temptations main man OTIS WILLIAMS speaks to SJF ahead of the group's October UK tour

Friday, 29 January 2016 13:59 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

Otis-Williams"We were always competitive," laughs OTIS WILLIAMS, contemplating the healthy sense of rivalry that has existed for over fifty years between his group, The Temptations, and fellow Motown legends, the Four Tops. "That was the spirit of Motown, to have that competitive desire and to outdo one another," Williams explains, reflecting on the strong sense of ambition that burned brightly in Berry Gordy's acts. But, as the singer is at pains to point out, there was never any jealousy or raging animosity between them. "It was a friendly rivalry," he states, adding that both groups still strive to upstage each other. "We're like that even today," he laughs. Indeed, both groups will have an opportunity to flex their respective vocal muscles against each other in October of this year when they join forces to tour the UK together later, when they will also be joined by another golden oldie soul act, family group, Tavares.

Williams, who's 74 now, confesses that  England - which they've been visiting since the mid-1960s and where they racked up 31 chart hits between 1965 and 1992  - has always been a special place for both the Tempts and the Tops. Saluting the devotion of the groups' fans in the UK, he says: "The British people are just so loyal and they have great knowledge of what good music is. They have shown us that they love the great melodies, the great stories, and how we try and present ourselves. So it's a combination of reasons why our British fans are so loyal and dedicated and appreciative because they love that Motown sound even fifty-plus years later. They are just very knowledgeable about great music and you've got to remember that they've had some great artists anyway, like, naturally, the Beatles, Adele, and ...Sam Smith."

Talking ahead of the group's upcoming UK tour to SJF's Charles Waring, Otis Williams talks in more detail about his affinity with the UK, the group's glory years at Motown and the their future plans...

 

Last Updated on Friday, 29 January 2016 15:35

 

HOLDIN’ ON WITH JAMES... THE JAMES HUNTER INTERVIEW

Sunday, 24 January 2016 14:07 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

1_jamesUK singer/songwriter JAMES HUNTER is one of soul's best kept secrets. He enjoys a devoted coterie of fans who embrace his quirky take on classic soul and R&B (à la Sam Cooke and Ray Charles) but despite a slew of great recordings behind him, collaborations with Van Morrison not to mention a GRAMMY nomination, James is still largely unknown in the mainstream. Maybe that's all set to change withy the February release of his fourth album – 'Hold On!'. The ten tracker's a collaboration with the Daptone team and has been produced by Daptone head man Gabe Roth. Musically the soundscape is what James Hunter does best.... an infectious blend of retro soul and R&B , delivered by his band mates .... The James Hunter Six.

With the release of 'Hold On!' imminent, we thought the time was right to speak to James and learn more about 'Hold On!', but maybe the best place to start, we thought, was to get James to introduce himself and his music....

Well, there's six of us, Damian Hand (tenor saxophone) Lee Badau (baritone saxophone) Jonathan Lee (drums) Jason Wilson (bass) and Andy Kingslow (keyboards, percussion, spoons) and we make a racket a little reminiscent of early soul music but with the attitude of punk and none of the musicality.

 

Last Updated on Sunday, 24 January 2016 14:22

 

STILL EVOLVING - NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN TALKS, PART 2

Thursday, 19 November 2015 12:44 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

narada-michael-walden-2012-wide"When you get hot, everybody starts calling." So says legendary drummer, producer, songwriter and performer NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN, who had risen to fame as a jazz-rock drummer in 1974 with John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra before transforming himself into a disco dude with hits 'I Don't Want To Dance (With Nobody Else)' and 'I Shoulda Loved Ya' in the late '70s. In 1980, Narada's career took another surprising twist when he consciously sought to move into the world of pop and R&B production starting with precociously-talented teenage singing prodigy, Stacy Lattisaw. When her Narada-helmed Cotillion album, 'Let Me Be An Angel,' was a smash hit, the phone started ringing with offers of production work and eventually led the producer to work with some of the greatest voices in R&B, including Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Phyllis Hyman, the Four Tops and many others. In the second part of Charles Waring's interview with Narada - whose new album, 'Evolution,' finds him returning to an accessible soul/funk groove - he looks back at his time playing with jazz-rock guitarist Jeff Beck, making his own solo breakthrough on Atlantic Records, and metamorphosing into a top pop and R&B producer in the 1980s when he helmed memorable hits for Aretha and Whitney...

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 November 2015 17:16

 

BACK IN THE GROOVE - NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN SPEAKS

Thursday, 05 November 2015 12:47 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

Narada_largeHe's been a jazz-rock drummer, a funky, hit-making disco dude, and a stellar R&B and pop producer whose achievements include twenty number one records and three Grammy awards. His name is NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN, and in truth, there aren't many CVs in the music business that are able to rival his. But all that success and all those accolades - as impressive as they are - aren't able to match Walden's proudest and most recent achievement: being a father. "It's mind blowing," confesses Narada, now sixty-three, talking from the heart of his Tarpan studio complex in San Rafael in sunny California. "I never was going to have kids. In 1974, when I became a disciple of Guru Sri Chinmoy, he said to me, 'just throw your life into your music,' and so all I ever did was fill my life with music all those years." His single-mindedness, focus and dedication to his art certainly paid off handsomely but his life trajectory altered and followed a new course a few years ago. "Guru passed away and my life went through a bit of a change, took a turn, and presto, voila, I got children and I just feel really blessed by the whole thing."

Becoming a family man certainly inspired Narada's latest recording venture, 'Evolution,' arguably his most exciting studio project for many a year. It finds the former Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report drummer putting his dancing shoes back on and reviving memories of his disco hits in the late-'70s and early-'80s when infectious records like his biggest UK smash, 'I Shoulda Loved Ya,' blew up big in the clubs and stormed the charts. Packed with strong songs that boast memorable choruses over addictively funky grooves, 'Evolution' looks set to ignite an exciting new phase in the Narada's career, whose solo work largely went on the back burner once he became an in-demand record producer.

In the first instalment of SJF's two-part in-depth interview with R&B's hardest working multitasker, Narada Michael Walden tells Charles Waring about his new album. A passionate and engaging interviewee who exudes positivity, humour and, despite his success, great humility, Narada also reflects on his past and the influences, people, experiences and events that helped shape him as a musician and human being...

 

Last Updated on Sunday, 08 November 2015 10:09

 

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