Earth, Wind & Fire, the famed soul/funk/fusion band, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. But instead of relaxing with drinks on the sidelines, as are most bands of that age, EWF has been performing before packed houses, including New York's Madison Square Garden. The band is a noteworthy story of survival—all the more so because the White House had a hand in making EWF relevant to a new generation.
In February, the group performed in the East Room of the White House at the Governors' Ball. It was the Obamas' first formal dinner. And it set the cultural tone for a president who had previously put Earth, Wind & Fire (along with Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and the Rolling Stones) among the pop influences of his teen years. The president's senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, told me that Obama had never considered having any other group for that event. The band, of course, did not know that. When the call from White House social secretary Desirée Rogers came in on his cell phone, band co-leader Verdine White believed her to be a telemarketer and didn't give her a chance to finish her pitch. "When she called back, she said 'Verdine, you know me'," he recalled. "She said, 'We need you for the Governors' Ball.' We had 10 days to put it together, man. Ten days."
The experience, naturally, was exciting. "The president came to rehearsal. When he walked in the room we felt this heat; and he was standing right next to us," recalls White. "He said, 'Hey man.' And I said, 'Hey, Mr. President.'" But the White House appearance did more than just give the band members a thrill, "I think what it did, it validated us in this era," says White.
The band's manager, Damien Smith, agrees. "When Oprah says something, everybody listens. When the president says something, it has the same effect. For the first time in 25 years, the guys are playing arenas," he says. Over the past several months, along with the group Chicago, EWF has been playing huge venues. The groups just finished a 30-city tour that took them to the Allstate Arena in Chicago, the Agganis Arena in Boston, the Target Center in Minneapolis and other giant spaces. Fans (and they ranged from teenagers to senior citizens) who brought in cans of food to be donated to charity were allowed to download some of the group's music.
President Obama, says White, "has given credibility to great music, you know really good music, from jazz to pop to like Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Wynton Marsalis. He actually told people, 'Look, check this kind of music out. These are my guys. This is what I grew up with." White believes part of the reason the music resonated—with Obama and with the public—is that the vision that motivated his older brother, Maurice White, to form the band, is similar to Obama's own: "All that work that Maurice did in putting together a band that would appeal to all types of people really is the same type of appeal that [Obama] is talking about. It's a sixties message that, at some times, people thought was kind of hokey. But through the lyric, giving people a sense of hope, the country caught up to us in a funny kind of way."
I must confess a personal interest in the band's music. Like many baby boomers, I came up listening to it. Shining Star, September, After the Love Has Gone were all part of the backdrop of my young adulthood. But I also feel a personal, more intimate connection. As a teen, I was part of a three-member band. We called ourselves The Three Beats. Verdine was the bass player, I was the pianist, and his brother, Freddie, a drummer, rounded out the trio. Shortly after the band broke up because the White brothers moved to a new neighborhood, Maurice came up with the concept for Earth, Wind & Fire—a band unlike anything around. Maurice, a drummer, was playing with pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis, who, as Verdine recalls, thought the idea was crazy: "When Maurice was getting ready to put the group together, he told Ramsey what he was going to do. He said, 'We're going to have nine different people. We're going to play all over the world. We're going to have people flying through the air. We're going to have lights.' And Ramsey told Maurice, 'Go back to bed.' But it happened."
Verdine and I came up in a pretty tough neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. We lived in a group of housing projects called Henry Horner, which mercifully has been torn down. Yet we both dreamed of something larger for ourselves. When I asked White what made his own faith possible, he answered: "We didn't have a lot of money, but we had a lot of integrity. Having a great older brother who took me under his wing and brought me around great people, older men who protected me, you saw what you could aspire to do. We didn't call them mentors then, we called them older cats. I think it may be harder now."
White's mission, of course, was music. My passion was writing. And we both managed to find people who believed in us. When I first heard the lyric, "You're a shining star, no matter who you are," I felt I knew I knew precisely where it had come from. For the message was one that had defined our—my and Verdine's—lives. Unfortunately, it's a message kids in tough neighborhoods don't hear nearly often enough.