originally published March 29, 2007
by Lorrie Irby Jackson
The first time Maurice White had a vision, it was 1969. That's when the 28-year-old Memphis-born and Chicago-based percussionist left the Ramsey Lewis Trio and formed his own band, which he called the Salty Peppers. When their singles ("La La Time" and "Uh-Huh Yea") failed to make waves on the national chart, Mr. White decided to follow the call of the West Coast – and his astrological chart.
He moved to Los Angeles, recruited younger and more progressive musicians, and renamed the band after the primary elements of his astrological table: Earth, Wind and Fire. And today, nearly 40 years later, EW&F has become one of the most enduring and influential acts in popular music, successfully merging components of funk, jazz, soul, gospel and even African rhythms with a spiritual twist.
Songs such as "Devotion," "Be Ever Wonderful" and "Shining Star," the group's first commercial smash, continue to inspire newer generations of artists, which is why Mr. White conceptualized Interpretations, the debut release of the rejuvenated Stax Records imprint that includes a lineup of established artists (Chaka Khan, Kirk Franklin and Lalah Hathaway) and evolving soul stars (Dwele, Ledisi and Musiq Soulchild) each putting their individual spins on some of the band's most beloved hits.
Ron Derhacopian , Stokley Williams and Maurice White admired each other's work, and found collaboration rewarding. Shortly before the CD's release, Mr.White and Stokley Williams – the lead singer and percussionist for Mint Condition, perhaps one of R&B's last self-contained bands – discussed their collaboration from their home bases of Los Angeles and St. Paul, Minn., respectively, as well as their opinions on why R&B bands are now a rarity.
"The idea for the project just dropped out of the sky," says Mr. White, who hasn't toured with the band since the mid-'90s because of his battle with Parkinson's disease. However, the 65-year-old still contributes lyrics, arrangements and vocals in the studio, such as on the Grammy-nominated 2005 CD Illumination. "We made a list of artists and allowed them the opportunity to select the songs they desired to do and felt that they could do a good job on. It was an adventure for all of us."
Knowing that he might intimidate even the most confident of performers, Mr. White resisted the temptation to advise during the recording sessions.
"My presence would've forced them to do the song the way I wrote it, which was not the objective," he says, chuckling. "Due to the fact that it was an interpretation album, it was time for them to do the song the way they heard or felt it, so the first time I had heard the product, it was already finished."
On the CD's first single, "September," gospel's crossover king Mr. Franklin brings his familiar buoyant groove, underscoring new lyrics of healing and hope. MéShell NdegéOcello lends a raw, rocked-out edge to the ethereal "Fantasy," and the quintet Mint Condition creates a new emotive version of the ballad "After the Love Is Gone."
Mr. White says he was blown away by the remake from Mint Condition, a band he's admired from a distance for years.
"They are among the artists that are really trying to perfect their craft; a lot of creativity is stifled by the economics of record labels, so artists don't have the opportunity to experiment musically. Everything comes out sounding one-dimensional, which is a loss. They follow the trend instead of separating themselves from the crowd. I think that Mint Condition is trying very hard to do that and they're an incredible band."
Mr. Williams, 39, has frequently covered "Love's Holiday" in live performances with his band, but never imagined working one-on-one with the legend.
"I'm still high from the whole experience; he's just so spiritual and soulful. I walked up to him and said, 'Mr. White, I have a lot of questions,' and he said, 'Well, I have a lot of answers,' " he says, laughing. "He's one of my major musical heroes. They upped the standards for live performance and entertainment, with their arrangements, the lyrics, the concepts, the artwork, everything. The whole band is a university, a school within itself. They made their mark and said, 'Here's how it's supposed to be done.' "
Mint Condition has incorporated the lessons, performing for more than 15 years and creating classics of their own, including the pop and R&B smash, 1991's "Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)." The band's fifth CD, 2005's Livin' the Luxury Brown, debuted at No. 1 on the Top Independent Albums chart and spawned the R&B hit "I'm Ready."
Mr. Williams echoes Mr. White's sentiments as to why so few soul bands remain in the market today. "You can record on a laptop, basically, and have it sound like a full band, so it's cheaper for labels that way. ... They want to keep things cost-efficient. It can also cost more to move a group around, and labels don't want to have to figure out the ways. So because of that, it's hard for the bands to get the visibility that they need.
"We would love to see another band out there doing it fresh, but there's a lot of politics involved, and that's another ...bowl of wax. There's a whole different standard for people of color."
The everlasting appeal of the songs featured on Interpretations, as well as the mutual respect shown by the artists covering them, shows that, like Mr.. White, one needs talent, tenacity as well as a vision to succeed.
"The business is a big part of it, but focus on the craft first," Mr. Williams advises. "That's what's gonna sustain you, whether it's lyrics, rapping or singing, and make sure that you are well-studied.
"A lot of new artists are so consumed with the imagery part of it that they forget why they're there in the first place. Entitlement in the business is so rampant now, but you've gotta earn it."