ANYONE who's seen hyperkinetic bassist Verdine White work the stage during an Earth, Wind & Fire show will chuckle at the fact that the group's 30th anniversary tour is being sponsored by Viagra. Like White, the band still has plenty of pep in its step, which may explain why White has yet to hear any Viagra jokes.
"Maybe they say it behind our back," White concedes, "but it's not been a problem, even with [syndicated radio host] Tom Joyner, who's always looking for the joke."
In fact, the Pfizer sponsorship is part of the company's ongoing men's health initiative and will include free health screenings at MCI Center. Says White, "We're just doing what we've always done, which is take health to a higher level."
Of course, that would include mental and spiritual health, cornerstones of Earth, Wind & Fire's work since the mid '70s, when it first dazzled the public with uplifting messages of racial unity and cosmic consciousness amid its precision-tooled funk tunes and earnest ballads.
Both massively popular and innovative, Earth, Wind & Fire changed the face of black popular music: It was the first group to champion its African cultural heritage through visually resplendent stage costumes and mystical album cover art. With the help of magicians Doug Henning and a very young David Copperfield, they developed eye-popping, special effects-filled shows that made them the first black act to headline arenas alone.
All that, says White, was a reflection of the '70s, which, he suggests, were just as politically chaotic and socially expansive as the more vaunted '60s.
"Often, music reflects the times that people are living in, and at that time, there was a major revolution going on in America, and the whole culture was changing," White recalls. "There were a lot of new types of thinking coming in politically, spiritually, culturally. It was one of the most explosive, and one of the best times, that America really had."
"We came up in an environment where it was a little more community-minded," says vocalist Philip Bailey. "It was the in thing to be spiritually searching, to be aware of one's self, one's environment, one's humanity. We came along in a time when all that was fashionable and our message was in keeping with all that stuff. I don't think it would fly so much today because it's just become a me/mine society: get yours, forget everybody else."
White, Bailey and percussionist-vocalist Ralph Johnson are the only three original band members still touring with Earth, Wind & Fire. The group's founder, creative mastermind and spiritual visionary, Maurice White, retired from the road in 1996, announcing a few years later that he was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Maurice White still writes for, records with and produces the band and, along with the touring trio, is the heart of "Shining Stars," a new 90-minute documentary that traces the band's amazing journey from false starts in Chicago in the late '60s to its January 2000 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Maurice White had moved to Chicago from Memphis to work as a session drummer for Chess Records and spent three years touring and recording with jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis before putting together the first version of the band in 1970, though it took a failed two-album stint with Warner Bros. Records and wholesale personnel change before Earth, Wind & Fire found its musical and aesthetic focus.
According to Bailey, what Maurice White brought to the table was jazz-rooted musical sophistication and a strong consciousness about black, and particularly African, history: "Coming from Chicago, Maurice was a lot more culturally aware."
For example, White was the first to popularize the kalimba, the small African thumb-piano that provided a signature sound on Earth, Wind & Fire albums, adding an ancient element to a modern sound blending jazz and soul through an irresistible groove. The Afrocentric cosmology that would fuel the band's success began to take shape in the '70s, by which time they'd moved to Columbia Records and broken through to a wider audience with the soundtrack to 1975's otherwise forgettable movie "That's the Way of the World," featuring Harvey Keitel as a conniving A&R man and Earth, Wind & Fire as his unwitting pawns.
"It really wasn't a great film," says Verdine White. "I only saw it one time, in the editing room, which may give you a clue what I thought about it."
The film stiffed but the album produced two No. 1 R&B hits, the melodramatic, Bailey-falsetto-focused "Reasons" and the anthemic "Shining Star," which also topped the pop charts, earned the group its first Grammy and turned Earth, Wind & Fire into one of the most popular and influential bands of the decade.
The new documentary goes to great lengths to credit some of the crucial contributors to the band's success -- producer Charles Stepney (who died of a heart attack in 1976), choreographer George Faison and fashion designer Bill Witten.
"Charles Stepney taught us to take our music seriously," says Verdine White. "When we started having hit records, he would constantly tell us to keep going forward. He made us better writers and really took us to the next level."
So did George Faison, the former Alvin Ailey dancer who was the first African American choreographer to win a Tony Award (for "The Wiz"). As for Witten, who also designed stage clothing for the Jacksons and the Commodores, he was "a genius. Even now, we use one of Bill's students, Louis Wells. The best thing that ever happened to us was that those guys were tough on us because they made us take our work really, really seriously.
"We were fortunate to have several masters around us."
By the early '80s, however, Earth, Wind & Fire found itself spent, physically and creatively, and broke up. Maurice White moved to production while Bailey launched a solo career, finding success in both the gospel and pop fields. In the latter, he shared a No. 1 hit -- "Easy Lover" -- with Phil Collins, who hired Earth, Wind & Fire's fabled Fenix Horns on his 1985 solo breakthrough album, "No Jacket Required."
Time proved a healer and the band reunited in 1987 on the album "Touch the World," which produced its eighth and most recent No. 1 hit, "System of Survival." Since Maurice White's retirement in 1996 (his farewell performance is captured on "Greatest Hits Live"), the group's lead vocals have been assumed by Bailey, who says his solo career "allowed me to step into this role and not be intimidated."
According to Bailey, "as rewarding as Earth, Wind & Fire was, it was still somewhat limiting for me as a vocalist because my showcasing was primarily in my falsetto. It was my trademark and all that, but it's not all of my range. Nor was the subject matter we sang about all I wanted to sing about. I had to do something else to help develop my lower register, but I didn't in my wildest imagination think I would be in the place I am now."
Still, Bailey concedes that within the group, "Verdine is really the fire. He just really loves what he does, puts 150 percent into it."
It's a lesson learned from a legendary baseball hero, says White. "I still try to work as hard as when I started because I once read an article on Joe DiMaggio and they asked him why he played so hard. And he said, 'Because there's probably somebody who never saw me.' And I feel the same way -- no matter how successful you've been, there's always going to be somebody who never saw you."
Next year will see the release of Earth, Wind & Fire's 23rd album, which may or may not include studio collaborations with Wyclef Jean and Eric Benet. In addition, Sony Legacy, which in 1992 released a three-CD, 55-track retrospective, "The Eternal Dance," will be releasing "That's the Way of the World: Alive in '75," capturing the band in peak form and thrilling one person who never saw Earth, Wind & Fire from the audience's point of view -- Philip Bailey. The new collection, as well as another 1975 artifact, the mostly live "Gratitude," will be released in Super Audio CD, the high-definition DVD-style format that's expected to replace the audio-only CD.
"Man, it's incredible!," gushes Bailey. "I've always said I would like to have seen or been in the audience to see what people were experiencing. Aside from actually seeing it, you can hear it just like people were hearing it when they were at an arena, with the audience screaming around you, the bass separation, the speakers in five different directions. It's amazing." It's pure Earth, Wind & Fire.
EARTH, WIND & FIRE -- Appearing Friday at MCI Center with Rufus featuring Chaka Khan. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Earth, Wind & Fire, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8131. (Prince William residents, call 703/690-4110.)