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Earth, Wind & Fire is forever in the groove

From left: Kennedy Center Honors recipients Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, original members of Earth, Wind & Fire photographed at the Eighteenth Street Lounge in Washington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — For 40 years, Earth, Wind & Fire’s irresistibly bouncy dance anthem “September” has rocked countless bodies at weddings, proms and other celebrations. It has launched hundreds of millions of Spotify streams and inspired “21st of September” parties around the globe.

But if you asked EWF founder and guiding force Maurice White why he put such a passionate and specific call in the lyrics to remember the 21st night of September, he would always say there was no reason. That date was simply the number that sounded the best in the song.

He was lying.

“He immediately sang ‘the 21st night of September’ ” when working on the song, said Allee Willis, who co-wrote it with him and guitarist Al McKay. Willis persuaded White to try other dates, but “the 21st, for some reason, was the most in the pocket.” She accepted his nonchalant explanation for why he gravitated to that date, until last year, when Willis went to lunch with his wife, Marilyn.

As the two dined, an autograph seeker interrupted to ask Willis about the significance of the 21st.

“It happens 15 times a day,” she said. “I said what I always say: ‘Nothing. It just sang the best.’ It breaks their hearts.

“But then Marilyn said: ‘Are you kidding? There was total significance. Our son was supposed to be born on that day.’ ”

Willis had worked closely with White, collaborating for a month on “September” without ever knowing the backstory of his son Kahbran, named for the writer and artist Kahlil Gibran. (The boy ended up arriving early, on Aug. 1, 1978.)

“It took this random thing at a restaurant for me to learn what it meant,” she said. “But when Marilyn first heard the song, she felt like he did it for her, which I’m sure he did. He was a pretty private guy.”

White died in 2016 at 74, having lived with Parkinson’s disease since the 1990s. His absence from the festivities on Dec. 8, when Earth, Wind & Fire receives the Kennedy Center Honors, makes the prize bittersweet for the band he formed nearly 50 years ago.

“The only thing that we wish is that Maurice was here to celebrate with us,” said vocalist and bongo player Philip Bailey back in the early fall, sitting alongside drummer Ralph Johnson and bassist Verdine White, Maurice’s younger brother. The three EWF original members, all 68, were gathered in a dressing room at the Hollywood Bowl, where they would soon stroll onto the stage for the last of two sold-out shows. The night before, under a full yellow moon, 17,000 fans screamed when the band appeared, and eagerly helped turn their first number, “Sing a Song,” with its up-tempo, doo-woppy guitar intro and cheerful horns, into a euphoric, full-throated singalong.

Fronting an ensemble of nine other musicians, Bailey, Johnson and Verdine White sang all the familiar favorites and bounded around as if they were caught in a time warp. In the 1970s and ’80s EWF was known for shows that included elaborate magic tricks, flying pianos and exploding pyramids. Now there’s another kind of magic, an ebullience of dance energy and vocal power that looks and sounds as if the band has never aged. White, his long glossy hair falling to the shoulders of his white frock coat, pounded the stage like a man who’d downed a dozen espresso shots. Bailey, famous for his four-octave voice, sent his falsetto soaring in such songs as “Reasons” and “Fantasy.” Johnson stepped away from the drums to spend much of the set singing and dancing on the front line.

“September” was the finale, punctuated by fireworks. It was tempting to believe that somewhere in that brightly lit night, as the earth rocked and the wind sang and fire streaked through the sky, Maurice White was still around.

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EWF, one of the most distinctive, innovative and best-selling bands of all time, is the first African American band to be awarded the Kennedy Center Honors. But accepting the Honors without Maurice, EWF’s drummer, singer, songwriter, producer and conscience, puts the remaining original band members in a situation sadly similar to the Eagles in 2016, when three members received the Honors without founder Glenn Frey, who died a few weeks before White in 2016.

“We were surprisingly thrown the responsibility of carrying on the legacy,” says Bailey. White “started the fire, and we’ve kept it burning.”

A collective identity was forged in that fire. Bailey, Verdine White and Johnson, all a decade younger than Maurice White, have spent more of their lives together than apart. They have been making music together since they were barely out of their teens.

They learned to get along when they were crammed into a station wagon in the lean early years.

“Except they wouldn’t let me drive,” says White, feigning annoyance.

“Don’t get me started,” says Bailey, parrying with a laugh. “He just wasn’t the best driver. And we’re driving from city to city, and you had to have those navigating skills. Your phone wasn’t telling you which way to go.”

Philip was the best driver,” White says magnanimously, and there’s agreement all around.

“We’re very fortunate that the chemistry between us is harmonious,” says Bailey. “And it’s not fake or phony. That’s a real treat, because you know marriages don’t …” He shoots a look at his bandmates, and they all bust out laughing.

“Don’t last that long,” Johnson finishes for him.

“Mine didn’t,” says Bailey, reflecting on two marriages that ended in divorce.

“We’re like brothers,” says White. “We learned together and learned music from each other, and life. And so when we get together now it’s beautiful. It’s just really like, we’re having this conversation now but we’re not even talking. We feel each other.”

“The key word, as Philip said, is chemistry,” says Johnson. “You don’t get that in all groups. You just don’t.”

“No, no, no,” Bailey chimes in, with a rhythmic ticktock that almost turns the exchange into a song. “You don’t even get that in most families.”

EWF was always a big band, with eight or nine consistent members not including the horn players, who tended to swap out a bit more frequently. How did such a big group stay together for so long?

“The thing is, from a business standpoint, we’ve been really fortunate,” says Bailey. “We’ve worked. Obviously you wouldn’t be able to keep together a band and crew and all that kind of stuff if there weren’t gigs, and if there weren’t a lot of gigs.”

The gigs became so overwhelming that Maurice White disbanded EWF briefly in 1984; he was tired from 15 years of touring. He’d plowed all his energy into the band, having dreamed it into existence as a way to promote and celebrate what had gotten him through a difficult youth. White grew up in the projects of Memphis, raised by a family friend after his mother moved to Chicago for work. He wrote in his 2016 memoir, “Maurice White: My Life With Earth, Wind & Fire,” about being beaten by police for being black, bullied by classmates for being light-skinned. He found refuge in music, first in the church choir and then in playing drums, inspired by the shiny suits of the local drum and bugle corps. At 18 he moved to Chicago, to join his mother and family there, and became a house drummer at Chess Records, playing for Etta James, Muddy Waters and Ramsey Lewis. He toured the world with Lewis’s jazz trio for several years in the ’60s.

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In 1969, White formed a band with some friends called the Salty Peppers; after they moved to Los Angeles he renamed it for the elements on his astrological chart — Earth, Wind (more dramatic than “air”) & Fire.

He knew exactly what sound, look and message he wanted in the new iteration. First, music that embraced the world: jazz, funk, R&B, soul, Afro-Cuban, classical, Dixieland and rock, with bouncy, driving rhythms and a distinctive sense of swing. He also wanted the band to dress sharply, like that drum corps he’d admired, in bright costumes that caught the light.

And they’d sing about love, spiritual bliss and living right.

“I’ve always felt that they were the ultimate band,” said Donnie Simpson, the longtime Washington radio DJ. “They had incredible grooves and musicianship, but it was music on a deeper level. Not just love songs, but songs that said, ‘You’ve got to love you.’ ”

Simpson recites White’s rap from “All About Love”: “You got to love all the beautiful things around you, the trees and the birds, and if there ain’t no beauty, you’ve got to make some beauty, have mercy.”

“I’ve never heard a better statement than that, that says the best things in life are free,” Simpson said.

White built EWF into a force, an optimistic movement and a creative vanguard of the almighty groove. The core was tightknit — Verdine, who had grown up in Chicago; Bailey, from Denver, the high-pitched yin to Maurice’s baritone yang; keyboardist Larry Dunn, also from Denver; Johnson, from Los Angeles, and the assertively percussive guitarist Al McKay, born in New Orleans and steeped in Dixieland.

They recorded eight platinum-selling albums and won seven Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award. The diversity of the band’s fan base, clearly in evidence at the Hollywood Bowl concerts this fall, was matched by its musical nonconformity, the mix of genres EWF threw together with such authority and polish. Maurice White called it “spectrum music.” By the late 1970s, with their record sales, awards and touring numbers, they were the biggest band in the world, he writes. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

In November, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery honored EWF at its American Portrait Gala, unveiling a beautiful 1978 portrait of the band in gleaming tunics and bell-bottoms.

With dazzling light shows and illusions designed by David Copperfield, the live concerts were surreal spectacles enhanced by the dance moves of Tony award-winning choreographer George Faison. Yet the music never took a back seat to the showmanship. In their sparkling African robes and metallic bodysuits, EWF members sang seamless, earnest odes to human fellowship and higher consciousness.

Some of those tunes have a gently rolling, soothing vibe, in songs like “That’s the Way of the World”: Plant your flower/and you grow a pearl …

Other songs are deeply funky, with a smoking-hot groove, but are no less spiritual: “Getaway;” “Fantasy,” with Bailey’s ascending vocals lifting you vicariously into the air as they project the theme of eternal life; and the cryptic, mystical “Serpentine Fire,” mixing syncopated African rhythms, tango and gospel calls.

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White “was trying philosophically to affect the whole world,” said Allee Willis. “To give a message that everyone is part of the same thing. You may see yourself as a separate individual but we are all connected. So don’t [expletive] it up. He was preaching responsibility to the whole, to the planet, to the population.”

Willis said she knew from the second she heard McKay’s string-pulling guitar intro that “September” was going to be a hit. Of course, she also needed it to be a hit. She’d been living on food stamps when Maurice White, who had a penchant for gambling on young talent, enlisted her help with “September.” The song shot to the top of the U.S. Billboard R&B chart as part of “The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. 1” album in 1978. He also asked her to co-write several songs for the “I Am” album that came out the following year.

“Everything was about feeling” in the “September” lyrics, Willis said. “But the nonsensical phrase ‘ba-dee-ya’ — that, I had trouble with.” In such a passionate love song, the chorus of “ba-dee-ya, dee-ya, dee-ya” was going to turn people off, she feared. Finally, on their last night of working, she begged White to change the line.

“ ‘September’ was due at midnight,” she said. “It was 10 till midnight, and ‘ba-dee-ya’ was still there. And I was on my knees. This was desperation time. . . . And I just yelled, ‘What the [expletive] does ‘ba-dee-ya’ mean?’ He said, ‘Who the [expletive] cares?’ ”

What Willis learned that night: “Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”

She is glad she lost the battle over “ba-dee-ya,” which became one of the most debated and garbled lyrics in pop. The guesses that people have made about what that chorus is — “party on” and “on and on” top the list — have kept her entertained ever since.

“They were fearless,” said David Foster, the record producer, composer, songwriter and arranger who also got his big break from White and worked with numerous top groups because of it. He wrote much of the music with Maurice White on the “I Am” album, including “In the Stone,” which was not only a hit for the band but has become an instrumental classic with marching bands and drum corps.

“Maurice is the only producer I have ever met in my life that the more stuff he put on the tracks, the better they sounded,” Foster said. “Some of those tracks have four or five guitar parts, horns, strings, four or five percussion parts, all going into a complicated sound. I was always amazed at how he could do that. It was his innate sense, his ear.”

“Drake or Chris Brown, they owe a debt to Earth, Wind & Fire,” he continued. “Listen to Bruno Mars, there’s solid Earth, Wind & Fire in there, in the shape of the songs, the horn licks and the rhythms.”

But if other groups have borrowed from EWF’s brass fanfares, bouncy rhythms and hearty mix of genres, joy remains a singular hallmark. No mainstream group or solo artist embodies that emotion as thoroughly as EWF.

“That’s the extraordinary difference in our DNA,” says Bailey. “Maurice wanted to have a group — and this was his quote — that ‘rendered a service to humanity.’ He wanted to craft that music, that philosophy, that lyric that really had a sense of hope and optimism, but still speaks to life the way it is.”

EWF songs inspired a generation, and then another, and now a new one that loses itself to “Reasons” and “September” at its own weddings, proms and bar mitzvahs. The band still asks its fans to be part of something bigger than themselves. To break out of conventional thinking, live life with passion and keep moving forward.

And always trust the groove.

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