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When we asked Verdine White, bass player and founding member of Earth, Wind & Fire, for an interview we didn't really think he would say yes. He's too legendary. It's like he exists on a different plane from the rest of us.
Underneath most of hip-hop the foundation is R&B, particularly the insanely talented bands of the '70s and '80s. And the relationship between the musicians who work in each genre is familial, like sometimes respectful, sometimes grouchy, but always close.
So we wanted to talk to Verdine about how Earth, Wind & Fire worked, and what he learned by being part of his older brother's band for all those years, touring the world and making music that enthralled millions and millions of people for going on, like, four decades. And how he feels about the music he made showing up inside the music all these younger generations have made in the form of samples and influence.
So here you go, yet another dream come true.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: What up, Mr. White?
VERDINE WHITE: Happy New Year.
FRANNIE KELLEY: Happy New Year!
VERDINE WHITE: This is a great way to start the new year off, and thank you for having me. Good to be here.
FRANNIE: I feel the same.
ALI: Thank you so much for being here.
VERDINE WHITE: Thank you for having me.
ALI: We're just so honored. You're a legend, an icon, and a hero for so many human beings, music lovers, non-music lovers. Me specifically, I'm trying not to fan out here on you.
VERDINE WHITE: That's alright. That's OK. You're allowed.
ALI: You know, Tribe Called Quest sampled you, you guys, and we have a title track, "Mr. Muhammad," behind you guys. But just such an exemplary of what a musician should be. Not just a musician, cause we're bigger than musicians. We're human beings. I think that's the one thing as a kid, listening to you guys' music, was about dreaming and being beyond where you are in the present. And just to even hear Earth, Wind & Fire sounds like -- just those words alone sounds like the alpha and omega of imagination.
VERDINE WHITE: Well, you know, the person that gets all the credit is my brother Maurice. You were talking about the alpha and omega and things like that. He was the one that came up with the concept of Earth, Wind & Fire. Now mind you, he was a jazz drummer with Ramsey Lewis, the great Ramsey Lewis Trio out of Chicago. And then Reece also was a session musician at Chess Records, and he played on a lot of hit records, "Rescue Me," Fontella Bass. He was 21, 22 years old, but then he had this idea about this group he was working on, a group that could do all types of things.
And originally the group's name was called the Salty Peppers. I joke, "It was really well thought out, right?" And Reece decided to call the group Earth, Wind & Fire after his astrological chart. In his chart, he had no water. So he had earth, air, and fire, and he decided to change it to wind.
But really what he was talking about was really music. He was a superb musician, knew the history of the music, like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and he instilled that with us, the musicality. Even in the first records that we did, the first two records, The Need Of Love and the first records, the foundation of the sound was there. Of course it progressed over the years and things like that, as we evolved and grew.
But really all credits -- we would not be here, I would not be sitting here, if it hadn't been for Maurice.
ALI: I can't imagine -- I mean, so many questions on just your relationship as brothers, let alone what you've all created through the decades, but what was it like? Can you give just a small glimpse into living in Chicago? And I'm going to pull out a year, like 1961.
VERDINE WHITE: From Chicago, it's a very urban city, very important city musically, culturally. You had jazz. You had the blues, cause you had Howlin' Wolf. But you had a lot of other stuff too. You had Ramsey. You had the Afro-Arts Theater. You had the AACM. It was a very cultural thing.
So we grew up in that culture. My late dad was a doctor. My mother was a schoolteacher, teacher's aide. So we had a lot of musical influences, artistic influences, different types of influences, and there was always a lot of music. Cause although my father was a doctor, he played saxophone. He played drums. And he always stressed that, if we were going to play those instruments, to learn them properly. So we took lessons.
And then Maurice was 10 years older than me, so he was, like, the cat. Cool. Smooth. Brilliantly talented. So I would watch him. He'd bring records home, cause back then they would record the records on Monday and they would be out on the radio on Fridays. So I would get the radio copies of the 45s of what they had just recorded. So I was learning as I was coming up. Although I didn't play with Maurice until I came to California.
VERDINE WHITE: I never played with him.
ALI: So you guys never -- like, not even in the home? Just --
VERDINE WHITE: No. Not him. I played with my brother Freddie, cause we were around the same age.
ALI: Closer in age.
VERDINE WHITE: But Maurice was 10 years older. I wasn't cool enough, first of all. I was too young. And I didn't know enough.
ALI: Did he give you that sort of treatment? Like, eh, not take you seriously?
VERDINE WHITE: No. Not at all. Not at all, not at all. He always took me seriously. When I would go to the record dates with his buddies, I would just sit there and watch how they did. And then one day, he said, "Listen. You gotta come down, because just in case the bass player don't make it, you can take over."
VERDINE WHITE: Although the bass player made it. And I didn't take over.
ALI: But he was encouraging you, giving you --
VERDINE WHITE: Right. But I wasn't ready either. I wasn't ready. And so for me it was a great, great foundation. And then he joined Ramsey in 1965, and he left Ramsey in 1970, April 1970. And I was just starting my first year of college at the American Conservatory of Music.
ALI: What kind of impression did jazz have upon you at that time? Because from '60 to '68 is such a range of changes that was happening and styles that were coming across I guess from the switchover from the '50s.
VERDINE WHITE: Yeah, well, you know the '50s was hard bop, with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. Miles was in there too. But don't forget, as the '60s moved, Miles moved with it. He moved with it with records like Miles In The Sky. That was a great record that he had John McLaughlin on. He was actually -- Miles was the one that pushing that music that ended up being this jazz fusion thing.
And so Maurice was moving himself towards that. Because when he was with Ramsey, he was pushing Ramsey. Ramsey was doing The In Crowd, Wade In The Water, very pop jazz. But later on, Maurice started moving Ramsey towards songs like "Maiden Voyage" that Herbie was doing. And then they started cutting songs like that, opening up the gap of the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
And then I was listening as a young kid. My brother Freddie was listening. And I bought every record that I could buy. In terms of just listening to where it was going. Chick Corea had a record Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. He had great bass player named Miroslav Vitouš playing upright, out of Yugoslavia. So it was moving. The music was moving. It was leaving the hard changes, the bop changes, and it went to, like, one chord, modal, things like that.
And then my bass guitar teacher, the late Louis Satterfield, who ended up being our trombone player in the Phenix Horns, was my bass guitar teacher. Although I was doing the classical thing. And then Reece and them, they had a group in college, Maurice and Don Myrick -- the late Don Myrick -- and Sat, and the piano player was Jack DeJohnette. Jack was the piano player. Reece was the drummer. And they won this thing called the Harvest Moon Festival in Chicago at the Chicago Stadium where the Blackhawks play.
ALI: What year was this?
VERDINE WHITE: Had to be 1961, something like that, cause my mother went. We couldn't go. My mother went. And later on we ended up doing four sold out nights at the Chicago Stadium in the worst snowstorm that Chicago ever had.
VERDINE WHITE: People were coming to see that concert in a snowstorm. So culturally that city was really great.
ALI: Yeah, that's what I wanted to get to in terms for the listeners to understand how important Chicago was at that time period and was making such an impact. Like, Muddy Waters was there.
VERDINE WHITE: Muddy was there.
ALI: And just being a kid in that time period, I'm --
VERDINE WHITE: And you had the Regal Theater where you had a chance to, like, see eight shows a week. My mother, we went Christmas holidays. Me and my sisters, we went to see James Brown at the Regal Theater.
ALI: What was that like for you?
VERDINE WHITE: Great. He had two drummers, man. I mean, just like -- and he was great. He was great. They have this show called the T.A.M.I. Show.
ALI: What's that?
VERDINE WHITE: The Stones was on it and James Brown. James Brown tore that thing up. It took them an hour and a half to calm them girls down. What you see on TV is just the Stones, but James Brown went on before the Stones. It took them an hour and a half at the Santa Monica Civic to calm them girls down.
ALI: So when you see stuff like that, how do you now say, "That's what I want to do," and how does it become a starting point for you to, I mean, aim extremely high?
VERDINE WHITE: I knew when I saw all that that I wanted to be a musician. I knew when I was, like, 10. I knew I wanted to be a musician. When I saw all that, I knew I could do that. I wanted to do it. But then I was lucky too, cause I had had mentors. I had Maurice. I had my dad. I had the late Louis Satterfield. The older -- now we call them mentors. Back then we called them the cats. I had the cats that were teaching me.
So when I would go back to high school, I would go to their rehearsals. That was my weekends, just watching them do what they would do. I would learn how to dress. I was using words like "you dig?" We were slapping five. All the stuff that guys in the high school in the lunchroom, they were not doing. They were, like, more square.
But coming out of there was great. And I was in the orchestra room 99 percent of the time, and I would take a drama class downstairs, cause our school was very artistic. Very artistic. And we used to write our own shows. What's it, Taming Of The Shrew? Right? I got best supporting actor. We were urban so we would call it Taming Of The Stew.
VERDINE WHITE: Cause we had to put our spin on it, right. And I didn't know it was actually preparing me later for Earth, Wind & Fire, working on the shows with Maurice. I didn't really know that at the time. Cause all our shows we've written ourselves. We've never had any help.
So that was the whole progression for me as a teenager. It was the best time to come up. It was very supportive. At least for me. I didn't get in trouble. I didn't get on drugs. I was really really focused, cause I had to live up to their standards.
VERDINE WHITE: Reece was no nonsense. He was -- when he put the band together, he was no nonsense. The best leader you can have to put a band together. And then he asked me to come out to California.
ALI: I remember when -- at some point I started working with Raphael, and he had the Tonys kind of trying to go towards a really rigorous sort of a work environment that kind of -- at least from my perspective from being in hip-hop, Q-Tip and I also had a very serious sort of a regimen, but it was turntables and a microphone, which was slightly a little bit different. But I remember becoming friends with Raphael, and he was just explaining to me the reason why they even went into a rigorous exercise program, and he mentioned Maurice and just Earth, Wind & Fire and you guys had -- there was a thing about raising the level of your musicianship in every aspect of your life.
VERDINE WHITE: That's right.
ALI: Could you talk about that?
VERDINE WHITE: Well actually, really, Reece really got into it -- he was there already, but he really got into it when he came here. Cause California is good for that. It's good for physical regimens. It's good for growing. You know, you have the mountains here. You can be anywhere in an hour. But it was really when he got it together here.
Because when he started Earth, Wind & Fire, you have to understand he left Ramsey Lewis, a very successful trio. I mean, the people -- kids don't know today what Ramsey really did. Ramsey was the first one that opened up this whole commercial pop thing on piano.
And even Herbie would admit to that. Cause even Herbie came to California to get some of what California offered at the time, the progression of the music, being able to put a band together and survive over a long period while you wait for it to happen if it happens, the environment.
FRANNIE: Can you think of a contemporary corollary for Ramsey? Somebody charting now?
VERDINE WHITE: It could be Robert Glasper, but Robert's actually hip hip. Ramsey didn't start that way. Although Ramsey is hip. You have to understand that at that time you didn't see a trio that could be that successful. They were selling, like -- they sold a million albums on The In Crowd. And then what happened after Reece put the Fire together, when Reece started producing, he produced a hit record on Ramsey's Sun Goddess, and that did two million. And Ramsey and Reece were always really close, even when he left the trio. They were just very close all the time.
But when Reece came here -- when I got out here, I was actually his quasi-assistant. His rules was: "You gotta make the beds up, you gotta get the mail, you gotta do all this. It's just what you gotta do." I would drop the tapes off at 9255 Sunset. We'd go hiking. He said, "If you get on drugs, I'm going to send you back to Chicago." It was a little bit more explicit, but -- and that was always me and Maurice's running joke. Everytime we did something big, I said, "Hey, man, you still going to send me back?" And he would laugh like that. Cause I had passed the test.
FRANNIE: He was like, "Maybe."
VERDINE WHITE: Cause, you know, to start a band, you have to understand, you didn't really have the same infrastructure that we have now. When people get into music now, there's already an infrastructure set up for them to at least know that there's a music business there. We didn't -- there was really no music business outside of Motown.
So a band didn't really -- you didn't know. You had the Beatles. You had -- but you really didn't have groups of color at that time, doing particularly what Reece wanted to do, a group that could do everything. Rock, pop, jazz, things like that. And you had to be disciplined because the record companies were looking at us at that time, things like that. So we had to be disciplined.
ALI: Of course. Cause it's a lot of distractions. Life distractions, you have people obviously being I guess somewhat transformed by the drugs, and you hear it in their music. And some people think that that's the golden, successful element to their music, but it becomes a destructive path. And there's other elements, I guess, of the music business that the business part of it, it takes you away from what I call the spiritual aspect of being a musician.
VERDINE WHITE: Well, yuo gotta understand also too, don't forget now, we were meditators. We brought that to the game. So we weren't distracted by a lot of that. We knew exactly what we were going to do.
And Reece, don't forget now, he's 10 years older. You know, maybe had he not been there, there would've been more peer pressure on us. Because myself and Philip being the same age, and Ralph, you do what your generation does. You all find out the same things together. You all make the same mistakes together. Whereas we didn't make them cause we had that hand of Reece over us. He was no nonsense.
And even now, with the Fire, even though we're all individuals, when we get back on stage like we did yesterday, we get right back to Earth, Wind & Fire mode. Whatever you were doing out in the world, it gets back, cause it's such -- the foundation was so strong that we still remember it. Even our staff -- we have young people in our staff that never met Maurice. I give them a copy of Maurice's autobiography as required reading so they would know really how we got there.
ALI: The root of it.
VERDINE WHITE: And what he did. And I always say Maurice is like Walt Disney. You have people working there. They're making a living, never met him. Like at Disney over there, right. Walt Disney's been around forever. And it's the same here. We've been around for quite some time, but a lot of people never met Maurice or they never met us. So we had to give them the book on how we got there.
But no, we never -- that was never a problem. That was never an issue, cause we knew we had to keep our eye on the ball. And Maurice was a whip cracker. He was a whip cracker. Matter of fact, three days before Maurice passed, I went into his house, and I was -- we were getting the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Mark was giving us all the schedules.
So every Saturday, when I'm in town, I'd go to see Maurice, cause I was the only one he would let see him. Cause he was actually afflicted with Parkinson's. He was cool though. He looked like a teenager the last time I saw him. But he would talk in a whisper like Miles. His voice, baritone, was like mine, but as he got into it, progressive, his voice sounded like Miles.
I was giving him like, "Man, we getting ready to do this. We getting ready to do this." I said, "Man, it's going to be great. We got the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. We're getting ready to go on tour. We got this." And he says, "It's going to be a good year. It's going to be a good year." I said, "Reece, let me ask you a question, man." He said, "What? What?" I said, "You still going to send me back to Chicago?" And then he looked at me and he said, "I'm thinking about it." And it was great. I can't stress enough him that instilled that.
And then he brought the late Charles Stepney to the game with us, and Charles did a lot of arrangements for Ramsey. He discovered Minnie Riperton for all those people who don't know who she is. And then he brought Stepney with us. And Stepney was our George Martin, our Quincy Jones. Cause Step did all those wonderful arrangements, and he knew a lot about music. So he would take us individually. After we would cut the tracks, Step would work with us individually all day to clean up our own parts. So he might work with Philip one day on his vocal parts, Andrew on saxophone parts, me on all my bass parts.
He was the one showed me the double stops. And then he said, "Man, do that Stanley Clarke stuff." And so after I met Stanley, I said, "Stanley, show me those double stops that Stepney was talking about."
ALI: You're going to have to show me.
VERDINE WHITE: Right, right. Right! And Step would take the bass and show me. So it was really -- we were actually in this cocoon, musically. I think we saw each other, I know, every day, all of us, for at least seven years straight. Every day.
ALI: Wow. It comes across musically because everything just seems so precision-ly perfect in every aspect. The lyrics, the arrangement, the playing, it made me wonder how often you guys rehearsed before you even went to go cut a song. Did you guys -- were you just so locked in that it was just like, "This is the song and we didn't have to really rehearse it?"
VERDINE WHITE: Well, some things we rehearsed -- we rehearsed more in the beginning before a record. But after a while, because we were together so long, we would be together all the time so we would just basically listen to the song. Reece'd play the songs down if we were writing songs. Some things we'd write at soundcheck. Some things are spontaneous. But there was a cocoon for that that we had. But the That's The Way Of The World record, which was the breakthrough record for us, we didn't rehearse.
FRANNIE: And was that the first one with Stepney?
VERDINE WHITE: No. Stepney did the Last Days And Time record, the first Columbia record for us. Actually we had done three records prior to that: The Need Of Love, Earth Wind & Fire, and Sweet Sweetback for Melvin Van Peebles, the first actually black exploitation film. But then Stepney made us more sophisticated. The Last Days And Time record was actually a very sophisticated record. It was a good record. But the other records got better because we became more raw.
We were trying to make a record -- we said, "OK. We gotta make a record." But after a while, we just said, "We just gon' make some music. Don't worry about it that it's a record." And we would just discuss the record, where we wanted to go with the record. And then we would just get in there and do it. And the way we would work, back then it was three-hour record dates.
ALI: What does that mean?
VERDINE WHITE: Like, if you did record date, you got to be over at 12, you had to be over by 3, 1 be over by 4. But with us, when we got with Clive Davis, our budget were so huge, we'd be recording for 13 hours, 15 hours. It didn't matter. We didn't have a clock. So it was creative. Some days we would cut, record, then if it didn't sound right we'd come back the next day.
ALI: In that time, were you focused on one particular arrangement or was it -- I mean, if you got 13 hours, and you have spectacular musicians, you would think you guys would record, I don't know, a whole album in a day?
VERDINE WHITE: No, that was never -- no. On paper, it probably sounds good. But we would listen back to more or less the spirit of the record, not even the individual notes, cause Reece -- we would listen. Some days we would just be listening. That'd be the date. We would just listen.
ALI: You say that, and that's really important. Because lots of times to a lot of people outside of this, when you say that, they think you just wasting time.
VERDINE WHITE: Right.
ALI: They're like -- I get asked, "So what'd you do today in the studio?" I'm like, "I just listened to a thousand records all day." It's like, "That's what you did?" I'm like, "Yeah."
VERDINE WHITE: And we would never -- we had very few guests in our recording dates, very few. So a lot of people didn't really know how we recorded.
And then Reece sometimes would say, "It's not there yet." He would always scratch his nose. "It ain't there yet." And then sometimes Reece would -- he would say, "C'mon. C'mon. We gotta go." And we knew what this meant: we gotta go. Philip would -- if you interviewed Philip and said, "Man, what does this mean?" "Oh, man, that mean Reece said we gotta go."
But sometimes we would just listen, and by listening we would know what we sounded like. And we could almost hear what the song sounded like, because we knew we were going to be playing on it. And we actually -- what I really enjoyed about it is that we were creative, but we had the precision of studio musicians. That's why it sounded so precise. It's raw, but it's precise. So sometimes we would just listen.
And Reece would play me songs, and he'd say, "Hey, man, you gotta work on this verse here." And he would give us things to work on, that we were part of the process. That's why it sounded like us. Distinctive. And then when Maurice would do his vocals -- we were never there when he did his vocals. He always would do his vocals alone. And then he would play me what he did afterwards. He'd say, "Man, come on down. I just got done." But he would work by himself.
Even when I do bass overdubs, I actually took that approach, that I only work with the producer. I don't work around maybe a hundred people.
ALI: Is that because you really want to be one with the song?
VERDINE WHITE: Well, that I'm still getting it together, you know. I'm making mistakes. I'm not there yet. And if somebody's listening who's not part of the process, it's a little distracting. And I don't take direction from two people. I only take direction from the person that I'm working with. It's like doing a movie, and you got a director, but then you got the AD saying, "Do this." "OK, hey, hang on, man. I'm only going to talk to one person." Cause you have to have one idea.
And because I've done it for a long time, I don't really -- I can demand that. I can say, "Well, I'ma do it like this." Cause I got the proof, you know what I mean? That what I'm talking about is right. But I got that from Maurice, from his vocal work. Cause he tried different things. And Reece, he would always be working. But Maurice would -- he would let me be around, as long as I didn't say anything.
ALI: Yeah. That's how I like to work. I like to work by myself, because then I can just be in my own thought and connect and figure out which way I can go, make a mistake, come back, try it again.
VERDINE WHITE: Yeah, we never had a full house in the studio. It was very, very, very serene. But a lot was going on in everybody's head though.
ALI: I was about to say there's a lot of you guys in there though.
VERDINE WHITE: What did he say there?
ALI: I just said there's a lot of you guys anyway. It's not like there were just two or three of you guys, so.
VERDINE WHITE: Yeah, but the way we worked, we did the rhythm section first. Then the horns would come in later. It was never, like, a hundred people in there. Reece was the final word on the mixes, final word on the recording. It wasn't like the horns said, "OK. Cut this up." Oh, nah nah nah. There was one producer, and that was going to be Maurice, and because he was so talented, so brilliant, the law was laid down.
ALI: Can I ask, in a cocoon-like setting, for seven years especially, how did you guys overcome a challenge in someone else's personality where in another environment it may become destructive?
VERDINE WHITE: Well, we didn't have that problem because Reece -- we looked up to him so much, and we were growing as guys, how to dress better, how to eat better, how to become adults, how to carry ourselves. So that was -- it was almost like we were going to graduate school for seven years. So along the process -- don't forget now we were taking dance classes. We were working out. We were -- for our tours, we rehearsed twice a day. We start -- the first rehearsal from like 9 to 11, take the afternoon off, have lunch, the night rehearsal's from 7 to midnight.
We still do that. On our last tour, our rehearsals were 10 hours a day. The early rehearsal we would do from 9 to 11, even now, and then we'd start again from 2 to 11, even now, our rehearsals. Then we rented a little rehearsal hall. Now we rent arenas. We rented an arena on this last tour. We do that all the time now. So we could see what the show looks like. We could try it out. And our rehearsals are long. They're not like 20 minutes. They're long rehearsals and all that. And we got that from Reece. We always did. We always did. We never change from that even now.
ALI: What does it feel like to -- you enter 2018 on a grand stage like the Rose Bowl Parade. After everything that you guys have done, you're still so important to the world. What does that feel like?
VERDINE WHITE: Well, it's very -- it's an interesting feeling. It's -- I have to say we're grateful. We're grateful that obviously were still -- have been here and stay healthy enough and stay aware and stay abreast of what's happening.
And also too we've done some -- we've grown musically. We've grown as people over time. And then we were able to really have breakthroughs with our staff, Mark Young, Damien Smith, our manager, with Irving Azoff. About maybe almost 12, 15 years ago we made some major changes where we wanted to change our staff and change management, and because of it we were able to grow. And people from different generations that helped us to grow, making us push the envelope, and we were --
ALI: Like, for an example, when you say that --
VERDINE WHITE: Well, working with Raphael. Cause Raphael was one of the first. On the Illumination record, he worked with Maurice and we said, "We can get Raph. Man." Cause you know, Raph is raw. We call him Raph for those that don't know. You gotta know him. That's for us inside guys. For the rest of the public, he's Raphael Saadiq. But for us. I mean, he was great for us, because his standards, you know, up here.
And Raphael worked with me by myself. And he was the one. There's a string called Black Diamonds. Raphael turned me on. On my bass. I still use them. And what happened was I was with Raphael, Raph, and so he gave me -- he said, "You need this in your life."
ALI: That's amazing.
VERDINE WHITE: And I've been using Black Diamond strings for 15 years cause of Raphael. So we learned a lot. We learned a lot.
And we were to able to really grow as we walked into the 21st century and embraced technology, embraced social media, embraced the younger people. Then we had a change to work with the Raphael Saadiqs, the Solange, Flo Rida, T.I., Chance, Kendrick Lamar at Bonnaroo. So we've been able to be part of the evolving culture, and a lot of those young artists put us on their shoulders, and they would ask us, like the way we talking.
VERDINE WHITE: So it's been really gratifying. And actually almost every generation, they know who we are. The ones that started with us way in the back all the way to right now.
And even the older audience that started with us, when they come to the show -- the older ones, older ones, older ones, older ones, you know what I mean? -- and I tell them, I say, "Now, listen, this ain't that kind of show, like a '70s show where you'd be dancing out with your old ladies." I say, "Now, when we get done with this -- it ain't no nostalgia with this." I say, "This is a very spiritual, enlightened show." Because they think they going to go back to when they were dating. You know, "When I met your mother!" And then I said, "When we get done, you're gon' go get a gym membership. You gon' get it together. Cause you're gon' see something." And the energy that we put into the show still.
And then we were fortunate to do the animation movie Trolls last year with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake for a lot of the younger kids that didn't know. So now you've got -- in our audience, we've got older people and we got 10-year-olds that come. The parents bring them. And the song's on commercials. So we're part of their life.
You know, when people come to us -- cause you go through different phases in your career. You become the hottest thing, and then you cool off. And then you reinvent yourself, and then all of sudden you're at the point where people are thanking you for making the music. We didn't get that in the beginning. We were, like, too weird in the beginning. And it evolves. So now people are thanking us for making the songs, and they have stories, you know, where they first saw us. And people tell us about what they've been through with the tunes and with the songs.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I mean, for us -- well, I'm sorry. I don't want to speak for you. But for me, the way that Earth, Wind & Fire comes into hip-hop is this familial relationship. It's this talking across generations, and it's also partly because education leaves the public school system, and then people in lieu of learning the bass guitar in a sort of professional setting, they're going to use your work to build the foundation of their music. And so there's this talking through time thing that happens. But because the music was also their parents' and it was in their house growing up --
VERDINE WHITE: Or their brothers and sisters.
FRANNIE: Right, right. There's this warmth to the exchange. It's not just a tool. So people don't quite understand that when they're listening to hip-hop, they're often times listening to you.
VERDINE WHITE: Yeah, well what it is a lot of the music that was sampled, our music, they sampled the music first. And then as they matured -- they probably came home and said, "Oh, we just did something really hip!" And then their father said, "Oh, no no no. This is where the record came out. This is was what you sampled." And then they would have discussions about the music with their parents. So what it did it not only did musically, but it brought them closer to their parents or their brothers and sisters that turned them on to the music.
See, it originally started with sampling. You know, it's all, "Give me this. Give me this." And then, like I said, they took it home, and their brother or their mother said, "Oh no no no. Let me pull this old stuff out. This is what you've been sampling." And then as those artists evolved and matured as musicians, then they really wanted to know really what we did, lyrically, culturally, musician-wise.
And the fact of it is that we're still here doing it. If they have the opportunity to meet us, like we're doing now, to ask us. It's like if I wanted to ask Miles Davis or if the young pop artists would've wanted to meet The Beatles and ask Paul or George or John or Ringo, "What was it like making Sgt. Pepper? What was it like making the Abbey Road record? How did you do it on four track?" Now they want to ask us how did we make those records. Because those records still sound great, which is a hard thing to do.
And as I said, we got to thank Maurice, because Maurice had the biggest ears, the biggest ears in terms of mixing. When you hear those records sonically -- well, the records that Quincy did with Michael too, sonically. Michael was great, but don't forget now Quincy had that [00:34:38 ?] jazz background too, of working with Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra. So when he put Michael Jackson on those records, sonically those records sound good.
FRANNIE: Yeah. And, like, can live forever.
VERDINE WHITE: Will live forever. And that's been the challenges that maybe some other younger artists have tried to do, like an Usher or like what Justin has tried to do, sonically to grow. And we'll see later. We'll see how Kendrick evolves, and we'll see how Chance evolves. We're going to see. We're going to see where they go. We'll see where Bruno Mars goes. We'll see how they're going to evolve as musicians.
But a lot of them are asking me -- like Bruno Mars's bass player Jamareo calls me and he asked me the same thing you guys asked me: how does it sound? How did you guys get there? And every night before they go on stage, they play the live Gratitude record.
FRANNIE: Of course they do.
VERDINE WHITE: Before they go up. When they did the Grammys, they played Gratitude in the dressing room before they went up on stage.
When I went to see a Jay-Z concert last week -- we were all there -- on the live Gratitude , there's a sax solo that Don Myrick does, the live version of "Reasons," which will remind you of bebop, of Bird. Because Don, his real nickname was Hipmo. Hipmo used to listen to Bird all the time, on alto. So the saxophone on reasons was alto, really channeling Charlie "Bird" Parker. And then Philip said, "Oh, he sounds so beautiful. Don't you agree?" That's what Jay-Z did last week. He said, "Sounds so beautiful. Don't you agree?" And I hit Damien, our manager, and said, "He just bit off us!"
So what I'm saying is it starts with the records. And all of them are pulling, absolutely. Jay-Z got that from us. We've been influencing them because of musically. And now they're all growing as artists and as adults and being in the business, like you've been in the business a long time. You all want to know musically how did it get there, how did it happen.
FRANNIE: Well, how did it feel? What did you -- when you guys made "Mr. Muhammad," what did you intend by using "Brazilian Rhyme"? Did you imagine them hearing it or your parents hearing --
ALI: Well, it's just, when you hear that, it's like, "What is that?" It's just like, "What is that alone?"
FRANNIE: It's like it came from heaven.
ALI: Exactly. And so it's the feeling you get when you hear that. That song is so short. And you want to hear more of it, and there's so many different elements.
VERDINE WHITE: But it was a longer version though. It was a song. It was a song. (sings riff). And the hook was (sings another riff). And then Reece said, "We going to use that."
ALI: So it's almost like he was sampling himself.
VERDINE WHITE: Right! He said, "We're going to use that." And like you asked the question about "Brazilian Rhyme." I was in the airport the other day and skycap said, "How'd y'all get the name Earth, Wind & Fire?" And you know, I'm rushing to catch my plane. I said, "The universe, man. The universe." And then he said, "Yeah, the universe. Universe." I said, "Yeah." I didn't have time to explain it was Maurice's astrological chart. He's a sagittarius. Blah blah blah blah. He did and then he changed it. So I said, "The universe, man. The universe. Universe."
VERDINE WHITE: And so we get all those little things that people ask, cause after a while there's a mythology that's built up around it. And sometimes I play into the mythology of course.
VERDINE WHITE: Guys might ask, they say, "Man, how did you guys stay around so long? What was the secret?" "I'm an alien." So just, that cuts through everything. Only an alien can be around this long. You know, people come to me, say, "I saw you guys 40 years ago." I said, "Isn't that amazing! And I look the same! I'm an alien. Isn't that amazing."
And there was one guy that came up to me and said, "Man, I love your dad. I love your dad. Man, I met your dad a long time ago." And I thought he was talking about my father. I said, "Oh, you met my dad? Wow, you must've been in medical school." And he said, "Man, I met your dad Verdine." I said, "Nah, that's me."
ALI: That's crazy.
VERDINE WHITE: I said, "That's me." And he was in shock. He just walked away.
FRANNIE: He was embarrassed.
VERDINE WHITE: I said, "That's me. That's me."
ALI: Well, you got to give it to him. Even you saying some of your contemporaries, you had to let them know they're not coming to a '70s show so it's not like when you take out the white light bulb and put in the red light bulbs.
VERDINE WHITE: Right.
ALI: No. And you said, "Get a gym membership." That's -- obviously you playing with another realm of life, and it may seem alien to people who are living differently. And then when you look at you, you walk -- well, when you just see you on stage, your energy is, like, bananas.
VERDINE WHITE: You know, we do pace ourselves though too. We don't do, like, seven nights in a row. We do like three and then take three off. Two then take four off. And then what we do -- you have to get ready for certain concerts. What we did this summer, we did a lot of great concerts, but we took a four-day break between one of the shows in Chicago to get ready for the Garden. And we said, "We're not going to call each other. We're all going to disappear. Let's get off the grid. Cause we want to be ready for that show."
Cause the three most important shows for us in 2017 were the Dodger Stadium shows, City Field, and Madison Square Garden, although we did like 40 dates. They're like the Holy Grail. Those shows kind of set the pace. Like the Garden's a great venue. It has a lot of history, a lot of ghosts, as I call them. A lot of ghosts there, you know. Barclays Center doesn't have enough ghosts. Music gods.
ALI: We getting there, Brooklyn. We getting there.
VERDINE WHITE: Cause we knew we had to tune in. Cause it was a psychological, spiritual thing there. I mean, we ripped the Garden apart, I mean, ripped it apart. Cause we were ready spiritually, psychologically.
ALI: What is it about the Garden that's still -- I mean, you've obviously played the Garden so many times. Like, to still approach it with that sort of reverence.
VERDINE WHITE: Yeah.
ALI: What is it?
VERDINE WHITE: Reverence. You don't have to even say, "Oh, we're going to play Madison Square Garden." All you have to do is say, "The Garden." The Uber drivers know. The people in the restaurants know. And it's great playing the Garden because everybody can get there. They can get on the subway. They can walk. It just has a thing to it. It has a thing to it.
And for us that night, Clive Davis was there right in the middle of the audience. He was blowed away. Because don't forget now, he signed us, and we played the Garden, like, 45 years ago, and we played it, like, a few months ago. Like, big. That doesn't happen on paper. Cause on paper, I should be playing Barney's Beanery. Right. But now I just go to Barney's.
VERDINE WHITE: You know what I mean? Because I'm alien. Right? I'm an alien.
FRANNIE: OK. Well, speaking of you being an alien, you guys used to levitate. I don't know that the current generation remembers --
VERDINE WHITE: Right. Like, they don't remember that.
FRANNIE: I mean, it is possible to find it on the Internet and everything but -- so when you were writing the stage shows and then you would work with people like Doug Henning --
VERDINE WHITE: Yes.
FRANNIE: So like magicians. Legit magicians.
VERDINE WHITE: Right, right.
FRANNIE: What would you -- what did you want the audience to feel like and then what did you say we need to do to get them to feel this?
VERDINE WHITE: Well, what we did was a progression. We started with little smoke bombs and little things, little things, little things. And then we worked with Doug Henning, the late Doug Henning, great artist out of Canada, really great, just really great.
FRANNIE: Whose assistant was David Copperfield.
VERDINE WHITE: David Copperfield. He was great. But we would sit in a room like this. But it was over, like, a year process. It wasn't like over two months.
VERDINE WHITE: We started talking a year before. Then you come up with some ideas. Then we come back with the ideas. Come back. Then we started working on it. And the show, we developed it piece by piece. And then we worked with George Faison who did The Wiz, great choreographer, great.
Right now -- the hot person right now is Misty Copeland out of ABT. She knows who George is. Carmen de Lavallade. They all know who George -- and George, incredible. Between George, Maurice, the late Charles Stepney, we had the grand shrine of what we needed. Even today, all the choreography we do, because we learned from George. Even when we do choreography and our choreographers today say, "We do this, do this." And, you know, some I ignore. I say, "What I'ma do, I'ma do what George taught me." Cause George gave us such a strong foundation.
So when we would work on the shows it was in stages. Cause we were developing a new concept that other people of course later picked up on, Michael and everybody. But it was -- it wasn't overnight. It was -- it took a year to write that show, and it coincided with Close Encounters, the first Star Wars, when you were young. Not the one that --
FRANNIE: He went. He went.
VERDINE WHITE: Yeah. The original Star Wars, right? You know what I mean? I was there. And the timing was there with Star Wars. Even with this new show we did, our opening was reminiscent of the Star Wars trilogy, because it came out again.
ALI: When you dare to have a vision that grand, was the environment immediately supportive. Cause I know the first thing that will come to a lot of people's mind is, first of all, that sounds crazy, but that sounds expensive and we not there yet. What type of environment were you guys in?
VERDINE WHITE: It was the same cocoon that we had musically except stage. And we had the money. By the time we got those shows, we were on our six, seventh double platinum record. So we always put money back into shows. So finances were never the issue.
And we were growing so much, and we were watching it. We were watching what we created. Cause you have to understand we started in a room together, all of sudden playing college campuses all the way to arenas. Nothing was never too crazy, cause we saw it for ourselves, what was happening. It wasn't like that we were just all of sudden -- we were put into arenas. We weren't put there. We were creating it. It was our creation. Nothing was too crazy. Nothing was too crazy.
But working with Doug was great. He was Canadian so he used to say, "Out and about." And David was more glitzy, even then. David was younger, so David knew all the pop songs. David didn't have a car, and David used to live on Highland where the church was. I used to drop -- David used to come to my house for dinner. I used to drop him off, and I dropped him off and I went up there to his place. And he was up there with the clock. And every hour, "Ding! Boom! Bing!" I said, "David, what is" -- "Oh that's the clock and it'll be off in a minute." And so we saw David start.
Very creative. A process. Not overnight. It wasn't like all of sudden we were going to fly through the air. We're going to levitate by next Tuesday. It was a process. We had to grow into it. We had to practice timing. We had to do choreography rehearsals. It was a lot of work, a lot of work.
ALI: Did you to go to other performances, other museums, exhibits? What were you guys doing to go outside of that?
VERDINE WHITE: We didn't go. There was nothing to do.
VERDINE WHITE: Because there was never -- nobody'd never seen anything like this. So we didn't have anything to lean on. We didn't have any backdrop. We didn't have any -- nobody had done it, so we couldn't ask anybody. We couldn't, like, ask the Temptations, "Hey, what do you guys think about flying through the air?" You couldn't do that, cause nobody had ever done that. There was no precedent set.
Nowadays you don't have a bottom stage. Things are more lighter, soft. Cause by then we had a stage under the bottom where we would get dressed. And it was like a bunker. So when flash bombs go off, it was like a, "Bang! Boom!" It was actually exciting, cause it was like a war bunker. It was like bombs upstage. You can hear people chattering, chattering, upstairs.
But we were creating it. There was no other bands we could go see, cause nobody was doing that. And we were in this cocoon, so Reece would say, "Well, what do you think about" -- "Yeah! But of course." It was just part of the progression.
FRANNIE: So when Maurice -- well, maybe could you tell the story of when he first presented to you the idea of a band that could do everything?
VERDINE WHITE: Well, he presented this to me in high school.
FRANNIE: Like, how did he say it? Where were you guys?
VERDINE WHITE: I was just hanging out with him. And he drew it on a napkin.
FRANNIE: What did he draw?
VERDINE WHITE: How many guys he wanted in the band. And he said, "I'ma try this, man. I'ma try that." And I would just listen, you know. I would listen. I said, "OK." And I'm young too, so I was open to everything. And it was progressing along with what was going on in the world. We talked about jazz fusion. I did play jazz, but I was sort of on the tail end of jazz. Upright bass, me and Stanley, we were the last of our generation to play upright bass. But then we put it down to play bass guitar, cause that's what was happening, you know.
So it was a progression. And then don't forget now, it was a lot of music at the time. You had jazz. You had latin. You had rock. You had fusion. And you had the kalimba too, the kalimba that Reece played with Ramsey. He'd do a drum solo, then go up and play the kalimba, then go back and play a drum solo. And he was the first one to bring kalimba to pop music, the only one. He's the only one.
FRANNIE: Is the stage show a part of this idea of making music that is everything?
VERDINE WHITE: Yeah, but that was later.
FRANNIE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
VERDINE WHITE: This idea, he gave it to me, and he talked about it in 1969, 1970. We got there, like, in '77, '78. We were like eight, nine years away from that.
FRANNIE: So he didn't have that in his head.
VERDINE WHITE: It was in his head. He just hadn't gotten there. He knew everything that he wanted to do. He did it in stages. What was really interesting, everything that we had done later, even the last 10 years, like Hollywood Bowl, all those things, Maurice had done all that before us.
VERDINE WHITE: He had done all that. He was just waiting for us to catch up. It was like he was just waiting for us to catch up with his ideas. We were young. I hadn't played with an orchestra, with the Bowl, since I was in high school. But then we did -- the Bowl, we did like five sold out nights at the Bowl.
And the first time we played the Bowl, Solange was there, and she came to our show. And I think about a couple of months later -- right, Mark? -- we did the record at her house. She saw us at the Bowl. And then when I did Radio City with her recently, her set was the Spirit album. Her set was the Spirit album. And then she used strings and horns, and she had some older musicians with her who were reminiscent of the -- they were from the AACM, the Creative Musicians, that were out of Chicago. So she pulled from way down there.
So those ideas, stage shows, they were way -- they were progressive. They were not -- we weren't ready for that. Cause we weren't ready emotionally and spiritually. You wouldn't've believed us. That Head To The Sky band, we weren't ready to do that. We weren't there emotionally or spiritually.
ALI: What makes you say -- when you say emotionally you weren't there -- cause I mean, I hear you and I believe you, it's just, it feels like you guys were always there from the beginning.
VERDINE WHITE: Yeah, we were always there from the beginning, but to do that. Like when we did the Head To The Sky record, we couldn't -- we weren't ready.
FRANNIE: What is the emotion that you have to have to be ready?
VERDINE WHITE: Well, first you gotta be focused. You have to have no fear. You can't care what other people think. And you can only do those things when you've got a lot of success under your belt. We had a lot of success under our belt. That first record on CBS Records with Clive, we couldn't've done that. We didn't have enough under our belt. And we didn't have the money then that we had later.
ALI: When you have that interior knowledge of where you want to be, and it could be way over there but you say you weren't there --
VERDINE WHITE: We weren't there yet.
ALI: -- you didn't have enough. Do you move with a level of humility to get yourself to that point? Or do you come off in a way that you put people down because they don't see what you see and they don't understand what you see and it's kind of like, "Move. Get out of my way?"
How did you guys navigate that? Was it more of, "Let us continue to grow, pay our dues," or to show people what it is that we want and how to get there by having the success, especially from the record company perspective? Because those're the guys that's writing the checks, and they need proof of concept every time, no matter how many great records you bring them and the bag of money. Still, there's always a plateau that you haven't hit yet. So while you guys were on this journey, was it more of a kind of humble, "We'll show, improve," or was there levels of frustration?
VERDINE WHITE: Well, I didn't feel levels of frustration. We were at CBS Records with Clive Davis. At that time it was the best record company in the business. And we didn't have those issues, record company approval about doing a show. We had total support. We had everything we needed. And we were actually left alone, cause we were so weird and so different that they probably figured, "They're going to come up with something. We don't know what it is."
But it was never about we hope the record company likes it. We were never in that position. We just were Earth, Wind & Fire. And we never had an A&R person listen to our songs and, you know, "See if we like it." We were our own A&R. It was just us. It wasn't really a lot. Even still us. Because now you don't have a lot of people that could actually tell you how we did what we did. Very few people can tell you, "Well, we know how they did what they did." Cause we never allowed them to be around us. They were never in the studio, and there are no A&R guys that can talk to you about how they did it because we didn't have A&R. We didn't really have that.
At that same time, I said before, there was no structure in the business. There's more structure today. You know there's going to be an A&R person. You know there's going to be a product management. There's going to be all -- there was none of that at the time.
ALI: Yeah, we didn't have an A&R either. We had our A&R on our first record, but he really wasn't around after that.
VERDINE WHITE: Right, right. Cause they change a lot. A&R guys change like a revolving door.
ALI: Our guy, he left New York. He moved to L.A. So he wasn't there to monitor us, and they just -- the record company left us alone.
VERDINE WHITE: Right. And certain groups don't need monitoring. I always think that artists, particularly the artist, should be pretty much left alone. That's because I'm an artist, and it's worked for me.
But no, we don't really have those problems, even when we did the Trolls record, Justin Timberlake record with us. Nobody was in the control room but us. Nobody. No friends, no families, no spouses. Not in the control room. Just us.
ALI: Gems. You're dropping those gems.
VERDINE WHITE: Just us.
ALI: Before we say goodbye, I just wanted to ask you a little bit about technology and producing, you as a producer outside of Earth, Wind & Fire. How much joy did you get when you were on your own, venturing out, working with other artists, like Deniece Williams and stuff like that? What was it --
VERDINE WHITE: It's been a lot of fun, particularly recently, because I've had a chance to work with a lot of variety of artists. And when I did Solange's thing at Radio City, we spent an hour almost talking like the way we talking. And their bandmates came over and want to talk. It's just great, because I learn a lot. I learn what they're listening to. I can hear their growth, where they're going to go. I see the excitement in their eyes, and I send them some energy that they can stay in it long enough to fulfill all their dreams. They're staying up late at night. Mark, at the party we went to at the loft, you know, it was three o'clock in the morning, so they eat pizzas. Cause that's what they do. Whereas out here, you know, we do kale. We do kale.
ALI: The secret is kale, y'all. Y'all listening?
VERDINE WHITE: Kale. We do kale.
FRANNIE: The secret is going to bed early.
VERDINE WHITE: Especially at a -- and water, right? And water. And sunscreen and moisturizer, right. Out here.
It's great. And they admire the music, and they ask me questions about the music. That feels great, really really great.
ALI: Do you still feel that youthful excitement for going into the studio that you did when you were 20 years old?
VERDINE WHITE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because now I can do it cause I want to do it. I don't have to do it, but I can do it because I want to do it. And I still love it, and I still love the entertainment business. Well, you see! It's January 2. You see who I am. I'm not in Aspen. "I'm on vacation. I'll see them after I get back."
FRANNIE: That's fair. Very grateful.
VERDINE WHITE: We did a concert yesterday on a float. I got the front page of L.A. Times to show it. I mean, look where I am. It's January 2. People are still waking up, and we here. I was very enthusiastic about doing it, because my respect for you guys, and I've been telling all my young hipster friends who I'm talking to today. So I got a couple of cool points. I'm cool right now. I've been telling everybody in a certain age range.
There's a young kid named Wayne, works at the house with me and my wife, and helps take care of the house. And I said, "Oh, guess where I'm gon' be." I said, "I'm gon' be with Muhammad, Tribe Called Quest." He said, "What? Oh man, I love his music. Tell him I said hello." I said --
ALI: What up, Wayne.
VERDINE WHITE: Exactly! He said, "Tell him I said hello." He's not in the business, but they like it, cause communicating with you all is like communicating with him, honoring him. Cause they've grown up with you guys. So it's great.
ALI: Thank you so much.
VERDINE: Thank you for having me. We'll do this again.
ALI: Yes indeed.
FRANNIE: Thank you.
VERDINE: It's going to be great '18. Happy New Year.
ALI: Happy New Year, everybody.
FRANNIE: Happy New Year.