Denver, Colorado native Larry Dunn is the former keyboardist and musical director of the legendary band Earth, Wind & Fire. He contributed to many of the group’s hits including “Shining Star,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” and “Jupiter” to name a few, helping to combine soul, jazz, funk and R&B to the group’s trademark sound. Dunn also branched out and worked with a who’s who in the music industry including Level 42, Ronnie Laws, George Duke, Lenny White and Diane Reeves. His new CD N2 The Journey includes a variety of musical styles–from funk to hip-hop and jazz–showcasing the versatility of this gifted musical genius.
Larry Dunn sat down with SoulTrain.com to talk about his career both with EWF and as a solo artist, his inspirations, and his new project.
Soultrain.com: What inspired you as a child to want to get into music?
Larry Dunn: When I was two years old, I was drawn to this old beat up piano in our living room and I just started beating on it and playing it. My father was a musician and played upright bass, guitar and piano, but he was an x-ray technician and janitor in the evening and didn’t have time to play professionally because of his other jobs.
Soultrain.com: Did your father teach you how to play music?
Larry Dunn: He taught me how to play Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” on the piano. He also showed me some basic stuff and then I learned basically by myself. I had a book with the chord charts and learned George Harrison’s solos on the Beatles’ songs as well as Ray Charles’ music. I would also learn by listening to Jimmy Smith’s tunes at half and normal speed on turntables.
Soultrain.com: Did you have any other training or take any classes in music?
Larry Dunn: In third grade, I took about a year of classical piano from a wonderful neighbor. In fourth grade I got an acoustic guitar, and in fifth grade I wanted to get in the school band but the only instrument they had left was a baritone horn which looks like a miniature tuba but it played beautiful secondary melodies. I took it home every day and practiced. In sixth grade, I got an organ for Christmas. On the keyboards, I was a natural. All of these things stuck in my head and I absorbed everything I learned.
Soultrain.com: At some point, you met Philip Bailey when you were both teens, right?
Larry Dunn: Yes. We met around the time I started playing nightclubs . I was 13 and he was 15 when we met. I formed a band with my friend Hilliard Wilson, who is now my bass player with the Larry Dunn Orchestra. One night we saw Philip’s band and he had three singers so we took him and those three great singers and mixed them in with our band and joined forces and we started playing all over Colorado. When I was 15, my mom allowed me to play these 21 and over nightclubs with Philip and our bands seven nights a week. We were playing serious stuff such as James Brown, Temptations, Stylistics, Dionne Warwick and even pop music.
Like I tell people, back in the day, there was only one prerequisite to be a member of a band: You had to play your butt off! It didn’t matter how tall or short, fat or skinny, cute or ugly, black or white. If you could really play you could really be in the band.
Soultrain.com: You and Philip sort of had your own Earth, Wind & Fire before there was an Earth, Wind & Fire.
Larry Dunn: Absolutely. Later on, Philip and I had a band called Friends & Lovers which included a bunch of black guys and two white guys from Philadelphia. One of the members was Steve Sykes, a funky guitarist.
Soultrain.com: When did you two meet Maurice White?
Larry Dunn: We eventually opened a show for Maurice and the first original members of Earth, Wind & Fire at the Hilton Hotel in Denver, when they were on the Warner Bros. label. After that show, Maurice and his brother Verdine White came to this nightclub we were playing in this industrial area and they checked us out. This is where we met Maurice and Verdine.
Soultrain.com: Did you and Philip become a part of Earth, Wind & Fire at that time?
Larry Dunn: No. What happened was that shortly afterwards, our band broke up. Philip had moved to Los Angeles and Earth, Wind & Fire as it was then broke up. Everyone in the band had quit, leaving just Maurice and Verdine in a hotel in Los Angeles. They went through many other instrumentalists and singers trying to revamp the band. Later, Philip, who became a part of Earth, Wind & Fire, flew to Denver. I was with a bar band at that point and we ended up opening a show for the group War at Manual High School, which was the only black high school in Denver at that time. Philip heard me playing a 10-minute organ solo and he later went to a pay phone and called Maurice and told him that I could really play and that I was what the band was looking for.
Soultrain.com: So what was the transition like becoming a part of Earth, Wind & Fire?
Larry Dunn: First, I learned all of their first two albums by ear. I also bought a Fender Rhodes piano and started playing that since that was the new sound along with the organ. Then I moved to Los Angeles. Verdine picked me up at the airport. Once we were at Maurice’s house, I played a couple of Earth, Wind & Fire tunes with just Verdine and then I played a little bit of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and some lightweight jazz. After that the rest, they say, is history.
Soultrain.com: The first Earth, Wind & Fire album you appeared on was Last Days & Time.
Larry Dunn: Yes. We recorded that album before we had the “original nine.” It was recorded when we went from transitioning from the old group and putting the new group together. This was when we still had Ronnie Laws–whom I’ve done tons of work with, Jessica McCleaves from Friends of Distinction, and Roland Bautista, who unfortunately passed away. Al McKay came in when we did the Head to the Sky album.
Soultrain.com: I think every great album should tell a story and Earth, Wind & Fire’s albums did just that. Do you have any particular favorite Earth, Wind & Fire album?
Larry Dunn: They were all great albums. I love all of them. But one of my favorites and the pinnacle for me was All ‘n All and of course, That’s The Way of The World. That’s when we really jumped off and were exposed to a much larger audience. Cuts from that album were heard everywhere we went.
Soultrain.com: One of my personal favorite Earth, Wind & Fire albums is Open Our Eyes. I love every song, from the title cut, to “Tee Nine Chee Bit,” “Drum Song,” “Devotion,” and Mighty Mighty,” which sounds like something George Clinton might have done himself. I mean, that was just hard funk!
Larry Dunn: It was funky! Maurice, however, was messed up about the experience we had when “Mighty Mighty” was released as a single. He was livid about many radio stations not playing the record because of the lyric “we are mighty people of the sun,” thinking it was speaking only to black people. Maurice said that the last time he checked, the sun shines on everybody and that he wasn’t talking about only black people, but about all people. It was messed up because that song could have been bigger than it was.
Soultrain.com: Some of you worked with Ramsey Lewis on his classic cut “Sun Goddess,” right?
Larry Dunn: Yes. The studio version of “Sun Goddess” was produced by Maurice and Charles Stepney. The song went over so big that we did our own version in concert night after night. Our live version was on our Gratitude album.
Soultrain.com: What was it like for the group doing a rendition of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life?”
Larry Dunn: Maurice and I went to a convention room in some motel and we had a turntable and the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” on 45. We listened to it and I learned the chords in two minutes. Maurice and I worked great together because he has such a great sense of rhythm and melodics and I have a great sense of chords, melodics and my own rhythm. So when we did that arrangement on “Got to Get You Into My Life” it only took us only 40 minutes and the whole recording took about three days. We never did anything that quick. When it came out, Maurice said that had to be the biggest fluke since it went straight to number one. He didn’t get it and I told him, “What’s not to get? That is classic Earth, Wind & Fire.” We didn’t have time to over-think it or overproduce it. We recorded it in a small recording studio in my hometown of Colorado. It was just all Earth, Wind & Fire musicians and we kicked butt.
Soultrain.com: Charles Stepney was very instrumental in the group’s trademark sound. How did his death affect the direction of the group’s sound?
Larry Dunn: After we lost Charles, it was a real test because he was amazing for us. But the group really pulled together and I was able to utilize the knowledge I gathered laid on me through Charles. That is why All n All is my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire album in particular because we had to come up with it after losing Charles. After that, albums like I Am were great but it seemed like the sound was beginning to go in another direction.
Soultrain.com: You eventually became the musical director for Earth, Wind & Fire.
Larry Dunn: Yes. I became musical director when I was 21 which was both an honor and a responsibility. It was such a great thing for me. A lot of people may not realize that we had some of the most greatest musicians in our band. We would rehearse the rhythm section for three or four weeks, Philip and Maurice would be in another room working on the vocals, and then we would all get together for another two or three weeks. Then we would go to the big stage and do exercises and dance routines, although we never did a lot of dancing in our shows. So by the time we got out on the road, it was like when Bugs Bunny said, “We know every part by heart.”
Soultrain.com: Earth, Wind & Fire’s music is timeless. But back in the seventies the group had a lot of competition like the Isley Brothers, Kool & The Gang, the Ohio Players, and the Commodores, all of whom did great music as well. I believe someone in the Parliament Funkadelic organization referred to Earth, Wind & Fire as being “Earth, Hot Air & No Fire”. Do you wish to comment on that?
Larry Dunn: That comment stems from an experience back when we played the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C. in 1972 or 1973. It was one of those shows that had seven or ten acts. We were doing our cutesy pseudo/funk “Last Days & Time” material. We played and the people loved us. But then Funkadelic came on to close the show. They were up there for 45 minutes and kicked our butts! When we got in our dressing room, Maurice told us, “Y’all might not like this, but starting tomorrow we are gonna really start working on these grooves!”
Soultrain.com: So that “Earth, Hot Air and No Fire” comment was just more than likely friendly competition?
Larry Dunn: Absolutely. I was not mad. They weren’t called Funkadelic for nothing. Those brothers were funky! It was also healthy competition we had and one with respect. Back in the day, you never heard of Stevie Wonder taking a gun and going after Jose Feliciano, or the Commodores going after Earth, Wind & Fire. We all had healthy respect and competition, which was good. I remember one night we were doing this gig at a college in Boston with Graham Central Station. We overheard them saying things like, “I hope they got their s—t together.” So they played and then we were on and we had our new horn section. This was when we began doing our live version of “Reasons,” which had a jazz feel to it. The crowd went wild and we looked over to the side of the stage and we saw Graham Central Station grinning at us like, “Okay! Y’all got it!”
Soultrain.com: You guys didn’t do a whole lot of television, but one of your greatest honors had to be doing a TV special with Natalie Cole. She and EWF were extremely popular at the same time, and you both got a chance to work together. What was that experience like?
Larry Dunn: I generally hate television tapings because they’re always hurry up and wait situations. But when we worked with Natalie, it was a fun-filled afternoon. She was as sweet as she could be, a very nice, very classy lady.
Soultrain.com: Surprisingly, Earth, Wind & Fire never performed on Soul Train.
Larry Dunn: Maurice said that he always wanted to keep the mystique of the group and he felt that if we got up there on Soul Train and lip-synched, it wouldn’t be cool. Eventually, concert performances and videos of the group were sent to the show. We did, however, later do Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and we lip-synched to “Let’s Groove!” (laughs)
Soultrain.com. You became disenchanted with the music of the group in 1983, right?
Larry Dunn: Yes. Al McKay quit in 1980, and I brought Roland Bautista back in because he was the closest thing to Al–a great player with whom we did the Raise tour. After that we recorded the Electric Universe album. Maurice didn’t use the Phoenix Horns on that album, which was used on our previous albums. This came about because Maurice and Philip went to see a Lionel Richie concert one time and they came back and said what a great show it was, and that he didn’t have any horn section–just keyboard players. I told them I’d been doing symphonies for a long time and that they couldn’t get those kinds of sounds out of a synthesizer. We never toured after that. After we recorded Electric Universe, I took it home and listened to it and I told Maurice, “Good music it may be, but Earth Wind & Fire it ain’t.” Obviously the fans, the press, and radio felt the same way because it was like number 99 with an anchor on the charts as opposed to Earth, Wind & Fire being number one with a bullet. That was when the sound with the original members started going left.
Soultrain.com: Your first CD after leaving Earth, Wind & Fire was Lover’s Silhouette, and your new CD is called N2 The Journey. Who did you work with in putting this CD together?
Larry Dunn: I worked with Ronnie Laws, Sheldon Reynolds, Stanley Clarke, Hubert Laws, and Paulinho DeCosta, who played on all of the Earth, Wind & Fire material. James Ingram sings on the cut “Finally.” It took seven years for me to put this album together, which was the same amount of time it took Stevie Wonder to do one of his albums. I wanted to be able to work with all of these different artists.
Soultrain.com: Last year, you reunited with members of Earth, Wind & Fire for a performance to celebrate the group’s 40th anniversary and afterwards, you were asked to contribute to the group’s new album.
Larry Dunn: I played the keyboards on a track called “Guiding Light.” They also wanted me to do other work on their new album so I did and it worked out great. The CD, called Now, Then & Forever, is supposed to be released before the end of the year.
Soultrain.com: What do you think of current music?
Larry Dunn: There are some good artists out there, but a lot of them are not being pushed or promoted– like Esperanza Spalding. She’s amazing! She sings as well as plays the bass. Artists like her are the ones that need to be exposed. I would like to see music go back to what it was originally provided for by God Almighty: To edify, to put a smile on somebody’s face and to evoke some type of deep thought about something.
Soultrain.com: You worked with so many artists, but are there any artists currently you would like to work with?
Larry Dunn: Terrence Blanchard, Alicia Keys and Bruno Mars.
Soultrain.com : What was your overall experience like working with Earth, Wind & Fire?
Larry Dunn: It was a great journey for me, a little black Italian kid from Colorado. I was just amazed to be able to work with people like Maurice White, who is a visionary, and one of my main mentors the late great Charles Stepney. I wasn’t just a member of the group but also a fan.
Soultrain.com: Do you have a word of wisdom you want to share?
Larry Dunn: First, I was raised to believe that the older you get the more you don’t know.
The wise man knows that the older you get the less you know. Secondly, the only thing that’s really changed throughout history is technology. The heart of man is exactly the same since Cain and Abel committed the first murder. It’s still in the heart of man to hate, steal and kill. The only thing that can really change a man’s heart is the man looking in the mirror. When you humble yourself God steps in and changes your life which is a minute by minute, day by day process for the rest of your life.
Larry Dunn’s new CD N2 The Journey is available on iTunes and on his website, www.larrydunnmusic.com.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian. He will be appearing in the play “My First Experience at the Garage,” based on the popular eighties club, on October 19 and 20 in New York City at Symphony Space. For tickets and more information visit, www.symphonyspace.org.