The late Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire helped to create the soundtrack to our lives. Since 1973, this multi-platinum act has sold over 100 million albums and achieved a level of success that spans genres and generations.
The following ten songs are a collection of much-loved tracks that display Earth, Wind & Fire’s skills, their unique sound, and their status as one of the greatest bands of all time.
By 1974, Maurice White had overhauled his original EWF incarnation to the one that first appeared on 1973’s Head to the Sky. In the short time of recording as a unit, EWF’s songs became tighter and the sound more well-defined without radically changing their style or mindset. In contrast to much of their earlier work, “Devotion” gets its job done in a pronounced way, showing a more adroit production taking shape with a strong hook and backing vocals, and the great synth line that plays throughout. At its best, “Devotion” fuses the early EWF sound with the newer style that would make them universally popular. “Devotion” is also known for its slightly faster live version on Gratitude where Philip Bailey’s impossibly high falsetto takes on stratospheric heights.
“That’s the Way of the World” (1975)
This song was originally from a low budget film, That’s the Way of the World, where Earth, Wind & Fire appeared as “The Group.” While the album’s beginnings as a soundtrack are all but forgotten, the song “That’s the Way of the World” is proof of the group’s rise and the slow and steady progression of their signature sound. This track had Earth, Wind & Fire’s trademark mix of seriousness and commerciality, and perfectly captured the sound of mid ’70s pop/R&B. “That’s the Way of the World” also demonstrated the well-versed musicality of co-producer Charles Stephney, who began working with the band in 1974. The song’s quiet sorrow made it sound like nothing else on the radio when it was released. Although the film That’s the Way of the World disappeared by late 1975, the song “That’s the Way of the World” proved to be one of Earth, Wind & Fire’s most enduring and readily identifiable tracks.
“Shining Star ” (1975)
This track is from That’s The Way of the World and was released in early 1975. The song presented a funkier Earth, Wind Fire, working with engineer George Massenburg. The sound is very immediate on “Shining Star”—from the guitars to the rhythm section, the laid back, confident horn arrangements, and Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s joined vocals. “Shining Star” won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group. Years after its release, “Shining Star” received further pop culture exposure after being featured on the Season 8 Seinfeld episode, “Little Kicks.” “Shining Star” hit #1 on both the Hot 100 and R&B charts.
“Serpentine Fire” (1977)
While the band seemed a bit fatigued on most of Spirit, All n’ All represented a musical peak and the album’s excellence could be typified by this track. Earth, Wind & Fire’s pop audience at the time clearly didn’t influence their muse because “Serpentine Fire” was one of the toughest, sharpest, and most unapologetically pan-African tracks in the band’s oeuvre. The song, written by Maurice White, Verdine White, and Reginald “Sonny” Burke, had cross-generational appeal,
with R&B audiences. The song’s polyrhythms made it a dance floor favorite. From a lyrical standpoint, “Serpentine Fire” has been said to be about yoga, spirituality, or sex, and was featured in the original commercial for the All n’ All album. “Serpentine Fire” also had a promotional film that shows the palpable joy the band experienced onstage and which was especially evident in Maurice White’s dancing at the very end. “Serpentine Fire” was released as a single in the autumn of 1977 and went to #1 on the R&B charts.
“Love’s Holiday” (1977)
While many of the pop sure shots like “Sing a Song” and “Fantasy” have faded from playlists, the times have made tracks like the romantic “Love’s Holiday” even more appreciated. “Love’s Holiday” was a potent track written by Maurice White and Skip Scarborough, with a simple plea gorgeous arrangement and production made it that much better. There’s a lot of great things going on here but Maurice White’s steady and assured vocal brings it all together. The fact that “Love’s Holiday” (often called “Would You Mind”) didn’t sound like anything else on All n’ All made the song even more special.
“In The Stone” (1979)
By 1979, Earth, Wind & Fire fans seemed to go into two camps: Those who liked them doing pop-ish tracks, and those fans who loathed it. “In The Stone” brought the band back to their loadstar of melodic, complex, mellifluous sounds. “In The Stone” came from the Iam sessions, which also brought us the vague though tuneful “Love Music” and the show-bizzy cover of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life.” For many, “In the Stone,” written by Maurice White, Allee Willis and David Foster, was their true métier. Over the years, “In the Stone” has traveled well and became a highlight for the 2004 Chicago/Earth, Wind & Fire Live at the Greek concert DVD.
“After the Love Is Gone” (1979)
In retrospect, Earth, Wind & Fire’s pure pop ascendancy really shouldn’t have been a surprise, but oddly enough the rudiments of “After the Love is Gone” were aesthetically similar to earlier songs like “That’s The Way of the World” or even “I’ll Write a Song For You.” The only difference was a more pop-friendly sound. “After the Love is Gone” was written by David Foster, Jay Graydon and Bill Champlin, and the dire subject matter is what made the impact so strong. While “After the Love is Gone” is an avowed EWF classic, it’s also a high point for Westcoast/AOR. Jerry Hey does the horn arrangement, David Foster does the string arrangement, and Foster’s singular keyboards are heard throughout. “After the Love is Gone” won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance for Duo or Group, and the song’s composers won a Grammy for Best R&B Song.
“Let’s Groove” (1981)
By 1981, EWF’s audience was declining. 1980’s Faces only went gold and had no gigantic hits. “Let’s Groove” represented a flashy and direct sound and gave the band its biggest success in years. While the song wasn’t one of the band’s most introspective tracks, it displayed a certain charm. This melodic and fun track perfectly captured the post-disco R&B sound that had yet to be overtaken by synthesizers. For many, “Let’s Groove” wasn’t the best song from Raise!, but it was the hit that Earth Wind and Fire needed and it might have even grown on early naysayers. “Let’s Groove” hit the R&B charts at #1 and the song made for a fun video.
“System of Survival” (12″) (1987)
Earth, Wind & Fire reconvened after a long 4-year hiatus and appeared in a pared down incarnation. “System of Survival” was the first single from their 1987 album Touch the World, and hit the R&B Hot 100 at #1. Arguably, the 12″ version was even better and all but replicated the band’s earthy mid- to late ’70s rhythms by way of synths. “System of Survival” seemed to go through many changes in live performance, but by 1994 the live performance resembled the remix version. Despite its success, the 12” version of “System of Survival” wasn’t included on 1988’s The Best of Earth Wind and Fire Volume 2.
“Sunday Morning” (1993)
Earth, Wind & Fire left Columbia in 1993, re-signed with their first label, Warner Bros., and released the well-received Millenium. “Sunday Morning” had the band doing work that was close to their ’70s peak and the track boasted a sound that was more organic than their then recent work on Touch the World and Heritage. Although “Sunday Morning” wasn’t a gigantic hit, the band did one of their best videos of the time. This song was also used on MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco and it proved that Earth, Wind & Fire was connecting with newer generations. “Sunday Morning” featured a sample of 1977’s “Serpentine Fire.”
Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and a music journalist.