In an article in Billboard magazine, singer Philip Bailey said the group was planning to do a three CD set – one disc of new studio material, a live CD and a concert DVD – that would be released through a major retailer. (Wal Mart has done similar packages with Journey and Foreigner, but was not named in the article.)
The mid-2009 target date for releasing the package, though, came and went. And now that Earth Wind & Fire is busy touring, percussionist Ralph Johnson says fans shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the project.
“We are always entertaining the thought of doing a new record,’ Johnson said in an early May phone interview. “Now finally sitting down and doing that is a different thing altogether. Yeah, it’s always being talked about. But I have to tell you honestly, we don’t have a sense of urgency about putting out new material. The thing is, when people come to see our show, they don’t care about new material. They want to hear the stuff they grew up on. It’s not like we’re trying to establish our career. The career is established. Putting out a new record is really neither here nor there. It’s a nice thing, but at the end of the day, then what? OK, you have a new record out, good.”
Johnson raises a valid point about where Earth Wind & Fire’s career stands. Formed in 1969 by Maurice White (who no longer tours with the group but remains the chief songwriter/producer when Earth Wind & Fire makes new albums), the group made its breakthrough in 1974 with the album That’s The Way Of The World that featured the hit “Shining Star.”
Over the next eight years, Earth Wind & Fire reeled off a steady string of platinum albums (such as Gratitude, Spirit and Raise) and a basket full of hit singles before deciding to take a hiatus that lasted from 1983 until 1987.
And if the group’s hit making days ended in the 1980s, Earth Wind & Fire’s past two decades have been busy and filled with a number of notable highlights. The group has maintained a regular touring schedule, while also releasing another five studio albums along the way, the most recent of which was Illumination in 2005. That album earned the group a Grammy nomination for Best R&B album, a sign that the group remained a viable musical force.
What’s more, Earth Wind & Fire’s contributions to the music world earned the band induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.
The group also enjoyed a particularly special honor in February 2009 when it was chosen to perform at the first formal White House dinner hosted by the newly elected president, Barack Obama.
“That was quite a special moment, especially when we were doing our sound check and Mr. President comes walking in with his sweater and his khakis and his loafers and just kind of (says) ‘Hey guys, how you doin’? Can’t wait to hear you’” Johnson said. “Just very down to earth, man, a very warm individual man, and we were certainly honored to be able to do the first real function of the new administration, the first social function of the new administration. It was quite an honor, and both President Obama and his wife, Michelle, were very gracious, very warm and it was a wonderful thing.”
Since the 2009 White House performance, Earth Wind & Fire has been back to performing in more traditional venues. And after doing its third co-headlining tour of the decade with Chicago last summer, the group is doing a headlining run this summer.
Johnson said the hits from the 1970s and ‘80s continue to form the bulk of Earth Wind & Fire’s live show. But these days the band can no longer afford to stage the kind of visually spectacular concerts it did in the 1970s and early ‘80s that featured pyrotechnics, lasers and even magic.
“We’ve toned it down considerably, and now we’re really trying to give you more (of) the personalities within the group and within the music,” Johnson said. “We’re not so much about what we used to call the whiz-bang.”
That’s not to say Johnson doesn’t have fond memories of the concert spectacles of the 1970s and ‘80s. One stunt in particular stands out.
“There was one trick we were playing where the drum set used to come up and spin, and I was the guy on the drum set that was spinning,” he said. “So yeah, some of it was a little crazy but, hey, we enjoyed ourselves. We were a lot younger then, that’s for sure. We had a lot of energy then so we were ready to try most everything then for the sake of the show.”
Earth Wind & Fire will perform Wednesday, June 2 at 8 p.m. at Riverbend Music Center, 6295 Kellogg Ave., Cincinnati. Tickets are $47.35-$86.80. For tickets or more information, visit online at www.ticketmaster.com.