Earth, Wind & Fire's Verdine White on the "Steady Progression of Getting Better and Better"
There's very little in the music world that Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White hasn't accomplished in his 44 years as a recording artist.
He's sold hundreds of millions of records. He's played in front of mammoth festival crowds. He's widely considered one of the best bass guitarists of all time. He's genre-hopped with EW&F from jazz-rock fusion to deep funk to disco to electro pop without a peep of "sellout" being heckled from the popcorn seats.
He won the music game with a smile on his face and continues to record and perform for huge audiences worldwide.
Next week, Earth, Wind & Fire is playing Hard Rock Live in Hollywood in support of its upcoming Christmas album, Holiday. We got 15 minutes with Verdine to chat on the phone about his amazing career. It was 15 minutes well-spent. After a few pleasantries, we got way down to it.
New Times: Was the soundtrack to [Melvin Van Peebles' legendary Blaxploitation masterpiece] Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song one of your first recordings?
Verdine White: It was my first recording.
When you were recording it, were you doing it to a screening?
That's right. We were playing to a screening. Nowadays, you would do it on timecode, and you'd do it on a computer. But then you played it to a screener. There's no room for mistakes man. You gotta play straight through. Then you gotta stop. Then you go back. Then you go to the next scene. Then you go again. Things like that.
They teach that film at film schools. That's pretty amazing that your first recording session wound up being for a cinematic classic.
I know, man. Isn't it amazing what [Earth, Wind & Fire founder and Verdine's brother] Maurice [White] threw me into? My first record was a cinematic classic. I was 19 years old. Goddamn! [laughs]
You think it was better that you didn't know what you were doing?
Exactly, man! You know how they say ignorance is bliss? I am so glad I was ignorant, man! You know what I'm saying?
Because if you knew what you were doing...
I'd have froze!
The first scene of the movie was a 12-year-old kid getting laid!
That was [actor and director] Mario [Van Peebles], Melvin's son.
Mario has spoken on that. That it's kinda weird how his film career started out with the world seeing his butt.
So his career started with the world seeing his ass, and your career started with playing the music to the world seeing his ass.
I wanted to ask you about my favorite TV music performance of all time... your appearance on the PBS Soul! show in New York City in 1973. Do you remember that at all?
Was that with Linda Hopkins? That was one of the first television shows we did. They played it 20 times in New York. Who was the host? [Ellis Haizlip] I remember he had a thick mustache. He was kind of an African/Jamaican guy. He had his glasses on.
On the program, see what I imagine it's what it would have been like to see you guys at a club. You guys were on the heavy Bitches Brew- jazz-rock vibe. You did the solo where you threw the guitar down, and you humped it. A year and a half later, you were doing the same stuff at the California Jam in front of 200,000 people. What was it like to go from Soul! to the California Jam in 18 months?
Well, you... there were a lot of other things leading up to that as well. There were progressions going on. That Soul! show was one of our first TV appearances. We played clubs in New York a lot. We were playing lots of colleges. Lots of student unions would call us and have us play. So by the time we played the California Jam, we were starting to break a little bit into bigger marketplaces. That was the show we were on with Seals & Crofts [and Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, etc.]. It wasn't overnight; it was a steady progression of getting better and better.
Was writing more pop stuff always the goal? Or did you just kind of feel your way into it?
We felt our way into it. Maurice always had a strong musical concept. Don't forget at that particular time, we were sort of being influenced by the Bitches Brew thing. We played with him once. We were experimenting, and the word "pop" wasn't really in our vocabulary at that time. This was 1973. The pop stuff was five to six years away.
Then you got into the deep funk stuff with "Mighty Mighty." When you drop the funk, Verdine, you know it's you dropping the funk. When "Shining Star" hits, it's you.
I've heard that when you record, you always use a scratch vocal or a working vocal. Most people record the bass prior to adding vocals. What's the advantage to recording your bass lines to a vocal.
You can listen better. You can see the direction of the music. You're not playing to air. Actually you can do a better performance. At least I can. Everybody is different. I can kind of tell what kind of performance it's going to be.
How did you come up with the ideas for the big stage show with the spaceship and the magic tricks in the late '70s?
That was a progression as well. By the time we got there, the All in All album had come out. Star Wars had come along with Close Encounters way back in the day. And we worked with the late Doug Henning on the magic tricks.
There seemed to be a lot of funk bands with spaceships at that time...
Not a lot!
OK, you guys and P-Funk. I have a question that applies to music in general. There's an old saying that to be a musician is to be a good thief. Where does one draw the line between being influenced and thieving? Or is that just an imaginary line to begin with?
It's an imaginary line. It sounds good on paper. I think every artist tries to do their own thing. I don't think any artist blatantly tries to steal anyone's whole thing. Everyone is influenced.
Is there one show in particular where you got lifted to where your childhood dreams as a performer were reached?
We've had many moments like that. Recently we had one of those moments at the Prom in London two weeks ago to 45,000 people. A whole new generation of people came with us. We played with the London Philharmonic. The day before that, we rehearsed at Abbey Road. It was another peak. One of many peaks in our career.
My 9-year-old daughter loves Earth, Wind & Fire and wants to know if you like playing to kids.
Yeah, we have a lot of young people. We have Kids: 5, 6, 7, 8 to 15, 16, 17. We have a big young following.
You guys have done every kind of record there is. What led you to making the Christmas album?
Sony Records asked us to do one. We came in at number one in presales on Amazon last week. That's a good indication that we're in the right place. Holiday comes out October 21, and we're really happy with how it sounds.
When you're working with holiday standards, where do you draw the line on reverence versus irreverence when you put your own spin on it?
You just listen to the song. Then you'll see what kind of room you have on that.
Earth, Wind & Fire, 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 15, at Seminole Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $49 to $79. Visit hardrocklivehollywoodfl.com.
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