Interviews

Earth, Wind & Fire's Verdine White on the "Steady Progression of Getting Better and Better"

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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.

Exactly!

So his career started with the world seeing his ass, and your career started with playing the music to the world seeing his ass.

That's right.

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.

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Tom Bowker