You know them for soulful hits like “After the Love” and “Fantasy,” and for pulsating power-funk workouts like “September” and “Boogie Wonderland.” They’ve been mixing deep grooves and spiritual lyrics for over forty years, and their remake of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” (for the 1978 spoof Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) stands as one of the coolest Fab Four covers of all time.
Earth, Wind & Fire have sold over 90 million albums, notched eight Grammy Awards and four American Music Awards, and remains a must-see attraction on the summer concert circuit. Despite the band’s longevity, the rhythms and melodies are of timeless, elemental quality—and the music continues to influence younger artists like Bruno Mars, Beyonce, and Usher even today.
Earth, Wind & Fire were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2000. Just last month, core members Philip Bailey (vocals), Ralph Johnson (vocals, percussion), and Verdine White (bass) were on hand at The Staples Center in Los Angeles to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.
While the recent death of founding father Maurice White (Verdine’s older brother) surely loomed large in the minds (and hearts) of surviving members, the Grammy weekend itself was festive and fun for the funk icons.
The band sold out Cain Park in 2014 and the Hard Rock in Northfield last year. Now Earth, Wind & Fire are prepping for their second joint outing with fellow Windy City horn rockers Chicago—who’ll (finally) receive their Rock Hall nod this April in New York.
The appropriately-dubbed Heart & Soul 2.0 Tour promises a long, memorable night of hook-laden hits, brass-powered pop, and tender ballads—all lovingly delivered by the twenty-odd virtuoso musicians and skilled singers comprising the two legendary groups. Each band will have its own hour-long showcase, but the evening will be bookended by mind-blowing jams featuring clever all-star combinations of the two.
Heart & Soul 2.0 is scheduled to kickoff March 23th in Jacksonville and wrap up April 18th in New York. Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire will roll into Columbus, Ohio for a dual gig at Nationwide Arena on April 5th. Tickets are on sale now (see like below).
We recently chatted with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Ralph Johnson about the traveling confab, his band’s mythical music, the paternal wisdom of Maurice, and his own predilections for art and recreation.
RALPH JOHNSON: Cleveland, Ohio! How are you, Cleveland!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Feeling good, thanks!
RALPH JOHNSON: I have to tell you, someone once told me there are only two seasons in Cleveland: Winter and construction.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: [Laughs] That’s so true. We get six months of grey skies, snow, and cold—and as soon as the temperature goes up and the sun comes out, so do the orange barrels. The main roads are either covered with ice or crumbling with potholes, or they’re closed for repairs. You can’t win!
RALPH JOHNSON: [Laughs] All righty! Well, good morning. It’s a beautiful day in L.A. It’s about sixty degrees, probably gonna hit seventy. I’m knocking out interviews this morning, and here you are for my third one!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: So the Earth, Wind boys are teaming up again with the guys from Chicago. The tour starts in a couple weeks…are you just enjoying some down time now?
RALPH JOHNSON: You know, usually we are down January through about…the end of March. There may be corporate gigs, but the major touring as usual doesn’t start until the summer. But we are going to start earlier this year, in March, on the Heart and Soul 2.0 tour with Chicago. I don’t know if you’ve gotten to see us in the summer, but if you haven’t had a chance to see us with Chicago, you’re missing some high energy! You’ve got to see the combo, you’ll love it.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: I’ve seen both bands by themselves, but never the combo. At least not live; I’ve seen your Live at the Greek DVD concert. So, as exciting a time as it is for the band, I’d like to express my sympathies over the loss of Maurice. I knew he’d been ill for some time, and that he stopped touring a while ago. But was his passing a shock for the band?
RALPH JOHNSON: Yeah. Shock would be an understatement. It was numbing. We have our moments, getting misty-eyed when you’re walking around the house. You have memories of this man who was driven. He was driven. He had a dream, and he pursued it, and now he leaves behind this musical legacy that has affected the whole world. I don’t know if you knew this, but Earth, Wind & Fire music is some of the most-played music on the planet. Every minute and thirty-eight seconds, there’s an Earth, Wind & Fire song starting on the radio. So essentially, there’s Earth, Wind & Fire going on twenty-four, seven all the time all around the planet Earth!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: The band just received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. Was Maurice aware Earth, Wind would be receiving that honor?
RALPH JOHNSON: Very good question, thank you. Yes, he was aware. When we first got the notice…the press release went out on January 17th, I believe it was. Yeah, he definitely knew. And he was very happy. But the whole thing just caught us by surprise, because we had no indication…I mean, we knew he had Parkinson’s. We just didn’t get expect to get this kind of news now, as we were approaching the Grammys. The day Maurice made his transition, the three of us were on our way to Sirius Satellite Radio for some interviews, and we got the call at about one in the afternoon. And I was just in shock. Numb.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: How were the Grammys? Good time?
RALPH JOHNSON: Well, it was a great event. The whole Grammys weekend starts the night before, with Clive Davis’ party. So we played the party. We hadn’t played the party in ten years. We played it in 2006 with Alicia Keyes. So as we were getting ready to get the Lifetime Achievement Award and all this other stuff, Clive wanted us to come in. Clive is the reason we’re out here now. We auditioned for Clive back in 1972, and he immediately signed us to Columbia Records, when he was president. So it starts with the party. And all the years—we have six Grammys already—but all the years the Grammys were going on, that was the first time we’d been asked to be presenters. So it was kind of a special night, to be honored with Lifetime Achievement, and also to be presenting. It was fun. I enjoyed it. I enjoy those kinds of moments, and I like the fact that Taylor Swift set some people straight [laughs]! Okay? Because there are some people out there who needed to hear that. People who have apparently lost their minds! If hip-hop has a court jester, you know who it is [laughs]!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: It’s so nice that you got to present, and perform on the show with Pentatonix. I’m not familiar with them—Pentatonix—but it’s great that pairing up on the program offers a kind of exposure that takes Earth, Wind music to a younger generation.
RALPH JOHNSON: Absolutely. That’s a very good point. Pentatonix, they’re an excellent a cappella group. But yeah, this whole weekend was a great weekend, and it finally actually ended for myself and Verdine at the Glenn Frey memorial. There was a memorial at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was really great. And Stevie Wonder showed up there and sang! It was very cool.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Sounds like you guys have been busy! Now, with the Heart & Soul show, what can fans expect from the two-part set list between Earth, Wind and Chicago? How do the two bands juggle the time onstage?
RALPH JOHNSON: Well, at this point the show is locked in. So it’s not like we’re looking at a set light every night saying, “We’re going to change this.” Because it has a lot of cues, a lot of video content. So at this point the set list won’t change. But in terms of the present-day format, I will say that both bands open together on stage. We do about fifteen or twenty minutes. Chicago leaves the stage, and then Earth, Wind proceeds to do an hour. Then we leave the stage, and Chicago comes on for an hour, and then we come together for the finale, for about fifteen minutes. It’ll have songs like, “Free” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Sounds like a full night of music.
RALPH JOHNSON: You will have a full night of music. Certainly a full night of hits.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Having seen both bands live, I can attest to the high-caliber musicianship and off-the-chart energy levels.
RALPH JOHNSON: There you go!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: What do you do on the road for fun? Any hobbies or interests to help alleviate your down time? Anything special you do to keep healthy?
RALPH JOHNSON: There’s usually a day or two between dates, but usually no more than four in a row. On my off days, I’m an avid tennis player. I love tennis! I learned tennis in the mid-70s, around ’76 or ’77. And then within the last ten years, I said “I really want to buckle down and get my stroke down.” So I got with an instructor who I’ve been with for seven or eight years here in the Calabasas area. I’m usually there once a week for an hour or two to work on my stroke! I play a lot of tennis. I also love art galleries. I collect art. If I’m in a city where there’s a nice gallery, I’ll go out. Sometimes I’ll purchase things on the road if I see something I really like. And we eat right—we take care of ourselves. That’s something Maurice instilled in us coming up. You’ve got to remember, he was ten years older than us. So he’d already lived a lot of life, you know? Even at thirty; because we were just in our twenties. He talked to us about eating right, reading certain books. So it was an education. It was educational on a lot of different levels, not just musically. It was an education in lifestyle.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: I always wanted to ask about Earth, Wind & Fire’s colorful costumes and catchy album sleeves. I’d look at the record sleeves growing up, and the mystical symbols and flashy attire always fascinated me. How did this visual side of the band evolve?
RALPH JOHNSON: A lot of that—in terms of look and graphics—a lot of that came from Maurice. He was very much into the way things looked, cosmetically. He was very much into Egyptology, the study of Egypt. So we incorporated a lot of that into what we did. It was a hook, in a sense, you know?
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: What’s next for you and the band after the 2.0 tour?
RALPH JOHNSON: We’ve got a very busy ahead. We’re busy all the time. People don’t seem to realize we’re busy every year. But to answer your question, after the 2.0 tour—which will end in New York at Madison Square Garden around April 18th—we’ll continue to tour. We will continue our summer tour throughout the United States. Then we’re going overseas to the U.K., which is one of our favorite spots. Then we’re gonna head back to Japan! We do a lot of corporate dates, too. Private events, you know? We’re always out here doing something!
Earth, Wind & Fire / Chicago. Tuesday, April 5, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.