Earth, Wind & Fire were one of the most musically accomplished, critically acclaimed, and commercially popular funk bands of the '70s. Conceived by drummer, bandleader, songwriter, kalimba player, and occasional vocalist Maurice White, EWF's all-encompassing musical vision used funk as its foundation, but also incorporated jazz, smooth soul, gospel, pop, rock & roll, psychedelia, blues, folk, African music, and, later on, disco. Lead singer Philip Bailey gave EWF an extra dimension with his talent for crooning sentimental ballads in addition to funk workouts; behind him, the band could harmonize like a smooth Motown group, work a simmering groove like the J.B.'s, or improvise like a jazz fusion outfit. Plus, their stage shows were often just as elaborate and dynamic as George Clinton's P-Funk empire. More than just versatility for its own sake, EWF's eclecticism was part of a broader concept informed by a cosmic, mystical spirituality and an uplifting positivity the likes of which hadn't been seen since the early days of Sly & the Family Stone. Tying it all together was the accomplished songwriting of Maurice White, whose intricate, unpredictable arrangements and firm grasp of hooks and structure made EWF one of the tightest bands in funk when they wanted to be. Not everything they tried worked, but at their best, Earth, Wind & Fire seemingly took all that came before them and wrapped it up into one dizzying, spectacular package.
White founded Earth, Wind & Fire in Chicago in 1969. He had previously honed his chops as a session drummer for Chess Records, where he played on songs by the likes of Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, and Etta James, among others. In 1967, he'd replaced Redd Holt in the popular jazz group the Ramsey Lewis Trio, where he was introduced to the kalimba, an African thumb piano he would use extensively in future projects. In 1969, he left Lewis' group to form a songwriting partnership with keyboardist Don Whitehead and singer Wade Flemons. This quickly evolved into a band dubbed the Salty Peppers, which signed with Capitol and scored a regional hit with "La La Time." When a follow-up flopped, White decided to move to Los Angeles, and took most of the band with him; he also renamed them Earth, Wind & Fire, after the three elements in his astrological charts. By the time White convinced his brother, bassist Verdine White, to join him on the West Coast in 1970, the lineup also consisted of Whitehead, Flemons, female singer Sherry Scott, guitarist Michael Beal, tenor saxophonist Chet Washington, trombonist Alex Thomas, and percussionist Yackov Ben Israel. This aggregate signed a new deal with Warner Bros. and issued its self-titled debut album in late 1970. Many critics found it intriguing and ambitious, much like the 1971 follow-up, The Need of Love, but neither attracted much commercial attention, despite a growing following on college campuses and a high-profile gig performing the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles' groundbreaking black independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Dissatisfied with the results, White dismantled the first version of EWF in 1972, retaining only brother Verdine. He built a new lineup with female vocalist Jessica Cleaves, flute/sax player Ronnie Laws, guitarist Roland Bautista, keyboardist Larry Dunn, and percussionist Ralph Johnson; the most important new addition, however, was singer Philip Bailey, recruited from a Denver R&B band called Friends & Love. After seeing the group open for John Sebastian in New York, Clive Davis signed them to CBS, where they debuted in 1972 with Last Days and Time. Further personnel changes ensued; Laws and Bautista were all gone by year's end, replaced by reedman Andrew Woolfolk and guitarists Al McKay and Johnny Graham. It was then that EWF truly began to hit their stride. 1973's Head to the Sky (Cleaves' last album with the group) significantly broadened their cult following, and the 1974 follow-up, Open Our Eyes, was their first genuine hit. It marked their first collaboration with producer, arranger, and sometime songwriting collaborator Charles Stepney, who helped streamline their sound for wider acceptance; it also featured another White brother, Fred, brought in as a second drummer. The single "Mighty Mighty" became EWF's first Top Ten hit on the R&B charts, although pop radio shied away from its black-pride subtext, and the minor hit "Kalimba Story" brought Maurice White's infatuation with African sounds to the airwaves. Open Our Eyes went gold, setting the stage for the band's blockbuster breakthrough.
In 1975, EWF completed work on another movie soundtrack, this time to a music-biz drama called That's the Way of the World. Not optimistic about the film's commercial prospects, the group rushed out their soundtrack album of the same name (unlike Sweet Sweetback, they composed all the music themselves) in advance. The film flopped, but the album took off; its lead single, the love-and-encouragement anthem "Shining Star," shot to the top of both the R&B and pop charts, making Earth, Wind & Fire mainstream stars; it later won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group. The album also hit number one on both the pop and R&B charts, and went double platinum; its title track went Top Five on the R&B side, and it also contained Bailey's signature ballad in the album cut "Reasons." White used the new income to develop EWF's live show into a lavish, effects-filled extravaganza, which eventually grew to include stunts designed by magician Doug Henning. The band was also augmented by a regular horn section, the Phoenix Horns, headed by saxophonist Don Myrick. Their emerging concert experience was chronicled later that year on the double-LP set Gratitude, which became their second straight number one album and featured one side of new studio tracks. Of those, "Sing a Song" reached the pop Top Ten and the R&B Top Five, and the ballad "Can't Hide Love" and the title track were also successful.
Sadly, during the 1976 sessions for EWF's next studio album, Spirit, Charles Stepney died suddenly of a heart attack. Maurice White took over the arranging chores, but the Stepney-produced "Getaway" managed to top the R&B charts posthumously. Spirit naturally performed well on the charts, topping out at number two. In the meantime, White was taking a hand in producing other acts; in addition to working with his old boss Ramsey Lewis, he helped kick start the careers of the Emotions and Deniece Williams. 1977's All n' All was another strong effort that charted at number three and spawned the R&B smashes "Fantasy" and the chart-topping "Serpentine Fire"; meanwhile, the Emotions topped the pop charts with the White-helmed smash "Best of My Love." The following year, White founded his own label, ARC, and EWF appeared in the mostly disastrous film version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, turning in a fine cover of the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life" that became their first Top Ten pop hit since "Sing a Song." Released before year's end, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 produced another Top Ten hit (and R&B number one) in the newly recorded "September."
1979's I Am contained EWF's most explicit nod to disco, a smash collaboration with the Emotions called "Boogie Wonderland" that climbed into the Top Ten. The ballad "After the Love Has Gone" did even better, falling one spot short of the top. Although I Am became EWF's sixth straight multi-platinum album, there were signs that the group's explosion of creativity over the past few years was beginning to wane. 1980's Faces broke that string, after which guitarist McKay departed. While 1981's Raise brought them a Top Five hit and R&B chart-topper in "Let's Groove," an overall decline in consistency was becoming apparent. By the time EWF issued its next album, 1983's Powerlight, ARC had folded, and the Phoenix Horns had been cut loose to save money. After the lackluster Electric Universe appeared at the end of the year, White disbanded the group to simply take a break. In the meantime, Verdine White became a producer and video director, while Philip Bailey embarked on a solo career and scored a pop smash with the Phil Collins duet "Easy Lover." Collins also made frequent use of the Phoenix Horns on his '80s records, both solo and with Genesis.
Bailey reunited with the White brothers, plus Andrew Woolfolk, Ralph Johnson, and new guitarist Sheldon Reynolds, in 1987 for the album Touch the World. It was surprisingly successful, producing two R&B smashes in "Thinking of You" and the number one "System of Survival." Released in 1990, Heritage was a forced attempt to contemporize the group's sound, with guest appearances from Sly Stone and MC Hammer; its failure led to the end of the group's relationship with Columbia. They returned on Reprise with the more traditional-sounding Millennium in 1993, but were dropped when the record failed to recapture their commercial standing despite a Grammy nomination for "Sunday Morning"; tragedy struck that year when onetime horn leader Don Myrick was murdered in Los Angeles. Bailey and the White brothers returned once again in 1997 on the small Pyramid label with In the Name of Love. After 2003's The Promise, the group realigned itself with several top-shelf adult contemporary artists and released 2005's Illumination, which featured a much-publicized collaboration with smooth jazz juggernaut Kenny G.
For The Record
Original members include Michael Beale, guitar; Leslie Drayton, horns; Wade Flemons,electric piano; Sherry Scott, vocals; Alex Thomas, horns; Chester Washington, horns;Maurice White (born December 19, 1941, in Chicago, IL), vocals, drums, kalimba; Verdine White (born July 25, 1951), bass; Donald Whitehead, keyboards; and Phillard Williams,percussion.
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The Backstreet Boys were, in many ways, a contradictory band. Comprised entirely of white middle-class Americans, the group sang a hybrid of new jack balladry, hip-hop, R&B, and dance club pop that originally found its greatest success in Canada and Europe, with their 1996 debut album charting in the Top Ten in nearly every country on the Continent. Ironically, success in their native land did not follow until nearly two years later, when teen pop enjoyed a commercial explosion in America. Along with such artists as *NSYNC and Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys rose to the forefront of popular music during the turn of the 21st century, with albums like Backstreet's Back, Millennium, and Black & Blue enjoying worldwide success.
The core of the Backstreet Boys was comprised of cousins Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell, both of whom hailed from Lexington, KY. The two began singing in local church choirs and festivals while they were children, performing doo wop and R&B songs in the style of Boyz II Men. Two of the group's other members, Howie Dorough and A.J. McLean, were natives of Orlando, FL, who met each other -- as well as transplanted New Yorker Nick Carter -- through auditions for local commercials, theater, and television. At one audition, the three discovered that they shared an affection for classic soul and could harmonize well together. Inspired, they formed a vocal trio. Shortly thereafter, Richardson moved to Orlando, where he became a tour guide at Disney World and concentrated on music at night. Eventually, he met Dorough, Carter, and McLean through a co-worker, and the four decided to form a group, naming themselves after an Orlando flea market. Littrell was later invited to join, thus turning the group into a quintet.
With the help of Louis J. Pearlman (who would later rise to mogul status on the strength of his teen pop acts), the Backstreet Boys secured management from Donna and Johnny Wright, the latter of whom had managed New Kids on the Block during the 1980s. The Wrights put the group out on the road and enlisted several A&R reps to attend the performances, which eventually resulted in a contract with Jive Records in 1994. Jive set the Backstreet Boys up with producers Veit Renn and Tim Allen, who helped shape the group's eponymous album. Released throughout Europe in late 1995, the record enjoyed considerable success, spending several weeks in the Top Ten in most Continental countries where it charted. In the U.K., the Backstreet Boys were named Best Newcomers of 1995 at the Smash Hits Awards thanks to their international hit single "We've Got It Goin' On." After scoring another European hit with "I'll Never Break Your Heart," the group released its album in Canada. Despite the Backstreet Boys' popularity in Europe and Canada, "We've Got It Goin' On" stalled in the lower reaches of the U.S. charts in 1995.
Combining their international singles with new tracks (which also formed the centerpiece of that year's European-only album Backstreet's Back), the American version of Backstreet Boys finally jump-started the group's success at home. "Quit Playin' Games (With My Heart)" and "As Long as You Love Me" proved to be popular singles, with the former track climbing to platinum status. The album continued to spin off hits well into 1999, with "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," "I'll Never Break Your Heart," and "All I Have to Give" all landing on the charts. Both the former and the latter were platinum Top Five hits, and the album eventually sold an astounding 14 million copies in America alone.
In the meantime, the group saw its share of turmoil as Littrell underwent surgery in early 1998 to correct a congenital heart defect. Additionally, the Boys became embroiled in lawsuits against Pearlman and the rest of their management over royalties. When the dust settled, Pearlman remained the group's manager -- though the rest of the team was fired -- and the Boys began work on their follow-up album. Millennium was released in the summer of 1999 and debuted at number one, with first-week sales topping one million copies. Buoyed by songs like "I Want It That Way," "Larger Than Life," "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely," and "The One", Millennium shattered a number of records, including the highest amount of shipments in one year and the most copies sold during an album's inaugural week. The group released its Christmas Album before the end of the year, by which time Millennium was well on its way to sales of 12 million copies in the U.S. On an international level, the album eventually sold more than 40 million units.
Once again, the group struck immediately after its previous album stopped producing hits, issuing Black & Blue in fall 2000. More Top 40 singles followed, including "The Call" and "Shape of My Heart", and Black & Blue followed its predecessor by selling over one million copies during its first week. A popular tour supported the album, but after seven years of nonstop touring and recording, the band agreed it was time for a break. Brian Littrell became a father while Kevin Richardson tried his hand at Broadway and took a starring role in the musical +Chicago. Nick Carter released his solo album Now or Never in 2002, Howie Dorough did charity work for the Dorough Lupus Foundation in honor of the sister he had lost to the disease, and A.J. McLean made headlines with his stint in rehab.
In 2004, the Backstreet Boys re-formed and began work on a new album. The result, Never Gone, was released in June 2005 to platinum sales, followed by Unbreakable in 2007. The latter was the first album not to feature all five original members, as Kevin Richardson had quietly exited the group in 2006. It was also the group's first album not to go platinum, a fact that seemingly cemented the end of the Backstreet Boys' heyday.
In 2009, Backstreet Boys released their seventh studio album entitled 'This Is Us'. It featured a number of artists including Ne-Yo and T-Pain. They released their second greatest hits compilation in early 2010 called 'Playlist: The Very Best Of The Backstreet Boys'.
For The Record:
Members include Nick Carter (born January 28, 1980 in Jamestown, NY; son of Robert and Jane Carter), vocals; Howie Dorough (born August 22, 1973), vocals; Brian Littrell, (born February 20, 1975 in Lexington, KY; son of Harold and Jackie Littrell), vocals; A. J. McLean (born January 1, 1978 in West Palm Beach FL), vocals; and Kevin Richardson, (born October 3, 1972 in Lexington, KY), vocals.
Awards: MTV Europe Viewers Choice 1996.
Addresses: Home—Orlando, FL. Manager—Donna and Johnny Wright, Wright Stuff Management, 7380 Sand Lake Road, Suite 350, Orlando, FL 32819.
From Europe the Backstreet Boys' popularity spread throughout the world—Japan, Australia, Canada, South-east Asia. Their first album, Backstreet Boys, released in April 1996, sold over eleven million copies and was certified platinum in 26 different countries. Backstreet Boys: The Video was also a number-one seller in Canada for three months. The group toured overseas for 18 months and their concerts recalled the days of High Beatlemania, complete with crowds of crazed teenage girls, narrow escapes out back Windows, and screams so loud the music was barely audible. At home in Florida, foreign fans wait in the parking lots outside the apartment houses where the Backstreet Boys live, hoping for autographs. German fans have torn up their lawns for a blade or two of souvenir grass. Yet back in Orlando, the Backstreet Boys pass everywhere in the city unrecognized.
In 1997 the United States was the final frontier for the Backstreet Boys. As 1998 approached and the band prepared for its second U.S. tour, it was looking forward to seeing whether America had taken to them to the degree everyone else had. "I think the (U.S.) market is more ready for a group like us now," Howie Dorough told USA Today. "I think at the time we released our first record, alternative, grunge and urban were hot. Now we feel that pop music is starting to come back a little bit." Their album was finally released in the United States in August 1997, nearly a year and a half after the rest of the world heard it for the first time. They included some of their newer songs on the American version, songs that were used on their second international album, Backstreet's Back. Jive promoted the album heavily, concentrating on its key female audience. Free Backstreet Boys cassettes were distributed with J.C. Penney makeup, at cheerleader camps, and with books in the teen romance series, "Love Stories." "The Backstreet Boys have made a great choice in selecting their music. When you listen to it you'll know why they are probably going to be the next new thing," wrote Christina Psoros, a 12-year-old reviewer for Newsday.
The Backstreet Boys were also working on broadening their musical foundations. Ali members of the group took up songwriting—though in December 1997 no Backstreet Boys penned number had made it onto a record—and all were learning how to play instruments. In addition, they have focused more attention on dancing, which has become a major part of their stage show.