Earth, Wind and Fire among this year’s Kennedy Center honorees

From ‘Sweet Sweetback’ to ‘September,’ they built a soundtrack for the black experience

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The holiday season is five months away, but Earth, Wind & Fire received an early gift Thursday. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., announced that the group will be one of the marquee recipients at the 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors later this year.Standing alongside Earth, Wind & Fire on the prestigious night in the nation’s capital will be actress Sally Field; singer Linda Ronstadt; conductor, pianist and composer Michael Tilson Thomas; and the founders of the revolutionary children’s television show Sesame Street, the first TV program to receive the award.

The Honors recognize contributions to American culture through the performing arts. A gala performance toasting this year’s winners will be held at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 8 and aired on CBS a week later.

It’s EWF, though, that will give the night an unmistakable groove. The group, formed in Chicago in 1969, spanned genres from soul and Afropop to disco. Its lead singer, driving force and all-around musical savant, Maurice White, died in 2016. Surviving members Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson will be on hand to accept the honor.

Earth, Wind & Fire’s earliest success can be traced back to the ’70s, when the group helped ignite the blaxploitation era by creating the soundtrack for Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. From there, the group, which included up to 10 different musicians during its prime and hoisted six Grammys, carved out its own musical lane and identity during a culturally rich decade that helped shape the sound of black music. Its biggest records include “Reasons,” “Sing A Song,” “Would You Mind,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Shining Star,” “Boogie Wonderland,” their cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” and arguably its two biggest cultural touchstones in “Let’s Groove” and the 1978 dance classic “September.”

From left to right: Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire attend the 37th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, 2014, to honor Al Green.

Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

 

“My principle for producing,” White told Billboard in 1979 after the runaway success of “September,” “is to pay attention to the roots of America, which is doo-wop music.”

Forty years later, Earth, Wind & Fire’s music is still at the root of love, peace and the black experience in America. They’ve performed for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and inspired Prince, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder with their aesthetic execution. The band’s legacy continues to pump heartily through hip-hop, their music having been sampled by the likes of Drake, Kanye West, Timbaland & Magoo, Cam’ron, Yo-Yo and Ice Cube, Mac Miller, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and countless others.

In his 2014 biography, Bailey reflected on the process of recording the group’s 1975 triple-platinum album That’s the Way of the World. He dubbed it “a spiritual experience” and said that “when Maurice [White] played us the finished mix … I thought we sounded like angels. … It was as if God had been guiding us.”

When the Kennedy Center commemorates the band later this year, it will be further proof that Earth, Wind & Fire’s journey isn’t done yet.

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