Earth, Wind and Fire brought the funk to the Kennedy Center Honors

The first African American band to receive the prestigious honor turned the high-powered audience into fans at a dance party


WASHINGTON — Earth, Wind & Fire was a definitive part of LL Cool J’s childhood soundtrack in Queens, New York. Now he was hosting the 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors, which featured the landmark ensemble as one of its five esteemed guests.

“I remember my mother doing the vacuum dance to all [their] songs,” LL (James Todd Smith) told The Undefeated while laughing. The “Mama Said Knock You Out” MC became hip-hop’s first Kennedy Center honoree in 2017. “[She’d] be like, ‘C’mon, Todd!’ I’d look at those little lines in the carpet … Man, I’m so happy for Earth, Wind & Fire. They deserve it so much.”

Sunday night, Washington paid homage to a sterling lineup of creatives. Along with Earth, Wind & Fire, other honorees were actress Sally Field, singer Linda Ronstadt, the creators of the children’s television series Sesame Street, and conductor/composer Michael Tilson Thomas. Celebrities in attendance included Ben Vereen, Herbie Hancock, Carrie Underwood, Audra McDonald, Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Garth Brooks, Lucy Liu, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Cedric the Entertainer, Steven Spielberg and more. But with all due respect, the night belonged to the group that was the last to be honored.

Top row from left to right: Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson of Earth, Wind & Fire, Abby, Big Bird and Elmo. Bottom row from left to right: conductor and musical visionary Michael Tilson Thomas, singer Linda Ronstadt, actress Sally Field, and Sesame Street creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett were recognized for their achievements in the performing arts during The 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 8. (John P.Filo/CBS)

That’s because, for nearly 50 years, they’ve had the trademark on turning a black tie event into a bona fide party. After all, one doesn’t sell more than 100 million records worldwide and not know how to own a room.

On the Kennedy Center stage, fans, collaborators and, most importantly to them, friends such as David Foster and David Copperfield, told stories of working with the legendary group. John Legend (“Can’t Hide Love”), Cynthia Erivo (“Reasons”), Ne-Yo (“Shining Star” and “Sing A Song”) and The Jonas Brothers (“Boogie Wonderland”) ran through a few of the group’s best known anthems. It was the only time all night that members of the audience were on their feet for all of the performances. In a room boasting a surplus of celebrities, policymakers and prominent philanthropists, the bottom line read the same: Earth, Wind & Fire was the straw that stirred their drink.

With eight No. 1 hits, eight platinum albums, seven Grammys, a Class of 2000 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Lifetime Achievement Awards with the Grammys, ASCAP, NAACP and BET, Earth, Wind & Fire is a one-of-one. Their impact spans generations and genres. The group has been sampled more than 600 times by artists such as Drake, Cam’ron, Queen Pen, TLC, Young Thug, Missy Elliott, Mac Miller and more, with more than 200 covers of their songs. And for the second consecutive month, surviving original members Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson found themselves back in the nation’s capital. In November, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled a 1978 photo of the group. Earlier this summer, Bailey told The Undefeated that being honored by the Kennedy Center “ranks among the highest” of all the accolades the group has received.

Dating to its infancy, founder Maurice White (who died in 2016) was adamant that the group never sought to be embraced by the masses — but rather they would embrace them. Their music serves as a crockpot of styles, ranging from rhythm and blues, soul, big band and swing to jazz and classical. The diversity in their music was reflected in the look of their generations of fans.

“Funk!” exclaimed actor Tom Hanks when asked about his earliest memories of Earth, Wind & Fire. Moments earlier, the two-time Academy Award winner joyfully embraced and chatted with the group’s members on the evening’s red carpet. “There isn’t a person alive that, if [Earth, Wind & Fire] are playing in the other room and you don’t find yourself [grooving along] just a little bit on the backbeat … God bless Earth, Wind & Fire.”

“I loved dancing to them when I was a young person. Singing along throughout my lifetime and now my 21-year-old daughter — she’s more thrilled than I am to be here tonight. That kind of impact is amazing,” said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. “The spectrum of all the music they have brought into their performances. But the way they perform them, the dance moves, the live show. It’s the full package.”

Throughout the audience, couples danced and crooned to one another. Maybe it was their way of connecting to the music that defined the earliest stages of their relationship. Or maybe it was that the music, if only for a few seconds, evaporated any other concerns in their lives. Had it not been for a full band and backup singers already on stage, the crowd itself was ready and willing to take on the responsibility of an impromptu choir. Everyone knew the words. That included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who received a resounding ovation earlier in the night. Pelosi, from her elevated seat, smiled and swayed back and forth while singing along to “Boogie Wonderland.”

Kennedy Center Honors host LL Cool J on Earth, Wind & Fire: “I’m so happy for Earth, Wind & Fire. They deserve it so much.”

Photo by Scott Suchman

The groove that exists in Earth, Wind & Fire’s DNA is difficult to quantify and even harder not to be touched by. This was White’s vision and why his spirit felt present. As the crowd and performers ran through a king’s ransom of hit records, White’s being loomed large.

It’s also worth noting how unusual this moment was. For the most part, individual singers and songwriters get Kennedy Center Honors. Earth, Wind & Fire is just the fourth musical group to receive one of the most prestigious titles in the arts, following The Who in 2008, Led Zeppelin in 2012 and The Eagles in 2016. They also are the first African American band to receive the distinction.

“They should’ve been honored,” said musician Aaron Neville, who was in attendance. “They’re a world staple.”

Closing the show out with Earth, Wind & Fire was both a marathon and inspiring victory lap. They received two standing ovations, both of which lasted well over a minute with audience members screaming their adoration for Bailey, White and Johnson. The show concluded with a karaoke-style session of “September” with Legend, Nick Jonas, Ne-Yo and Erivo all having their chance to run through one of the most beloved songs in music history.

As yet another decade of Earth, Wind & Fire’s legacy makes way for the next, Sunday night in Washington proved the group is forever linked to the history of sound. As true a supergroup as there ever was, they’re ambassadors of fun, diversity and, not to be forgotten, love.

The 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors airs on CBS Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. EST.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.

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