Q&A: Verdine White
Earth, Wind & Fire must be experienced live, as bassist Verdine White explained to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen during a phone interview from White’s Los Angeles home. Late EWF visionary Maurice White continues to be a guiding spirit for his brother, singer Philip Bailey, percussionist Ralph Johnson and company as they return to Venetian Theatre to take fans to “Boogie Wonderland” via a decade of Top 10 hits, from “Shining Star” to “Let’s Groove.”
I didn’t get to see you last time you were in Vegas. How would you characterize the experience of the first slate of shows in your Venetian residency?
I thought it was a great icebreaker, and that we’d be back again soon. Having a residency is really fantastic, and the audiences are great. On the Strip, I think we’re one of the best shows out there, so this is a great thing that we’re part of all of this.
How was the reception from the audiences? Was it different than doing larger shows on the road?
Absolutely, because of course they knew all the music, and don’t forget now, in Vegas people from all over the world come to those shows. People from Europe come over, China come over. They come from all over the world to see these particular residencies.
What songs got the strongest response?
Well, it’s the whole thing. It’s not one particular song. Those shows are different. They’re like theater shows. It’s the whole experience, rather than the festival show or a concert. The room’s different, so it lends to a different type of experience.
I think you and (fellow Venetian Theatre residents and tour co-headliners) Chicago showed that larger a larger ensembles can play Vegas. I think you set a precedent.
When was the last time you’ve seen us?
I’ve never seen you. I was ill during the first residency.
Ok, we need to do a second interview, because it would be better, you know what I’m saying? I think it’s better nowadays if the writer sees the band first, because a lot of the questions are based on what you think it is. I think we need to do another interview after the Venetian shows.
I’d be honored to speak with you before and after.
I think this is bad, sort of a weird trend that they let journalists talk to artists and the journalists had never seen the artist perform.
I’ve researched two previous stories about Earth, Wind & Fire, and in the process have come to appreciate the music and the story of the band. I think Earth, Wind & Fire, for a while, was associated with an era, and their importance in context in the history of modern pop was a little overlooked. Maurice passed away only a few years ago, but it seems like the band has enjoyed resurgence since then.
We were always here, that’s why I think a second interview would be better, and you’ll get a better feel, in terms of how it feels, you know what I mean, but keep going. Go ahead.
Do you feel like you’ve been appreciated more in the last couple of years than you had been in the last two decades of performing live?
I don’t think we ever went away. To me, the last several years we’ve been going steadily. There are five different generations of people that come to our shows, which would be a big help for you as a writer to check out, and I do think the music is part of people’s soundtrack of their lives. That’s what I get.
Definitely. It’s part of mine.
Just the song quality. The songs hold up over a long period of time. I think that’s always the proof in the pudding, the tunes. When the tunes hold up that long over a period of time, I think that has a lot to do with it.
Your music was really uplifting for people during a time (in the mid-’70s) when they really needed it. It seems like we’ve come full circle to a similar time, when your music can lift people up again.
I think we have to thank Maurice for that, and his vision, what he wanted for a great group. All the credit goes to him it terms of what has really transpired, what he went after and what has sustained. And a younger generation has picked up on that. They picked up and discovered it.
There’s a part in Maurice’s book (2016’s My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire) where he hears the voice of God saying, “You will live forever. You are immortal.” And he did. The music made him immortal.
Absolutely. It will be around forever.
Did you have any notion of what might lie ahead when Maurice first contacted you to play bass in what would evolve into the classic EWF lineup?
Well, no. You have to understand that I was 18 years old and Maurice had just left Ramsey Lewis’ group, as I’m sure you read in the book. He asked me to come and it was a life-changing thing. Of course, you don’t know that when you’re 18 years old. Now we know what Earth, Wind & Fire is and what we’ve done, and things like that. It’s easier to see now because we’re looking back now. At that time, nobody knew what was going to happen. It was just an idea, and the rest is history.
You didn’t play with Maurice very much before you joined the band, right? You were raised in separate areas of the country.
I was a kid, you know? We were 10 years apart. He was already a bona fide professional. I was a snot-nosed kid coming up.
I just found out that he want to school in Memphis with Booker T. Jones and (drummer for Booker T. and the MGs) David Porter.
And Isaac Hayes.
That’s a pretty amazing lineage, with all the inspiration that came from them.
Your brother Fred was in the band (on drums) for a while. He’s still active, doing background vocals for artists like Rod Stewart. How come he’s not with you now?
That’s right. Fred was in the band. Or course before that he played with Donny Hathaway, so Freddie was a child prodigy. John Paris is our drummer now and John is doing a great job. Fantastic.
Maurice also popularized (African thumb instrument) the kalimba. Who gets to play that now?
Philip does. That’s why you need to come and see. That way you’ll have all those questions answered about the show. That would be great.
We’re letting readers know about that now. That’s why it’s important.
That’s good stuff, that’s good stuff.
EWF has always been a family affair. Now you have Philip Bailey Jr. in the band on background vocals. I don’t know if a lot of people know that.
Yeah, he’s been with us for a few years now and doing a great job. And of course there’s myself, Ralph, Phillip, the Earth, Wind & Fire horns. It’s a good ensemble.
Is there a period of the band or album that you consider most memorable or enjoyable?
I don’t really think like that. It’s just been a continuous thing. It’s been on continuous, glorious ride of audiences and music.
What did Charles Stepney bring to EWF’s sound? Can you describe him in action during the recording of any particular songs? (Stepney was an esteemed producer who died in 1976. He and White worked for Chess Records, most notably on Fontella Bass’ 1965 hit “Rescue Me,” for which White played drums.)
Well, of course, Charles was great. He worked with Maurice, with Ramsey, and in a nutshell I’d have to call Charles our George Martin. He was the one who helped us with music, and he was great friends with Maurice. He was like a father figure to us. Maurice was like our big brother figure, Charles was our father figure, so we were in great hands.
You look like you keep yourself in great shape, judging from recent photos. Are you dedicated to being in shape physically to keep your energy up?
Yeah, I’m in good shape. I’m in pretty good shape. I’m in the gym and I do a lot of yoga. Yeah, you’ve seen some pictures, I’m sure.
I’ve seen a lot of footage even though I didn’t get to make it to last years shows. The band looks very healthy and very energetic. There’s nothing obligatory about what you’re doing. It looks completely inspired by the uplifting spirit that’s been there since the beginning.
What would Maurice think of the way you’re presenting Earth, Wind & Fire now?
He’d be proud. Don’t forget now, we were not only in the band but we were also his students, and he would be very proud at what we have accomplished and what we’re doing. The fact of it is so many people love this band. He would be really proud.
It looks like Earth Wind & Fire plays Austin City Limits Live right before Vegas. Where do you see EWF going in the next five years?
I never think like that. I just like that we’re doing it, and that we’ve got great fans.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s evolution seems pretty organic.
Well, it’s authentic. That’s how we started, you know? It’s real. It’s authentic. It is what it is. There’s no fakery. We just walk right out there and do it.