Back in 1970, Verdine White had big musical dreams for he and his brother’s new band Earth, Wind & Fire. But this was before they were international supergroup Earth, Wind & Fire.
“At the time we just wanted to be in a great group. We wanted to all be in one of the best bands in the world,” White, bassist and co-founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, tells Madison365. “Outside of that, I think that we just didn’t know what we would become. But we worked hard and the vision of [older brother and band founder] Maurice [White] was really wonderful. We’re still walking in his vision today.”
The music world was saddened in 2016 when Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White succumbed to his battle with Parkinson’s disease at age 74, but the band has continued on, always with Maurice in their hearts. Earth, Wind & Fire has been around for almost 50 years, first rocketing to fame in the 70s with a catchy, original, and uplifting sound that represented many different genres of music including soul, funk, pop, R&B, jazz, disco, rock, Latin, and African. As Rolling Stone once said, Earth, Wind & Fire “changed the sound of black pop music in the 1970s.” They would go on to become one of the world’s top musical groups of all time. The group will be performing at the Overture Center in downtown Madison on Saturday, March 24.
As Earth, Wind & Fire’s bassist since the band’s inception, White has won six Grammy Awards, has been Grammy nominated 17 times and has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Earth, Wind & Fire has influenced countless famous musicians including Prince, Outkast, Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, Usher, Wyclef Jean, Common, Pharrell Williams, and more.
But who influenced Earth, Wind & Fire?
“At that time, you had [Jimi] Hendrix, The Beatles, Miles Davis, John Coltraine. You had all of that, you know what I mean? Those guys were all big influences at the time coming up,” White says. “It was a talented group to emulate and look up to when we were young.”
Earth, Wind & Fire would go on to record eight #1 R&B singles and eight Double Platinum Top 10 Pop Albums. They have earned more than 50 Gold and Platinum albums and sold over 100 million albums worldwide, earning them a solid spot as one of the best-selling music artists of all time.
White, for his own part, has been called “the most electrifying bass player in the world.”
“I have a lot of energy and I try to lay down a great foundation for the guys on stage. And I really enjoy what I do. I love what I do,” White says. “It’s a great thing to be able to play in a great band. It’s an honor.”
Earth, Wind & Fire’s huge ’70s fanbase has gotten up there in the years like the band has, but I let White know that I know plenty of young people who are excited about their concert at the Overture Center on Saturday. I tell him that my daughter wanted me to make sure I told him that she listens to Earth, Wind, and Fire all the time with her friends. Is that a little weird?
“That’s not weird at all. When we’re out there on stage, we see five generations in our audiences enjoying the show,” White says. “Now, parents are bringing their kids and they are nine or 10 years old. So, we’re seeing the span of five generations in one night. So that’s pretty amazing. It’s a phenomenon.”
White is excited to be in Milwaukee the night before Madison and very close to his hometown of Chicago. Three of Earth, Wind & Fire’s principal members – White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson – have each earned honorary doctorate degrees from the Columbia College in Chicago.
White says that he’s been to Madison before and that “it’s a great college town.” He says that he is excited about the current Earth, Wind & Fire tour that will take them throughout the Midwest, to Las Vegas, to California, to the East Coast and then to England, France and Germany.
“It’s fun to be on tour. We’re going to the UK this summer so we’re getting geared up for that,” White says. “The tour is going well. We’ve got the Venetian Theatre in Las Vegas coming up in May, too, and that’s going to be incredible.”
Beyond the musical fame, White is also the co-founder of the Verdine White Foundation, which he created with his wife to assist musically talented students who are living in underserved communities by providing scholarships, music lessons and/or instruments to help develop their talents.
“We’re doing a lot of great work. My wife and I started it about 12 years ago and we’re sending kids to New York this summer, so that’s pretty cool,” he says. “Every year, we send kids on trips. Next year, we’re going to send them to Washington D.C. I gave a young man one of my basses from the Verdine White bass line.
“We’re trying to do some good things at the Foundation,” White continues. “What I’m really happy about is that every Wednesday we give free food to the kids before they go to school. They can come by the foundation and get something to eat – a good breakfast, and for the parents, some good coffee. We get about 70 kids each week and it’s been growing and growing. I’m really proud about that. We just started that this year.”
In order to hang out with the kids at the Foundation and to talk music with them, he has to be hip to the latest music, right?
“I’m still in the mix. I keep abreast of all kinds of music because, you know, everything comes to me,” White laughs. “It’s all cool.”
Do people approach you and tell you how you and your music has affected their lives?
“All the time. It happens all the time. Mostly, people will come up to us and thank us for making the music,” he says.
“Earth, Wind & Fire is a very original and unique group that is part of the mainstream,” he adds. “Now, we’re part of the fabric of people’s lives. We were just talking about the college kids and Madison being a college town and I’m sure that most of these kids were turned on to our music by their parents.”
What do Madisonians have to look forward to this Saturday at the Overture Center?
“We’re going to have a great time. We’re really going to rock it and kick it. People are really lively on a Saturday night, so that’s going to be extra-fun,” White says. “That’s going to be a great night. A college town on a Saturday night? It’s going to be crackin’.”