The name of the group perhaps best describes the music. The rock and substance of the earth, the light, free breeze of the wind and the explosive, igniting spark of fire—Earth, Wind & Fire.
They have come a long way since 1970, when under the management of football/actor Jim Brown, they signed their first recording contract with Warner Bros., for whom they delivered 3 albums. Since 1972, they have been recording for Columbia Records, giving the public a sound uncommon on the pop scene, creating a string of hits including “That’s the Way of the World,” “Shining Star,” “Singasong,” “Fantasy.” “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and “After the Love is Gone.”
In 1977, EW&F, with founder Maurice White at the helm, formed its own production company named Kalimha. After the African instrument of that name, and signed such acts as the Emotions, Deniece Williams and Pockets. Just two years later. ARC (American Recording Co.) was established, and Weather Report, Valerie Carter and Todd Bridges were added to the roster.
Since it is an extremely percussive music, the following is an interview with Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Freddie White, the main forces behind that sound. The interview took place at their headquarters, better known as The Complex, which houses extensive offices and full recording facilities.
RF: Why don’t we start with some background on all of you. and how each of you became involved with Earth, Wind & Fire.
RJ: I used to sit in front of the TV as a child and watch various variety shows like the Johnny Otis Show, which was a local show that was on channel 5. He would come on and I would start hitting my hands on the floor. My father took note of this and he bought me some drum sticks, so I would sit in front of the TV with the drum sticks. He saw that I evidently had some interest in the drums, so one Christmas, Santa Claus brought me a snare drum. It just went from there. I took my first lesson at 8 years old.
RF: Where did you grow up?
RJ: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I always played in church and it was just an ongoing love affair. I was doing gigs at age 14.
RF: What kinds of things were you doing?
RJ: Club things. I was always in a band. As a matter of fact, on May 10. 1966. I was with a group who won the KHJ Battle of the Bands at the Hollywood Palladium. I’ll never forget that. It was really something at the time. I won a St. George drum set and I talked my father into trading it in for a Ludwig. I had always wanted a Ludwig. I remember carrying around a Ludwig catalog all through school, so I had to have a Ludwig drum set. I continued to play and it was an ongoing thing and my parents always encouraged me. Whatever I needed, they made sure I had it for my music, so all through elementary, jr. high and high school, it was always music. I never had any interest in sports. I couldn’t care less.
RF: What were some of the bands prior to EW&F?
RJ: Before EW&F there was a local group called the Master’s Children. We used to play in a club on Crenshaw Blvd. in L.A. There were various other little groups and I used to even form my own. I can remember having one called the Mob when I was in high school and we used to play over at Darby Park in Inglewood on Friday nights. So I was always in a band and always had something going.
RF: How did EW&F come about for you?
RJ: I received a phone call about doing an audition in ’71. I had just left the Master’s Children and had decided that my next move was going to be a professional move. I was through with the clubs and all and it had to be something different, on another level. So I got a phone call and it was just one of those things where they asked me if I wanted to audition and I said, “Sure,” and the rest is history.
RF: Philip, how about your background?
PB: I started about the same time as Ralph and started playing drums around the 4th grade. I’m originally from Denver.
RF: What inspired you towards the drums?
PB: Television and radio. I primarily loved the saxophone because I had some friends who played who were older than I, and I loved the way it sounded and the way it looked. But I had a respiratory problem when I was smaller and my mother said I shouldn’t play sax. I could have probably played it. but you know how mothers are. So I decided to play drums. I used to walk to school with my drum around my neck, playing, and my sister still teases me about that. So I played drums through school and two years into college and I came out to L.A. playing Latin percussion. I got a job with a gospel/rock group on Warner Bros. at the time called the Stoval Sisters.
RF: When did you come out to L.A.?
PB: 1971. I had gotten into Latin percussion when I got into high school and college. Before then, it was traps and the mallet instruments, and then of course, singing was such a big part of my life that it primarily took over.
RF: How did the EW&F gig come about for you?
PB: I had known them for a little while through some friends of mine. So when I was out in L.A., they asked me to be in the group because they knew what I was capable of doing and more importantly, just what my desires were, to grow as a musician. That was the whole criteria. that the music would be happening and it would continue to happen as long as we were together and we would continue to reach, musically. That’s the biggest motivating factor of staying together, because the music is cool and the vibes arc cool.
RF: It sounds like a nice working situation. With that many members, your odds are a lot greater to have problems than a lot of four-piece groups, and yet. many of them can’t stay together.
RJ: That lets you know that aside from being about the music, it’s about the individual chemistries in the group, and that’s what keeps us together.
RF: Originally you came into EW&F as a vocalist Philip.
PB: Well, vocals and percussion. Originally what was going to happen was that I was going to play percussion. I had started to play timbales and congas and there were going to be two drummers. Maurice was going to have drums set up somewhere to play every now and then. Ralph was playing and Maurice was going to play sometimes. He was going to sing and play kalimba and then when I came in with congas and timbales. Maurice started playing timbales. So he just took the timbales and put them over on that side of the stage and I had the congas over here and that’s how we started the set up of where they would be. It just kind of happened. It wasn’t planned at all. because he didn’t even have plans to play timbales. but when he started playing them, it looked kind of nice. So he decided not to play drums but to sing more and that’s how we started to build.
RF: Freddie, when and why did you begin to play the drums?
FW: I first started playing when I was nine. My brother, Monty, made me a pair of drum sticks. I was really delighted by the fact that he had taken the time to make them, so I played with them for about a year and a half before they got down to pencil size. In growing up in the ghetto in Chicago, there were a lot of things a person could get into that weren’t the most constructive things to do. So by the age of 10, I started taking lessons and found it really helped me take advantage of a lot of my time and it was something that I really loved to do. Really, what happened was, I used to sit down and watch myself practice and the movement of the sticks almost hypnotized me. It became something I wanted to continue doing.
RF: What kind of formal education did you have on the drums?
FW: I began to study at a shop in Chicago by the name of Drums Unlimited and there was a teacher by the name of Jim Slaughter who used to play in trio-type settings. I studied with him for about 3 or 4 years. It was rudimental, some jazz independence stuff and the last thing it was. was the stuff I went out to play after I stopped studying with him. It wasn’t like just how to play grooves or that kind of stuff, because that comes from playing music. You don’t really have to take lessons for that. Independence and to be a soloist and all of that—that involves studying.
RF: What was your first professional gig?
FW: The very first money I earned was in a talent show and it was $13. One of my brothers, a pianist, and I had a group called the Three B’s and we played an Otis Redding song in this talent show and won second place. After that, I used to play behind a young woman and it was called the Dynamic Nataska and she used to sing a lot of Nancy Wilson-type songs and a few Sarah Vaughan things, which was really my first professional gig. After that, I cooled out for a while, stayed home practicing and going to school and being a student and that whole trip.
RF: How old were you?
FW: About 12 or 13. Then after that, at about 14, I started playing in nightclubs and was in a band called the T-Box Band. It was a Sam & Dave type group and our first record we did was called “Do it Like Mama,” which was a takeoff on old James Brown kind of stuff. I played with them for about a year and a half and after that, I played with another band by the name of Pieces of Peace, which was a band of good studio musicians. Upon playing with them, I started doing a lot of studio work in Chicago. Through that. I happened to meet Donny Hathaway and I would work with him a little here and there.
Then Donny would call me for sessions and I would say, “Look, I can’t make the session today because I have something to do.” I never told him I was in school. I was 15 at the time. Then one day Donny called me for a session, and I told my teachers that I had a recording session and they let me go. Halfway through the session, Donny said, “Look, man, I didn’t know you were in school. You should have told me. Just go to school, man, and get that out of the way.” So I did the session and it was great. I began to do a lot of recording with him for different artists and stuff because he had just come to Chicago and he was working as a copyist and arranger. The last thing he was really doing was being an artist himself. So I was still playing with the band and after about another year. I was getting kind of tired of that. Being young, playing with people, you play with them for almost two years and you kind of get restless and want to move on. You kind of think, “Well. I’ve done this, let me try this.” So by that time. Donny had begun to work as his own artist, and I had a couple more weeks to go of high school, and what happened was, I decided to go out on the road with Donny. We did the album Donny Hathaway Live and I stayed with him up until the end of 1972. I learned a lot and it was a hell of an experience.
After that I moved to California. Moving to California there were some things I always wanted to do and one of those was work for Motown Records and I did that briefly. Working for Motown I happened to learn more about the business than I did playing music per se. Nevertheless, it was a good experience and it helped me really have it together for all the things to come after. Then I did a few things for A&M and spot things here and there. Then, after that, I was playing with a few Motown acts. I was getting ready to go to the gig one night and I called the guy I was driving with to ask what time he was picking me up and he said, “Pick you up? You’ve been fired.” I had never been fired in my life. So the next day, I happened to go to a rehearsal hall and there was a percussionist friend of mine who was in a band and they were looking for a drummer. The next day I auditioned for the band and got the gig. The band was Little Feat. So I played with them for about seven months and it was one of the best seven month periods of my life because we must have played music about 50 hours a week. The first two and a half months it was rehearsal. This was in 1973.
RF: You were 19?
FW: Yeah. I started early, so that makes me almost middle age now. Anyway, playing with Little Feat was really good. I had always wanted to be in a California rock and roll band. We did all kinds of gigs, even a few cowboy gigs, which I got off on because I had never done that. Linda Ronstadt would also work with the band. Jackson Browne and people of that caliber. Then we were playing a place in Austin, Texas by the name of the Armadillo, a huge place, and we played for a couple of hours. It was really a good show, and after the show was over, I had forgotten my stick bag and had to go back and get it. When I came back, the band had left me. It was just that kind of thing where the guys had been on the road, wanted to go and said, “Look, this guy is holding me up.” Nevertheless. I ended up getting a ride back to where we were staying and everything was cool, but I ended up telling myself that this was the last time I would be playing with that band. Not because of that, but I just had this feeling that it was the last time I’d be playing with them.
At that time, my brother, Verdine, and I were living together. I had all these articles and newspaper clippings and re views, so I went home and showed them to my brother. He looked at them and said, “Hey, that’s great. We want you to join the band” (EW&F). I was really kind of shocked, and then on the other hand. I was ready to do it. They had asked me once or twice before, but I really had wanted to gain some experience on my own and get out and grow. I wasn’t really ready to be in a band that I figured would be pretty regimented. I wanted to continue to grow so that if I came to their band. I would bring something with me and be able to charge the band up and hopefully I would make it a better band by becoming a member. So in the middle part of 1974. I decided I was ready to join.
RF: How did you adjust, playing-wise, coming into such a large group?
FW: On one hand, I was charged because coming out of a band like Little Feat, I had been playing more every day, so I was more than sure of myself. But I discovered that it’s the type of band where you don’t just come in being great. It’s the kind of thing that evolves. So as charged up as I was, and as over-sure of myself that I was, I knew I had a lot of things to learn, which came further down the road.
RF: Ralph, when Freddie came in to play drums as well, didn’t you feel that you were missing something and perhaps feel like half a drummer?
RJ: No, because your contribution is to the total sound of the group, so no. I never had that feeling. Initially, when you bring in another drummer, well, there’s an ego thing that takes place and it gets to where it’s like, “Oh yeah, well I can play this,” and the other guy is going, “Well, I can play some of this.” We finally had to settle down and cancel out the ego stuff. You get into locking that groove and when we locked it up. It was locked. People have asked us how we did it, but it took a matter of just laying back in the groove—just lay back and listen. You have to listen to what’s going on around you. You are not the only person on stage.
RF: Freddie, you came into a situation where there was already a drummer. What did that feel like?
FW: The drummer is used to being that particular guy in any band. You could have two of whatever else, but there was usually one drummer, so naturally, the first approach to it was partially ego because you’ve never done it before. But what you’ve done in the past as opposed to what you’re going to do right now are two totally different things. So initially, I thought about it like that. I would go ahead and play, and you hear the other guy play and you say, “Well, I can’t play that,” so it almost began as a battle because you’re so used to being the only drummer and used to carrying the band. It began to be a battle until we really learned how to lock things in and really tried to do something that hadn’t been done before.
RF: Was it just an attitude adjustment or did you suddenly find yourself enjoying the actual playing with somebody else?
FW: It was a little bit of both because I would think that with any two drummers playing together, nobody is good at playing everything anyway. So what happens is that 9 times out of 10. your weakness is going to be the other guy’s strong point and vice versa. So there were a lot of things that I was aware of technically that I couldn’t execute and then there were a lot of basic things he had been informed of that just weren’t his type of playing or his approach. In the end. I ended up learning a lot of things I had never really tried.
RF: Like what?
FW: We used to do solos together and we’d play different bars of 4’s. He would play for four bars and I would play for four bars; he would play 8 bars and I would play 8 bars.
RF: Didn’t you feel, creatively, that you wanted to do more?
FW: Then it was, “How are you going to make a full statement when there’s another guy there to play too?” What happens sometimes with musicians is that if it’s time for them to make a statement, they’re sitting down thinking about what they want to say. I found that the thing is to just think of the approach or the concept of what you want to say and go for it. You can be sitting down thinking about what you want to play and it’s time for you to play and then all of a sudden, you’re caught up in your thought. So I found it really helped me a lot with the art of the solo because I had never been used to taking solos before. I think Ralph had been more involved with soloing and that whole trip, whereas, me being from the Midwest, you solo, but it’s almost like you’re doing more accompanying than you are actual soloing. It really helped open me up.
RF: So you were literally sharing the solo with Ralph. You never had a chance for each of you to do an entire segment yourself?
FW: We tried that for a while, but in having two drummers, the way you would have to come off as far as being showmen, it would almost be to the point of making it a drum battle, not really fighting one another, but to the extent of getting the audience involved and turning the people on. At different times, he would take a solo for so long and I would take a solo for so long, but then sometimes that can get kind of boring with so many minutes of drum solo, so we decided it would be better exchanging bars.
RF: Did you work together to create the solo and the direction’?
FW: We would work on direction, but we would try to leave it open and try to have some type of spontaneity to it. Whoever would set the pace that particular night, we would go with that.
RF: That must have been quite a learning experience.
FW: It was, to the point where after we stopped doing it, I missed it. By having two sets of drums and two drummers on stage, it really made the sound of the band a lot bigger than your normal band would be.
RF: Wasn’t there also a double bass set up for each of you?
RJ: Right, although I kind of took more to the double bass configurations than Freddie did. The sets, as they were ordered from the factory, were double bass drums, though.
PB: But they never played two bass drums at the same time.
RJ: Double bass is more for effect and soloing because we have so many things you can do with your hi-hat and you have to have your hi-hat happening over there. So I used it basically for just certain shots, to accent or something, or for soloing; especially for soloing. I have to say that I got the idea of using the double bass from watching Louie Bellson. I was always knocked out by Louie Bellson and the double bass drums and wanted to play them.
FW: At one point, I was using the double bass drums, but the reason I stopped was because one night. I was playing and I was really getting off and enjoying myself and I broke my bass drum. I ‘m a left handed drummer and I broke the left drum and had to play with the right bass drum. So I could play, but it wasn’t as strong as it was with the left. I didn’t feel as though I could totally compensate with my right foot on the right bass drum, so I stopped using them. I also hate the idea of having a whole bunch of drums and not playing them. I was watching a group recently on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and the drummer had cymbals for days and drums for days, and he took a solo and never used most of them. I mean, I’m not into knocking people for what they don’t do because that’s not art. Art is exactly what’s there, but I just really felt it was a drag. So from that night, I said I wasn’t going to use two bass drums unless I would be able to compensate if the main one went. Plus, I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting behind a bunch of drums and having people say, “Oh. you play double bass,” and my having to say. “Not really, I just sit behind them.” I wasn’t going to do that. I wanted to be honest and have exactly what I use.
I was on a gig once and a guy was telling me about how he had come up in the south and worked with different drummers and how when they would be playing a gig. the guy wouldn’t be using any toms. He’d just be using the basic necessities. Sometimes, when we’re doing demos or something like that, that’s all I’ll use. because that’s all I’ll need: maybe a ride cymbal, a crash cymbal, the bass drum and snare. If you can be musical with that, then when you have the toms, then you’ll know how to use them. If you can take your drums and be musical with them, then you’re doing a little bit more than just being a drummer. You’re being a musician.
RF: Then how long was there actually a double drum set-up live?
PB: A couple of years, I guess.
RJ: At least. A good two years.
RF: When did Ralph stop playing drums?
FW: When we went to Europe in 1970 we had already stopped doing it.
RF: Why did that come about?
RJ: Well, the vocal sound on the records had to be captured and I also had a little bit of vocal talent, so they asked me to come out front and help them with that. Sometimes I would be seen out front with the vocals and sometimes I would be back on the drums, so finally it was just like, “Ralph, why don’t you come out front, period.” So then I got the chance to exercise some of my other talents in the percussion area, such as congas and timbales.
RF: How did you feel about being taken off the actual set?
RJ: It took some getting used to at first, because drums are my first love, but at the same time, you have to look at it as growth. I had another talent to exercise and another statement to make in another area, so I finally got it settled in my mind and pushed straight ahead with the singing. At this point, I enjoy being out front. Yeah, there are some times when I’d like to be back there on the drums. It’s just in me and very much a part of me, but I love being out front. I really do. doing the vocals, because that’s another that.
RF: Fred, was it an adjustment for you when Ralph stopped playing drums and you were suddenly the only drummer again?
FW: By the time we came back to do the U.S. tour in ’79, I didn’t think about it because we hadn’t done it for a while already. But the actual first time doing it. I was thinking about the breathers I used to have, those few minutes when I could take a break, sit up and watch the other guy play and critique on what he was doing, what he wasn’t doing and what he should and could be doing. I wouldn’t have that anymore, so now as the only drummer, I had to take what I learned and apply it all. The first couple of nights, I was really into it and really overhyped it, but then, because I had grown a lot, I began to really look forward to it. I could really check myself out and I could really see how much my chops were up and could really get the feel of controlling the band once again.
RF: Because your job is so physical, is there anything in particular you do to keep in shape?
PB: Each member does, individually, whatever suits himself. I run a lot. It cools me out. And I play a lot of basketball and eat as well as I can. take vitamins and pray a lot.
RJ: I’m into the martial arts and do a lot of swimming and some scuba diving, and play a little tennis too. and that pretty much keeps me in shape. I am also very conscious of my diet. I don’t run around drinking a lot of soda pop or munching down a lot of cookies. It’s really paid off’ through the years, but this is something I’ve been into since the early ’70s. We’re all very conscious of dealing with our bodies.
FW: I do push-ups, particularly on the road I will try to do maybe 40 push-ups. Also, this may not be of help to anybody else, but prior to the shows. I don’t sit down, I stand up. When you play drums, your body is off-balance because half your body is doing one thing and the other half is doing something else, so I stand up beforehand.
RF: For how long prior to a show?
FW: For about 45 minutes to an hour and then when we’re playing the show. I’m sitting down anyway, so it’s just to balance my body out. Being the only guy again was a charge too. so a little bit of that and a little bit of the push-ups and a little bit of warming up.
RF: What do you do to warm up?
FW: I’ll take a snare drum and work on singles and I’ll work on press rolls because they’ll help with doubles sometimes. Then maybe just a few exercises out of the Stick Control book, a few exercises out of the Syncopation book and then maybe a few rudiments. I’ll do it most nights. For a while I would just take sticks to loosen my wrists up, but most of the time, I’ll try to warm up before a show because it’s a drag to go and play for the people when you’re cold. By the end of the concert, it really gets hot and it’s time to quit.
RF: There’s so much instrumentation in EW&F. Is it hard to maintain the foundation with so much going on?
FW: Not really, because it’s a very percussion oriented band. Sometimes you have your amount of clutter, but I find that in being the drummer in this band, you really have to listen. I guess that’s in all musical situations, but you have to really keep your ears open so you can hear the changes of the music before they come, so if the band is going to shift gears, you can be there before they’re even there and lead them.
RF: Do you work with the percussionists to establish parts or patterns?
FW: I listen to Philip a lot because he plays a lot of basic rhythms and being a developing conga player myself, I’m familiar with a lot of the rhythms. So instead of playing your basic drum rhythms, I will try to accent whatever rhythms he’s playing. Maurice plays timbales, but a lot of it is kind of free as opposed to your regular timbale rhythms, so I’ll listen to Philip a lot to sync in. But in a lot of things we’ll do. having a basic understanding of rhythm. knowing the songs and trying to have a musical approach, leaves a certain amount of room so we can have a spontaneous flow and there’s some magic.
RF: I would think in EW&F there is a lot more room to have that magic as opposed to a four-piece band where everyone has his designated part of a tune.
FW: The tour before t h i s previous tour, we got a little on the regimented side because we had so many people including background vocalists. It was okay, because it was something new we were trying to do. but for me. I found it to be regimented. I had to play a certain this and a certain that every night so somebody else could come in and do precisely his part. However, what I would do was play the same approach every night, but I could think about it and if things are coming in on the downbeat, I could make it come in on the downbeat without having to actually play the downbeat. So I would do little things like that so I could have some fun, because music should be played for fun. Once it’s not fun. then you should do something else.
RF: An awful lot of rehearsal must have to occur before you go out on the road.
PB: Yeah, we rehearse every day for about 6, 7 or 8 hours.
RF: How long before you tour?
RJ: A good two months, because it’s a production. It’s not like we’re just walking out on stage, hooking up and here we go. It’s theatrics and an entire production. It has to be well rehearsed. It’s timing.
RF: Could you talk about a song as far as the instrumental part and how much creative input each person has and how a song is basically born?
PB: You pretty much have a basic feeling. It has to start with that. Whoever comes up with that, it might be anyone, the initial seed or feeling is interjected and then, at that time, we kind of all join in. Then, Maurice will kind of formulate the idea to fit the EW&F concept and that’s pretty much how it happens.
RF: I assume a lot of writing occurs in the studio.
PB: Yeah, it does.
RF: Say Maurice comes in with an idea. Is it then just worked out with the band and everyone donating into the song?
PB: Most of the songs that Maurice brings are already finished, because he’s already gotten with Larry or whoever he’s writing with, and he knows how he wants it. With the rest of the guys, they’re bringing in songs, like “Let Me Talk.” It was Ralph’s bass line, so he interjected the bass line and basically, that song was pretty much done in the studio. The song didn’t go anything like that originally, but by the time we got finished with it, it was like that because he just started to say, “Put this there and put this there.” We give him enough ingredients to work with so he can develop it into what he’s seeing. I think for Maurice it has to be heaven because he’s able to see his visions musically come true.
RJ: Come to life.
PB: Yeah, come to life. Maybe they won’t always be exactly what he’ll want, but that’s the thing that keeps you striving. The opportunity to have people that are capable and willing to execute what you’re hearing has got to be fantastic.
RF: I understand Maurice does some of your drum tracks also. Then Fred will come in and learn the song to perform live. That’s very different from most musical situations.
PB: It’s not a problem, though, because it’s a unit.
RJ: It’s a team effort and that’s the way we look at it and everybody has a slot. It’s like you’ve got the quarterback and the halfback and fullback, the end and the guards.
PB: If another quarterback has to come in for the star quarterback, he has to run the plays that were rehearsed in practice. He can’t come in there improvising and change the whole team around. It’s like that. Once we come up with the album, the album is cut. Now it’s not time to trip on who played it. Now you have to reproduce what’s on the record, so you don’t even think about who played it.
RF: More than ego consideration, I wondered how that felt technically.
PB: It’s a challenge because for one thing, it’s like you learn a lot. Once it’s down and you imitate what’s there and make it happen, that’s something else you add to your vocabulary of musical expression. It’s a challenge in itself and it doesn’t take anything away from you, it just adds to what you already have.
RF: Ralph, do you play drums on any of the tracks?
RJ: In the earlier days I was playing drums on the tracks. Now I’m just doing most of the percussion.
RF: Fred, how much of the drum tracks do you do?
FW: Actually, most. The hits have been split up between Maurice and me. He’s played on some of the hit singles like “Singasong,” “Get Away,” and I’ve played on things like “Shining Star,” “September,” “Boogie Wonderland” and some of the other hit singles, as well as the Emotions’ “Best of My Love,” because that was our production company who did that. I also did “After the Love is Gone,” and the I Am album, with the exception of one song, and the Faces album, with the exception of maybe two or three songs. I really play on the majority of tunes.
RF: How true to the record is your percussion in live performance?
PB: I think that’s yet to be worked out, personally, because there’s a lot of percussion on the album that we don’t do on stage because, first of all, we have to sing. A lot of times, the things I played on the congas, I’m playing behind something I’m singing lead on. So if Ralph goes to play congas, then there’s something else missing because he might have been playing something else. We still work on that. We really can’t recreate that. To reproduce the percussion the way it is on the record, we’d have to have a couple of other guys who just played percussion. Sometimes it’s impossible to be up there and singing the parts and playing accurately, so the rhythms end up changing when we are playing it, but it creates an interesting thing live. What happens is that we listen back and develop other grooves which are totally separate from what we played on the record.
RF: Could you give me a run down of some of the instruments you play, not just in the show?
PB: I play congas, timbales, vibes, traps, Latin percussion instruments, and also tympani. When I was in college, I got a real good foundation in the mallet instruments. The mallet instruments are really something you have to be playing all the time to really keep up. The reason I say that I play them is that I spent quite a bit of time on them to the place where, if I had to play them, it would just be a matter of really buckling in and getting it back together. I played in a symphonic orchestra at the University of Colorado. In fact, we played a concert with the Moody Blues, which was really good.
RF: What initially fascinated you about percussion?
PB: What really fascinated me about percussion, particularly after I got into college, was the fact that percussion was anything you struck. When I began to really investigate all the many facets of percussion instruments, that fascinated me; the different sounds. It was more than just drums. It was vibes, tympani, xylophones—and xylophones were different from marimbas and marimbas were different from vibes and it just goes on and on and on. Then I began to look at a lot of the African percussion instruments, which totally had a different sound. So that’s what fascinated me about percussion, and just how the study of percussion instruments is something you can’t exhaust. You really have to put a lot of time into it to perfect each instrument. I don’t have all the percussion instruments perfected, like a Harvey Mason, to the point where I could make a living doing that, but I have knowledge of them because of my schooling. In fact, if I were going to be a percussionist, it would be very hard tor me to be a vocalist and be a percussionist because of all the hours you have to put in. Ralph and I had the same teacher here in Los Angeles. Billy Moore. He’s a percussionist and I studied with him when I first got out here. Ralph studied with him too. Some guys spent hours on the mallet instruments and some guys spent hours on the tympani. Just the tuning of tympani is a whole other art. the pitch and the whole thing, and learning how to tune them. You have to tune them right there on the spot within beats, sometimes, so it’s fascinating and such a challenge. When I really see a full fledged percussionist, you have to respect him because it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of dedication.
RF: How long did you study with Billy Moore?
PB: I studied for a few years, but writing and singing took a lot of my energy. I had to decide what I wanted to do, because, like, I could play bass too. I played bass in jr. high school, so it was like being a jack of all trades and a master of none. Music is relative. If you’re talented, and once you understand one theory of music, you can pretty much adapt to a lot of various instruments. You could do a trip on that and say. “Wow, I can play everything,” but what do you really play? Finally. I had to decide in my mind what I was really going to do. It was singing and writing and performing that was taking predominance over my career. So I had to just really put my head into that. The percussion and all of that had to be secondary to performing and being front man in the group: I had to study the art of performing.
RJ: On the subject of teachers, there’s a teacher here in L.A. who was very instrumental in helping me get my drum set concept, and his name is Clarence Johnston. I spent about three years with him and he really did wonders for me. He covered everything from the 26 rudiments to syncopation and independence. He had a whole program laid out and he really helped me to get it together. Excellent teacher.
PB: I also had a teacher named Bill Roberts who was the principal percussionist of the Denver Symphony and he really took me under his wing when I was in Colorado. He was really patient with me. I had a lot of talent and I read fairly well, but I didn’t have the discipline that a lot of other conga players had in terms of really, reading. He spurred me on to get more involved and stuff. It was through his getting me prepared that really paid off when I came out to L.A. I was able to get a job as percussionist for the Stoval Sisters and, later on, become musical director and the whole thing.
RF: Why do you endorse Latin Percussion instruments?
RJ: Because they’re quality instruments. They truly are. I have a set of congas that have just been developed by them. I think they’re called their Putato Valdez model. You hardly have to play the drum: it almost plays itself. Their instruments are good sounding instruments.
PB: I like Latin Percussion in terms of the fact that they have a lot of fire. I also like Gon Bop and Valjay. but it depends what you’re going for. To me, the Valjay drums are blacker drums; more of an African type sound, because of the wood they use. It’s got more body. Latin Percussion is very high pitched, firey, cut through the brass, that kind of drum. The Gon Bop, I would say, is kind of a variation of the two; a middle. I’ve played all three of the drums and I really like them all. but it just depends on what you want.
RF: Could we go through the stage setup?
RJ: There’s one set of congas.
PB: It’s a set of four.
RJ: Bongos, and on the other side there’s two sets of timbales, so there’s four all together. So there’s a variety of sounds. A lot of times, Phil and I will be standing side by side, he’ll be on congas and I’ll be playing bongos and sometimes it’ll be the other way around. It just depends on whatever we pick when we walk up. I might feel like hitting the bongos at that time.
RF: Then you don’t always have as signed instruments at each given moment?
RJ: Not really, no.
RF: Freddie, tell me about your live setup. Does it differ from your studio setup?
FW: Just a little bit. The set I primarily use is a set I found when I was looking for a set that I would always feel comfortable with, so that’s a custom made Yamaha set. It’s a 9-ply wood set where the insides of the drums have a special lacquer to make the drums really ring. The drums have no mufflers in them.
RF: You don’t muffle at all?
FW: What I’ll do is put a little felt on the top of the head, but other than that, I can’t stand dry drums. Sometimes with our engineers, we go through it, because I love my drums to ring. I mean, not to the point where it’s the Motown ’60s. but I can’t stand a dead, dry sound. That’s not me, so there are no mufflers on them. The bass drum is 24″ and instead of wooden rims, they’re metal rims. Then I use an 18 x 18, 16 x 18, a 12 x 15 tom and then the sizes go down until an 8 x 10, totaling six toms, including floor toms.
RF: What kind of heads?
FW: Remo. For the studio I’ve been using the Ambassador with the Ambassador on the bottom as well, but on stage. I started using the Pinstripe on top with the clear on the bottom because it makes the drum carry a little more.
RF: How about cymbals?
FW: Zildjian. I have some old K. Zildjian sock cymbals that I use every now and then but they crack on me and you can’t find K’s anymore. I use a 21″ swish with eight rivets in it, because it gives a little more of a trash can sound. Then I use a 20″ crash, two 17″ thin crashes and they’re quick sounding, but they have two different tones to them. I also use an 18″ medium crash and a 21″ crash ride.
RF: What about your snare?
FW: I have a Pearl snare, a Tama snare and a Yamaha snare, and then the old faithful Ludwig snare. All of them are metal, with the exception of the Yamaha, which is wood.
RF: Why is the Ludwig the “old faithful”?
FW: It’s one of the old chrome snares and it’s the snare drum I was using when I was playing with Donny. so it has sentimental value. I played it on a lot of records as well, and I’m always sure of that drum. I’m pretty attached to the Yamaha as well, because I’ve fallen in love with Yamaha drums.
RF: So what is the difference between your live and studio set-ups?
FW: In the studio. I don’t use as many cymbals. Sometimes I’ll only use one crash and depending on what kind of song, I’ll just play it in different places to get different sounds. In the studio I’ll play it a lot of different ways. Sometimes I have taken crash cymbals and used them as rides, depending on the sound I want. In the studio. I also don’t use the little toms. I just use the floor toms and then I use the mounted toms. Sometimes I won’t use the 18″ because it’s so hard to get a tone out of it, more than a thud. I want some tone. So I’ll use the 16 x 18.
RF: Ralph, do you have a set-up at your place?
RJ: Yes I do. I have a set of Gretsch drums, which I love, and I have my timbales and my congas.
RF: Could you tell me about your Gretsch set-up?
RJ: The set-up is one of those early kind of quote, jazz three-piece set-ups. It’s a little 18″ bass drum, a little 8 x 12 mounted tom and a little 14 x 14 floor tom-tom. I have a 16″ swish that sits above the floor, a 20″ ride and an 18″crash. The ride is a K. Zildjian, the crash is a K. Zildjian and my hi-hats are Paistes. The swish is an A. Zildjian. I love the sound of the drums and those particular cymbals. I was very influenced by Tony Williams. I think he’s a phenomenal drummer. There are some other drummers I can name that really gas me, but he’s terrific.
RF: So then you were really into the jazz vein?
RJ: I prefer, actually, to play jazz as opposed to playing rock or funk. For me, creatively, that’s what I prefer to play, but playing jazz will not, if you will, pay the bills. I can play it all, but I prefer to play straight ahead. I love that sound because it’s also an attitude. I can sit and listen to Tony Williams all the time. But that’s just my home set. On stage, I was using 8 toms, two bass drums, when I was doing that. Whatever the situation calls for is fine, but I really do look forward to playing my little Gretsch set at home. It just feels and sounds so good.
RF: What about practicing?
RJ: I still practice. I whip out my books and there’s always something to do. Believe it or not, some days I might just sit and work on rudiments. I take my drums very seriously and just because I’m now more out front and singing and dealing with the percussion instruments, I have not cut the drums loose, because that’s what got me started. I do practice.
RF: Do you practice at home at all. Philip?
PB: You have to understand that I haven’t had to play a gig in ten years. since before I left home. I still play if I do demos at the house or I play with the cats on the stage or something like that. I have some drums at home, but I ‘m not into it like Ralph is.
RF: Do you fool with your percussion instruments at home?
PB: Yeah, I do. Right now I’m really collecting a lot of stuff.
RJ: He has quite a collection.
PB: I’m trying to collect some things so I can build up a percussion kit and just do that. Paulinho [DaCosta] has been quite an inspiration to me as a Latin percussionist. I went over to Guitar Center a few years ago and I saw these drums over there, and I don’t even know whose they are, but they really sounded good. So I got them to put in the house just to record on and stuff. So I’m not really into the equipment, per se, but I’m into playing and I play all the time at home. I have my Valjays and my LP’s set up that I mess around with all the time.
RF: There are some conga players who say it’s a very elementary art and easy to pick up. I’m talking about people who don’t make that their livelihood, but I wondered how you felt about that?
PB: They evidently haven’t seen great people play. I mean, I play, but I wouldn’t say I’m great. The great players play all the time. Whatever you do the most is what you do the best. Evidently, they haven’t seen any of the great conga players. It’s an art in itself. There’s a guy who plays with Weather Report right now [Robert Thomas| and man. he’s got some new stuff happening. He plays cymbals and the whole thing with his hands and I’m telling you. He makes those drums come alive. And then Airto, when he was playing, and then of course all the great Latin cats.
RJ: Patato Valdez, and you could go on.
PB: But you have to check it out before you make a judgment, because these guys make those drums talk.
RJ: For me, when I saw Airto play with Miles Davis. I could not believe it. I had never seen anybody play congas like that in my life. He’s got some other kind of hand technique going on.
PB: It’s actually more of a challenge than playing piano or something like that because you have one drum to make it come alive. You’ve got to catch a person’s attention, capture them, play melodies, rhythms and the whole thing and make them audible enough that a person would be excited by it on one drum. When you have a piano, you have all those keys. You give that drum to just anybody and it’s just a drum, but you give it to a real conga player and it’ll come alive.
RF: What about your musical influences?
RJ: We’re all influenced by various people, and because of my strong love for jazz, there were people like Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, that I really have a lot of respect for. I’ve listened to these people play. I got turned on to Tony Williams, and this is all heading into one thing and I was going to say right now there are three drummers that I would pay to see. One is Butch Miles who played with Count Basie. I like big bands and orchestras and I’ve heard him kick this band and he does such an excellent job, because swing is another kind of playing also. Lenny White—I love him. The gas about Lenny is that he plays a right handed drum set, left handed. It comes out sounding another kind of way and I love to watch him play. Then one of my all time favorites, probably at the top of my list right now, is Jack DeJohnette. There’s nobody who plays like him. He’s got another kind of concept to playing and he’s extremely creative.
PB: Paulinho DaCosta was a great influence. I think Ndugu (Leon Chancier) is a fine drummer. Everyone I’ve ever seen him play with, he’s just been an asset to. I admire his love for his instrument. My whole thing is that I like to see people take an instrument and apply a whole other concept to it: to not play the congas as a conga player would, but approach it in a different manner. Like when I first started playing congas, be cause I hadn’t had any formal Latin percussion training. I played the rudiments because I knew those and they developed into other kinds of rhythms. Then I was very inspired to see Airto again and his whole approach to playing, and then the guy who plays with Weath er Report. Again, his whole approach to playing is different. It’s more melodic, it’s a sound, but he still has the ability to put it in the pocket. More innovative players really fascinate me. In order to be innovative, though, you have to at least understand the basic fundamentals of playing congas. I know a lot of people who are just really wild on the congas but cannot get a gig. But they’re fantastic. They’ve got hands that are incredible, but they don’t have the concept and can’t lock into the concept of who they’re playing with, so they don’t do anyone any good. It’s all about listening. You can hear and not be listening.
FW: As far as my musical influences and favorite drummers, that’s a hard one. As you’re growing up. you usually start out with a favorite, and that was Elvin Jones, even now, although I haven’t heard him lately. He always reminded me of an African drummer who played a lot of polyrhythms and I also liked him because he was real strong. I also love Buddy because he has the fastest hands in the business today. I met Art Blakey about five years ago and I had always heard different records that he played, even though when he was coming up. I must have been a baby. When I finally saw him play, I was able to appreciate him. Naturally, I love Billy Cobham for his dexterity and being able to play the different things that he does and his strength. I’m partial to strong drummers. Most of the drummers I’ve met who can play strong, can also play very tasty things that are also soft. As I was coming up, naturally my brother Maurice was quite an influence. My mother was a great influence also, because she told me, “Look, if you want to play the drums, play the shit out of them. Don’t do anything less,” and to this day, that stays with me.
RF: What about outside projects, or do you exclusively work with EW&F?
PB: Well, Ralph and I were involved in a project called Jesus at the Roxy, and basically, what it involved was a concept expounding on the Scriptures, based on the 17th Chapter of John. It was a musical expression of the reality of Christ. It was myself, Deniece Williams. Syreeta and Leon Patillo, who used to be with Santana. Ralph played and so did Johnny Graham, our guitar player, Larry Dunn [keyboards] and several others. We had horns, strings, tympani and the whole thing, and it’s going to be an album and a video tape.
FW: I do a little session work, but some times what happens is that there is a stigma attached to guys who work in groups as opposed to guys who do sessions. But I do a few. I had a ball on a recent Stanley Turrentine session I did and I think he had a ball too. It was a real comfortable and workable situation. I enjoy doing sessions, but I think being in a group, my destiny kind of went the other way.
RF: Is there any particular music that you personally prefer or enjoy playing that you don’t necessarily get the chance to play that often?
FW: My love has shifted through the years. I love the things I do with EW&F and I love the things we were doing a couple of years ago and the things we’re doing now, because the music, no matter where you go, is appreciated and it fits. I love any type of musical setting where, no matter where you go in the world, it will fit. Outside the EW&F thing. I love Weather Report because again, any where you go in the world, their music fits. It’s not too funky or it’s not too disco and it’s not too r&b. I understand that there have to be labels to music because people need to have it fit somewhere, but I don’t know what they call our music exactly. I guess, to an extent, they call it r&b, but it extends that, I think. That is the kind of music I love and am even trying to come up with some concepts for my own person. That’s the kind of music I’m attracted to, where it extends those boundaries and can go all over the world.
The name of the group perhaps best describes the music. The rock and substance of the earth, the light, free breeze of the wind and the explosive, igniting spark of fire—Earth, Wind & Fire.