In the ’70s, chart-dominating hits like “Shining Star,” “Let’s Groove,” and “September” made Earth, Wind & Fire a household name. Forty years later, the band’s appeal to audiences of every kind only seems to grow. Here, EWF’s longtime drummer/percussionist/vocalist tells the tale and reveals the details behind his unique educational concepts.
As the lights in the theater go down, a fog, illuminated by blue light, rolls onto the stage. A horn line pierces the air, and applause fills the room. The frontmen walk out with heads held high and arms stretched upward, and the crowd explodes. Blaring horns and cymbal swells morph into an irresistibly funky groove, the musicians start to move, and the crowd, still yelling and clapping, follows suit. Given the band’s tight choreography, passionate vocals, energetic stage presence, and screaming fans, you’d be forgiven if you were surprised to learn that this unit has been bringing it on like this for forty years.
Drawing inspiration from the three elements in his astrological chart, Chicago drummer Maurice White founded Earth, Wind & Fire in 1971 in an attempt to break from the mold of the commercial music of the time. At first the group, which consisted mostly of jazz musicians, found little success outside the college scene. Wishing to have a younger, fresher sound, White completely reworked the band, keeping only his brother Verdine on bass. Members of the new lineup would become some of the best-known faces in EWF history, including guitarists Johnny Graham and Al McKay, keyboardist Larry Dunn, saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk, vocalists Philip Bailey and Jessica Cleaves—and drummer Ralph Johnson.
Although Maurice White would often play drums in the studio, Johnson was the group’s onstage glue. In 1975, Maurice and Verdine’s brother, Fred White, was added to the lineup and began playing a second drumset on stage with Johnson. Several years later, Ralph moved to the front of the stage alongside Bailey and Maurice White, singing and playing a percussion setup. Johnson remains a pivotal part of the group’s percussive sound today, playing next to frontmen/percussionists Bailey and David Whitworth. All three sing lead at various times in the shows and are integral to the group’s extensive instrumental jams.
EWF’s huge crossover appeal began with a string of hits in the ’70s and ’80s, and despite an extended hiatus in the ’90s, the band has never fully left our consciousness— or stopped trying to appeal to new audiences. The well-regarded 2005 studio album Illumination features contemporary stars like OutKast, Will.i.am, and Raphael Saadiq. That same year, Johnson teamed up with guitarist Steen Kyed and former EWF keyboardist Morris Pleasure as Audio Caviar, releasing the star-studded album Transoceanic. And major appearances such as American Idol’s 2007 “Idol Gives Back” episode and Justin Timberlake’s 2011 Old School Jam concert further remind fans how timeless and influential EWF’s music is. Last year, Legacy issued The Columbia Masters, a fifteen-disc collection of EWF titles, and the band has continued to perform live to rapturous audiences. This past January, yet another best of collection, Now, Then & Forever, was released.
When he’s not in EWF mode, Johnson focuses on educational activities, including his recent method book for Cherry Lane, Drum Exercises for the Pop, Funk, and R&B Player, whose follow-up he’s currently hard at work on. Last October Ralph conducted a two-day master class at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. “I love being a teacher,” he says. “I like the idea of being able to give back.”
MD: You’ve gotten to be pretty passionate about teaching.
Ralph: Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be a great teacher, not just a great player. I want to be able to get students to open up, to think about what it is they’re doing, and if they’re having a problem with something, we try to figure out a way to get them past it. Teaching is definitely one of the most important aspects of what I do.
MD: What about your own drumming instruction?
Ralph: I took my first drum lesson at the age of eight. Some of my early memories are of my father buying me a copy of a Benny Goodman album called Brussels World Fair 1958. Roy Burns took a drum solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and I would come home from school and play that over and over.
MD: Did you play along to records a lot?
Ralph: I did. And at an early age I became fascinated with jazz.
MD: Did you play jazz in a school music program?
Ralph: No, there were no programs for jazz in school. Though when I was in the fourth grade, I played in an orchestra. The educational system was adding new musical programs, but back then it was hard to find an orchestra in an elementary school.
MD: What was the first group you played with outside of school?
Ralph: The first group that comes to mind was a band I had called the Teen Turbans. We won a battle of the bands for a big radio station near Los Angeles, and we went on to do some things. Eventually I got hooked up with the club situation here in L.A., and then in the summer of ’71 I auditioned for Earth, Wind & Fire. They saw me playing at this club. But until then, I was doing the garage-band thing, playing this gig and that gig….
MD: At that point Earth, Wind & Fire had already recorded two albums.
Ralph: Right, for Warner Brothers, but that band broke up. Then they re-formed, and I was the drummer. We went on to sign a deal with CBS/ Columbia Records. Clive Davis was the president of the label at that time, and he was really hands-on. [Second drummer] Fred White came in after the 1973 album Head to the Sky.
MD: For a long time you both played drums on stage. Was this true for recordings as well?
Ralph: No, just basically live. For tours we would usually have a couple of drumsets.
For the song “That’s the Way of the World” [from the 1975 album of the same name], I recorded the main drum track, and then Freddie and I overdubbed snare and clave parts. That album was actually the soundtrack to a film, which was a bomb. That’s why when you look at the record, you don’t see stretched across the front of the cover, “The Soundtrack From…” Maurice didn’t want to do that. The movie was released on DVD eventually.
MD: When did you start playing and singing up front?
Ralph: We were filming the scene in the movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band where we performed “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and our choreographer, George Faison, who also did the choreography for the Broadway musical The Wiz, asked me to come out front and do the scene. I had been messing around with singing, but that kind of solidified everything.
MD: When the drum machine was introduced, how did that affect the band?
Ralph: It didn’t really affect Earth, Wind & Fire at all. We were a live band, and we were used to playing live in the studio. There might have been some loops we played over. Maurice got introduced to MIDI and wanted to try some things, especially on the Electric Universe record.
MD: After Electric Universe, there was a hiatus. What were you doing at that time?
Ralph: I did some production work with Otis Williams and the Temptations, with Al McKay, who was the former guitar player with Earth, Wind & Fire. That was one of the most fun things I ever did. I was a big fan of Motown music. I worked on Truly for You, which spawned the hit “Treat Her Like a Lady.” I didn’t really do anything on the performance side at all; I was basically concentrating on writing.
MD: Earth, Wind & Fire came back with Sonny Emory on drums. How did you hear about him?
Ralph: We discovered him down in Atlanta. He was playing locally. His solo became a big part of our shows.
MD: Now you guys have John Paris, and he’s the man.
Ralph: Oh yeah, definitely.
MD: I was happy to see you play drumset on the 2005 Live at the Greek Theatre DVD. Do you play on stage very often?
Ralph: No, not really, because I’m needed out front. But I do keep my chops up, believe me. I’ve decided to work hard on my hands. I’m working out of George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control, and I’m doing some exercises that the drummer with Chris Botti, my man Billy Kilson, showed me. For the record, Billy is one of my favorite drummers. He had a chance to study with Alan Dawson, so he showed me this practice routine that Alan turned him on to. I’ve been working on that, and I have to thank Billy for it.
MD: What made you want to get into the educational side of drumming?
Ralph: It came from a need to share something more than just sitting up on stage with a set of drums. I’ve always been a teacher, and I felt I needed something to put my ideas in, something that I can refer to when I’m dealing with my students. So I decided to write a book.
Quite honestly, I got the inspiration from Verdine, our bass player, because he already had a bass book out. I thought, Shoot, I can write a book! It became kind of a competitive thing, and the end result was Drum Exercises for the Pop, Funk, and R&B Player. But I decided that I needed to do another book and that it needed to be more specific. So I came up with a method to teach four-way coordination that I think is a totally different approach. It’s called asymmetric drumming. As you know, the word means off-center or unbalanced.
MD: So the method involves splitting your playing into two sides?
Ralph: Exactly. The goal is for the student to have the ability to play any combination of rhythms and/or meters on top of an odd-time ostinato played by the feet, preferably in 3/16. If you think in terms of 3/16, you would sit there and play your right foot on 1 and 3 and your hi-hat on 2, and you get this three pulse of “boom chick boom.” Now if I told you to play three quarter notes against that, where would you jump in?
MD: Well, one set of that foot pattern is only a portion of a beat….
Ralph: Now you’re getting to what I refer to in the book as the enigma of the order of twelve. If you’re counting “one, two, three; one, two, three,” you’ll never jump in because your brain won’t let you work on top of that three loop. So, because you’re counting 16th notes, let’s count them a little differently. Instead of “one, two, three; two, two, three; three, two, three; four, two, three,” let’s count them like “one-e-&-a, two-e-&-a, three-e-&-a.” Now you’ve done what I call in the book the mind switch—you’re thinking in terms of even groups of notes that will allow you to come in and play whenever you want.
The other important thing is that the order of your feet never changes. It’s going to be the same sound. If I listen to you start to play just the feet on the drumset, that “boom chick boom, boom chick boom” isn’t going to change for the listener. But for you, the player, you’re not counting “one, two, three; two, two, three”—you’re counting 16th notes. So that’s where the book is coming from.
MD: What’s the status of your next instructional book?
Ralph: I’ve finished all the musical notation. Now I have to add the text and record the audio tracks.
This second one is more personal for me. I was watching Terry Bozzio do some stuff on his DVD, and I was like, All right, if you had to begin to teach a student to get to that level, where would you start—how would you do it? There’s a way to get the independence he has, and that’s what will be in this book, Asymmetric Drumming.
MD: What’s next for Earth, Wind & Fire?
Ralph: We plan to release two CDs this year, one of which will be a live recording that we did last September at the Hollywood Bowl with a full orchestra. That’s going to come out in the fall. A lot of people forget that on record, a lot of the songs had strings on them. When you see us on tour, we don’t usually bring the strings, only the horns. So we also plan to add symphony dates to our yearly tour schedule. Those will probably take place closer to the fall.
For the other CD, we’re going to take some of our hits and let people like Will.i.am and Raphael Saadiq do remixes, and we’re going to add some new studio material to that. We’re also doing a deal with Monster Cable, based on headphones that we plan to release commemorating our fortieth anniversary. We’re always trying to give our fans their money’s worth—stay consistent—and I’m always trying to learn new things on the drums.
MD: Speaking of learning new things, what advice do you have for young drummers?
Ralph: If you believe in what you’re doing, you’ve got to figure out a way to make it happen. Unfortunately, the music business is really only in three places in the United States: New York, L.A., and Nashville. You’ve got to be as close as possible to where it’s happening. Additionally, when you get to the point where you’re recording, it’s very important that you be a songwriter. Don’t go on a ten-year ride with a group without publishing some material, because when you’re too old to tour, that’s your retirement fund. You can’t forget that it is the music business.
Audio Caviar Transoceanic /// Earth, Wind & Fire Gratitude, That’s the Way of the World: Alive in ’75, “Drum Duel” from the Chicago/EWF Live at the Greek Theatre DVD
Miles Davis Nefertiti (Tony Williams) /// Dianne Reeves The Calling (Gregory Hutchinson) /// Joe Henderson Big Band (Al Foster, Joe Chambers, Paulinho Braga, Lewis Nash) /// Wes Montgomery “The Shadow of Your Smile” from Bumpin’ (Grady Tate) /// any recording of “The Look of Love” (composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David)