NOTE: This is an article I wrote last year when I was a contributor to FudgeFM. The website is no longer, but I felt it would be a perfect time to revive it for those who didn’t read it the first time.
Do you remember the 21st night of September?
Thirty years ago, Earth, Wind & Fire released a song that for some was a new era for the group. In 1978, the band were on top of the world, higher than the Earth they featured in their logo. The group played some of the best soul music around, moving dance floors across the country and selling out concert halls. Their albums were massive sellers: That’s The Way Of The World, Spirit, and All’N’All, and what household didn’t have the double LP Gratitude? You want hits? How about “Sing A Song”, “Getaway”, “Saturday Night”, “Shining Star”, “That’s The Way Of The World”, “Mighty Mighty”, “Serpentine Fire”, and “Fantasy”. Maurice White went back to his jazz roots when he joined his former boss, Ramsey Lewis, to record the song “Sun Goddess” with the rest of Earth, Wind & Fire. Those who may not have been hip to Ramsey Lewis were able to discover a talented musician through EW&F, and vice versa. EW&F were not just the monarchs of soul and funk, but they were a pop band, with massive pop success. Their version of The Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life” was done for the massive Hollywood failure Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the one thing EW&F were able to do is create a Beatles cover that was better than The Beatles (and I’m one of the biggest Beatles fans out there). Had the group stopped recording and touring, it would have been fine, for their successes would have been set in stone.
Earth, Wind & Fire were appreciated by the world for they truly created world music, coming from White’s love of Brazilian music and of course always reminding people about the roots that lead to the motherland. Had EW&F made music for cartoons or oatmeal, they would have been big hits too. The band were so successful, it moved Columbia Records to give White his own label in order for him to bring in new talent. The passing of friend Charles Stepney did not slow the group down, White was able to seek such people as Tom Washington (a/k/a “Tom Tom 84”) which helped keep them on the top of the charts. But this was different. While George Clinton found it easy with his success to have contracts with multiple labels, Earth, Wind & Fire was one group with one goal, so White having his own boutique label was perhaps not as much of a surprise as it was a long time coming. The label was simply called American Recording Company, or ARC. The label’s first release was given the catalog number of 3-10854. The song: “September”.
“You know a song is a true classic when it’s as timeless as Earth, Wind & Fire’s iconic “September” Maurice White, Philip Bailey and company nailed it down to a science. They recorded a great song about something we don’t really hear much in music today and that’s about being happy and feeling good about life. Today’s artists including myself could learn a lot from the message in EWF’s music and that goes for society at large too. “ -Pete Marriott
I remember hearing “September” when it was first released and I had to have the 45, that was mandatory for me. As someone who loved Open Our Eyes, Spirit, and All’N’All (That’s The Way Of The World seemed to be an album a number of my relatives had, but not me, I would enjoy this album after the fact), “September” was merely a continuation of their great music. It was on a new label, and that seemed like honor of the highest order. Maybe because it was on a new label (but still distributed by Columbia), it felt like a new EW&F. The group were slowly being associated with disco even though they weren’t a disco group, and the song seemed happier, poppier, boppier at the time. If the group hadn’t thought of making music specifically for a pop (read “white”) audience, “September” seemed like it was… something. But was it? At the age of 8 I wasn’t concerned with that, but some would call it the start of the group’s downfall, a disco song, their “white” song. People seemed bitter about “September” for any and all reasons: it was too disco, too bland, too happy. Too happy? Good music can and should steer you away from the problems one has in life, and EW&F were always about the celebration of life. In fact, “September” was not only about falling in love, but with a bit of “blue talk and love” it might lead to the creation of life, to celebrate “the true love” that was shared on the 21st day of September. It was far from a negative song, and yet perhaps due to their success, people were more than ready to pop the bubble they were riding. On the Shining Stars DVD, bassist Verdine White said the song came out during a time when everyone was about indulgence, and whether you were a kid like myself growing up or an adult heading to the clubs, it was about looking at indulgence and thinking that’s what being a grown-up was about, or living and loving all of it. People associate the look and feel of “September” with what represented disco, but Verdine White said the big afros were about power, the platform shoes were about standing tall. Being black meant having to represent and prove yourself four times as hard as the next man, because the next man might be the one to bring you down. When “September” was released, there was no doubting that EW&F were the best of any league, and as a lifelong EW&F fan, it remains one of the best songs they ever recorded.
“All I have to say about EW&F right now is that they were an amazing a powerful band with transformative music that I still get requests for almost everytime I DJ… in any setting. I can only hope to create what they have. Much thanks and respect for their contribution to music and listener’s souls.” –Miles Bonny (artist/producer)
“September” was a bit hit for the group, making it up to #1 on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart and #1 Billboard Pop singles. In the UK, it went up to #3, becoming their biggest UK single. “September” was also released to promote the The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire album, which has since sold over 5 million copies (quintuple platinum). While other compilations have been released in the digital area, when it comes to offering suggestions for EW&F newbies, The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire is generally the album that is mentioned first, for it features all of their hits up until and including “Got To Get You Into My Life” and “September”. EW&F were seeing gold and platinum, and were being honored for it in abundance.
Man, I’ll tell you that the older I get, the more I’m coming to realize that EWF is the greatest recording group of all time. I mean seriously, the feeling that just exudes from the music they play is incomparable and just fills me with such optimism for some reason. And I know it’s not just me. I mean really, who doesn’t love them? Think about “September” – that’s like the ultimate crossover song but not not crossover in the sense of selling out. The song just appeals to everyone, from block parties to bar mitzvahs to the Republican National Convention! –Cosmo Baker (DJ/record collector)
As with any greatest hits compilation, The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire sold enough to where the group didn’t have to worry about releasing anything else. But with success came increased pressure to equal or better the success of “September”. Maybe the pressure came more from record label executives than it did from the group, but everyone in the group must have felt that everything that goes up eventually has to come down. Maurice White moved The Emotions into the studio with them and recorded the group’s definitive disco song, “Boogie Wonderland”. The song was great, featuring all of those trademark Philip Bailey falsettos, and while it did make it to #2 on the R&B singles chart, people who were becoming disenchanted with disco merely put it into the fire during the “disco sucks” furor. The B-side to the single, an instrumental mix of the hit, was nominated for a Grammy in 1980 for “Best R&B Instrumental Performance”. Some fans, both old and new, felt at the time the group should have never conformed to mainstream pressure, with many of them looking at “September” as the beginning of the end.
Obviously it was not the end, but again the good vibes EW&F were celebrating seemed to turn off a certain part of the population who just didn’t get it. The group would follow up “Boogie Wonderland” with the ballad “After The Love Has Gone”, which is significant for a few reasons. “After The Love Has Gone” was written by David Foster, Jay Graydon, and Bill Champlin, and perhaps because of the Foster touch it would eventually win two Grammy awards in 1980, one for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, and for Best R&B song. The song was similar in feel to 1975’s “That’s The Way Of The World”, and one that touched on a part of life that isn’t always happy and celebratory. The feel of the song would eventually revive itself when David Foster would help resuscitate Chicago’s career in the 1980’s, a group co-writer Champlin (who was a member of Sons Of Champlin) would eventually join. The two bands known for their incredible horn sections would eventually tour for the first time in the 21st century, with Champlin being able to sing and play the songs he created for Chicago and one of EW&F’s biggest hits.
The I Am album, recorded in September 1978 but released the following summer, equalled the success of All’N’All and kept the group on the top of the charts and making them a must-see group in concert. By the end of the decade, millions of fans were ready to put disco into a coffin and burn it, and fortunately EW&F were able to survive the mess and continue to make hits throuhgout the early 80’s, with “Let’s Groove” showing that the group were more than capable of keeping people heading to the record stores. “Let’s Groove” was the last pop hit for the group, and while “Fall In Love With Me” two years later did well on the R&B charts, it barely made a dent on the pop chart. Soul music was also changing significantly, with Prince’s rock influences making people take notice of what was coming out of Minneapolis, a number of other artists preferring to take mellow jazz and turn it into a bit of the quiet storm, and millions of young kids were discovering a new, more energetic sound that made it possible to dance on cardboard. It didn’t have an official name, but it would soon make a name for itself very soon.
As for EW&F, here was a group who were on the top and were now selling mildly. 1983’s Electric Universe was a minor success, but it was hard to measure up to what Michael Jackson’s Thriller was doing on the charts. For the first time in almost eight years, EW&F were without a single, and it was then that the group decided to take a time out. Maurice White would release his self-titled debut album which offered up his cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. Philip Bailey was able to work on a full album with Genesis vocalist/drummer Phil Collins, leading to their duet “Easy Lover” and one of Bailey’s best songs from his solo career, “Walking On The Chinese Wall”. It would be a few years before EW&F made a return with “System Of Survival”, and while not making an impression on Guns N’ Roses fans, they did reach the top of the charts. The group continues to record and tour today, and a number of tribute albums have been released in honor of EW&F, including a smooth jazz tribute and the Interpretations album featuring covers performed by Me’Shell NdegeOcello and Kirk Franklin.
For me, “September” is a look back at my childhood at a time when I had no concerns about anything. I wanted to play, I wanted good food, I wanted good music, and I was not afraid to dance. For any of us who grew up with the music, it goes back to when things seemed a lot easier. Musically, it’s still a fun song. Lyrically, they were saying that we shouldn’t worry about those cloudy days, live life to the fullest, and live it with love. People still look fondly at that era for feel good music, when talking or even thinking “blue talk” meant hearing the jangle of your dad’s belt or getting ready to consume some chili pepper water. Even with the overabundance and availability of any and all music, you rarely hear about “feel good music”, as if it’s a bad and retro thing to experience, something only experienced in movies with 1970’s flashbacks. The music still exists, it can be heard in all genres, but people perhaps are in denial of wanting to feel good. As Sly Stone said at Woodstock in August 1969, music is not a fashion, it is a feeling, and if you embrace that feeling, perhaps it will do us some good.
Maybe it’s time to chase the clouds away once more. And we say “ba de ah”…
“September,” to me, will always be known as a ‘Black family reunion song.’ It’s a song that you could play around Black folks young and old, and nobody can front on it.
My first memories of EWF come from my uncle. He was a big EWF fan and used to have all their records and play them around his house. I don’t specifically remember hearing “September” for the first time, as all of EWF’s songs kinda ran together to me at that time.
What made me a fan of EWF’s music was the sunny, upbeat nature of their songs. (And of course, Phillip Bailey’s falsetto and those wild album covers. I’d just sit and stare at them for hours when I was little.) EWF is the group I use to counter the cliche that good music comes from pain and/or the best songs are always sad songs. It’s almost impossible to listen to an EWF joint and not feel somewhat uplifted. I sometimes wonder how and why we lost that feeling in popular Black music today and how messages of positivity and upliftment became unprofitable and ‘hard to market.’
On a side note , the closest thing that compares to EWF in music today is the music of Blaze. They’re a house duo and their main guy Josh Milan writes and sings alot of stuff that’s very reminiscent of EWF. Really incredible stuff. –Phonte Coleman (vocalist/MC, Little Brother/Foreign Exchange)
(Thank you to Pete Marriott, Norman E. Mailer, Miles Bonny, Cosmo Baker, and Phonte Coleman for your contributions to the article.
Eternal mahalo and gratitute to Maurice White and everyone who has ever been a part of the Earth, Wind & Fire family from the days of the Salty Peppers to today.)