Earth Wind & Fire's Verdine White still shining bright
We’re still a month and change away from, as the song says “the 21st night of September,” but on Saturday at Detroit’s Chene Park, the key elements of earth and sky will come together as Earth Wind & Fire perform for the first at the riverfront amphitheater.
The horn-driven pop group, which moved more than 90 million units of its Afro-pop-funk over nearly 50 years, will bring Detroiters an evening of hits such as “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “Shining Star,” “Let’s Groove,” “That’s the Way of the World,” as well as their stellar Beatles cover, “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
Verdine White, 67, the high-energy, bass-playing younger brother of EW&F’s founder/front man, the late Maurice White, has been with Earth Wind & Fire since his brother called him to Los Angeles in 1970 to join his new band. Several years before his death in 2016, Maurice White had to stop touring with the group due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, but his counterpart, EW&F singer Philip Bailey, is still with the group.
Verdine White spoke to The Detroit News from his Los Angeles home, where he lives with wife Shelly and their two dogs, does yoga and runs his charitable Verdine White Foundation.
Q: As a kid, you took classical lessons from a member of the Chicago Symphony on the double bass. Did you have music lessons in public school as well?
White: Oh yeah, the public school system had music and drama and things like that, so that was a big deal. Then of course I had a few other teachers, the great bass and trombone player Louis Satterfield (from Chess Records), who was with the Phoenix Horns (in Earth Wind & Fire), he taught me everything I needed to know about the bass guitar.
Q: I know you started out on a Fender Telecaster bass. What is your favored bass guitar now, on the road?
My bass is a Roger Sadowsky. It’s a fantastic bass, and Roger and I are great friends as well. We have our own Verdine White line (of Sadowsky bass guitars), and proceeds go to my Verdine White Foundation. We’re doing really good.
Q: I was going to ask you about your foundation. I know you are a big proponent of music education in the public schools.
Yes, and we have our own (music instruction). Our day to day operations are run by Pastor Walter Davis. We just sent a bunch of kids to New York. We put a trip together every summer, even when I’m on the road. Last year they went to Chicago, this year is New York, next year’s Washington, D.C. It’s really good.
Q: And you were a fan of Motown bass great James Jamerson?
James Jamerson, absolutely, and Paul McCartney, Louis Satterfield, Cleveland Eaton, (Detroit jazz bassist) Ron Carter — a lot of great, great players that I love, and still do.
Q: You quote Bill Gates, of all people, as saying the Fender bass changed rock and roll.
It changed it. It brought it into the forefront of popular music.
Q: “September” has come back several times, in the pop consciousness. Does it get the biggest response from the Earth, Wind & Fire audience?
It is one of the biggest responses, but we also have “Fantasy,” “Boogie Wonderland” … For our vintage audiences who started with us, “Head to the Sky,” “Devotion.” We have classic favorites. “September” is the world-renowned song. We have such a diverse audience, and “September” is popular for a lot of different reasons. First of all, because it was a big hit record, but also, it was used in "Trolls," the (music video) animation, so 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds know it. And, it comes out every Sept. 21.
Q: Earth Wind & Fire music has always exuded joy and fun. What’s behind that?
We love the music, it’s who we are as people. And the music makes you feel great. You feel better when you left our concert than when you came. For those who had never seen us before, they become fans when it’s over with.
Q: There was always a message of inclusion and love in the lyrics.
Absolutely, we have to thank my late brother Maurice (White) for that. He was the one that really set the template and put it in motion.
Q: You were young when you started, in 1970, just 19 — 10 years younger than brother Maurice. How did you survive the wild '70’s?
There was nothing to survive. I just lived — I think that it’s in context. The '70s were wild and crazy, sure. But every decade has its thing. I have a good trainer, I’m in good shape, I work out. And I’m not a smoker or a drinker, so that’s obviously a big help.
Q: Was the fact that you were a Beatles fan a factor in Earth, Wind & Fire doing that great cover version of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” for the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" film?
It was one of them. George Martin, the Beatles producer, had called us and wanted us to do the song in the movie. We went to a music store in New York and got the sheet music, and we said we should do this one. George Martin didn’t have time to work with us because he was working with some of the other acts in the movie, he was working with Aerosmith. We did our version, and it was the biggest song out of the movie. Later, when I ran into the late George Harrison, he said it was a great rendition of their song. That was cool.
Q: What’s it like to still be doing it after all this time?
Five generations — it’s a testimony to the music and us being dedicated to the music.
Q: I know you posted a photo of yourself and Philip Bailey backstage with Aretha Franklin, on your Instagram.
We met a few times . One year at Pine Knob, she came to our show, and she doesn’t do any one else’s show. It was fantastic, it was like John Coltrane coming to our show. It was an honor for her to come.
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. You can reach her at susanwhitall.com.
Earth, Wind & Fire, with opening act Sheila E.
8 p.m. Saturday
Chene Park Amphitheater
2600 Atwater, Detroit
Tickets at the Chene Park box office and at Ticketmaster.com
Call (313) 393-7128.