JAMES BROWN TAUGHT ALL BASS PLAYERS THE importance of “the one,” but few bassists have ever framed it like Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White. Between his running-start pickups and his pocket-widening post-one pops, White enshrouds his downbeats in melodic and rhythmic robes of purple and gold. Chart gold, that is, as EWF has sold over 90 million albums en route to multiple Grammys and other prestigious awards (including Verdine’s 2008 BP Lifetime Achievement Award), and critical and popular consensus as of one of the greatest bands—R&B or otherwise—of the 20th century.
The new millennium began with EWF gaining entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and continuing to receive the worldwide adoration of fans and fellow artists via a non-stop touring schedule. However, the two CDs the band released, particularly 2005’s Illumination, were heavy on hip-hop collaboration and light on classic EWF elements—particularly Verdine!
Enter the band’s long-awaited return, Now, Then and Forever. The powerful ten-track disc is the aural equivalent of looking at vintage EWF through the glass of a contemporary recording studio. The current band centers around veterans Verdine, vocalist Philip Bailey, and percussionist Ralph Johnson, along with drummer John Paris, vocalists B. David Whitworth and Philip Bailey Jr., keyboardist Myron McKinley, guitarists Morris O’Connor and Greg Moore, saxophonist Gary Bias, trombonist Reggie Young, and trumpeter Bobby Burns Jr. Longtime EWF stalwarts augment the lineup: keyboardist Larry Dunn and horn arrangers Jerry Hey and Benjamin Wright, as well as the key “young blood” input of album co-producer Neal H Pogue, and the compositions of Bailey Jr., Darrin Simpson, JR Hutson, and others. The joyous result is a rebirth featuring quality songs with positive, uplifting lyrics, sing-along hooks, taut grooves, and high-flying horns, all aligned in the sonic and spiritual spectrum by Verdine’s signature bouncy bottom end.
Born in Chicago, Illinois on July 25, 1951, Verdine White was immersed in music at home: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and other jazz greats on vinyl via his dad, a sax-playing doctor, plus Motown and the Beatles on the radio, and two brothers who played drums. When the 15-year-old Verdine saw an upright bass in high school orchestra class, he immediately connected with the instrument, and he got an electric bass soon after. The family sent him to study with Radi Velah of the Chicago Symphony and Chess Records session bass guitarist/trombonist Louis Satterfield (later to become a member of EWF’s famed horn section, the Phenix Horns). Ultimately favoring his new Satterfield-inspired Fender Telecaster Bass over upright, Verdine began playing local clubs. Brother Maurice, a Chess drummer and member of the Ramsey Lewis trio, had meanwhile formed the Salty Peppers, and moved to Los Angeles after catching the ear of Capitol Records. Looking to expand the band he had renamed Earth, Wind & Fire, Maurice summoned Verdine to L.A. in June 1970.
When asked about the formation of a style that would change bass history, Verdine offers, “I had Jamerson and McCartney in my ears, and I saw a lot of [Ramsey Lewis upright bassist] Cleveland Eaton up close, but everything I learned and know on bass guitar is from Louis Satterfield. He had his own style from being a jazz trombonist; I would almost call it lead bass, but always holding the groove. He taught me scales and modes and odd meters, stuff that opened up my mind. That, along with the early coaching of Maurice and [EWF arranger/producer/composer] Charles Stepney, set me right.” From student to master. Satterfield and Stepney have since died, and for the first time, founder Maurice White is sitting this one out (although he’s very pleased with the results), leaving Verdine as the only White sibling on Now, Then & Forever. We talked with him in Los Angeles and Tokyo to find out about the making of the CD, and for his perspective on the artistic and commercial side of the music scene some 43 years in.
What was the process that led to Now, Then & Forever, after an eight-year gap in studio recordings?
One of the main reasons for the gap is that we’re out touring so much, we don’t have time to write. But when we finally made the commitment, we really locked in on it. The process started at Philip Bailey’s home studio, going through songs and doing some recording. Then Philip went back and listened to all of our albums to reconnect with classic Earth, Wind & Fire. Unlike our last CD, where we collaborated with some of the great young hip-hop artists, the concept this time was to sound like the Fire, but in the here and now. We wanted to return to a very organic, band kind of record. That posed a couple of challenges. First was coming up with great songs, which always takes time. And second was finding someone to make it contemporary, particularly on the sonic side. We all got together for dinner to see who we could bring in, and Philip, Jr. [Philip Deron Bailey], who co-wrote six songs on the CD, suggested Neal H. Pogue—someone he had worked with. Neal is a Grammy-winning mixer and producer whose credits include Out- Kast, Lil Wayne, Pink, and Nicki Manaj, as well as Stevie Wonder and Jeff Lorber. He really helped bring it all together.
Did you have the extensive preparation and recording time you had on classic EWF recordings?
I did, which was invaluable. Basically, it was a multi-step process: The writer for each song would give me a basic part, maybe a few specific lines with a chord sheet, and I would take it from there and make it my own. Because we wanted a band sound, we recorded about 75 percent of the material as a live rhythm section. Throughout those sessions, I had the luxury of listening to the tracks at home and in my car to really home in on myself, so I was able to go back in and take another pass or experiment with other ideas. From there, Neal Pogue was a huge help; if something caught his ear, he’d call and ask me to come in and tighten something up, or he’d say, “We like this note from an alternate track, come back and overdub it,” or, “Let’s try the part like this, and we would go to work.”
What else informed your parts?
Staying true to who we are. Like, on “Love Is Law,” there’s no bass through the first verse and chorus, and then I enter for the second verse. The writer, JR Hutson, didn’t want any bass to come in, except for a few stark lines. But I said, “That doesn’t sound like Earth, Wind & Fire.” So when I came in, I tried to really rock it by imagining how I would play the song live, behind Philip. The part I came up with reminds me of an Emotions track I did called “Flowers” [from Flowers, CBS, 1976]. As the years have gone by, I find I need to hear the vocal; listening to the lyrics and reacting to the emotion of the performance sparks my imagination. That happened with “Sign On”; we recorded it live, and then I went back and recut my bass to the final vocal. Ultimately, though, it’s about the songs, not the bass. You’re only as good as the songs you play on, and we have great songs. No amount of overplaying or overdubbing is going to help a bad song.
What basses did you use?
The only bass I used was my ’90s orange Yamaha BB-3000, with Black Diamond strings that Raphael Saadiq turned me on to. It’s a great recording bass with a crystal-clear sound; I don’t take it on the road or play it live anymore. We recorded it direct and through a miked Ampeg B-15.
Do you have favorite tracks?
I like “My Promise.” The great Seidah Garrett cowrote it, and she’s got a little vocal in there; it has a “September” vibe. That and “Dance Floor” are the only songs from the CD we’re playing live so far— although we tried “Night of My Life” in Europe and it was well-received. I dig “Rush”; shuffles are always up my alley. And I like the instrumental, “Splashes,” with the great Terence Blanchard sounding like a young Freddie Hubbard. I also helped sequence the record, which took a good four or five days of debating.
What’s your take on the effect the Internet, social media, and piracy has had on the music business, and how has EWF adapted?
It has forced the artist to be more proactive in order to survive. It’s your audience, and they’re interactive, so you have to communicate with them 24 hours a day because the Internet doesn’t sleep. With piracy greatly reducing the sales of songs and CDs, touring is just about as important as recording your music. Ultimately, you have to have your live performance down, your social media down, and make the best record you can make. Labels are finally getting a grasp on how to slow down piracy, but look at the Daft Punk CD; it sold millions of copies. That’s because people still love great music and great concerts. We’re selling more tickets now than ever in our career. The phenomenon that’s going on is parents are telling their kids what good music is, and they’re listening and going to concerts. We just played to 30,000 young people in Tokyo and 45,000 in Osaka.
What are your thoughts on the state of R&B, which EWF brought to an artistic apex in the ’70s?
I feel like we’re starting to make a great turn toward higher quality in our music; I mentioned the Daft Punk record, and there’s Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke’s great new CDs. They’re fans of ours and Stevie’s and Marvin’s, and they dug deep into our stuff. What’s happening with a lot of these artists is they’ve become adults and they want to make good, adult music. When they were younger, they sampled our records because that’s what was available to them, and it was all they knew how to do. Now they’re able to create their own informed sounds on a much broader scale, so I’m very much encouraged by the future of the genre.
What is the role of technology and machines in R&B?
It’s a permanent part of the R&B experience, but it won’t remain the dominant part. Pro Tools is a permanent part of recording, but it won’t take the place of a Neve board. Technological advancements aside, a lot people forget that music was basically washed out of our school system. When you and I went to school, we always had band class, with instruments and uniforms and functions to play at; there was always someone lugging home an instrument on the bus. But those programs were cut, especially in the inner cities. As a result, whole generations of kids made music with what they had. There were plenty of inspired kids who spent as much time on turntables as we did practicing our instruments in the basement. If we can rectify this issue and get music programs and instruments back in the schools, we’re going to raise the level of young musicians and the music they make.
You’ve participated in all five BASS PLAYER LIVE! events in Los Angeles. What are your reflections on the state of the bass?
It’s alive and well! I’m so encouraged by all of these great young bassists I’ve gotten to meet and jam with, and I think it’s largely due to them having all of the educational tools available now, including access to players like me, Stanley, Marcus, Nathan, Larry, Bootsy, Victor, and others. Two that stand out for me right now are Esperanza Spalding— she’s so gifted—and Janelle Monáe’s bass player, Brandon Gilliard. I’m expecting big things from him.
As someone who seems to always be in forward motion, what does the future hold for you?
I’m one who doesn’t like to look too far ahead. I prefer to live in the moment—the future is now. I played on LL Cool J’s upcoming CD, but for me it’s all about touring and promoting our new record as we head home for the U.S. release. Earth, Wind & Fire is back, and we never left!
LOW, LOCKED & funky
VERDINE WHITE’S BASS LINES ARE THE timeless element on Now, Then & Forever, thanks to signature moves he has hand-written into the bass-playing bible. Example 1 joins “Sign On” at the 1:09 mark, catching the last two bars of the bridge into what White typically plays on the main two-bar phrase that makes up the verses and choruses. The passage is rife with “Verdine-isms,” starting with his backing up to the root from the 9th in bar 1 (bar 2 is a band unison lick). Bar 3 includes a three-note chromatic pickup to the beat-three downbeat, and, on beat one, an octave “afterbeat.” Other variations include an octave-to-root afterbeat on one in bar 5, a three-note pickup that goes above the target note (leading into bar 6), and accenting the last 16th of any given beat, usually with an octave (as on beat three of bar 4). Adds Verdine, “This was almost the first single. The feel reminds me of ‘Serpentine Fire.’”
Example 2 shows the main four-bar phrase of “Guiding Lights,” including two bar-4 fills Verdine plays late in the track, shown in the 2nd and 3rd endings. The pivoting pulse that bounces off the 5th below the root is reminiscent of the classic EWF song “That’s the Way of the World.” The other key note is the second-16th-of-beat-four pickup at the end of each bar that anticipates the coming harmony, usually via the 5th of the next chord. “This was the single we released last year as a sort of preview. We cut it live in about three takes, and then I went back and overdubbed in a few spots.”
Example 3 is taken from “Got to Be Love.” The first two bars show the main A-section phrase, which is doubled by guitar. The next two bars show the similarly built B-section phrase. Verdine plays his part as-is, with the only addition being John Paris’ kick drum pickups. The tune’s two sections a half-step apart recalls the early EWF funker “Mighty, Mighty” [Open Our Eyes, 1974]. “Ralph Johnson wrote this; it puts me in mind of both a Quincy Jones-style track and a Philly International track.”
Finally, Ex. 4 contains the bass-driven main four-bar phrase of “Dance Floor,” followed by a band and vocal unison chant first heard at 1:46. In bars 1–4, Verdine answers his syncopated figure on the first two beats with the hard-plucked 7th and octave in bars 1 and 3, the two D’s in bar 2, and the phrase-capping open E string move at the end of bar 4. Notes Verdine, “This track reminds me of ‘Boogie Wonderland.’ You really have to stay aggressive and drive the groove, as well as the unison lick.”
In his last BP cover story [November ’05], Verdine White offered his thoughts on ten classic EW&F bass lines, such as “Shining Star,” “Fantasy,” and “Got to Get You Into My Life.” This time around, he recalls some favorite lesser-known tracks.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Theme”
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song:Soundtrack [Stax, 1971]
“One of the first songs I ever recorded; Maurice threw me into the deep end, with no rehearsal at all!”
Earth, Wind & Fire, The Need of Love [Warner Bros. 1971]
“This song and album is where I really found my style. Maurice told me I sounded great and that I was ready!”
“Yearnin’ Learnin’” (live)
From Earth, Wind & Fire, That’s the Way of the World: Alive in ’75 [Sony Legacy, 2002]
“This version was exhilarating: fast, live, and no click track!”
Deniece Williams, This Is Niecy [Columbia, 1976]
“A great song, a great feel, and the great Al McKay on guitar inspired my bass line.”
The Emotions, Rejoice [Columbia, 1977]
“A fan found this and sent it to me, and I remembered how cool it was. Maurice is playing drums.”
Lenny White, Big City [Wounded Bird, 1977]
“I had met Lenny and Stanley Clarke when they were in Return To Forever, and Lenny asked me to come up to San Francisco to do this track. I was flattered and scared to death to play with Herbie Hancock.”
Ramsey Lewis, Sun Goddess [Sony, 1974]
“Coming home to Chicago to record with Ramsey, Maurice and Charles Stepney—who was EWF’s Billy Strayhorn and George Martin. I sang backup with Philip, too.”
“Sunny Side Up”
Freddie Ravel, Freddie Ravel [GRP, 2001]
“[Keyboardist] Freddie makes great, uplifting music. After we recorded it, I heard it in my car, and I called him. I don’t care how long you’ve been in the business, when you hear yourself on the radio, you turn it up!”
“Baby I Love U!”
Jennifer Lopez with R. Kelly, This Is Me...Then [Sony, 2002]
“Jennifer called me herself after we did a BET Awards show, sent the music in advance, and I tracked with Omar Hakim. Later, my assistant said, ‘You have to hear the new J-Lo record—the bass player sounds just like you.’ I said, it is me!”
“Bad Girls (Verdine Version)”
Solange, True [Terrible, 2012]
“Solange came to our Hollywood Bowl show and said, I want you to play on my record. I brought my ’61 Jazz Bass and Ampeg B-15 to her house, and we recorded in her living room. She sang every pass, which included her final vocal. Then we performed together at Grammy weekend, and it felt like we had played together our whole lives.”
Earth, Wind & Fire, Now, Then & Forever [Sony Legacy, 2013]
Basses White Yamaha BB-3000, Yamaha TRB, Sadowsky P/J, Warwick Streamer LX, Ibanez VWB1, ’60s Fender P-, J-, and Telecaster Basses
Strings Black Diamond 500MB nickels (.045–.105) and Pure Jazz chromium flatwounds; DR K3 Neon Hi-Def Multi- Color mediums
Rig SWR Marcus Miller preamp; SWR Mo’ Bass preamp; Demeter HBP-1 tube preamp/parametric EQ; three SWR Mo’ Bass power amps; three SWR Power 750 power amps; two SWR Megoliath 8x10 cabinets; Ampeg B-15 (studio)
Other Monster cables; Monster Cable Pro-7000 power conditioner; 1964 Ears in-ear monitors (“I wear one in and one out so I can hear the audience and the rumble of my rig.”)
Effects “None; we have them on hand, but I’m all natural right now.”
Signal chain Bass–Shure URL-4D wireless unit–SWR Marcus Miller preamp–SWR Mo’ Bass power amp; signal taken out of Shure and Mo’ Bass direct-out to stage monitors and front-of- house mix
Thanks to Verdine’s bass tech, Andre O’Neal.