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On tour together, Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire still reaching new heights

Earth, Wind & Fire (from left: Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Verdine White) pose in the press room at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 15. The group performs at Royal Farms Arena on Tuesday with Chicago.
Earth, Wind & Fire (from left: Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Verdine White) pose in the press room at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 15. The group performs at Royal Farms Arena on Tuesday with Chicago. (Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)

Recently, Verdine White got pulled over in Los Angeles, where the Earth, Wind & Fire bassist resides. He wasn't speeding, so he questioned the cause.

"For what? What did I do?" was White's reaction, he recalled last month on the phone from his home. "I thought he was going to give me a ticket." The officer, however, simply wanted to relay a message.

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"He just offered his condolences," said White, whose older brother, Maurice — Earth, Wind & Fire's influential founder and bandleader — died on Feb. 3. "I anticipate people feeling the same way throughout our touring season this year. And they're right in feeling that way, too."

This tour is familiar, but the sentiment is not.

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Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago — two bands of the same era from the Windy City with different sounds and permanent legacies — will bring their "Heart and Soul Tour 2.0" to Royal Farms Arena on Tuesday night. While the groups have toured together before, in 2004 and 2009, this particular run has added meaning, both somber and joyous, for the acts.

Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, whose horn-driven band sold more than 90 million albums and made hits such as "September," ''Shining Star" and "Boogie Wonderland," died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, his brother Verdine said.

Maurice White, who succumbed to his battle with Parkinson's disease at 74, hadn't toured with Earth, Wind & Fire in recent years, but his presence was always felt, Verdine White said. "He never would have let us go on without him if he didn't think we were going to do a great job," he said.

With Maurice gone, White expects the shows to have a sense of catharsis for the players and fans alike.

"I'm just interested to see how the fans are going to react. I think they're going to be quite emotional because I'm getting it in everyday life," White said, mentioning personal condolences from the ordinary (cop, FedEx driver) to the extraordinary (Elton John, President Obama). "Playing them songs, it's going to be good for our spirits and our souls, too."

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Robert Lamm, the keyboardist, singer and founding member of Chicago, called Maurice White "a genius" in a separate interview. Hearing Earth, Wind & Fire's 1975 song "That's the Way of the World" for the first time stopped Lamm in his tracks years ago.

"My ears just freaked out when I listened to that song and the depth of that pocket — that groove — on that song," Lamm, 71, said. "As a musician, entertainer, singer, composer, arranger, he really broke new ground. He really changed the face of rock.

"He'd been inactive for a number of years, and that's been a loss for Earth, Wind and Fire, I'm sure. But the music lives on," he said.

In 2016, Lamm's last point could not be clearer, as both acts have recently added significant achievements to their storied careers. Eligible since 1994, Chicago will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Friday night at Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Barclays Center. Also this month, Earth, Wind & Fire will formally receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys.

Both groups consider the milestones honors, but the validation is more like icing atop a towering cake that was already plenty sweet. Lamm said Chicago was too busy touring and writing new material to worry over when their time would come at the Hall of Fame. The band mostly considered the topic when journalists and DJs brought it up to them, he said.

Chicago (L-R: Tris Imboden, Wally Reyes, Jr., Jason Scheff, Keith Howland, Lee Loughnane, Walt Parazaider, Jimmy Pankow, Robert Lamm and Lou Pardini) performs at Royal Farms Arena on April 12.
Chicago (L-R: Tris Imboden, Wally Reyes, Jr., Jason Scheff, Keith Howland, Lee Loughnane, Walt Parazaider, Jimmy Pankow, Robert Lamm and Lou Pardini) performs at Royal Farms Arena on April 12. (David M. Earnisse)

"We would kind of go, 'Well, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn't it doesn't,' because we're still working," Lamm said.

White called the award "incredible," but he's long been comfortable with the group's legacy.

"Bar none, people can't say that we didn't do anything great," White, 64, said. "The nice thing about it is we knew it [back] then, but everybody knows it now."

By nearly any measurement, the success and influence of Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago are undeniable. The former's unmistakable amalgamation of funk, R&B, rock, jazz, soul and disco created 1970s and 1980s-defining songs like "Devotion," "Shining Star" and many more. The latter found success adding horns to rock, and in turn, wrote arena-ready compositions like "Saturday in the Park" and "25 or 6 to 4" that placed Chicago's musicianship front and center.

White deflected credit for his band's success to his brother. ("Maurice had the intention, and he picked people like us, the players — myself, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, all the guys, to help fulfill his destiny," he said.)

Lamm seemed more concerned with the future than the past, since Chicago released its 24th studio album, "Chicago XXXVI: Now," less than two years ago. (Earth, Wind & Fire's last album of original songs was the group's 20th, 2013's "Now, Then & Forever.")

Lamm was even against the band's participation in "Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago," a documentary slated for release this year.

"I thought that we should wait until we're done or close to being done — which we're not — before doing that kind of project, but I was outvoted by my partners and management," he said.

Between the two acts, they've sold more than 200 million albums worldwide and have 20 Grammy nominations. (Earth, Wind & Fire joined the Hall of Fame in 2000.) They tour regularly, with Chicago now spending its 49th consecutive year on the road.

For both acts, future plans are still to be determined, but you can count on White and Lamm staying busy.

Earth, Wind & Fire will tour Japan and Europe next, White said, including a stop at England's Glastonbury Festival in June. Lamm said more touring is possible for Chicago, as well, while the group's writers also find time to work on new material.

Fans in attendance Tuesday can expect an encore featuring the bands performing together. The fact that their audiences overlap doesn't surprise either artist, even if they're categorized in separate genres. Lamm said he hears shared influences like Motown artists, the Beatles and other British Invasion bands.

"I think there's an obvious synchronicity," Lamm said. "We both sort of evolved through the filter of coming through the late '60s and early '70s. The political filter, the cultural filter of the war in Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate and all of that. All of that stuff happened at a similar time for each band individually, as we emerged in Chicago."

Music has seen more obvious marriages than these two. But like the most effective music pairings, the connection between Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago is best experienced in person, where the hard-to-explain doesn't need to be parsed.

"Our music is obviously very different," Lamm said, "but it does somehow work together."

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