Earth Wind & Fire's Serpentine Fire sparked 36 years ago, when Memphis-born bandleader Maurice White named his new jazz-rock outfit for his astrological sign, Sagittarius. Such was 1960s excess, but White had serious chops as a former Chess Records apprentice and member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. So hallowed is Earth Wind & Fire's position in the annals of pop that many will bear witness to the group's enduring sonic-kozmik consciousness when its Illuminate Love Tour hits Charlotte on Sept. 1.
Well before EWF's recent triumphant runs with Chicago, the LA-based group was legendary in performance mode. And its back catalog had become iconic: "Head to the Sky," "Shining Star," "That's the Way of the World," "Can't Hide Love," "Fantasy," "Boogie Wonderland," etc. Even if EWF's primetime popularity has waned since dancefloor mutha "Let's Groove" dropped in 1980, its mighty mighty 1970s sound of jazz- and funk-inflected rock was channeled by rare groovers in the 1990s -- a process now perpetuated by a host of neo-soul acts and jazzbo jambands. Time was that the post-Jim Crow generation could best locate a restored African spirit in the percussive genius of James Brown and the horn-drenched, kalimba-tinged classics of EWF. This black pop complexity and hybridity -- underscored by transcendent universal love provided by White, his big band and late ace Charles Stepney -- was crucial to the long-gone 1970s heyday of black pride. And such insider EWF standards as "Open Our Eyes" served as the era's incisive requiem.
Sure, bros dug the robe-like, psychedelic threads White and his band donned in their Kemetic album art. And the dulcet dream "Reasons" remains a Quiet Storm/ wedding song staple. Yet Philip Bailey's keening falsetto on "Fantasy" -- a song permanently linking my late mother, sister and I beyond the bonds of the mortal coil -- perennially uplifts the Race towards the eternal.
Earth Wind & Fire's Illuminate Love Tour comes to Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Sept. 1; Chris Botti opens; 7:30pm; $24-54. For more information, log on to www.livenation.com.