Okay, so for a long time I distanced myself from Star Wars, because I felt like, as a girl, I had no right to enjoy and immerse myself in it, due to being told so by a male fan in my late teens. So while I was excited for tfa, I didn’t really let myself Enjoy It Completely. And while I was watching it for the first time, I definitely loved every moment of it, but the moment that truly drew me back into loving the franchise as much as I did when I was a little girl, was the moment the lightsaber flew into Rey’s hand. I cried in the theater when the music swelled and Rey activated the lightsaber and we, the audience, knew what it meant. So if you think representation doesn’t matter, I’m not sure what to tell you, except that you’ve obviously never been in a place where you felt like you didn’t have a right to enjoy something because of who or what you are. Because representation is more than just seeing someone who looks or acts like you on the screen. It’s an a formal invitation. It’s the knowledge that you’re included. That no one can take that away from you or tell you you don’t have the right to enjoy something. Because a part of you is on the screen, permanent, and beautiful. That’s why representation matters. And that’s why GOOD representation matters even more.
Although Earth, Wind & Fire didn’t truly take off until 1974 (starting with their first platinum album, Open Our Eyes; a close-up of the album cover is pictured above), they actually released their first three albums in 1971: their self-titled debut in February, and The Need of Love in November.
June also saw the release of the soundtrack to the pioneering film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which they also helped score – an indication of how busy the band was in 1971, if perhaps not entirely viewed as a true EWF release.
In a way, their first two proper releases feature a completely different sound than what would soon follow: this was dark, heavy, hard funk. You’d never have guessed this was a band with mainstream aspirations, much less aspirations to the global domination that they actually achieved by the middle of the decade: over 100 million albums sold, a truckload of awards, a home in Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and so much more.
At the same time, all the ingredients were there in these first two albums: especially the razor-sharp arrangements, stacked harmonies, and a soaring, inclusive mysticism (the band’s name comes from the three elements in founder Maurice White’s birth sign, Sagittarius) that would separate them from the sprawling carnal chaos of some of their early funk peers.
Their second, The Need of Love was the first to yield a Top 40 R&B single, “I Think About Lovin’ You,” with Sherry Scott on lead vocals. (Yep, the first couple of EWF incarnations included women vocalists.) As a whole, this is their grittiest release, but also remarkably ambitious, with elements of free jazz that recall The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and a 9-minute opening suite, “Energy,” that any prog band of the day would have killed for.
I’m going to take you back to the debut, though, which fans of later EWF might find more accessible. It’s a bit more song-oriented than The Need of Love, but I’ll go further and say that Earth, Wind & Fire is absolutely essential listening not just for EWF fans, but also fans of psychedelia, hard rock, and the kind of experimentation that made the early 70s, and 1971 in particular, so exciting.
The whole album is aces, but for now, I offer “C’mon Children.” It’s a good example of the political messages that were part of EWF’s early style that I was sad to see diminish as the band’s musical identity evolved – but mostly, it just funks.
After those first two albums and the Sweetback soundtrack, that was it for EWF Mk I. Pared down to just himself and his younger brother Verdine, Maurice started over with a new incarnation of EWF featuring Phillip Bailey on lead vocals, moved to a new label, and set his feet firmly on the path to superstardom from there.
I mentioned earlier that EWF truly broke through in 1974: their incendiary live shows were part of the reason why. This is a clip from 1974′s California Jam, where EWF was listed very last at the bottom of a bill co-headlined by Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and which also included Black Sabbath and The Eagles. The crowd came expecting the hard stuff, and what they got was the hard funk, by now with EWF’s distinctive R&B sound front and center.
Here once again is 1971′s “C’mon Children,” still funky, still jazzy, now stretched past twice its original length with some death-defying jams and a giddy call-and-response with 250,000 of their new-found friends. When you hear how smooth and confident EWF had become, and how organically they were now combining every influence with their own innovations, you can see why this was the year that they broke through to the mainstream: not by trying to sound mainstream, but by forcing the mainstream to come to them.
Also note: Maurice White had spent the first two albums behind the drums (and percussion and kalimba), barely even showing up as a background vocalist. By 1974, he’s up front where he clearly belonged.
You’ll find lots of other differences between this 1974 version and the 1971 original – including a scorching, acid-rock guitar solo and a sax-fueled frenzy climaxing with the band in a line, high kicking – but you’ll also hear why “C’mon Children” was the sole 1971 track still in their setlists by then. It was never a hit, but boy, did it hit.