Earth, Wind & Fire was a hit machine in the '70s. Their songs, including "Shining Star" and "After the Love Has Gone," routinely topped the pop and R&B charts. In one five-year span, they released seven albums that surpassed the million sales mark.
But the well-oiled machine started to sputter in the early '80s. The group's "Electric Universe" album in 1983 broke a string of 11 straight gold or platinum LPs and led to a four-year hiatus. During the break, group members Maurice White and Philip Bailey worked on separate projects and, mainly, sought to revitalize their creative energies.
"I felt I was burned out," White acknowledged during a break from rehearsing in a North Hollywood studio for the group's upcoming U.S. tour. "I needed to just sit back and find out who I was for a while. For 10 years, it was always a record or a tour. I never had any time of my own.
"After a while, you start getting burned out, not knowing what to do. You've got pressure from the record company because they want a hit, pressure from members of the band because they think it should go a certain way. When I listen to 'Electric Universe,' I hear a lot of discontent; a lot of things that aren't settled."
Bailey, sitting on a folding chair in the rehearsal studio, agreed. "It was time to stand on our own two feet and find out what the world was like without one another. I moved back to Colorado because I had just had enough of everything--L.A., . . . the band. I wanted to get away from it. I got back to real neighbors and cutting my own grass and barbecuing on the weekends. I got revitalized.
"Now I'm back out here and I'm ready to get burned out again."
The fact that Bailey was present at the interview said a lot about how the six-man group has changed in the last few years. White, 45, used to be the group's undisputed leader: He organized the band in 1970 in Chicago, and has produced and composed most of its records. Bailey, 36, though a distinctive lead singer, generally stayed in the background and was rarely included in interviews.
But a funny thing happened during the hiatus.
Both White and Bailey released solo albums--and only Bailey's was a hit. His "Chinese Wall" album went gold, largely because of the popularity of "Easy Lover," a smash duet with Phil Collins.
The fates of those solo projects suggested that White could no longer rule the group with an iron hand.
Bailey acknowledged that the "control" issue was one of the factors that led to the hiatus.
"We were a little inhibited to say things for fear of bruising Maurice's ego," he said. "He was sensitive to the fact that we were growing up (musically) and that we were disenchanted about certain things. But he was still in the driver's seat to make decisions. It created a lot of tension."
White acknowledged that although he remains the group's musical leader, he's more open to input from the other members. "I was in a situation where I was like the Godfather," he said. "I brought all of them into the industry. (But now) everybody has a responsibility. There's more sharing. There's a lot more trust."
Bailey readily agreed. "It's more comfortable," he said. "He's still in the driver's seat, but now he's got a co-pilot."
"System of Survival," the first single from Earth, Wind & Fire's new album, "Touch the World," was No. 1 for three straight weeks on Billboard magazine's dance-club chart, and is No. 1 on the black singles chart. But it's struggling for survival on the pop chart, where it has taken seven weeks to climb to No. 63.
Bailey, who is normally upbeat and enthusiastic, became quite heated talking about radio politics. "It's so screwed up," he said. "If you're black, you're labeled R&B. But if you're white and play R&B, you're pop. It's not what your music says at all.
"A record like Earth, Wind & Fire's or mine or Maurice's has to be serviced R&B before it's even serviced pop," Bailey continued, using the record-company lingo meaning sent to a radio station. The singer pointed to Sting's "We'll Be Together," which has strains of jazz and R&B yet is serviced pop. "It doesn't make sense," he continued.
Bailey charged that the record and radio industries haven't kept up with the changes in listening habits in the past generation.
"Before, (black and white) people's backgrounds were totally apart from one another," he said. "But now, kids grow up listening to all kinds of stuff. The musicians who are coming up now have many different kinds of expression, but they're still labeled and marketed based on the color of their skin."
White acknowledged that the music business can cause other frustrations.
"This industry can really use you up. You have to be careful. Everyone has different managers," he said of EWF's membership, "and they're all inflating your ego. They create this bubble for you and you live in this bubble and then the bubble bursts. Then here's reality."