It’s late -- it always is in LA. No one’s ever on time.
I’ve been waiting patiently for an audience with Mr Earth Wind & Fire, Maurice White, for eight days. He’s as elusive as a Pimpernel but I finally nail him at a West Hollywood recording studio where he’s putting the finishing touches to the Emotions’ new album.
‘Maurice will be down in a while,’ says the studio caretaker. ‘Take a chair, sir.’ I sit. Sit. Sit.
‘Why don’t you go upstairs and shoot some pool, sir?’
I go upstairs and shoot some pool. And some more pool. Three hours later Maurice appears. It’s three a.m. and he tells me he’s been ‘Dancing since noon.’ Seems he’d also been rehearsing with EW&F for their forthcoming US tour before coming to the studio around seven. ‘I’m probably one of the busiest people in the world. I can go on non-stop for weeks at a time. If I’m not in the studio I’m writing or preparing for another tour.
‘Having a lot of energy is like having a lot of ideas − you have to take it and channel it and make it into something. Even when I’m not doing anything I sit around looking at myself. That’s a habit I got into when I was a kid. I’d sit in the corner watching myself outside of me. When you do something like I do, having that ability is a bonus.’
Maurice’s pyramid of harmony rises out of a disco desert. He’s built it stone by stone through eight albums stretching back to 1972.
‘Each new album, each new song contributes to the whole. I’ve always been a loner, ever since I was a kid. I came from a big family − five boys and four girls – and only occasionally did I have the luxury of being by myself.
'I can speak of my experiences through my music. I try and reach the inner soul through song, through that secluded part where you talk to yourself about your decisions and how you should make your way through life. Do you understand?’
‘We are speaking of a certain type of lifestyle and it’s important the kids know what we mean − that’s why we always print the lyrics on our albums. We are now in the pop market and the record buyers don’t know where we’re coming from. They haven’t yet lived the things we speak of. I guess I mean mostly the kids from the suburbs. We are talking of things relative to the street, relative to survival, where people wait for a new day. Those kids haven’t ever got up in the morning and wondered if they’re going to get through the day okay. My personal past has enabled me to speak of those things.’
The title of the new album was a deliberate attempt to eradicate the diffidence in most (nah, all) of us.
‘We wanted to awaken the self in everybody. You go into the record store and ask for I Am and that’s a reaffirmation of you just by saying those two words. In the US people have certain conceptions about black groups. They think black music must be of a particular type and when boundaries are broken it’s as though you did something terrible. Every time we release an album Rolling Stone magazine slams it. Yet every album is successful. I live in fear of them giving one of our records a good review. Then I’ll know we’ve failed.’
Are you a pain-in-the-arse perfectionist?
‘Yes. That’s one of my problems. I often wish I was a lot sloppier. There are annoying little things. For instance, if my closet isn’t completely tidy I go to pieces. To have an orderly closet saves time for me. I’ll take out the wrong pair of pants and have to go back and change them.’
But doesn’t such an attitude spill over into relationships? Perfectionists are notoriously intolerant of others.
‘I’ve learned toleration because I had to be tolerated. Growing up in my parents’ home, first in Memphis and then in Chicago, taught me that.’
Maurice is divorced. ‘I never had any kids. I really don’t know why I got married. I had a good home. None of my brothers and sisters are married. But we’ve all got time. I’m thirty-five now. I figure I’ve got another thirty-five years left. I still got time for all that family stuff.’
We leave the studio together, and in the car park opposite he climbs into the coolest Porsche imaginable.
(Apart from a four-year hiatus between 1983 and 1987, EW&F have continued to record top-notch albums and have passed into the mainstream American mindset. Maurice has worked with the likes of Streisand, Neil Diamond and Cher and the band were inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Such is their popularity, EW&F have performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Superbowl in 2005 and the US Open golf tournament in 2008. In February 2009, they played at the White House during President Obama’s first formal dinner. Now, Then & Forever, the group's first album in eight years, was released September 10, 2013 They are, quite simply, an American institution. Oh, and Maurice has a son.)
© Barry Cain 2014
Check out Barry’s novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H0IM2CY