Their fans know them as "The Elements of The Universe."
Earth, Wind & Fire — the Grammy-winning, multi-platinum Rock & Roll Hall of Famers — are one of the most influential bands to come out of the 1970s, known for their eternally optimistic music and catalog of hits that still get people on the dance floor.
The band's lead vocalist Philip Bailey is a Denver native and East High School graduate. He and fellow original members bassist Verdine White and percussionist Ralph Johnson were presented with this year's Kennedy Center Honors — one of the most prestigious awards for lifetime artistic achievement.
The Elements, who celebrated 50 years as a group this year, are the first African-American band in history to receive the honor. (They also were just honored last month by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.)
The 2019 class of Kennedy Center honorees also includes singer Linda Ronstadt, actress Sally Field, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and Sesame Street, which also turned 50 this year.
Bailey spoke with Colorado Matters about his early days of touring in Colorado, EWF’s unique sound, and what he considers the band’s worst album cover.
On touring Colorado as a teenager:
“I remember riding from Denver to Pueblo on top of the B-3 organ in the back of a van. There was only so much room so you had to flip a coin to see who was going to have to ride on top of the B-3. And man we’re doing this stuff in inclement weather … so we definitely paid our dues!”
On first meeting Earth, Wind & Fire’s founder Maurice White:
“I think most of all it was divine providence. He didn’t plan to meet this kid that was 10 years younger than him in Denver, and I didn’t plan to meet this guy who was already in the music world. Fortunately for me, and for him, we were brought together and were able to create something that’s stood the test of time.”
On the album cover for Open Our Eyes, recorded in 1974 at Caribou Ranch in Nederland:
“Well we kept trying to take that picture, and I think that was our second day going out there in the snow. Even though we had on some jeans up under those robes, it was seriously cold! My nose was running. And when our manager sent the cover over, and I saw myself on there, I looked like I was in the morgue!”
On Earth, Wind & Fire’s mission to serve a higher purpose:
“Maurice said he wanted our music to render a service to humanity. Who says that?! When you’re talking about writing songs, going over lyrics and music and ideas with the intent to render a service to humanity. Now he gets the Kennedy Honors.”