Still on fire after four decades

By Kiri Gillespie

"Ralph Johnson, nice to meet you."

The percussionist and vocalist for Earth, Wind & Fire has a booming voice and an iron grip of a handshake. Behind him towers the band's bassist and "everything" man Verdine White - made even taller by a cowboy hat crowning his long dark locks.

The two share plenty of laughs as they fold into their seats, while singer Philip Bailey rests his voice upstairs.

The banter between Johnson and White reflects their many years working together - 41 years to be precise.

"We are proud of that fact," White says. "It's a brand now. Everyone in the world knows Earth, Wind & Fire are a band now."

Johnson jumps in, as he is in the habit of doing, to add "every 1.38 seconds a radio station somewhere in the world will play one of our songs".

White picks up the thread: "And we've been here talking for 10 minutes, so we've basically had a whole lot of songs already played".

Johnson says when they first started out, all they ever wanted to hear was one song, played on one station in one town.

"Now it is so beyond that," he says.

EWF has released more than 50 albums in the group's four-decade career.

Boogie Wonderland is one of the group's biggest hits but White confesses the song was a rare "submission".

Unlike most of their songs, they did not write it and the people who did, did not want it. However, the song became an anthem of the 1970s and was the first track on their line-up for last night's performance at Tauranga Domain.

"You have to have a love for what you do," Johnson says. "We are committed to making spiritual music, lifting a higher consciousness, living better and treating your fellow man right," he says while slapping White on the shoulder.

A woman on a balcony a few metres away waves out. She says she is a big EWF fan and came down from Auckland especially to see them perform. The men thank her and tell her they hope she enjoys the show. She sits, content to listen in on the conversation.

Yesterday was the first time EWF had ever been to New Zealand.

While Johnson claims to knowing about Kiwi birds before coming to New Zealand, White goes one better.

"I know about Peter Snell," he says. "I know about him as a track runner because I'm a track runner and he was a representative for New Zealand."

White is now a yoga instructor when not on EWF business - which could account for this incredibly lean, long legs covered by unique beige camouflage pants. A black belt with a heavy silver belt buckle tucks in a long-sleeved denim shirt.

Johnson's image is more subtle. He is virtually unrecognised by the public because he is "very low key".

The men say they chose to headline the 50th National Jazz Festival because of a good venue and good promoter. Their careers have been rejuvenated through the work of their relatively new manager Damian Williams.

Williams smiles from the background while operating a Blackberry. "See look," White says. "He's closing another deal for us already."

The men crack up laughing. They will leave Tauranga today to head home to America. Last night's gig was the last performance of a wider Australasian tour.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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