When you think of popular 70s music, as well as the aesthetic and party scene of the decade, the genres of disco and funk will undoubtedly pop into your mind. It's no overstatement saying Earth, Wind & Fire were the kings leading the way with those genres. Earth, Wind & Fire was the band at the forefront of the movement. The sound of their music is the 70s.
With music also spanning across jazz, soul, R&B, and pop, Earth, Wind & Fire paved the way for big dance music acts that would come after them. The super group is among the best-selling bands of all time, with sales of over 90 million records worldwide. Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) was the brainchild of Chicago musician Maurice White and was founded in 1969. Prominent members have included Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, Larry Dunn, Al McKay, Roland Bautista, Robert Brookins, Sonny Emory, Fred Ravel, Ronnie Laws, Sheldon Reynolds, and Andrew Woolfolk. The band was known for its kalimba sound, dynamic horn section (provided by the Phenix Horns), elaborate live shows, and the contrast between Bailey's falsetto and Maurice's saucy baritone
With the news of drummer Fred White's recent passing, we figured we'd finally create a Top 10 tribute to one of the greatest bands of the 1970s. Ready for a boogie wonderland of good tunes? Let's groove!
10. "In the Stone"
We're kicking off our list with this snazzy song from the group's album I Am. Full of groove, gusto, and grace, "In the Stone" is an ode to the importance of love and how it can heal life's uncertainties. If we had to give one sentence of what this track sounds like, we'd say it's a funk-ified version of a typical Stevie Wonder song. But like, a good Stevie Wonder song.
As "In the Stone" keeps getting longer, the instrumentation becomes more varied. While it sounds more like a closer than an opener (it was placed as the first track on I Am), it's got a certain energy to it...an energy that has made it a fan favorite over the years. For a #10 pick on our list, this song is exceptionally made. It's a stone-cold hit.
9. "Sing a Song"
We'd like to think of this track as Earth, Wind & Fire's version of "Here Comes the Sun." It's a bright, merry tune all about how you can make yourself feel happy just by singing a song. It's a simple, Disney-esque theme, sure. But hey – we can all use a shot of positivity every now and again.
What separates "Sing a Song" from similar happy-go-lucky singles is its rich production. The bass simply slaps, and the keys and horns do their jobs well. Guitarist Al McKay came up with the track's signature riff while in his dressing room prior to a show, before presenting the tune to Maurice White for lyrical input. White kept the words simple and optimistic, penning an infectious disco-infused jingle praising the healing power of music. When done right, uncomplicated art can really move people. "Sing a Song" is a prime example of this, reaching #1 on the Billboard R&B charts and pushing EWF's 1975 LP Gratitude past the 3 million sales mark.
8. "That's The Way of the World"
"That's The Way of the World" is a mid-tempo 70s standard. And this successful single – as well as all of the tracks on the similarly-titled album it's on – were born because of a failed movie the group was cast in. Sig Shore's 1975 flop That's the Way of the World featured Earth, Wind & Fire as "the Group": an up-and-coming R&B outfit shepherded by a cocky record producer played by Harvey Keitel.
Band vocalist and percussionist Philip Bailey wrote in his autobiography, Shining Star, recording That's The Way of the World was "a spiritual experience," especially for this slick title track, adding, "when Maurice played us the finished mix...I thought we sounded like angels...It was as if God had been guiding us." Instead of putting out a soundtrack album for the movie, the group released their new record – and this song – instead. Shore's flick didn't even get a DVD release until 2006 while Earth, Wind & Fire's album of the same name became one of the best-sellers of 1975, eventually going triple platinum.
“That’s The Way Of The World” combines the band’s masterful musicianship with uplifting lyrical themes that draw influence from gospel and other Black folk traditions. It's all fused together with the optimism and anthemic catchiness that was a hallmark of Earth, Wind & Fire's sound.
7. "After the Love Is Gone"
We can't have a Top 10 list of an iconic 70s band without throwing in one of those idiosyncratic, heartbreak-themed, slightly-sappy-but-it's-totally-cool ballads. "After the Love Is Gone" is that song for Earth, Wind & Fire. It was the best of the band's mid-tempo slow songs, and was released on the double-platinum album I Am. "After the Love Is Gone" would become the second highest charting single of the group’s career, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979. It also won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
We love how this song flows, and the subtle decoration the cymbals and tame horns provide. Part of the song was written by David Foster for a Jaye P. Morgan album. He ad-libbed the words of the chorus when he played the song for Motown executives, because he had forgotten the original words. Eventually, he fleshed out the track with Jay Graydon and Bill Champlin. The song was intended for Champlin’s solo album, but Maurice White heard it and wanted to record it. We're glad Earth, Wind & Fire claimed it.
6. "Brazilian Rhyme (Beijo)"
It's as if Earth, Wind & Fire dropped this bouncy 80-second song in the 70s knowing it would lead to an influx of sampling when hip-hop blossomed a few years later. "Brazilian Rhyme (Beijo)" – a primarily lyric-less tune save for some "ba da ba ba ba's" sprinkled here and there – feels like the track that created the whole instrumental dance music genre. This funkalicious jam makes us think of all the artists that came after Earth, Wind & Fire: like Justice, Daft Punk, Breakbot, and Modjo. This song's only crime is that it isn't longer.
According to Rolling Stone, DJs from New York's earliest days of the genre would spin "Brazilian Rhyme (Beijo) for MCs to rhyme over. Southern rap pioneer MC Shy D used it for his 1987 single "I've Gotta Be Tough." A Tribe Called Quest used it to fill out their groundbreaking debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and Big Punisher couldn't resist it for his 1998 hit "Still Not a Player." Everyone from the Black Eyed Peas to MF Doom have borrowed its ecstatic hook. This song is monumental in hip-hop history, but we also think it's monumental in the worlds of funk and dance music, too. Fun fact: "beijo" means "kiss" in Portuguese.
5. "Boogie Wonderland"
Flashy and fun, "Boogie Wonderland" is the epitome of disco. This is literally the song most people think of when they think of the genre. But what most people don't know is that "Boogie Wonderland" isn't just disco: it actually includes a healthy serving of funk influence in the mix.
Notably, the song features R&B girl group The Emotions as singers. Their chirpy vocal leadership and Maurice White's embellishments really tie this track together. The Emotions had already garnered a #1 hit with the Maurice White-produced “Best of My Love.” So when they joined Earth, Wind & Fire for their second collaboration with White on this hit, it kicked their career into an even higher gear. Anyone else have fond memories of hearing Brittany Murphy cover "Boogie Wonderland" in Happy Feet? When a bunch of cute penguins get down to a song, that's how you know it's a banger.
4. "Let's Groove"
Did this track singlehandedly create EDM music and Daft Punk-style vocoder bits? We'd like to think so. “Let’s Groove” is the lead single off of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 11th studio album, Raise! It was released in late 1981, during a time when many rock and punk fans started to feel hostility towards disco. Therefore, all the success this song achieved – including chart placement until 1982, gold certification in the United States, and silver status in the U.K. – is quite impressive when you think about it.
With synthesizers taking center stage over more jazzy, bassy instruments, "Let's Groove" is less of a pure disco track than it is a really good dance hit that mixes early electronic sounds and classic brass accompaniment. It's a hybrid of old and new dance production, and while some may call "Let's Groove" a generic-yet-catchy track, we call it disco's fun little goodbye. The groove will definitely get you to move, and may even allow you to "share the spice of life" with others!
Even while placing this track at #3 on our list, we still feel like "Fantasy" doesn't get as much credit as it deserves. It's a scrumptious concoction with a replay-worthy opening, earwormy vocal melodies, and layered music production that takes listeners to a whole other world. You can tell the group made each decision about this song very carefully, and their concern pays off. Boy, does it pay off.
The instrumentals and vocals blend fantastically on "Fantasy." Every choral "as one" hits you harder than the last. The combination of horns, bass, vocals, and drums on this thing proves why Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the best funk acts working in the 70s. The track was released on the album All´n All, which dropped in 1978. “Fantasy” was issued as the album’s second single and eventually became a top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 32. The group even slips a Johnny Mathis reference into this blissful song. When will we stop playing "Fantasy"? Until the twelfth of never.
Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember? Of course the disco classic "September" ranks high on our list! Between its storytelling elements, Maurice White's buttery vocals, and the impeccable work of the horn section, "September" is a track no one will ever forget.
The song has appeared in a variety of commercials and movies, and even served as the inspiration for a film title. Interest in the song spikes yearly every September 21, and the song inspired the City of Los Angeles to declare the 21st of September Earth, Wind & Fire Day (in honor of the band’s connections to the city).
This hit 1978 single topped the U.S. R&B chart and reached the eighth position on the Billboard Hot 100. While it never appeared on any of the group's main albums, it was eventually included on the greatest hits compilation The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1. It's never a cloudy day when you turn on this timeless bop.
1. "Shining Star"
Yes, we know "September" may be the Earth, Wind & Fire song with the most legacy: the song that's played more often on the radio. But there's something about the warm and rockin' "Shining Star" that just fills you up with so much hope and joy. People went nuts for this track when it was first released. "Shining Star" hit #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard Soul Music charts, and won a Grammy in 1975 for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. "Shining Star" literally turned every member of Earth, Wind & Fire into a star.
This That’s The Way Of The World tune is more than a simple feel-good romp. Musically, we love how the opening guitar melody builds up into the explosive horn bit. If that weren't iconic enough, the rest of the tune elevates the funk factors to the max with consistent bass, slappy beats, and vibrant vocals leading the way. It's some of the best 70s funk ever made. In terms of the song's lyrics and theme, “Shining Star” promotes a distinctly positive message, expressing to listeners they have the potential to be anyone they want to be. However, the group urges you to be realistic as well, with the opening lyrics, "When you wish upon a star / Your dreams will take you very far, yeah / But when you wish upon a dream / Life ain't always what it seems."
Ultimately, "Shining Star" asks us to be grateful for the glistening life that's already in front of us. It's a comforting, twinkling, invigorating tune that makes any fan feel like a shining star themselves, and that's why it deserves the #1 spot on our list.
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