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Ralph Johnson talks Earth, Wind & Fire legacy

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Whether it’s the feathery bass line that ushers in “Fantasy,” the giddiness buried in the first notes of “September” or the synthesized funk of “Let’s Groove,” the signature sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire are apparent.

The soul-funk-pop band founded by Maurice White in Chicago in 1969 is not only still engaging audiences with a timeless catalog, but last month released “Now, Then & Forever,” their 21st studio album.

The release, an agreeable return to basics for EWF, made a Top 10 showing on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and made a little bit of noise on the Adult Contemporary singles chart with “My Promise.”

The core of the band is still the trio of crystalline-voiced Philip Bailey, charismatic, spindly-legged bassist Verdine White and smooth-as-molasses percussionist Ralph Johnson. They’re joined by nine other musicians on this tour behind the new record, which plays at the Fox Theatre Wednesday.

In a recent call from Chicago, Johnson chatted about the evolution of the new record, the legacy of the group and how EWF wants to get in your face.

Q: I caught your recent TV appearances and it looks as if you guys are still having fun on stage.

A: The three of us are now 62 years old, but we’re still really enjoying this. We derive a lot of pleasure from getting on that stage and we’re still into it. Physically we’re very strong. I’m a tennis player, so if we have a day off coming into a city I’ll call a local tennis center and say, “I need two hours with your local instructor.” In the last 10 years I really buckled down. Every Monday morning in L.A. I’m out hitting.

Q: This new album is your first in eight years and took two years to record. Why so long?

A: We are in the enviable position of not really having to do another record. Our fan base in thoroughly intact, but we decided for the new fans and because we are artists, we decided to do a new one. We had recorded a bunch of material but Philip felt it really wasn’t Earth, Wind & Fire. So on a trip back from Japan, he started listening to all our albums from the first one through “Faces.” This (new) album talks about the music we did back then – this is the music now and after we’re gone, the music will be here forever. I was told by Verdine that we were only the 11th group to chart in the ‘70s, ‘80s,’ 90s and 2000s.

Q: What’s the process with writing among the three of you? Does Philip lay the groundwork or is it a democratic experience?

A: For every writer it’s different. Me being the original drummer in the group, I start with a drum beat then I look for a bass line. That’s going to dictate where the chords and piano are going to come from and you just keep building -  it’s like making a cake. Philip’s process may be, I hear this melody in my head and he goes the other way, like, let me add guitar, bass and drums. I’m no longer playing drums on stage, but Verdine and I have a very special connection.

Q: This is the first album that (founder) Maurice (White) wasn’t involved in. Was that odd?

A: It is a little strange, but he put his blessing on it. He loves what he’s heard. What you really have to wrap your head around is Philip being able to walk in and produce this record behind (the legacy) of a Maurice White. You have to give Philip a lot of credit.

Q: Why did you decide to launch the album in partnership with Home Shopping Network?

A: The way things are being marketed today, you want to catch every angle and they have an outreach of millions. They came to us and said, “Let’s do something,” so we figured we’d wait until we launch the new CD.

Q: Let’s talk about your live show. How big is the touring band?

A: We’ve got 12 people onstage – a couple of percussion players, two guitarists, drummer, and the horns, of course. When you come to see us, you’re going to get the hits, plus three songs from new CD – “My Promise,” “Love is Law” and “Dance Floor.”

Q: You've been with Philip and Verdine more than 40 years - which is more than most marriages. Do you spend time together when you're not being EWF?

A: We have now been on the road longer without Maurice than with him – he left the road in ‘94 when he had to face Parkinson’s. But once we get home, we get back on the ‘honey do’ list and walking the dog and doing domestic stuff.

Q: In 2011, you guys got the Legend Award at the Soul Train Awards here in Atlanta. Do you feel like those types of awards signal the end of a career?

A: We know we’re not done – we’ll let them know when we’re done! We’re at a point in our career when those accolades take place after 40 years, when people look at us and say, “I guess you guys were serious!” It was a very nice situation and we’re happy for all of it. We’re now at a point where we can smell the roses.

Q: What’s the plan after this tour ends in November?

A: We’re going to continue to work. We’re certainly not planning to do another studio record, nut we’re going to work like we normally work, continue to spread the word.

Q: You come to Atlanta a lot, so it must be a good market for you.

A: We’ve always got to hit Atlanta. I like Chastain (Park Amphitheatre), but that stage is a little small and it can be a little warm. But it’s a beautiful venue. We love playing theaters like the Fox, too. They’re really intimate, so we can get in people’s faces.

Earth, Wind & Fire, 8 p.m. Wednesday. $62.65-$114.90. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org.

 

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