I was intrigued by the concept album well before I knew what it was. When I was a kid during the ‘70s, Earth Wind & Fire (EWF) album covers always captured my imagination. The covers from the late ‘70s were the most interesting. Pyramids, spaceships and vortexes were common themes juxtaposed against ancient ruins. The other worldly imagery would translate to the music that was often more loosely connected than the album cover art might suggest. The music’s exotic mix of Latin, soul and funk was unique and made more distinctive by Philip Bailey’s cloud piercing tenor.
Earth Wind & Fire was a large band, almost an organization of sorts. Looking at inner sleeve or back covers of old albums would reveal a roster of 10 or more members, not unlike a lot of R&B bands with big horn sections. The band underwent a crisis in 1977 when one of it’s key members, Charles Stepney had suddenly passed away. The reshuffling that occurred was an opportunity to forge a new direction with All and All in the months that followed. EWF always combined the exotic into R&B to make sophisticated sound that was not afraid to get dirty with funk. Now that sound would be more accessible. With the assistance of David Foster starting with All and All, EWF would make a gradual move into crossover territory with I Am.
With crossover ambitions, ETW sound became more polished and sophisticated. Even as a kid, I’d noticed that mostly adults were listening to EWF, but the harmonies created by Maurice White and Phillip Bailey had universal appeal. I Am had no less than five successful singles, the biggest of which, “Boogie Wonderland” became one of the bands most Disco-centric songs and largest crossover hit. Other songs like “After the Love Has Gone” has since become a Quiet Storm classic.
The impact of I Am was tremendous. Easily topping the American R&B charts, I Am went on to reach an unprecedented #3 on the Billboard Album chart, a rare feat for R&B music that was not attributed to Micheal Jackson (Off the Wall) during this time.
The albums success stemmed from its diversity. Many songs that were recorded during the I Am sessions, but were not released on the initial two LP set would be released on an greatest hits album in 1982. One of those songs “September” has become one of my favorite EWF compositions of all time.
The increased use of synthesizers and electronics would start a pattern that would see the band’s success continue into the electronic crazy ‘80s. In addition to all the awards I Am won (at least two Grammy wins and a nomination), the album was a perfect cap to a productive and successful decade that would see the band go from R&B to pop superstars.