Ahead of Hong Kong debut, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White on how the bass guitar changed his life
White, the sole remaining original member of the pioneering soul and R&B band, also talks about his connection to music, his fans and his love of touring
The story of Earth, Wind & Fire co-founder Verdine White suggests that sometimes in life there are far greater forces at play in the universe.
As a young man growing up in 1960s Chicago, White had been immersed in music, thanks to a father who loved jazz, and two elder brothers who fancied themselves as budding musicians.
As White entered his teens, he knew this was a world he wanted to become part of as well. The trouble was that he didn’t know how.
Then fate intervened when he was 15 and White has never been the same.
When White first saw a double bass, one afternoon as he walked into an orchestra class, he knew immediately where his life would be heading. And when he found the instrument’s electrified version, the road ahead was set in stone.
Some things, he reflects now, are just meant to be. “I always think that it wasn’t so much a case of me picking the bass, the bass picked me,” says White.
“I just loved the way it sounded, I loved the way it looked. I didn’t even have a personality then. That came later. But the bass helped me find it. It helped me become who I am. It gave me a personality when I picked it up for the first time, and it gave me the personality you’ll see up there on stage.”
As a member of Earth, Wind & Fire, White’s distinctive style – on stage and in the studio – along with his signature grooves helped lay the foundations of an R&B-funk-soul mix that led to record sales estimated to be around 90 million and to a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That he’s still going strong today, decades later, and as the band’s other founding members have either passed away or taken their talents elsewhere, is a testament to the passion the man has for his craft, and the love he says he has always had for simply “entertaining”.
“I guess it was always there inside me,” says the 65-year-old. “It was a case of finding an outlet, and that was playing the bass. In the beginning, when I was still very young, it was just a case of waiting for the right opportunity to come along.”
White was just 19 years old when a call came through from his elder brother Maurice in California, offering him a place in the band he had just started. White leapt at the opportunity.
“I arrived in California at the beginning of a new era of music in 1970,” says White. “I went out there and was surrounded by creativity and by creative people.”
Earth, Wind & Fire were at the forefront of the soul-inspired music movement that soon swept the globe.
On the back of their self-titled breakthrough album of 1971, Earth, Wind & Fire were soon touring the world – and in the decades since, they’ve never really stopped. Surprising, then, that September 24 sees their first visit to Hong Kong (a different line-up, the Earth, Wind & Fire Experience featuring Al McKay, appeared at Clockenflap last year), but White says it was simply a matter of time.
“We get everywhere eventually,” he says. “But I’m thrilled to be coming finally and our fans just know they’ll be in for a good time. That’s what this band is all about.”
The band have been in Europe for most of the summer before a short tour of the United States and then on to Asia. White is in Seattle when we speak, preparing for another show and excited – as always, he says – about the possibilities ahead.
“The whole live experience for us has evolved, and it continues to evolve,” says White. “We started playing colleges in the States. House parties and things like that. It seems so far away today as we play stadiums and arenas but you know the thing at the heart of it all is the music – that’s never changed.”
The Earth, Wind & Fire influence can be found today in music produced by avowed fans such as Beyoncé, Usher and Pharrell Williams – a mix of genres that seems obvious now, given the breadth of music at everyone’s instant disposal. But things were never always this way. The ground had to be broken.
“Artists today have so much to look back on, and to be influenced by,” says White. “That’s part of what continues to make music so exciting. The new generation of musicians today can listen to all kinds of music – our music, their music, everybody’s music from everywhere. That just wasn’t possible back when we started out but it has made things exciting, there’s no doubt.”
Listening to the influence his own band continues to have quite obviously gives White a thrill. Most recently, the band was called in by Justin Timberlake to lay down a version of September for the soundtrack of the new DreamWorks animation, Trolls.
“When you hear your own influence it really is a wonderful feeling,” says White. “You know when we started there was no precedent for anything. It was all brand new. So to watch things evolve and to still be a part of it really is a blessing.”
As is the opportunity to get up there on stage, he says, and share the love. “There’s nothing quite like it,” he says. “You get up there and you know you’re among friends. We all bond and just have a great time.
“The music just has to be there. You have to be able to feel it, to feel there is something there, around them. We get up there and we feel an emotion connection with the audience, and that’s something we always have done.”
Earth Wind & Fire, Sep 24, 8.15pm, AsiaWorld-Expo, Hall 10, Hong Kong International Airport, HK$680-HK$1,680, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: hkticketing.com.hk