Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
How Earth, Wind & Fire Recorded Their Transcendent Classic 'I Am'
You saw Earth, Wind & Fire face off against the Isley Brothers on Verzuz. Now read about how the legendary collective recorded their seminal album I Am.
While working as a session drummer for Chicago-based label Chess Records in the 1960s, the richly talented Maurice White played on several songs for label standouts like Rotary Connection, Etta James, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Guy. In 1967, he was given the opportunity to become the drummer for a local jazz collective called Ramsey Lewis Trio. By the end of the decade, While decided to leave to form his own group, Salty Peppers, with keyboardist Don Whitehead and singer Wade Flemons. After releasing a couple songs to minimal success, White migrated to Los Angeles to increase his group’s prospects. Once settled, he invited his younger brother, bassist Verdine White, singer Sherry Scott, guitarist Michael Beal, percussionist Yackov Ben Israel, tenor saxophonist Chester Washington, and trombonist Alex Thomas to create a nine-person ensemble. As a lover of astrology, White chose Earth, Wind & Fire as the new name for the group — highlighting three of the four classical elements related to his astrological sign, Sagittarius.
The group released its self-titled debut and their sophomore recording, The Need of Love, in 1971 on Warner Bros. Records, but disbanded shortly after. White, however, didn’t want to give up; he started to recruit new members. Alongside his brother Verdine, he welcomed keyboardist Larry Dunn, percussionist Ralph Johnson, flautist and saxophonist Ronnie Laws, guitarist Roland Bautista, and singers Philip Bailey and Jessica Cleaves to the group. Following these changes, they left Warner Bros. Records and signed with Columbia, releasing Last Days and Time in 1972. A year later, they put out Head to the Sky, an album that became their first platinum-selling record.
Around this time, White forged a dynamic songwriting relationship with Bailey that would prove fruitful. The interplay of White’s tenor and Bailey’s falsetto — along with the stellar arrangements of woodwind, percussion and strings — became the bedrock of Earth, Wind & Fire’s sound. By 1974, the group underwent another set of changes; new members were inserted into the recording lineup, like saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk, guitarist Al McKay, guitarist and percussionist Johnny Graham, and the younger brother of Maurice, percussionist Fred White. During this juncture, White sought assistance from Charles Stepney in producing and arranging records for the group. After the release of Open Our Eyes in 1974, the ensemble continued to showcase their recording excellence, resulting in their second consecutive platinum-selling album.
These triumphs laid the groundwork for their next album, That’s the Way of the World, which became the collective’s first multi-platinum selling album. Due to their success, the band was given the financial capital to expand their ensemble to include a signature horn section known as the Phenix Horns. The Phenix Horns were led by saxophonist Don Myrick and consisted of trombonist Louis Satterfield and trumpeters Rahmlee Davis and Michael Harris. Alongside producer and arranger, Charles Stepney, they complemented Earth, Wind & Fire’s current lineup and became an integral component of the band’s overall sound for the remainder of the decade.
In 1976, while working on their next studio effort, Spirit, Stepney passed away from a heart attack. Despite this tragedy, the band continued their hot streak. The following year, they put out their fourth consecutive multi-platinum selling album, All ‘n All and then, In 1978, they released their first greatest hits album, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1. On the album, they recorded what has become their most transcendent tune, “September.” Here, the relationship between bandleader Maurice White and engineer Tom Perry formed.
Tom Perry, who was already a veteran engineer, became a valuable asset while working with White and the other members by setting up the groundbreaking equipment that captured their otherworldly sound. Their partnership continued for the next few years. As Earth, Wind & Fire closed out the decade, they would deliver another multi-platinum masterpiece.
On June 9, 1979, I Am was released. It peaked at number three on the Billboard charts and spawned five singles: “Boogie Wonderland,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “In the Stone,” “Star,” and “Can’t Let Go.” We spoke with legendary engineer, Tom Perry, who explored the making of this classic album.
How did you begin working with Earth, Wind & Fire?
Tom Perry: Well, I knew George Massenburg. We had become friends, and we admired each other’s work. At the time, I didn’t realize he admired my work so much. I’d worked on the Silk Degrees album with Boz Scaggs. and that was a highly acclaimed album for many reasons. One was the sound of it. I know that George was impressed with that. At that time, ARC Records had formed. It was Maurice [White]’s label in conjunction with Columbia Records. Along with that deal, they bought a building in West Los Angeles. They were going to turn it into two studios, and I think, rehearsal rooms. They called the studio The Complex. George Massenburg was in charge of the design of not only the acoustics but all the electronics. He was building his own console and all his own electronics. It was a big job. They were going to do two complete studios, rehearsal rooms, and a stage where they could film live videos, which was just starting to happen back then with MTV coming into the picture. He had a lot of work on his hands.
Earth, Wind & Fire were getting ready to do the I Am album. George [Massenburg] was hoping to get out of doing a lot of it, so he could be working in the new studio. He recommended me to Maurice [White]. Maurice was not very happy about George trying to get out of a lot of the work. After some talking and talking about what I had done, and so on, Maurice agreed to give me a chance. They were going to do a single before the album, and that single was going on their greatest hits album, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1. The single ended up being “September.” It was the first tracking date I did with Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Could you talk a little bit more about working on “September”?
When they were just starting to run down the track, it was just so infectious. I was a bass player originally, so to be recording Verdine White, who in my mind today is one of the top three greatest bass players ever born, I was just blown away and enjoyed the heck out of it. I think we got a great sound on it. We were inside Studio B of Hollywood Sound where I’d actually had grown up. My first job as an engineer was at Hollywood Sound. That’s where I learned the trade. Then, later on as a freelancer, I would often go back there because I was so familiar with it. I had that advantage. Any engineer will tell you that they like to work in a studio they know well, so they know where to put the drums and how to get the best sound out of the studio because they’ve spent so much time in there. I was able to hit all the sweet spots.
When we were doing the recording, we were doing like five tracks for drums, stereo keyboards and then Maurice started overdubbing guitar parts and percussion, and we ended up with a ton of tracks. We only had 24 tracks to use. We were getting close to 18, 19 up to where I only had four or five tracks left to use. At some point later, around midnight, I said to Maurice, “Hey, man. I just got to tell you, we’ve only got about four or five tracks left, and I know we’ve got vocals to do yet. You got strings. You got horns. I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do here.”
He said, “Well, I didn’t have this problem with George.”
After the session, I called George. I said, “Man, I got like four or five tracks left, and I still have to record the singing and overdubs. Maurice said that you never have a problem with it... What do you do?" George responded, “Well, let me guess. Maurice did like four or five guitar parts, and he did way too much percussion. It’s like getting busy and crowded... just go through all of that and work with Maurice on what can stay and what he can do without and still maintain the quality of the music.”
That’s what we did. It was the only way we could save enough tracks for all the overdubs.
Do you recall how long it took to record that song?
Well, generally, we would do one track a day. “September” would have probably been a full 12-hour day and maybe even then some. We would start around [noon.] They were easy starts. We wouldn’t get serious until after everybody finished eating, talking, visiting, and socializing. We’d start getting down to business around maybe 2:00 pm. On a tracking date, we’d wrap up anywhere between [midnight] and 2:00 am. Maurice would spend at least 12 hours working on each track. That’s rehearsing the track, trying out ideas, and listening to other people. Maurice had an open mind. If Al McKay had a guitar part he wanted to play, Maurice gave the musicians the ability to contribute. He was a smart enough producer to know to get talented musicians and not tell them what to do. We’d get the track... at 6:00 pm, there might be a dinner break, and then we would do overdubs. There’d be further guitar parts, a lot of percussions would follow, and maybe some keyboards.
Generally, we’d have an overdub day for keyboards only. On other days, it was mostly guitar and percussion and stuff like that. We did not get into horns or any of that stuff or vocals, other than a rough vocal that either Maurice or Philip would put down with the track.
On June 9, 1979, I Am was released. It peaked at number three on the Billboard charts and spawned five singles: “Boogie Wonderland,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “In the Stone,” “Star,” and “Can’t Let Go.” Photo Credit: ARC/Columbia
Going off the successes of “September” and the The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 album into the making of I Am, what was the group’s overall feeling and mindset?
I think Maurice’s feeling was gratitude, and I guess some pride that the band was getting recognized as being a great one. They had been around a while since the early ‘70s. This was the late ‘70s. Maurice had a vision. Also, he was a very spiritual guy. In fact, his own autobiography talked a lot about that. I think he felt that he wanted to get a message across through his music of peace, harmony, and brotherhood. By this time, it was all starting to work. This was the vision that Maurice had for Earth, Wind & Fire. Even though they were an R&B group, I got really angry when a lot of people called them a disco group. They had hits during the disco era. They never made a disco record.
How would you describe the chemistry between the group members during the recording process of the album?
At that time, I thought everybody got along well. I certainly got along well with the guys. I love those guys to this day. Philip and Verdine try to keep in touch. I know there was some tension within the group. I don’t think that’s abnormal. I think it would be abnormal if you didn’t have that. If you look at any group that’s been together for a number of years, look at the turnover and rivalries that can sometimes show up. At that time, everybody was pulling together. I think everybody was pretty happy. I’m not one aware of what may have gone on in the background, or what were the terms of royalty sharing, or who got this and who got that. That may have been an issue but it did not affect any chemistry that I saw in the studio.
What was it like experiencing their talent and synergy firsthand as an engineer in the studio while watching them come up with different sounds, lyrics, and things of that nature?
It was an amazing thing to watch because a lot of the songs came from within the group, but at that time, Maurice was starting to use songwriters like John Lind and Allee Willis. This was the album where they brought in [songwriter] David Foster. I was partially instrumental to that.
David came in playing piano as a studio player on “After the Love is Gone,” which he had co-written with Maurice. I believe there’s a third writer on that song. He played piano on the tracks. Through David and my association with Jerry Hey, I was able to get Jerry. Jerry did a lot of the horn arrangements on that album along with Tom Tom 84. He was known as Tom Tom 84 then. Tom Washington was his real name. That process was fun, too, because there was some outside blood coming in in terms of songwriting and arranging. This was after the Earth, Wind & Fire’s original arranger, Charles Stepney, had passed away. Now, Tom Tom 84 had come out of Chicago, and Maurice was so comfortable with him, but he also gave a chance to Jerry Hey. Also, David Foster did some string arrangements. There was a third horn arranger that’s credited his name was Ben Wright. I believe that was the first time those guys had come in and contributed. Maurice was branching out using some different guys. He was always trying to find the best talent and bringing them in. He was always looking for a cutting edge, always looking for new writers, new arrangers, and stuff like that to keep his stuff fresh.
A woman that I wanted to ask you about is the recently departed Allee Willis. She’s credited on a lot of the songs on this album.
Allee was always a free spirit, both in her personality, her songwriting, and the way she dressed. Allee was an original. I always got along great with Allee. I did not know her as well, but we certainly spent many hours together in the studio. The writers were always welcomed at the sessions, and a lot of times they would hang out, so I did get a chance to know Allee, John Lind, and so many writers.
The interplay of Maurice White’s tenor and Philip Bailey’s falsetto — along with the stellar arrangements of woodwind, percussion and strings — became the bedrock of Earth, Wind & Fire’s sound. Photo Credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images
Can you talk a bit more about these studio sessions? For instance, when Allee Willis came in and started writing with Maurice White and David Foster, were they writing after the music was done, or were they coming in, simultaneously, as the parts were being put down, and they were working together?
Well, the songs were pretty much written when they came in. I don’t know if the lyrics were completely fine-tuned. A lot of that would happen on the vocal sessions. During those vocal sessions, Maurice would go out or Philip would go out. It just depended on whoever was singing the lead. That’s when I would see the lyrics tinkered with. There were some changes during the vocal process when they were actually concentrating on lyrics, but on the recording dates, they were concentrating more on the groove and the track.
During the recording phase, where would you and the group be positioned in the studio and where would you be?
Well, like any studio, the control room was separated by a wall with a door and double soundproof glass, which meant I could see through to the studio. Maurice would always be in the control room. During in-between takes, Maurice would go out and talk to the musicians. As far as how they were laid out, there was kind of a standard setup I did, depending on which studio I was in. Hollywood Sound was not a large studio; it had more of a smaller, tighter sound.
Looking out from the control room, the drums were generally on the right, the bass and guitar were more in the middle, the piano was to the left, but it varied. Most of those tracks were cut at Hollywood Sound. We might have cut a track or two at Davlen Sound Studios, although that might have just been horn overdubs. I know we did some horn overdubs at Sunset Sound. I would say about 80 to 90 percent of that album was done at Hollywood Sound, and probably all the tracking dates were done at Hollywood Sound. Generally, when you start cutting basic tracks and you have a setup and you’ve developed a sound, you don’t want to interrupt that. You don’t want to cut through the songs in one studio and then go to another studio and start cutting there because you lose a lot of time.
In those days, it took a couple of days to settle into a new studio and to get it to sound the way we wanted it to. Back then, we wanted the continuity. We wanted the album to sound like there was a continuity there, so each song would sound like it belonged on that album.
Were they bringing in demos of songs they may have worked on at home sometimes?
Yes, if there was a demo of the song, they’d bring it into the studio and played it for the musicians there. I don’t recall too many demos being played. Sometimes, the songwriter would play it on the piano. If there was a demo played for the musicians, it would have been played in the studio. Where the demos were recorded was a different story. In those days, there was a distinction between a demo studio and a major studio. Demo studios would have had lesser quality equipment and that kind of thing. There were demo studios in those days where you could go ahead and do a demo a lot cheaper than you could at a major studio. The demos, if there were any, were not recorded, and I wasn’t involved with any of those. The songwriters did those kinds of demos.
What was some of the equipment that you used in capturing the sound for I Am?
It was a combination of API and some Massenburg mastering lab equipment, but basically it was an API board. All the mics we used back then were classic condenser mics from U67s to newer FET mics, like AKG C414s. We had a lot of old ribbon mics that we used for drums and bass, just a combination of equipment. There was always outboard EQ and compressors and limiters that were behind the board and racks. George Massenburg had come up with his first parametric equalizer. The compressor that was in kind of a development stage was a wireless version. It was like a mad scientist that designed them.
I know we used some of that stuff early on just because what he was building was so superior to everybody else’s equipment. There was some experimental stuff in there that George was working on that we used. Basically, what was standard in that day was available to us. There wasn’t anything other than some of George’s early designs that we had kind of as working prototypes. Having said that, this was the era of good sound. The kind of equipment that we were using back then, engineers are using today as plug-ins with their Pro Tools. A lot of the equalizers, limiters, and compressors are plug-ins today which mirrors that old equipment that’s forty years old. Nobody has ever built anything better.
LA-4A limiters and things like that they try to get that sound today with plug-ins. It was kind of the golden age for equipment in terms of sonic sound. A lot of that stuff is still being used exactly the same way. The outboard racks that we had in those studios still exist. If they’re not using the old analog version, then they’ve got a plug-in version of it. They’re still using the same U47 microphone built in the ‘40s because they don’t make microphones better than that. For the depth and warmth of a vocal, it’s nothing quite like a condenser tube microphone.
Can you describe the studio rooms you all utilized in Hollywood Sound during the making of this album?
Hollywood Sound was a moderately-sized studio. They had two rooms: Studio A and B. They were middle-sized rooms with not a lot of ambience. It was good for tight sound with not a lot of leakage. In other words, the instruments didn’t leak into the others. We could control that, but we still had some ambience, so we got a nice, good drum sound. We used to do strings and horns in there, too. The horns sounded great in there. Sometimes with Maurice, we’d do a really big section. We’d have 22 or 25 strings or something. We’d go into bigger rooms and kind of get a grander sound on the strings and on the horns.
Would Earth, Wind & Fire be working in Studio A or B?
Studio B mostly. That was my favorite and Maurice’s favorite. Studio B kind of had the magic. Studio B had something about it. Some rooms are like that at certain studios. Studio B was a blessed place. It had a great natural echo chamber; one of the best ever. Those were hard to come by. A lot of studios back then didn’t have natural chambers. They were all electronic. Hollywood Sound actually had a live chamber, meaning that you sent the sound up to an echo chamber, a room, and it came back. We’d set it up through a speaker. There was a microphone that picked up the sound back from the speaker and would send it back down to the console. It was natural reverb. The reverb came from a room rather than an electronic device.
What was it like working with The Emotions on “Boogie Wonderland”?
In my mind, there wasn’t anybody that could sing and harmonize better than The Emotions. They were a gift from God, and they were just jaw-dropping talent. I loved those girls. They were sweethearts. Wanda Vaughn generally did the leads. She had a phenomenal voice. The interesting thing about “Boogie Wonderland” is, I believe, Al McKay produced that song. He was producing it for another act. We cut the tracks for a male duo group called Curtis, The Brothers. Al was producing that track for them. The track was great. Al was producing, and I was engineering it. Maurice was not involved. It was for ARC Records. At some point, a decision was made. Maurice didn’t think that the guys were pulling it off and the group didn’t like the song. He decided to make it an Earth, Wind, & Fire song, and then he brought in The Emotions to sing on it. Maurice took that song over.
Earlier you spoke about your affinity for “After the Love Has Gone.” How did that song come together?
Yes, it is one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever recorded. It was just an amazing track. I remember when we were cutting the track, I was just blown away just by the piano part and the feel of it. It was a classic up-tempo ballad. I loved the horn arrangements, string arrangements, and then when the vocals went on, it was magical. They won a Grammy for best vocal performance on that song. It’s one of the most impressive vocal recordings ever. Phillip and Maurice’s harmonies on that song are astounding. There were several takes, many layers of harmonies, and multi-tracks of vocals, so it wasn’t just two guys singing. They had stacked their harmony parts. Phillip and Maurice did all the parts, but they were stacked in multiple tracks of each harmony to give it that big full sound.
“In the Stone” is the last song I wanted to ask you about.
I’ve done a lot of records over the years. Some songs are magical, some are great, some work really well, and some not so well, and some are awful. Sometimes, as with “After the Love has Gone,” you just know when something is so locked in and so special. You’re sitting in there and everything’s grooving along, and you realize, “Man, something really special is going on here,” and that was the feeling with “In the Stone.” I think the band members felt it. It’s when everybody is locked in mentally and musically. The mental lock is there, the musical lock is there, the engineer’s locked in with the sound, and those are magical moments. Those are career highlights. Although “In the Stone” was not as successful, it was a phenomenal recording and a phenomenal performance, for sure. You just get goosebumps. When they were recording this song I was like, “Man, this is something that doesn’t come down the road every day.” It was definitely a magical time to be involved with that album and that group.
What was it like witnessing the great band creating music in their prime?
The way I would put it is you don’t get to be Earth, Wind, & Fire by accident. What I mean by that is the amount of time they put into their profession. The amount of rehearsal and the amount of effort they put into making their instruments sound as good as they were, just showed they were operating on a higher professional level. I think that was evident throughout the making of this album. I don’t give myself much credit. We were all one hundred percent invested into every single thing. It was an honor to be a part of it all. When the guys were playing, it would come through the board, and I’d tried to tie it together and make it sound as good as possible. It was a thrill to see professionalism on that level.
Banner Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.