Hooks: Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey (left), Ralph Johnson and Verdine White. Photo: Randee St Nicholas
With the arrival of Earth, Wind & Fire's first new album in eight years comes a moment of trepidation before pressing play. Despite a string of memorable hits between 1973 and '81 and an earlier trio of creatively vibrant jazz-funk LPs, subsequent outings have been patchy. Recent CDs The Promise (2003) and Illumination (2005) sounded like a band questioning their relevance.
This year's Now, Then & Forever, however, finds EWF reinvigorating their chart-topping sound. It's there in the seven-strong horn section, falsetto vocals and elastic bass of opener Sign On, and again in My Promise, Night of My Life, Got to Be Love. Elsewhere, the Afro-Brazilian rhythms that peppered early records return, as does the effortless slide between catchy vocal harmonies.
''It was a very deliberate attempt to return to that classic sound without it sounding archaic,'' vocalist Philip Bailey says. ''We realised that the sound of Earth, Wind & Fire, for almost 42 years, has been part of the soundtrack to people's lives. So you've got to give it back to them the way they're used to hearing it.''
Bailey joined EWF in 1972, the same year percussionist Ralph Johnson enlisted. With long-time bassist Verdine White, the trio form the band's core. All were recruited by founder Maurice White, who has been slowly withdrawing due to a degenerative illness. ''Maurice ruled with a big stick and an iron fist,'' Bailey says, affectionately.
For a band boasting nine members - plus a crack four-piece brass section called the Phenix Horns - someone had to command the ''little tribe'', as Bailey calls it.
''Most of us were younger than him, so we just kind of followed,'' he says. ''It took a lot of courage … to transition from what Earth, Wind & Fire has been in the past to what it is now. It's taken this long to actually tackle the challenge of doing a classic EWF record without Maurice.''
White's touring days ended years ago, but Now, Then & Forever is the first record missing his production and writing skills. Despite some missteps - such as the tediously rudimentary drums in new song Dance Floor - the album acknowledges ''the original architect'' while proving his legacy is in safe hands.
Bailey admits it was ''very scary'' continuing without White, while original keyboardist Larry Dunn's return was a stopgap for ''making this sound vintage''.
At that vintage pinnacle, the group were selling out multiple concerts at Wembley, Madison Square Garden and the Los Angeles Forum, while racking up chart-toppers, many of which still fill ''best of'' compilations and radio playlists. From Mighty Mighty, Sun Goddess and Getaway to the five included as bonus tracks on the new album - Boogie Wonderland, Let's Groove, Fantasy, September, Shining Star - EWF's knack for earworm melodies is beyond doubt. Often they fitted more of them into one song than others managed across albums.
''That's really what hits are made of,'' Bailey chuckles knowingly. ''When you're [writing], you're not really thinking about it … When you discover after the fact that the hook in the bridge and the verses is as hooky as the vamp, it's like, wow! We came up with a string of those for a while.''
Yet EWF's approach to writing and arranging pop songs was unique. ''Maurice was a jazz drummer before he came up with the idea of Earth, Wind & Fire,'' Bailey says.
''He wanted to give people a sense of that sophistication and the complexity of jazz, but do it in a commercial type of way.''
A favourite misheard-lyric story of mine involves a friend's migrant mother, who would often hear Let's Groove on the radio in western Sydney. While doing housework, she would loudly sing along to what she thought was an advertisement for her local shopping mall: Quakers Court … get you to move, it's all right - all right - a-a-all-right!
Quakers Court shopping centre didn't share the spice of life, but it certainly sold a few for her kitchen.
Bailey is amused by the story, laughing hard. ''That song has been used in so many advertisements … I wish I had written it myself!''
Now, Then & Forever is out now through Sony.