Welcome back to another Albums That Forged The Path post. These posts were inspired by a post I saw at the Life Of An El Paso Woman blog that picked the sixteen albums that had the greatest impact on her life. I decided to do something a bit different, especially since there were more than sixteen albums that had an impact on my life. So I decided to do posts about them one by one.
While I will eventually do a post on Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s The Way Of The World, and quite possibly Open Our Eyes or even Gratitude, the album I chose for this post is Spirit. I chose this one for several reasons. First, it was the first album I received as a gift, which made it the first one I ever owned. Second, as I’ve said several times on the blog, Earth, Wind & Fire was my favorite band growing up, so you knew a few of their albums would play a big part in shaping my musical worldview. Third, after knowing the history behind the making of the album, the extraordinary circumstances that the group and Maurice White in particular were dealing with.
Coming off their best year to date, which saw the group release its breakthrough album (That’s The Way Of The World), and a well-received live album that contained two more hit singles (Gratitude), the band prepped for the follow up release. During the sessions, one of Maurice White’s friends from his days as a session drummer for Chess Records, Charles Stephney, passed away. Stephney began working with EW&F on the Open Our Eyes album and had help shepherd the band’s sound through the next two albums. The band carried on, and dedicated the album to Stephney’s memory.
While the band was creating another huge album, I was begging and pleading for the album for Christmas. I’d already said that I wanted the album as soon as I knew it was released, and I also wanted Panasonic’s portable 8-track tape player. I was so excited on Christmas Eve that I couldn’t sleep. So I snuck downstairs while my grandmother was sleeping and took a peek under the tree. Sure enough, an 8-track tape of the album and the player were both there (just like the one in the picture). Satisfied that my gift was there, I tiptoed back up to bed and finally went to sleep. I may have even feigned a bit of surprise that morning when my sister and I opened our gifts.
To say that I played that album all the time for months would be an understatement. If you remember anything about 8-tracks, often songs would be cut in the middle so that the tracks could change. Such was the case with the song “Imagination,” a Philip Bailey falsetto master class. The song was split between tracks 1 and 2, but was replayed at the end of track three in full. So technically, I wasn’t cheated in such a way that the song was only heard in its split up version. However, it’s placement on track three placed the song out of order, between the two instrumental tracks “Departure” and “Biyo.” At ten years old, I think that might have been the furthest thing from my mind, but it’s funny that it’s what I think about now.
What I also noticed as I grew older and kept listening to the album is the pronounced spiritual component. Earth, Wind & Fire always had a little of it in their music, but this was the first time that I really noticed it, particularly on the title track, the album track “Earth, Wind & Fire” and the album closer “Burnin’ Bush.” As a youngster, the latter song always made me feel as though the album was ending on a lesser track than some of the others (read: the hits) that preceded it. But as I grew older and learned about the history of the band, particularly the part of Stephney’s passing, I could see where that component would be pushed to the forefront. It became plain to see when I was able to see the actual liner notes when I saw my cousin’s LP copy of the album some time later. “Burnin’ Bush” has since become one of my favorite songs by the group.
Of course, when I got my copy of the album, I was all about the hits: “Getaway,” “On Your Face,” and “Saturday Nite.” All of them were great then, and are great now. I also have learned to appreciate Verdine White’s bass playing from this album. In those days I was always listening for bass lines. I never really did that with Earth, Wind & Fire because I always thought that White was an average bassist. After digging into “Getaway,” I had to change my way of thinking. Now when I listen to that song, I’m listening for those little moments that he has throughout, while keeping up with those horns.
Amazingly, in a career full of high points, Spirit would be superseded in my opinion by the album that came after it, All ‘N All. That album was the best of the group’s career, in my opinion. However, Spirit holds a special place in my heart, particularly since it became the first album I ever owned. Not the first one I bought: I was a few years away from that milestone. But at ten years old, it was the greatest album I had ever heard.