Happy 40th Anniversary to Earth, Wind & Fire’s eighth studio album All ‘N All, originally released November 21, 1977.
“I believe in goodness, I believe in truth, and I believe in love,” Maurice White told Rolling Stone magazine in early 1978. “I am not a man of any denomination because there’s too many things about each that I believe and disbelieve. So, I’ve found that the best thing for me is to try to love and understand life.”
White’s message of unity and progressive thought had resonated with many a young mind by that time, and Earth, Wind & Fire had the gold and platinum goods to prove it. They were the most thrilling black pop band, both on record and on stage, in a crowded constellation of talented, self-contained acts that routinely packed coliseums and stadiums around the country.
Taking the genre blurring of the competition to heights previously unimaginable, EWF brought listeners through the ages, from deeply personal African melodies to the most glamorous of dance music inclinations. Much of this time travel can be attributed to White himself, who experienced the joys and tears of the legends first hand while drumming behind everyone from Ramsey Lewis to Minnie Riperton early in his career (Few realize those were White’s inventive drum licks at the core of Riperton’s landmark 1970 solo debut, Come to My Garden). In the music of EWF you felt laughter, pain, sensuality, and above all else, renewal: the black experience live and in color.
The resounding success of All ‘N All was pretty much a given as 1977 inched to a close. Recorded at Hollywood Sound, Sunset Sound, and the Burbank Studios in sunny California it was, however, a critical moment in the EWF story. While the blockbuster 1975 albums That’s the Way of the World and Gratitude topped the pop charts and attracted widespread acclaim, 1976’s Spirit didn’t benefit from broad mainstream support despite being a double-platinum smash. The album’s tone was darker and more somber than what came immediately before, a condition resulting from the tragic death of producer Charles Stepney, who passed on while the sessions were under way. The emotional departure was raw and ultimately necessary, but it briefly alienated the more Top 40-oriented segment of the band’s base.
If the record is played with the context of the times in mind, it’s easy to see All ‘N All as light after a dark, trying time. White’s production flourishes, which were lifted by assistance from younger brother and bassist Verdine White and keyboardist Larry Dunn, straddled a line between grandeur and kinship; even in present day it’s easy to connect with the larger-than-life musicality of the album’s greatest moments. Coupled with the complex horn and string arrangements of Tom Tom 84 and Eumir Deodato, the EWF template took on newfound clarity. They were very much settled into their rhythm and identity, and it showed.
As All ‘N All took hold after its November 21, 1977 release, EWF was already knee deep into a run of albums that spanned two major labels and a pretty broad cast of characters. At different points, a variety of wonderful talents including Jean Carn, Ronnie Laws, and Jessica Cleaves all helped shape the band’s sound and image. A sharing of energies and perspectives permeates early albums like The Need of Love (1971) and Last Days and Time (1972)—and by the time the band was firmly ensconced in its peak period, that collective, familial vibe remained in place. Percussionist Paulinho Da Costa and Eddie Del Barrio, a pianist with Dunn associates Caldera, were among a bevy of star session players on the album who brought a variety of textures to the material on All ‘N All. And with the Emotions, Deniece Williams, Pockets, and White’s former bandleader Lewis leading the Kalimba Productions roster, the EWF family expanded their artistic reach while opening millions of ears to new or underappreciated talent.
When they hit the road to promote the album with support from Williams and Pockets—who were riding the R&B charts with Song Bird and Come Go With Us, respectively—thousands came out to kneel at the altar of the Elements. A two-night stay at New York City’s Madison Square Garden just three days after the album’s arrival was a rousing success, bringing in crowds that mixed the urban audience that made the band’s name and newly converted white kids hailing from suburbs and comfortable college campuses. Still, as New York Times writer Robert Palmer pointed out, something stymied the group’s reach in the midst of the seemingly boundless adoration, and it was bigger than the circumstances around Spirit. “Like the best white rock bands of the 1960s, Earth, Wind & Fire combines musicality, stagecraft, creative freedom and a huge popular following,” Palmer noted. “All that is missing is widespread critical acclaim, and this has probably been lacking only because so many white critics are skittish about going to predominantly black concerts.”
In the same concert review, Palmer hailed White’s interpretive skills as being on par with the likes of Arthur Prysock and Billy Eckstine, while Phillip Bailey’s piercing falsetto was compared to Smokey Robinson’s. It was likely this deep connection to unapologetically black vocalizing and expression—not just music writers’ alleged aversion to large groups of black folks—that, at least on some level, kept approval of certain ears a song or two away. White never let such narrow-minded thinking lead to a whitewashing of the group’s sound or its mystical, African imagery. If anything, All ‘N All upped the ante.
Right from the moment the jaunty, mid-tempo “Serpentine Fire”—another R&B chart topper—opens the first side of the original LP, it’s clear that this was going to be yet another satisfying collection. The pace was brisk, with the hit “Fantasy” rolling right into the African dream of “In the Marketplace (Interlude)” and “Jupiter,” a colorful ode to universal love and self-discovery. As was always the case with EWF, all types of love were central to the message, and the fan favorite “Love’s Holiday” features what is, for many of the band’s devotees, one of White’s greatest vocal performances. Both White and Bailey were masters of using their voices with the flexibility of the instruments around them, as evidenced on the widely sampled “Brazilian Rhyme (Interlude).” Given such dexterity, it’s no surprise the music world was again paying closer attention.
Praising its jazz-inflected layers and danceable rhythms that weren’t necessarily in the mold of disco, Washington Post critic Mark Kermis was sure the album would restore the adoration the rock elite lavished upon That’s the Way of the World and Gratitude. “All in all, All ‘N All is a stylish, melodic record, full of refreshing surprises and a deserving group’s sure (Earth, Wind and)-fire ticket back into the pop mainstream,” he wrote, also calling the album the group’s most impressive work.
As the album powered forward, Bailey, who remains one of pop and R&B’s most distinctive singers, shined bright on the ballad “I’ll Write a Song for You,” reaching the emotional heights of his career-defining performance on the anthemic “Reasons.” The vocal interaction throughout the rest of the album is stunning: the Grammy-winning ‘Runnin’” is a rush of tight, wordless harmonies and scatting propelled by Dunn’s intricate keyboards, while the lovely “Be Ever Wonderful” closed the album with another stirring solo from White. In some ways, it’s a precursor to the warm pop flavor of “After the Love Has Gone,” which would become a hit in 1979. Much like the album as a whole, it’s accessible without being devoid of integrity, a tenet that has helped EWF maintain its place as one of the few R&B bands of their era to consistently issue new material and fill large venues with loyal fans.
Winner of the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus, All ‘N All became a triple-platinum seller and one of the group’s most successful outings. Hit albums both major and minor followed, with releases ranging from I Am (1979) and Raise! (1981) to Powerlight (1983) and Heritage (1990) showcasing the band’s versatility and fighting spirit. EWF and its members are a living musical monument, an unending portrait of black music’s many life cycles. The legacy is one that millions celebrate, protect, and continue to study and emulate.
Though White transitioned peacefully in 2016, his vision is still as clear and relevant as ever, as evidenced by the timelessness of a treasure like All ‘n All and its overall synergy.
“I had a chance to bring the music to another level and just experiment with it out with the people,” White said in bonus footage for the 2011 documentary film Down the Rhodes: The Fender Rhodes Story. “And I would take the music that was very complicated, chord wise, and I’d put very simple hooks on it and then draw the ear. So, that’s really what my thing is all about.”
Like Jupiter, he came to meet us and make us free.