By Ron Wynn
Earth, Wind and Fire has been a prolific ensemble for nearly five decades, created by the late Maurice White to represent all the various idioms of Black music that he loved and performed. Over their lengthy career they’ve won a number of honors, but last weekend they made history once more, becoming the first Black group to earn Kennedy Center honors. While an impressive array of individual Black performers in multiple categories and genres have previously been recognized, self-contained groups have largely been absent, and in particular Black bands.
The group’s original members Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Verdine White were on hand, while EWF founder and visionary Maurice White, who died in 2016, certainly was there in spirit. Others honored included Linda Rondstadt, Sally Field, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and the television show “Sesame Street. “
“You can’t play any Earth Wind & Fire songs without Maurice’s DNA being on it, so he’s always here and we’re always celebrating him and his vision,” Johnson told Billboard.. “People are still coming together and having fun.” EWF’s tribute segment, introduced by “Boogie Wonderland” co-writer David Foster, featured the band’s hits delivered by Cynthia Erivo, John Legend, the Jonas Brothers, and Ne-Yo. Their performances culminated in an ensemble finale of “September.”
Earth, Wind and Fire officially celebrate their 50th anniversary next summer. The trio also hinted there’s a possible upcoming duets album.“We’re making a list, and checking it twice,” said Bailey. “And you’ll hear about it soon.” Bailey also acknowledged their historic designation was more a reflection of past omissions than anything else. “There are so many more African-American acts that are deserving and perhaps this can be the first of many more to come,” Bailey said.
Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter told Billboard the designation wasn’t by design. ”We don’t think about it that way. We want to make sure the slate is diverse, we want to make sure the art forms are diverse, but we didn’t say, ‘We’ve never had an African-American band before.”.
LL Cool J, who was inducted as the Honors’ inaugural hip-hop artist in 2017 and served as emcee for this year’s event, had this to say: “You know, we’ve come a long way, but it shows you how far we have to go when we’re still talking about firsts.”
The 42nd Kennedy Center Honors airs on WTVF-5 Sunday at 7 pm. The date marks a scheduling change. Past programs have usually been shown during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.