Songs Of The Day 2/5/2016: The Salty Peppers - “La La La” + “Uh Huh Yeah”

Before They Were Famous II – This year is really starting to tick me off.

There are three albums that showed up in my life more or less about the same time, when I was really young, and they set me off on a few strains of musical thought I'd track for the rest of my life. One was a greatest-hits album, Collector's Item by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, that made me doggedly pursue absolutely any R&B music that was produced in Philadelphia from about 1968 to 1979. The pursuit continues. Another was Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, the first album I heard from the man I still consider the greatest musician to ever exist during my lifetime. (Or at worst in a two-way tie with Elvis Costello.) The third was That's the Way of the World by Earth, Wind & Fire, but the path that one made me follow is still something I haven't been able to define as exactly as the other two. These were the first three R&B albums I had as a kid (although I got them by effectively stealing them from my older sisters), and they formed the genesis of a bigger story which -- not to give too much away -- I'll be picking up a little later this year on a much broader scale than this blog yields.

Earth, Wind & Fire was many things to me from a strictly musical standpoint. For one thing, they boasted the greatest horn section in rock history. This isn't just based on the complex charts they flawlessly read in songs like "Getaway" and "Serpentine Fire," but also on their (almost) single-handedly making certain Phil Collins solo songs like "I Missed Again" sound brilliant. As songwriters I put EWF up against any band that had consistent commercial success in the '70s, regardless of genre. "That's the Way of the World," "Sing A Song," "Shining Star," "Keep Your Head to the Sky," "Devotion" and especially, especially, ESPECIALLY "September" -- the reliability of their hooks and the sophistication of their production was freakish.

But the thing I realized the most about EWF's catalog last night -- after learning that their founder, ringmaster and singer Maurice White had become the latest hero of mine to pass away this godforsaken calendar year -- was something that's not typical of much of my favorite all-time music: It is almost relentlessly happy. I don't adhere to music that reflects optimism so completely -- my trust issues extend to poppy music with positive messages from people I still think are trying to con me. But not Earth, Wind & Fire. White steered his band through a series of seriously uplifting music (the only exceptions being, maybe, "After the Love Has Gone" and "Reasons" [but not the live version of "Reasons" from the album Gratitude]) that never got stale, never felt fraudulent, never felt ill-considered or haphazardly tossed together. That may be because everything going on underneath the surface of an EWF song -- authentic African instrumentation, dense polyrhythms, the aforementioned horn charts -- sounded like the work of someone who truly covered all the practical and historical bases. For all the great feeling in the grooves of any given EWF song, it always sounded like there was a terrific supply of thought behind it too.

I didn't have a lot of time to learn more deeply about Maurice White's origins as a musician, but I did know a couple of things. Most notably he was an in-demand session drummer for Chess Records in the '60s, appearing on a couple of major hits of the era like Fontella Bass' "Rescue Me" and Billy Stewart's dazzling version of Gershwin's "Summertime." White was also behind the traps for some of the best soul jazz of the '60s, from the likes of Sonny Stitt & Bunky Green, Sonny Cox and Ramsey Lewis. The Salty Peppers, which White formed with his brother Verdine, were the prototype for Earth, Wind & Fire. Their two singles featured today didn't take off beyond the confines of Chicago, but for White that middling success would only be a temporary condition.

I suppose I'm getting to that point where these people who are severally responsible for reinforcing the basis of my entire life are shedding their own, more closely together. I don't know whether this means it's the point where their music becomes eternal, or slowly starts being forgotten. I only know which of those possibilities I'll be working for.

Rest in peace, 'Reece.

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