Not two weeks after the death of founding member Maurice White, Earth, Wind & Fire took the stage at Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy party in Beverly Hills, Calif., and performed hits like September and Shining Star.
"We brought the house down in front of all the great, great greats," said Verdine White, Maurice's younger brother and Earth, Wind & Fire's founding bassist. "I think they probably were surprised to see us so soon after. I don't know what people expected; maybe they figured they wouldn't see us for a couple of years. But we said, we're going to come right out and let everybody know we're strong."
Watching from the crowd, however, Chicago's Robert Lamm had a different reaction.
"I sensed that they were kind of still in shock," said the singer and keyboardist. "Everybody was friendly and sort of as cordial, as it always is whenever the two bands are together; that part was the same. But I could tell by the slightly strained look on their faces that they were muscling through."
After 50 years, Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire find themselves at key crossroads in their careers. Their joint concert March 26 at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre — part of their fifth co-headlining tour since 2004 — will be one of the first full shows for Earth, Wind & Fire since Maurice's death. And it comes two weeks before Chicago's long-awaited induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Maurice White's death and Chicago's career-capping honor are reminders that even the best parties inevitably come to an end. For Robert Lamm and Verdine White, the goal is to keep the fun going as long as possible.
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Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire both evolved from the late-'60s/early-'70s Chicago funk, soul and jazz scene. Chicago broke first, releasing a string of hit jazz-rock fusion albums that yielded classics like Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, Saturday in the Park and 25 or 6 to 4. Earth, Wind & Fire peaked a little later, scoring their first No. 1 with Shining Star in 1975 and following with smashes like September and Let's Groove.
Oddly, despite sharing a hometown and penchant for big, brassy composition, the two bands rarely crossed paths. They would see each other in airports, studios, gyms, in the offices of their shared label, Columbia Records. But there was always some sort of unspoken connection between them.
"I think there's a synchronicity in terms of both bands coming into being at roughly the same time, and through the same filters — the Vietnam War, the racial strife of voter registration — in addition to absorbing the British invasion in the music world, and the whole idea of a band writing their own music," said Lamm, 71.
When the bands finally did hit the road together in 2004, the impact of their combined horns and hits was "obvious and visceral," Lamm said.
"You know how things click?" White said. "They just clicked."
"We had lots of time to get to know each other, work together, rehearse together, exchange ideas and stories, have dinner, all that sort of thing," Lamm said. "The tours actually brought the two bands very close, and I consider them very dear and close friends."
By then, Earth, Wind & Fire were Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, eligible for five years before getting inducted in 2000.
"Some musicians say it's not about the awards, and that's true, but when your fellow colleagues honor you, it's a big deal," said White, 64. That said, the honor didn't much change how the band does business: "We went back to work the next night. We were in New York one night, and the next night we were in Ohio."
Chicago had been eligible even longer, since 1994. A cause celebre of millions of fans worldwide, it took them 21 years just to get on the ballot last fall, at which point they were finally voted in.
"It's not something that was ever a goal," Lamm said. "You want to make music that people love and appreciate when you're performing it. You don't make music to get a gold album. And you don't make music to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
Nonetheless, Lamm said, the ceremony "will be moving in many ways," and might prompt a discussion about how long Chicago will go on.
"In terms of work and being busy, we're as busy as we've ever been," he said. "It's not something that we even have time to think about. But I think that in the dark of night, lying in a hotel room, trying to fall asleep after a show, those thoughts do come to mind."
For now, Lamm and Chicago's three other original members — Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walter Parazaider — are in good mental and physical shape. They do have off nights, but rarely two in a row.
"When it gets really horrible — it sucks to get really horrible on consecutive nights — I think that will be time to sit down and talk about it," Lamm said. "When you see bands kind of phoning it in, you know that they should stop. That's not the case with us."
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Maurice White was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the late '80s, and stopped touring with Earth, Wind & Fire in 1994, though he remained active behind the scenes. Still, his brother said, his death was a shock.
"He was in good spirits," Verdine White said. "I had seen him a few days earlier. And we spoke the day before. So of course, something like this is a surprise to everybody."
Verdine said Maurice's death has had little effect on the 2016 version of the band, which last year performed with whippersnappers Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper at Bonnaroo. Nor has it prompted any navel-gazing about how and when Earth, Wind & Fire might retire.
"That's the farthest thing from my mind," White said. "The audience is not going to want us to end, and we have all this great music that people still want to hear."
At these shows, both bands play a few songs together, then each does its own set, then both reunite for a mega-finale. The visceral impact of all those horns is still there, proving that even as members age and pass on, Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire aren't done writing their chapters of rock history just yet.
"Both bands have come into their own, and it's a great thing to see," White said. "It's encouraging for other bands that have been around a long time, that you can stand the test of time."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.