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Classic Tracks: Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star”

Maurice White took a walk one night early on in Earth, Wind & Fire's three-week stay at Caribou Ranch in rural Colorado for the recording of their landmark

Maurice White took a walk one night early on in Earth, Wind & Fire’s three-week stay at Caribou Ranch in rural Colorado for the recording of their landmark 1975 album, That’s the Way of the World. When he looked up in the sky and saw the beauty of the stars, he says he was overwhelmed and inspired. “We are all shining stars in our essence,” says White, who then took his ideas to the band. Both Philip Bailey and keyboardist Larry Dunn are listed as co-writers. Dunn came up with the chorus hook on his Rhodes. “Maurice would have these great rhythms and then he needed a chord structure for what he was coming up with and that’s where I came in,” says Dunn. “I came up with a lot of the music and then he and Philip got the lyrics.”

“The chorus came first,” Maurice White recalls. “It was one of those gifts that happens sometimes when you’re making records.” Despite the fact that they had two previous albums out, the band wasn’t known to the masses until this album and particularly this song — their first Number One pop crossover.

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“This was an important album — one that signaled whether we would go on and become a mainstream group or just be an R&B act,” bassist Verdine White recalls. “At that particular time, which is different than radio today, they didn’t really cross a lot of black acts over to mainstream radio. We already had two Gold albums — Open Our Eyes and Head to the Sky — but still, most of the mainstream didn’t know who we were.”

Everything changed after “Shining Star” broke the barrier. From then on, the hits continued through the end of the ’70s until the mid-’80s — among them, “Sing a Song,” “Getaway,” “Serpentine Fire,” “Fantasy,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “After the Love Has Gone” and “Let’s Groove.” The group, which got its start in Chicago in the late ’60s, was even nominated for a Grammy last year for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for “Hold Me,” from their album The Promise, and still continues to perform onstage with three original members (Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson) and an occasional appearance by founder Maurice, who retired when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000. They also have a new CD that will be released in February.

But nearly 30 years ago, the group was struggling for acceptance and “Shining Star” was cut with pop success in mind. According to Maurice White, engineer George Massenburg masterminded the interesting texture of the track, which features an R&B-infused verse and a toned-down pop chorus.

“The verse is rockin’ and the chorus is much smoother,” states Maurice White. “That’s what we were going for — the contrast between the chorus to the verse so it would give you a lift. To make the choruses smoother, we would add more reverb and a different EQ. We were working at Hollywood Sound, a small studio tucked in between Heider Recording and David Hassinger’s Sound Factory. Up to the time we got there, they were home to Mac Davis and Glen Campbell and producers such as Jimmy Bowen — a very different vibe, to be sure. One of the best features of the studio was the two live echo chambers: one small, one large. I didn’t know how good we had it until much later.

“George was so innovative,” Maurice White says of Massenburg, who went on to work with the band on their subsequent release, Gratitude, and then helped put together their own studio, The Complex.

It’s funny that he sings the praises of the legendary engineer, as Massenburg — who was hired by EW&F management after working with their other artists, Little Feat — recalls his first day on the job as pretty interesting: “After the first track we recorded, they had a band meeting in the studio hallway and voted to get rid of me,” Massenburg explains, “because they couldn’t dance to the playback.” Maurice White stuck up for him, but for the next playback, Massenburg really cranked up the volume, which seemed to be what the band was missing.

For “Shining Star,” the basics comprised drums, bass, guitar and piano, and according to Maurice White, he was the drummer on the track. Massenburg, however, remembers that it was Freddie White’s snare drum overdub that seemed to center the track.

“There was a track with five people just raging — guitars, organ,” Massenburg says. “Everything about the track was chaotic and noisy until Fred White put down a straight-down-the-middle kick and snare. There are hand claps in it, but everything is keyed off of the snare’s backbeat and all those original crazy, wild guitars and the wild saturated organ appears for one pop every two bars. Key to the track were Larry Dunn’s keyboards.”

“The Rhodes has two ¼-inch plugs on the side so you don’t have to mike it, and it’s stereo,” explains Dunn, who can be heard on a recently released EW&F tribute album, Devoted Spirit, and will soon release his second solo album. “I had this little pedal thing I would run through it, which Massenburg hated, because it kind of compromises the integrity of the sound a little. I always used it live, so on Gratitude, he didn’t have any choice, but on this one, he said, ‘Can you please not use that and I’ll put something on it.’”

“If you listen to this track carefully, there’s a tremendous amount of stuff going on in the backbeat,” says Massenburg. “You hear a couple of musicians and horns and the singing, which I pieced together track by track. It was Maurice and Philip — multiple passes, each very carefully put together.”

Maurice White says the vocals were indeed a “process.” “Philip and I sang all the parts and we stacked the vocals. We’d record everything 20 times and stack them about 20 times to make them sound like a group of guys,” he says, adding that he was very influenced by Sly and the Family Stone’s vocals.

According to Maurice White, the stark a capella fade at the end of the song was his idea. “I wanted the sound to change on the vamp, so I told [Massenburg] to take all the echo off — all the reverb off the vocals — to see what would happen and we liked the sound.”

“The end of ‘Shining Star’ was originally a slow fade where the instruments and the reverb gradually disappeared and the four main vocal tracks move right up until they are right in your face,” says Massenburg. “The song was too long. We made three edits to pull out choruses — ‘Shining Star for you to see, what your life could truly be’ — so that the song ended in three sections, which were like film ‘jump cuts’: three sections jumping closer and closer to you.”

Massenburg says he was less than thrilled with the Caribou equipment — especially the Ampex 1000 24-track. “We were in there after Elton John, who, rumor had it, also had trouble with the machine. The word was that Elton John had offered [studio owner] James William Guercio a lot of money for the machine and Guercio thought he was saying it was such a valuable machine and he really hiked the price up, and said, ‘By the way, what do you want the machine for?’ and Elton said, ‘I want to take it to the highest f***ing mountain on your f***ing ranch and push it over.’ It was such a piece of crap. The studio was completely dead. I overdubbed as much as I could in this little live area right in front of the control room window, just to find some kind of life. You would do anything to put some kind of life in it. Then we overdubbed it at Hollywood Sound and Sunset Sound in Los Angeles and the strings were done on that great sound stage in Burbank, Warner’s Music One.”

After overdubbing guitars and vocals at Hollywood Sound, the horns were cut at Sunset Sound. According to Massenburg, the horn charts were due, for the most part, to co-producer Charles Stepney, longtime associate of the band who died suddenly of a heart attack during the recording of EW&F’s later 1976 effort, Spirit. “Charles Stepney was brilliant,” Massenburg says. “If he had lived, he could have been one of the great film composers. He had original ideas and a great sense of music. Charles Stepney basically built that sound. He was a genius, a visionary. He did the horn charts and we recorded them in Studio 2 at Sunset Sound, a live room. Those horns were screaming.”

“Charles was our George Martin,” Verdine says. “We were very young at the time and learning about music, so he was a great father figure. He was able to harness all that sound we had and have it make sense, musically. He was able to take the raw talent and make it sound sophisticated. He worked with us a lot on parts and chords and things like that. If we had to overdub, he’d work with us individually, and in that process, he would explain the music and music history.”

Massenburg recalls mixing the album “over and over again” over a three-week period. “There was all kinds of stuff on the track, but I don’t remember it all,” he says. “I had to put Maurice’s original drums in a heavy Eventide Phaser and lay them well back in the mix. We used early digital delays — before good or even acceptable filtering was implemented — and they made the most horrendous sounds: squeaks and squeals. The reverbs were certainly the live chambers at Hollywood Sound. The processing was a lot my stuff, a mic pre I happened to be building, a compressor I happened to be building and one of my early EQs. That was in the days when I was using a hand-modified KM84 for vocals. There was always a rat’s nest of wire and circuit boards on top of the console.”

The song earned the band their first Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance By a Group, but according to Verdine, the climate for African-Americans was much different in the mid-’70s than it is now. “At the time, African-Americans didn’t get their Grammys on television, so we didn’t go. We didn’t think too much about the awards. We just stayed focused on the music.”

When Maurice White thinks about “Shining Star” today, he says, “I look back at that song as a move forward in the sense of recording. A lot of people tried to imitate it.”

Massenburg adds, “Could you do that song today? And if you did, could you get it on the radio? Think about that. It was really innovative and I’m disappointed that we don’t innovate strongly, clearly and independently today. And even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to get it through Clear Channel.”