Laying it down with Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire
Verdine White, bass player extraordinaire, is the driving force behind ‘70s funk icons Earth, Wind & Fire.
Verdine White has had the kind of career most musicians can only dream of. While he was still a teenager, his older brother Maurice called him out to L.A. to play bass in a group that would eventually be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as Earth, Wind & Fire. But before all of the Grammy Awards and gold records, Verdine was a Chicago kid being mentored by seasoned musicians and cutting his teeth in the Windy City’s many recording studios.
When he’s not electrifying crowds across the globe, White looks out for the next generation by providing free meals and musical inspiration through the performing arts center he founded in Los Angeles. I spoke with White about all of this in advance of EWF’s May 18 performance at RiverSpirit’s Paradise Cove.
Jordan Williams: I know that you grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s. That’s actually where my parents are from too. They grew up there around the same time. I’m curious what your memories are of the musical atmosphere in Chicago at that time.
Verdine White: There was a lot of different kind of music. Chicago’s known for the blues. You had R&B. You had gospel. You had WVON, which was a great radio station. It was actually called “The Voice of the Negro.” Not only did they have music but they did Public Service Announcements. Our late father, who was a doctor, he loved music. And mom was a schoolteacher. It was a good atmosphere for music.
Williams: Are there any concerts that you remember going to? Maybe the first concert you were able to go to?
White: We went to see James Brown. It was at a theater called the Regal Theater. You had the Apollo Theater in New York, of course. That’s famous. But in Chicago you have the same kind of theaters. You had the Regal Theater in Chicago. You had Uptown Theater in Philly. You had the Fox Theatre in Detroit. But Chicago had the Regal Theater and that’s where we saw James Brown over the Christmas holidays.
Williams: I know that your brother Maurice is the one who got you your first bass.
White: Absolutely, my first upright bass. I started training classically and then on weekends I would go over to his buddy Louis Satterfield’s house, who was actually one of the Phenix Horns, and he taught me everything I know on bass guitar. I started with him when I got to be a teenager, 13 or 14 years old.
Williams: So were those two—the classical side and the R&B side that you studied on the bass guitar with Louis Satterfield—were they like totally different worlds to you? Or did they fit together pretty well?
White: Yeah, different. The classical thing is more formal and of course R&B is much more raw—you know, on the ground, straight to the ground, man. It was great. It was a great upbringing. I had the best of both worlds.
Williams: You actually played with an orchestra that was affiliated with the Chicago Symphony for a while.
White: Yeah, I was in the All American Youth Orchestra. Actually, they’re having my high school reunion this year and I think a lot of the students are going to march all the way from my old high school to Orchestra Hall as part of the graduation ceremonies.
Williams: At that time, were there a lot of other black kids who were getting into classical music or were you kind of a pioneer at that time?
White: I don’t think I was a pioneer. You had African American kids in there. Because of the nature of the kind of music, you probably didn’t have as many as you probably would have liked, but it was enough. And of course, on the R&B side, it was all us over there.
Williams: You talked about getting lessons from Louis Satterfield and your brother, obviously, giving you some inspiration. How important was it for you to get guidance from all the older musicians you were able to be around at that time?
White: Well, now we call them mentors. We didn’t call them mentors then. We called them “the cats.” It was important because they let me hang out with them. They were the coolest guys in town, and I wanted to be like them. They were hip, musical, worldly, and that was where I wanted to go and what I wanted to be.
Williams: I think that you’re really paying it forward because I’ve read a little bit about what you’re doing with the Verdine White Performing Arts Center. Can you talk a little bit about that too?
White: We’re doing really good over there. We’re on 4700 Avalon Blvd. [in Los Angeles]. We also have a church in there and it’s run by Pastor Walter Davis. Every Wednesday morning during the school year, we feed 100 kids. So we have about 100 kids coming in today, although I’m on the road, we give them free breakfast—orange juice, granola, fruit—[so] they can be healthy. It’s free, because a lot of our urban kids do not have the opportunity to have good breakfasts in the morning. And we give the parents free coffee. It’s not Starbucks coffee but it’s our version of coffee. That’s what we do and we fed 4,000 kids last year.
Williams: That’s incredible. I did upright bass growing up as well as played the bass guitar. As a kid, you kind of accept the world as it comes to you, but looking back on it you know how important it is for kids to have that outlet to express themselves creatively and even just to have a place to go after school.
White: Absolutely, burn that energy off. They’re so curious as young people, you know.
Williams: You’ve talked before about the fact that you actually got to play on records locally in Chicago before you went out to join Earth, Wind & Fire.
White: Oh yeah, absolutely. I did a lot of local records around town. It was good training. It was a lot of fun. It was chaotic. It was all of that, all in one time.
Williams: My dad’s actually been looking at some old maps of Chicago and realizing that there were studios near where he grew up that he didn’t know were there at the time. Can you tell me a little about what studios were there and who you were recording with?
White: What studio did your dad see?
Williams: I know he grew up around 74th and Racine. I think he was talking about a studio that was maybe two or three blocks away.
White: There were tons of studios in Chicago. You had a lot on Michigan Avenue. You had Paul Serrano’s studio. You had Chess Studios. You had Brunswick Studios. You had Universal Studios, where a lot of strings were done in the mornings and a lot of commercials. Don’t forget, Chicago at the time was big for commercials. They did a lot of hair product commercials. It was a big commercial city.
Williams: I’ve always loved music from the 1970s, even though I was born after then. I think one of the assumptions that I’ve always had is that the musical transition that happened at that time—it seemed sort of inevitable to me, looking back on it. But after listening to you talk about your brother Maurice’s vision, I’ve had to start to appreciate that it wasn’t really inevitable. There were people like your brother who had the vision and were willing to do the hard work and take the risks to make that possible. Can you talk about what it was like being in the middle of that, before it was set that Earth, Wind & Fire would be a success?
White: Well, don’t forget I was a teenager, so for me it was a lot of fun. It was a great journey. I would say that I didn’t really realize what Maurice was doing and what he had to do. But for a teenager, it was the best place you could be to start your career—and for it to be successful, too! Of course, you’re talking to me now as a member of Earth, Wind & Fire. But when you look back at it, that’s not a given. A lot of people tried to do what I did. I was one of the ones that had a chance to be successful.
Williams: What were some of the memories that stand out about being in that process and having to grow up as you’re having this success? Are there any moments that stand out that really matured you or [provided] some great life lessons?
White: That happens over time. That’s not like one lesson you get. It’s fast. Success is fast. It’s like a bullet train in Japan and you’ve just got to hang on.