On Sunday, December 8, Earth, Wind & Fire became the first African-American group to receive the Kennedy Center Honor. The original members Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Verdine White were there. Founder Maurice White died in 2016.
The other honorees are Linda Ronstadt, Sally Field, openly gay conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and Sesame Street, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. The ceremony will be broadcast Wednesday, December 26 on CBS.
The Earth, Wind & Fire tribute segment has the band’s fantastical hits delivered by Cynthia Erivo, John Legend, the Jonas Brothers and Ne-Yo.
“There are so many more African-American acts that are deserving and perhaps this can be the first of many more to come.”
At the start of the 1980s, soul-funk-disco orchestra Earth, Wind & Fire were hot. They had just released the album I Am (1979), which featured the hit single After The Love Has Gone, and Faces (1980). Both albums were Number One on the pop charts. Their big brassy sound dropped off the pop charts at the end of the decade, post-Disco, smooth R&B and Hip Hop began to climb the charts, and the members went on to successful solo careers.
At the pinnacle of Earth, Wind & Fire fame, they appeared in a series of print and television ads for “Panasonic Platinum Portable Stereos”. They were musicians endorsing products in a search for alternate revenue streams during a tight time for the music industry before the late-1980s boom, helped by the new Compact Disc technology.
There was widespread popularity of sci-fi in the early 1980s, helped by Star Wars, and the outer space and ancient Egyptian motifs used in these commercials were long favorites of the band. Maurice White used the traditional elemental triplicity of his astrological sign, Sagittarius (fire, earth, and air), to name the band in 1970. The Earth, Wind & Fire album art throughout the 1970s was a celebration of Afrofuturism, with the symbols of the ancient Egyptians and sub-Saharan African civilizations that mystically held the keys to space travel and occult wisdom.
The boombox was cutting-edge technology and the widespread availability of the cassette tape led to a revolution in music listening, both privately on headphones and publicly on boomboxes. Panasonic, a Japanese company whose futuristic slogan “Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time” matched Earth, Wind & Fire’s futurism. Panasonic introduced a line of “portable stereos: that promised great surround-sound and a more pleasurable listening experience than transistor radios.
The ads show the band bestowing this new technology on white consumers and listeners, even though the real innovative use of the boombox was happening in Black culture, as breakdancing emerged from the DJs in clubs and into the streets in the 1980s. With a portable boombox, you could perform anywhere and you could be your own DJ.