EU Talks to Earth, Wind, & Fire’s Ralph Johnson About the Heart & Soul 2.0 Tour

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From the tumultuous political climate, social injustices, and racial inequalities of the 70’s, Earth, Wind, & Fire has shared its message of hope and inspiration. Many of the same obstacles still persist today, and Earth, Wind & Fire echoes its healing message in the face of adversity. EU Jacksonville spoke with percussionist Ralph Johnson about staying grounded on solid earth, what it takes to keep the fire burning, and the willingness to go wherever the wind takes them. On March 23, Earth Wind & Fire and Chicago blow into Jacksonville to kick off their co-headlining Heart & Soul 2.0 Tour.

The show opens with all 21 members of Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago on stage, paying tribute to each other’s respective songs followed by individual, hour-long sets. Both groups return to the stage to close out the show with an incredible, high-energy finale. “When we get down to the finale, I love doing “[I Just Want to Be] Free,” says Johnson. “Then I have a vocal moment with Robert Lamm on ‘Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?’”

If it seems an unlikely pairing, it is, but it works. After a successful summer run in 2015, they signed on 15 additional dates for the Heart & Soul 2.0 Tour. This tour marks the fourth time Post to Post Links II error: No link found for term slug "Earth, Wind & Fire" and Chicago have shared the stage together. “That tells you right there that people love it so much, they want more,” says Johnson. “It works so very, very well. It started with a conversation standing out in front of a hotel. We checked in and Chicago was already there and we just started talking and said ‘Hey, we ought to do something together some time’ and that’s really where it started with a very simple conversation in front of a hotel in Portland, Oregon.”

Earth Wind FireJohnson credits the onstage chemistry to their incomparable musicianship and a cross-pollination of fans. “You have two great bands with a string of hits that appeal to both black audiences and white audiences. And two great horn bands, at that. People will always be enamored with artists that can really play. I don’t care what instrument you play. The fact that you can sit down and play it, people like that. So when you get a group of high caliber musicians on stage to do this thing we do together, it’s crazy.”

Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago have sold a combined 200 million albums and earned 20 Grammy nominations. On Feb 15, Earth, Wind, and Fire was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammy Association and Chicago will be inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame on April 8 before wrapping the Heart & Soul 2.0 Tour April 18 at Madison Square Garden. Earth, Wind & Fire is known as the first African American band to sell out the Garden and to receive the MSG Gold Ticket Award.

Since forming in 1969, Earth, Wind & Fire has inspired fans with its innovative approach to soul and R&B. It was feel-good music with a message. “When this whole Earth, Wind & Fire thing launched and began to take root, Maurice didn’t know what to do with it. He was essentially changing the sound of music and people have since jumped on that,” Johnson says. “Rhythmically we were different. Our approach toward the vocals was different so there was a lot going on,” Johnson says.

The Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Stevie Wonder and Pentatonix, was a bittersweet honor, just two weeks after the untimely passing of the group’s founding member, Maurice White on Feb 4. White, 74, died in his sleep from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. While he had retired from the stage with the group he helped build, his contributions are immeasurable. It was a fitting recognition for the band’s body of work and its far-reaching impact on the music industry.

“We are definitely flattered and definitely honored and I tell people that our career is like a really long paragraph in a really great book. At the end of that paragraph, however, there is a punctuation mark. There is a period, and while I’m not saying we’ve reached the end of our careers, we have certainly in a very cool way closed out phase one. We don’t know what the next chapter holds. We’ll see when it’s presented. At this point, the world is still looking for content. We’ll never have enough content, movie content, literary content, songs, music, whatever. So let’s create more content. We know that the torch has been passed sufficiently and we are very solid on the mission we have to carry out. We are now the messengers and we are planning to move forward,” says Johnson

Back in the early days, Johnson says the band worked closely with illusionists Doug Henning and David Copperfield to create a spectacular, layered effect in their live performance, but it was the a soulful stew of jazz, soul, R&B, funk, disco, pop, rock, Latin and African flavors that captured the attention of fans and ignited a genre-bending career that’s burned brightly for over four decades.

“What we brought to the table was a message, a different approach to recording, and different approach toward sound. Maurice wanted a band that would be able to play all genres of music, which we can and do, and wanted a band that would not just stand around on stage. He wanted something that would be emotional and happening. Especially for a group of color, we brought that big production experience to everyone. If you look back at some of our shows, it was very elaborate, not just with special effects, but there was a lot of magic incorporated,” says Johnson.

“We wanted you to think about the lyrics that were rolling by. People love to revisit better times and we do that through music. When you hear our songs, it reminds them of happier times. Back in the ‘70s, we weren’t really worried about ISIS. People want to go back to good. They want to feel comfort and our music provides a bit of that comfort, bordering on healing in a sense. We like to say that when you leave our show, you’ll feel better than when you arrived. So there it is.” To experience the feel-good vibes and superband mash-up for yourself, check out the Heart & Soul Tour 2.0 at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 23 at  7:30.

Tickets: $46-124


About Liza Mitchell