Verdine White: Shining Star
Notes From The Coast is honored to feature Verdine White in our first feature story.
Arguably the most recognizable bassist in the world, this music icon is one of the original members and co-founders of soul/R&B mega-group Earth, Wind & Fire. White has earned six Grammy Awards, has over fifty gold and platinum records on his walls, and has sold more than 90 million albums worldwide, in a career that is still thriving after four decades in the entertainment industry.
All About Jazz: Before we get started, I want to congratulate you and Earth, Wind & Fire on your 40 anniversary, which you celebrated in 2011. That is an amazing accomplishment and something to be very proud of. Actually, that might be a good place to start. Did the Anniversary Tour shows feel different from previous tours?
Verdine White: Last year the audiences were very enthusiastic. They brought old programs, books, albums, ticket stubs, and photos for us to autograph. They spoke of their first EWF concert experience, where they were and what was going on at that time in their lives.
We heard wonderful stories of people conceiving, dancing, studying, traveling, and partying to our music. We heard about patients in hospitals getting better and recovering when our songs were being played.
One friend called from a private yacht in Italy. when a large cruise ship was passing by. She held the phone up and we could hear that they were rockin' to our song, "September." That was so funny and amazing. The music was everywhere.
It's unreal because, in a way, the celebration continues. People are responding in such an energetic excited way to this tour. We are truly blessed and it is a heartwarming experience.
AAJ: These days, most marriages don't make it past 10 years. How did you and the band manage to stay together for 40 years? What was the band's recipe for success? What was your secret for success?
VW: We all took the music very seriously in the beginning. All the music was way ahead of its time. It joined us all at the core level with love, respect, friendship, and our talents. It was written in stone back then but, just like a marriage, we had to constantly work on ourselves as individuals and as a unit, especially as we got older and wiser. Subconsciously I guess everyone was on the same page with the four C's: consideration, communication, consistency, and commitment.
AAJ: We are now half way into 2012. How has this year been for you?
VW: The first part of 2012 was exciting and wonderful. We toured in Australia, Thailand, Singapore, and New Zealand. Now we are finishing up the States with a full orchestra (with conductor Charles Floyd). We are doing over 25 concerts and the idea started at the Hollywood Bowl concert two years ago. Now, other acts have "borrowed" our idea, from Smokey Robinson to Sting, and they are all performing select dates with an orchestra as well. We will finish up the tour when the year is out. Dates are listed at the EWF.com website.
AAJ: Are you working on any personal projects or projects outside of EWF?
VW: We are currently finishing tracks on the new LP, a double album titled, Now, Then, and Forever. It will be out late September and should be [officially] released October 2.
The Earth, Wind, and Fire "Gratitude Headphones" are now in the stores. This is a project that we did with Monster Cable.
I have a continuation book being released soon. It is called, How To Play The Bass Part II. It will be available for purchase next month.
I also continue to work with the youth through my foundation [The Verdine White Performing Arts Center].
AAJ: How did you get started on the bass?
VW: I started playing upright bass in orchestra class in Chicago. I was drawn to the instrument because it was tall (like me) and appeared so majestic standing alone in the corner of the class.
I took classical lessons with great teachers such as the late Radi Velah. I played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and played bass guitar at night in clubs. BTW, I was still underage at the time.
Eventually I continued my bass guitar studies with the late great Louis Satterfied, a member of the EWF Phoenix Horn Section.
AAJ: When did you realize that you had the talent and ability to play the bass professionally?
VW: When I was 16, I started playing professionally and began reading music at 15. So, the realization of my talent and ability came early. Louis Satterfield enhanced my studies, music theory, sigh- reading, and flawless execution with recording.
AAJ: Do you remember how many hours a day you would practice when you were first learning to play?
VW: When I was 14 and 15 I practiced 8 to 10 hours a day, sometimes falling asleep in bed with the bass still in my hand hours later [laughs].
After that, my practice came in playing in various ways, but especially playing with performing local bands. We would play for wedding, parties, clubs, and do Top 10 radio hits of the day.
Already working professionally in high school as a teen, my first recording date was in 1965 with Kittie Haywood. We did a song called, "Mama's Baby Ain't A Baby No More." It was then that I bought my first [Fender] Telecaster bass guitar, along with a B15 Ampeg. Very cool gear at the time.
I did a lot of listening, practiced scales, and finger techniques over and over.
AAJ: Anyone who is familiar with EWF and you, knows how animated and high energy you are when you are on stage performing live. Is it more natural for you to move when you are performing on stage or is it more natural for you to play in one place?
VW: It is more natural for me to move than staying in one place. Since the beginning of time, the music affected me that way, so it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to stand in one place. Besides, the audience would think that something was wrong with me if I didn't move!
AAJ: Your friend and original EWF member, Ralph Johnson, once said that you were, "The Jimi Hendrix of the bass guitar and one of the best bass players on the planet." Did you know that your friend and band mate had that much respect for you?
VW: No, I did not realize Ralph said those wonderful things about me. Regarding Jimi Hendrix, it is a mega-huge compliment because Hendrix was truly one of the absolute greatest musicians that ever lived. I respect that coming from Ralph Johnson. He [Ralph] is also a classically trained drummer, the first drummer with EWF, and one of the best technical drummers you have ever heard.
AAJ: Was there a time, early on, when you might have questioned your skills as a bassist and whether or not you were making the right decision?
VW: I never have questioned my skills but, at the same time, I don't take if for granted. I am always trying to improve and stay on my "A game" at all times. I still listen to music, practice, and try new techniques.
AAJ: Similar question, going back in time, was there a specific moment when you recognized and realized that you had what it took to make it as a pro musician?
VW: On the EWF LP, The Need of Love (Ol' Skool/Warner Bros., 1971). I knew I had it!. There was a tune called, "Energy." It was a great song and everyone said that I smoked on it. It was then that I realized, hey, this is my life's mission. I love what I do. It makes me feel euphoric and I can transfer that energy and love to others. What could be better?
AAJ: At what point in your career did you feel that you deserved to be where you were and that you were doing exactly what you should be doing with your life?
VW: I knew that I was in the right place at the right time when we signed with Clive Davis in May of 1972.
AAJ: Over the past 40 years we have seen a lot of changes in the world and a lot of changes in music (as well as the music industry). What were the 1970s like for you as an artist/musician? What were they like for you on a personal level?
VW: I would call the '70s a break through period. It was like the sky was the limit and we really made a name for ourselves. The industry flourished with so many great bands, artists, outstanding music, prolific song writers, and talented producers. It was the beginning of AM/FM stereo, LP albums, college radio, and student unions.
AAJ: And the 1980s?
VW: The start of the '80s, the music carried over except it became more disco/new wave. And then the great videos started. At the time, EWF took a short hiatus that lasted from 1982 to 1986. Everyone did separate projects.
With the time off I got married, worked on being a good husband and father. I also worked on a few music projects, wrote music, practiced a lot and toured in Europe with an all-star band. Then, in 1987, the band reunited. We started talks of recording and touring again. We followed up with a successful tour of the states.
AAJ: And the 1990s?
VW: Then in the '90s my brother, Maurice White (stricken with Parkinson's Disease), decided not to tour anymore. So, we were all kind of nervous at first and we weren't sure who could sing his parts and if the audience would accept us onstage without him. But we went out again in 1994 without him, and the audiences loved the show just like before. We were all ecstatic and relieved.
Phillip sang his parts, the music held its own, and the show was exciting and wonderful. We also toured overseas with Barry White, receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and did the TV show Live By Request, which was a smash!
AAJ: And 2000 to present?
VW: In 2000, we really peaked and soared. We received awards such as the Annual ASCAP Award, BET [Black Entertainment Television] TV special, and we were inducted into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
2001 and on, we received more legendary honors and awards. Now it was a whole new generation that discovered us and our music. The rappers and hip hop artists were sampling EWF and it was all the rage. It only added to what we already had going on.
Then a major move happened. We changed management in 2004, got with power industry baller Irving Azoff and, wow, it's been ongoing ever since. We have renewed popularity and respect from our audiences and peers.
Then, in 2009, we were the first band invited to perform at the White House in the new Obama administration. Man, so honored to be the President's favorite band! He sang along at sound check and he knew all the words.
AAJ: Was there a period of time when EWF was the most prolific? Or perhaps a better question might be what period of time was the most important for the band?
VW: According to certain critics, we were most prolific musically in the 1970s.
AAJ: At this stage of your life how do you handle your success?
VW: Now I am able to relax much more and enjoy legendary status, enjoy spending time with my wife of 31 years (we renewed our vows in December, 2011) and my three dogs, Azoff, Og, and Redd. A pit bull and two toy poodles. You can guess which one is the pit bull [laughs].
AAJ: Who were your early musical influences?
AAJ: The desert island question....If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring 10 albums, which albums would you bring?
VW: That's the Way of the World (Columbia, 1975) [EWF];
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967) [The Beatles]
Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) (Miles Davis]
What's Going On (Motown, 1971) [Marvin Gaye]
Off the Wall (Epic, 1979) [Michael Jackson]
Pat Metheny Group ( ECM, 1978) [Pat Metheny]
Anything by Ravi Shankar
A Love Supremeb (Impulse!, 1964) [John Coltrane]
Rotary Connection (Chess/MCA, 1967) [Rotary Connection]
Mother Nature's Song (Cadet, 1968) [Ramsey Lewis]
West Side Story (Columbia, 1961) [Leonard Bernstein]
AAJ: What are some of your favorite venues to play?
VW: Hard Rock Arena, Hollywood Bowl, Beacon Theatre (New York City), Buddakhan (Tokyo), Superdome (New Orleans).
AAJ: What are some of your most memorable venues and shows?
VW: The Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Gardens.
AAJ: What is your favorite restaurant?
VW: Hands down, Mr. Chows, Beverly Hills, CA
AAJ: What do you do for fun when you are home?
VW: Read, walk my dogs, Saturday date night with my wife, relax late at night watchin' TV, meditation, and yoga.
AAJ: Favorite food?
VW: A good cheeseburger, a hearty soup and salad.
AAJ: How does it feel when you look into the audience during a show and see fans of all generations and ages cheering you on?
VW: I can't begin to tell you how rewarding and gratifying it is to see our shows sold out, with kids from eight to eight rockin' out to the music. How fortunate and blessed we are that people around the world still come and enjoy the music and it's been this way for over 40 years.
AAJ: How would you like to be remembered?
VW: Being remembered as an excellent musician, consistent, and dedicated. Also a respectful, compassionate human being would be wonderful. Be wonderful as a man in general. But, my story is still being written so I'll have a better answer later on [laughs].
AAJ: Do you feel that music is the universal language?
VW: Yes, it is true. Music is indeed a universal language because it cuts right thru all boundaries including beliefs, religion, race, age and gender. Putting on a great piece of music can instantly change your mood and outlook no matter what. I've seen major changes in people because of music in general.
AAJ: How would you describe your style of play or the way that you approach the bass?
VW: My style and approach would have to be traditional fingering and technique.
AAJ: If you had the ability and desire to put together and play with the best live jam band of all time what musicians, living or dead, would you have on stage with you? No restrictions on the number of players or instruments; this is the Verdine White All-Time All-Star Monster Jam Session....Live!
AAJ: What songs would be on the set list?
VW: "Sketches of Spain," "Bitches Brew," "September" and "There was a Time," by James Brown.
AAJ: As a young musician, what musicians helped you the most in your development and career? Who were your mentors and who gave you the right advice and direction?
VW: First props go to my older gifted brother Maurice, who brought me out to LA. He gave me the tools and over all concept of music and performance on stage and how to master how to play on records.
Second would be the very talented Louis Satterfield, who fine-tuned everything and made it all come together musically.
AAJ: How did jazz fit into your life and influence you as a young musician?
VW: Classical music and jazz were initially one part of my early training. I eventually added R&B, pop, and gospel. All of these I played in as well. Listening to jazz music was, of course, the start, though.
AAJ: What are your favorite jazz tunes?
VW: "Bitches Brew," "Sketches of Spain," "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs," by Chick Corea and "Some Day My Prince Will Come," by Miles Davis.
AAJ: What do you play now?
VW: I play a Yamaha BB3000, a Fender bass, a Roger Sadowski, and my newest and best is the Warwick bass.
AAJ: How did you spend your 4th of July?
VW: On the 4th of July I was eating hot dogs, salad, and chili with my brother Maurice. We were surprised, while channel surfing on TV, andlo and behold, what was on? We watched the entire EWF 1981 concert and 30-minute interview, featuring a one hour-long documentary, on the Centric station. Wow, that was deep. Three hours of EWF.
After that I watched TV with my wife. We watched the Unsung TV documentary of Sly and The Family Stone. What a gifted musician; he could play almost every instrument. Produced by my dear friend, Michael Ajakwe. He captured it perfectly. Sly's life was intense, deep, exciting, and poignant. He had not done an interview in over 40 years.
AAJ: What was your first instrument?
VW: My very first instrument was the drums, at 13 years old. Had fun with it but it just didn't feel that great. Then, coming out to Los Angeles from the windy city on June 6, 1970 was a real game changer for me. When I got here I knew I would never go back to Chicago. Well, maybe to perform [laughs].
AAJ: What was your first paying job as a musician?
VW: My first paying job was when I was 16. I was getting $25 a gig for performing in clubs at night. Quite a sum for a teen at the time.
AAJ: Who were your earliest musical influences?
VW: I love all the great artists back then. I was influenced by the top 20 black and white hits on the charts.
AAJ: How do your peers view you?
VW: Today I am known by my peers and others as being the most consistent musician they have ever encountered.
AAJ: How does the role of jazz bassist differ from R&B or other styles of music?
AAJ: The bass guitar in a jazz setting is more of a support system to the other instruments. With R&B and other forms of music you have to be more aggressive.
AAJ: Was there a specific moment or time in your life when you realized that you had a gift and the skill set and competency to play with the best? When did you know that you could hold your own?
VW: I knew I had it when I played on this album with [drummers] Billy Cobham and Lenny White, and [pianist] Herbie Hancock. It was a jazz fusion sort of thing. I was so young and terrified being around such legends but held my own and realized I could do this.
AAJ: What are your favorite Earth, Wind, & Fire albums?
VW: My favorite EWF LP's are;
That's The Way of the World (Columbia, 1975), All 'N' All (Columbia, 1977) and Illumination (Sanctuary, 2005). We used great producers like Jimmy [Jam] 'n Terry [Lewis], Outkast, and Raphael Saadiq. When I play I first think of notes then grooves, then put it all together.
AAJ: What are your favorite recording studios?
VW: My favorite studios are or were: The complex that we used to own in West LA; The Hit Factory in NYC; Sony Recording Studios, Tokyo; The Record Plant in NYC; Conway, West Hollywood,
AAJ: What goes through your mind when you look back at the body, breath, and volume of work that you were a part of?
VW: Looking back I am always honored, blessed, and amazed at the 40 LPs we cranked out over the years. Sheesh, you are lucky if you get one!
All Photos: Scott Mitchell