Crossroads: Ralph Johnson of Earth, Wind & Fire

Pivotal moments propelling musicians from obscurity to infamy
by Mark E. Waterbury

Photo credit: Greg Gorman

Thirty years. That is some damn serious longevity for a band in any genre. And we are talking thirty years almost straight through, not thirty years with three installments of four years and several long term break ups. The band I am speaking of is Earth Wind and Fire, and another impressive fact about their reign as one of R&B's legendary acts is that they are still garnering high plaudits and accomplishments to add to their already impressive dossier of honors and accolades. The music world is continuing to applaud this band for their hard work, dedication to their fans and the ability to create strong music that can be enjoyed by a musical and culturally diverse audience.

The seeds were first planted for Earth Wind and Fire by drummer/vocalist Maurice White, who had been playing with jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. Maurice recruited his brother Verdine, and after a couple of unsuccessful albums on Warner brothers, Maurice totally retooled the band, which included the addition of vocalist/ percussionist Ralph Johnson. “It was my hope that this band would go somewhere and do something spectacular,” Ralph recalls. “There was some exposure for the band that had already taken place from their two albums with Warner. But we had a producer at the time who thought we could have better success with another label.” That label wound up being Columbia, so the band did switch to that label and things really started to happen for them.

Columbia was much more supportive of the band and cognizant of their hard work especially in creating their intense live performances. “There was a certain amount of energy that we had to give to the program; getting out on the road and getting exposed is all part of that. We wanted to be different and have a different on-stage presentation, so we tried to incorporate that very early on.” Armed with their great live show and with a supportive label in their camp, the world began to discover Earth Wind and Fire’s music. The litany of hits including “Shining Star,” “That’s The Way Of the World,” “Getaway” and “Fantasy” would help propel the act to stardom, and would become classic songs over the band’s three decade existence. Although they would take a break of a few years in the late 70’s to work on other projects, Earth Wind and Fire’s touring and recording pace always seems to be hectic. They have already sold millions of albums, toured the globe and have been honored with Grammys, American Music Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an award from the NAACP. As the twenty-first century gets off the ground, the band is still hot, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that they still attract huge crowds out to their live performances. “Our reputation precedes us everywhere we go,” Ralph notes. “Going back to the work that we did in the 70’s, the fans know even today that they are in for a great show when they come to see us.” 2002 is shaping up to be a very exciting year for Earth Wind and Fire. To kick the year off, they were honored by being tabbed to perform at the closing ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The person who coordinated that event, Kenny Ortega saw the band perform in L.A. the previous year and thought they would be a great asset to the ceremony. “That was kind of surreal,” Ralph recalls about performing at the Olympics. “That’s something you see on TV all of your life, with the pageantry and everything, and then you get called to be a part of it. It was quite a moment, very emotional, certainly a high point of my career.”

Shortly thereafter, Earth Wind and Fire added to all the other honors they had already received when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March. The band will kick off their next tour in early May at the Music Midtown festival in Atlanta, and they also will be releasing a live album of material recorded during concerts in the 70’s. Maurice White recently disclosed that he was battling Parkinson's Disease, so instead of performing with the band, he will be concentrating on producing a new studio album, their twenty-third, due for release later this year. “You can expect what you’ve always got,” Ralph comments about the new album. “Great songs, great production. We try to always give you great songs and songs that are long lasting, and that’s what we are shooting for again.”

Through the three decades of their existence, the music of Earth Wind and Fire has managed to touch a wide range of people, becoming one of the prime ingredients of this legendary band’s recipe for longevity. “We have managed to cross cultural barriers, color barriers and racial barriers and the music seems to appeal to everyone. In the beginning we just wanted to be a great band, but as it turned out we were singing about higher consciousness and love, so that’s what started appealing to people and crossed all those lines and barriers. But to be around as long as we have you also have to enjoy what you do and have a passion for what you do. And while you’re doing it make sure that your work is of high quality. Make sure that you are maintaining musical excellence, and if you start with that, that is how you’ll finish and your longevity will be in place.” :->

Industry Profile: Lance Stinson a.k.a. Banzai - Co-owner & co-founder of

by Mark E. Waterbury

It could be hard to fathom that the co-founder and DJ of one of today’s top internet radio stations used to have a stuttering problem. But this was a true malady faced by Miami born and raised Lance Stinson, more commonly known by the moniker Banzai. He mostly defeated the stutter by taking drama courses in high school, and also used to sing a little in bands. “I had friends who were in bands, and I also played drums in the school band and sang in the school choir,” he recalls. "That of course morphed into singing for a rock band, which I only did for a short time because I was too into other things at the time. It was fun, it was interesting, but at the time it wasn’t for me.”

After graduation Banzai traveled west and went to college for a little over a year studying to be an engineer. Finding that he was not suited for the “suit and tie” world, he returned to the Sunshine State, this time the Orlando area, to pursue a career in entertainment. “In my early twenties, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do for my entertainment career. I basically started fiddling around with people I had met through the industry in clubs, strip joints, nightclubs...because that’s where they all hang out. Indie film producers, musicians, studio people, etcetera. And I started helping some of them out, sort of in the background.”

In 1997, Banzai was helping a lady named Stormy promote a band. Through their contacts, they had an offer to do a thirty minute AM radio spot to promote the band. Banzai and Stormy decided it may be a better idea to do a full hour show once a week and help some other area bands out. It proved to be a wise decision, as the area was hungry for hearing indie music. “We started as a single hour show once a week on a small AM station with about forty CDs. And at our peak on AM we were doing five days a week, three hours a day. We had a standard radio morning show and syndication was just getting started when the parent station decided to change formats to Latino/Mexican love songs.” Of course, as usually happens when a parent station changes format, Banzai and Stormy were out on the street. At first there were offers for the show from other AM stations which they considered, but instead they decided to try something a little different. “We could have either gone over to corporate radio, play by their rules and deal with all that bull-crap, or we could try this internet radio thing that was still new at the time, and become our own station and we make the rules.”

With virtually no working capital and learning by trial and error with several “screw-ups”, Banzai and Stormy launched M4Radio. With the assistance of a “family” of mostly volunteer staff over the past several years, they have built it to an international internet station broadcasting around the clock with around twelve-hundred CDs of varied genres. One thing that helped the growth was when M4Radio partnered with Infinity Personal Solutions to give them their first full-fledged studio with 24 hour streaming capabilities. The ability to have multiple DJs really helped the station take off. They also began to receive notice and praise from indie and corporate DJs and radio execs around the country, and began to get interviews with big name performers as well. Although IPF recently left the radio industry, Banzai is not thinking of folding things up. On the contrary, he is trying to expand M4Radio in different directions. “Many companies have been bailing out of the (radio) industry, where we, on the other hand, refuse to. We do it out of love for the bands and the music, and I’ll probably do this until the day I die. I’m co-owner and have been doing this for five years and I’ve never pulled a paycheck. The little bit of money that does come in goes right back into the business. What we’d like to do once we get the big enough numbers to get the big sponsors in is first pay all our volunteer people, and then expand it to help the bands more.”

Along with their efforts for the bands which included a recent deal working with Boo Sweet Records which licenses in China and other countries, Banzai would like to possibly do news on M4Radio as well. But their first love and dedication is to the bands, and Banzai has some sound advice for budding musicians, especially in a day where airplay on commercial radio is virtually impossible for an unknown band. “It takes a lot of footwork. It doesn’t matter how good your product is. You can have the best sound in the world and if you don’t get it out to the people, no one is going to know about it. That means hitting the web, every different club or newsgroup that does music, and hooking up with other indie bands. Look for other indie bands who are making it on their own and hook up with them to see how they’re doing it. Bands really have to do their homework. I’ve seen too many bands who are good, but they don’t want to do the work. They think that if you just play good and do a good show, it will just come to them. No...if that’s how they think it is, then they’re never going to go anywhere.” :->

Quote of the Month.....

Each man has inside him a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated, but it takes courage for a man to listen to his own inner goodness and act on it. Do we dare to be ourselves? This is the question that counts. - cellist Pablo Casals

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Writers: Mark E. Waterbury, Scott Turner
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