Earth, Wind & Fire, Album-Oriented Radio, and Why White Rockers Lost Out In the '70s

NETHERLANDS - OCTOBER 19:  AHOY  Photo of EARTH WIND & FIRE and Maurice WHITE, Maurice White (C) performing on stage  (Photo
NETHERLANDS - OCTOBER 19: AHOY Photo of EARTH WIND & FIRE and Maurice WHITE, Maurice White (C) performing on stage (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

In his op-ed tribute to the recently deceased Maurice White, Roger Thompson propagates a couple of novel ideas about the musical and cultural cultures of the Seventies. ("Music's Shining Crossover," February 13, 2016.)

The first is that White is to be commended for "his thoughtful negotiation of race and the music industry in the early 1970s...[turning] Earth, Wind & Fire into one of the most successful crossover acts in pop music history at a time when the industry was resegregating black and white audiences." The back story? "After the riots and escalating crime of the late 1960s, black acts were under pressure to seem less threatening to white audiences." The implication, then, is that EWF was one of the acts that caved in to the pressure.

Thompson's second proposition is that the '70s saw "the consolidation of the recording studios into just a few major labels, [which] fostered laser focus on white, middle-class kids and the sales they could drive."

As a music-loving child of the Sixties who soldiered through the resegregated '70s and has lived to tell the tale, I don't think either of these ideas has much merit.

Earth, Wind & Fire was part of that early Seventies cohort of hit-making black performers whose music reflected, to a greater or lesser degree, not just black pride, but an interest in black power. The others included James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, the Staple Singers, the Chi-Lites, the Isley Brothers, Kool & the Gang, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, War, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St. Band, Parliament and Funkadelic.

In EWF's case, that interest was manifest in early hits like "Keep Your Head to the Sky" and "Mighty Mighty," as well as in a visual presentation that was one part Ancient Egyptology and one part Space Age futurism a la Sun Ra. But perhaps Thompson is on to something when he suggests that Earth, Wind & Fire chose never to be Scary Negroes, if only because the band's race pride was always mixed -- or at least diffused -- with a message of gauzy New Age-y peace and love.

Then again, maybe they were scary, at least to some white folks. I'm thinking in particular of the white radio programmers who invented the Album-Oriented Radio format. These were the people -- not "the industry" or "a few major labels" -- who resegregated the pop music audience. Invented in the wake of the revolutionary desegregation that defined American pop in the Fifties and the Sixties, Album-Oriented Radio, or AOR, was strictly whites-only. One of the stars of the format, DJ "Kid Leo" Travagliante of WMMS in Cleveland, explained it all in a 1975 interview: "I think the '60s are ending about now. Now we are really starting the '70s. The emphasis is shifting back to entertainment instead of being 'relevant.'"

What this meant in practice is that Album-Oriented Radio played no music by black artists. A decade later, the Black Rock Coalition's Greg Tate aptly derided AOR as standing for "Apartheid-Oriented Radio." The fact that Earth, Wind & Fire placed over two dozen titles on the Hot 100 and the Top R&B charts between 1971 and 1980, selling zillions of records in the process, meant nothing to AOR.

And the funny thing is that none of it had anything to do with race, at least officially. Whenever the format's kingpins were forced to explain their policy of strict apartheid, they blandly replied that they programmed "rock," and that whatever it was that these black musicians were playing, it didn't fit the format. Uh, sure...just as the GOP operatives working today to suppress minority voting insist that their only goal is the elimination of "voter fraud."

What did it take to reintegrate pop music? Hip-hop. It's worth noting that the most potent of these musicians had no interest at all in crossing over. They were "proud to be black," as one of Run-DMC's records put it, and determined to make their music with no compromise, confident that the purity of their commitment would be powerful enough to pull the mainstream in their direction.

Earth, Wind & Fire likewise made no attempt to cross over. It just so happened that some of the white folks of the day -- a bunch of damn hippies, most likely, yearning for relevance along with their entertainment -- loved their music. As for the young white people then devoted to AOR, who never encountered the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, well, that was their loss.