October 1st, 2012
Title: The Columbia Masters
Artist: Earth, Wind & Fire
Format: 16-CD box set
Release date: June 12, 2012
By scheduling this set for summer release, Legacy got the jump on the many box sets and special editions slated for release prior to the holiday season. Rather than a compilation of best tracks or rarities, The Columbia Masters consists of remastered editions of 15 classic Earth, Wind & Fire albums in their entirety, enclosed in mini-LP replica sleeves with the original album art. Rarities are not entirely left out of the package. The 16-track bonus disc Constellations: The Universe of EW&F features several singles as well as alternate takes, instrumental mixes, and other previously unreleased tracks, including two from a 1980 live performance in Rio de Janeiro. The accompanying 40-page illustrated booklet provides all track listings and credits, along with illuminating (albeit brief) commentary about each disc by Maurice White.
The albums in the set follow the trajectory of EWF’s success as one of the funkiest and most versatile bands on the planet, as well as their decline in popularity in the post-disco ‘80s. Included is Last Days and Time (1972), featuring the band’s new lineup built around Maurice and Verdine White with lead singer Philip Bailey; Head to the Sky (1973), an affirmation of White’s goal to uplift humanity; Open Our Eyes (1974), notable for the introduction of Charles Stepney as arranger/producer; That’s the Way of the World (1975), the group’s breakout album that produced two megahits—the title track and “Shining Star;” Gratitude (1976), a combination of live concert and studio recordings; Spirit (1976), reflecting White’s spiritual consciousness and study of Egyptology; All ‘N All (1977), an eclectic mixture of soul, funk, and Latin pop, with contributions by Brazilian guitarist Milton Nascimento and super tight horn arrangements by Tom Tom 84; The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 (1978), a collection of the group’s top singles including a cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life;” I Am (1979), featuring the Emotions on the disco hit “Boogie Wonderland” as well as the David Foster ballad “After the Love Has Gone;” Faces (1980), a solid double-album highlighting the bands signature horn and string arrangements; Raise! (1981), most notable for the opening track “Let’s Groove;” Powerlight (1983), featuring Trinidadian musician Robert Greenridge’s steel drums on the tracks “Spread Your Love” and “Side By Side;” Electric Universe (1983), which introduced (not very successfully) synths and drum machines into the EWF mix; the reunion/message album Touch the World (1987), which followed the band’s four-year studio hiatus; and Heritage (1990), an appeal to the hip hop generation featuring M.C. Hammer, which concluded EWF’s relationship with Columbia.
For those who didn’t pick up the 2004 remastered editions of EWF’s Columbia albums, this box set is a real bargain. Not only is it a fine tribute to the ground breaking band that managed to bridge the gap between the musical tastes of black and white America, but it also highlights the incredible songwriting and arranging skills of the incomparable Maurice White.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss