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Earth, Wind & Fire still burns brightly

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    Earth, Wind & Fire members Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson.

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    Earth, Wind & Fire performs Saturday at Detroit’s Chene Park Amphitheatre.

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    Ralph Johnson of Earth, Wind & Fire.

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Earth, Wind & Fire members Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson.

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By the time of his death from Parkinson’s disease in February, 2016, Maurice White had been battling illness for more than 20 years.

The singer and co-founder of the Chicago R&B staple Earth, Wind, & Fire built a musical legacy with his brother Verdine starting in 1969.

Two years after White’s death, longtime drummer Ralph Johnson says the group carries that legacy forward today.

“He was definitely on a mission, and as we look back now you can see it,” Johnson, 67, said. “His record-production capabilities were outstanding.”

The R&B soul funk group performs at Detroit’s Chene Park Amphitheatre on Saturday.

If You Go

What: Earth, Wind, & Fire

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: 2600 Atwater St., Detroit

Admission: $65

Information: www.ticketmaster.com; www.cheneparkdetroit.com

The group, which includes founding members Verdine White and Philip Bailey, has earned nine Grammy Awards and sold more than 100 million albums. Its hits include “Shining Star,” “Reasons,” and “September.”

“It was feel-good music, and there were very strong messages in the lyrics,” Johnson said.

He began playing drums during elementary school and played in bands later on. He auditioned as a drummer for the group in December, 1971, after brothers Maurice and Verdine saw him play in a Los Angeles club. Before long, he got a call from former guitar player Michael Beal asking Johnson to audition for Earth, Wind, & Fire.

“[I said] ‘Yeah, sure,’ because I wasn’t doing anything else; I was trying to figure out the next move, you know?” he said. “They loved the way I played, and here I am in 2018.”

In nearly five decades as a group Earth, Wind, & Fire perform has performed for former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has secured a reputation as one of the best-selling artists of all time with its fusion of funk, jazz, soul, R&B, and pop music.

Johnson said he never looked back after “Shining Star” hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1975. The song is included on its album That’s The Way Of The World.

“I never thought about doing anything else,” he said. “I knew I had the right situation. [That album] confirmed everything.”

While Johnson’s been a part of 23 albums with Earth, Wind, & Fire, he’s also done solo material. He’s worked with Siedah Garrett, who has written and performed songs with artists such as Madonna, Jennifer Hudson, Quincy Jones, and co-wrote Michael Jackson’s hit “Man In The Mirror,” and on his 2017 songs “Have A Very Merry Christmas” and “Aura (Embrace Your Light).”

Garrett also worked with Earth, Wind, & Fire on the group’s 2013 album Now, Then, & Forever on the song “My Promise.”

Regardless of the many lineup changes throughout the years, Johnson said he’s stayed focused when pursuing Earth, Wind, & Fire.

“You have to stay true to your dreams, and you have to stay on course, and you have to remove any detractors that might be around you; any negativity,” he said. “Stay true to your course and pursue your dreams and don’t let anybody try and take you away from your mission. At the end of the day that’s really what that is.”

Contact Geoff Burns at gburns@theblade.com or 419-724-6054.

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