From the first drum-and-cymbal crash of “Serpentine Fire” to Philip Bailey’s final “badup-bow” during the fade on “Be Ever Wonderful,” and everything in between, Earth Wind & Fire’s 1977 opus All ‘N All may very well be the best album they ever made!
Consider the lilting beauty of “Fantasy” or the incessant funk on “Jupiter,” or add in the wondrous “I’ll Write A Song For You” and you have the makings of a sheer soul and pop music classic.
It’s hard to argue a case for another EWF album topping All ‘N All in quality, despite the fact that several others attained its same triple-platinum sales plateau – the high-water mark for any Earth, Wind & Fire album (aside from their 1978 Greatest Hits package, which has been certified for five million).
All ‘N All turns 40 on November 21, 2017. During this week in 1977, when the album was just released, it had been 13 months since Earth, Wind & Fire’s previous LP, Spirit, made its début. That was like a lifetime for EWF fans who’d been spoiled by their favorite band releasing their prior three albums in the span of 19 months, from March 1975 (That’s The Way Of The World) to that November (Gratitude) and then October 1976 (Spirit). So fans were practically salivating for new material from the group that over the prior three years had risen from moderately successful soul stars to being the biggest-selling black band in America.
Like many of EWF’s mid-to-late ‘70s LPs, All ‘N All had a pretty good setup. Just days before the album dropped, its lead-off single, “Serpentine Fire,” topped the soul chart, beginning a seven-week residency at No. 1 and making it the biggest soul chart hit of the group’s already legendary career up to that point (1981’s “Let’s Groove” would eventually top it with eight weeks at No. 1).
But “Serpentine Fire” was just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly all eleven tracks on All ‘N All were musical and production masterpieces. From the tight, locked-in-the-pocket rhythms and rapid-fire Phenix Horn blasts that punctuated tracks like “Magic Mind” and the mainly instrumental “Runnin’,” to the beautiful melodies that flourished in ballads like “I’ll Write A Song,” “Love’s Holiday” and “Be Ever Wonderful,” Earth, Wind & Fire had perfected its groove in what was their first full album recorded after the 1976 death of their long-time producer Charles Stepney.
Stepney’s sudden passing could have been a major setback for EWF. He had been the band’s co-producer (along with founder Maurice White) during their most successful period, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether that level of success would continue with Stepney gone.
So it was a major accomplishment that the venerable Chicago-based band would not only overcome the loss, but they’d create their most stellar collective work some eight albums deep into a career that had already seen them release inimitable classics (and critics’ darlings) like All ‘N All’s three aforementioned predecessors.
Earth, Wind & Fire had indeed struck a chord with black and white audiences in America and were selling albums at a clip that usually had been reserved for rock artists (or black superstars like Stevie Wonder or the Isley Brothers). Their prior albums That’s The Way Of The World and Gratitude topped the pop album charts within eight months of each other (ironically with both having replaced different albums by the band Chicago – EWF’s label mates and fellow Windy City dwellers – to get to No. 1).
All ‘N All’s immediate predecessor Spirit was released in 1976 during the same week as Stevie Wonder’s iconic Songs In The Key Of Life. Spirit had to settle for a No. 2 peak on the soul and pop album charts as a result of having to contend with Stevie’s blockbuster, lest it would have been their third consecutive No. 1.
Likewise, All ‘N All competed for upper-tier chart space with juggernauts like Rumours and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. All ‘N All ultimately peaked at No. 3 for six weeks on the pop album charts, during the same time that first Rumours, then the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, was at the top.
That was the environment in which EWF found itself competing during its most creative period. It’s no wonder they were so inspired. It was becoming readily apparent that no longer was it acceptable to merely have a couple of good radio-friendly singles on an album. Groups like EWF had to produce landmark albums with little to no filler if they wanted to compete with the big dogs in the late 1970s.
But EWF found other sources of inspiration for All ‘N All as well, including group leader Maurice White’s fascination with astrology, spirituality and the motherland. Previous albums had touched on these themes, but All ‘N All took them further, even obfuscating them with tales of basic human desire, specifically love and sex.
Lyrically, “Serpentine Fire” was a metaphorical take on physical arousal, but you would have sworn it was about some mythical entity, with lyrics like “Gonna tell the story, morning glory, all about the Serpentine Fire. Surely, as life begun, you will as one battle with the Serpentine Fire.”
“Fantasy” went even further, with the band weaving a tale around a mythical place bearing the song’s title. With the band’s vivid lyrical imagery, you would have sworn this place actually existed.
From a singer’s perspective, “Fantasy” and “I’ll Write A Song For You” are considered among Philip Bailey’s greatest vocal performances (along with 1975’s “Reasons” from That’s The Way Of The World). Few things in music compare to the high notes that Bailey hits as the song fades at the end.
The Elements of the Universe went straight to the solar system for “Jupiter,” the album’s funkiest dance track. In it, the band played on the then-current fascination with all things extraterrestrial – with a tale about an alien visitor delivering a flower from the planet Jupiter with the simple goal of spreading love or showing the protagonist how to do so.
The interludes “In The Marketplace” and “Beijo aka Brazilian Rhyme” are among the group’s most famous, particularly the latter, with Philip Bailey’s “ba-dap-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba; ba-dee-ah, ba-dee-ah, ba-dee-ah-dee-ah-dee-ah-dee-ah…” – you know the one.
And no other EWF album contained as many classic ballads as All ‘N All did.
If “I’ll Write A Song For You” was among Philip Bailey’s greatest vocal performances, then “Love’s Holiday” (with the famous refrain “Would you mind?”) and “Be Ever Wonderful” were among Maurice White’s. It was almost as if the two lead singers were competing on this album to see who could sing the greatest love ballad. That is left for fans to decide, but “Love’s Holiday” is still considered one of EWF’s best baby-makers, while “Be Ever Wonderful” is the late Maurice White’s signature tune (although Bailey does get his signature “badup-bows” in during the song’s choruses).
The multi-tempo track “Runnin’” featured the instrument of Philip Bailey’s voice simply uttering “bup bup bay-yow, bup bup baya baya bow” over a stellar instrumental jam. Along with the famous interludes, if nothing else, “Runnin’” showed that an EWF song doesn’t need discernible lyrics when it’s this good. For good measure, the song’s instrumental break near the end featured a listen-in of the album’s first track, “Serpentine Fire,” a not-so-subtle reminder of just how happy the band might have been with that earlier creation.
The collective work on All ‘N All showcased the band at its creative and commercial best – a combination that only a group of musicians as talented and dedicated as the members of EWF could muster and master.
The success of the album also setup several firsts for the band in 1978.
First, both “Serpentine Fire” and All ‘N All were named the No. 1 soul single and album, respectively, in Billboard’s 1978 year-end issue.
Secondly, the sales success of All ‘N All gave EWF the clout with their label Columbia Records to create its own label imprint under the Columbia distribution arm. That imprint, the American Recording Company or ARC, became the home for the band’s next several albums and singles between 1978 and 1983.
But most importantly, All ‘N All was perhaps the last of the band’s classic album period. Subsequent albums took on a decidedly more commercial direction, even delving into disco (“September” and “Boogie Wonderland”) and schmaltzy love ballads (“After The Love Has Gone”) that reflected less spiritual inspiration than the songs on All ‘N All had.
Thanks to the enduring nature of those songs, All ‘N All has earned the many accolades it received, including two Grammy awards, inclusion in Tom Moon’s book “1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die” and the source of many song samples in the more modern hip-hop era.
Today, November 21, we celebrate the iconic album’s 40th anniversary.
Thanks to the legendary members of Earth, Wind & Fire for creating a soul music masterpiece that still endures to this day.