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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

For my money, "Shining Star" is Earth, Wind & Fire's crowning musical achievement

On the day most associated with the group, I just had to write about them — but I had to do it my way.

Happy Earth, Wind & Fire Night, ladies and gentlemen! The magical holiday — marked from 2016 to this year by Demi Adejuyigbe's golden videos — has arrived once more.

I grew up listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and quickly came to love their songs, "September" among them. For those less familiar with the group, I'll say that "September" is a microcosm of EWF in so many ways and a shining example of how the band's whole is somehow even greater than its parts. From Maurice White and Philip Bailey trading off on vocals, to Al McKay's guitar, to Maurice's brother Verdine's infectious bass, to Larry Dunn's keyboards, to Ralph Johnson's rock-solid drums and the brassy stylings of the Phenix Horns, "September" has it all in a three-and-a-half-minute slice of late disco.

The thing is, I don't want to write about "September" today. Everyone and their mother knows the tune and has probably already heard it over the course of their Tuesday, whether they sought out the track or not. No, instead today I'm adding to my Senior Year Soundtrack a song I consider to be superior to "September" — I find, I believe it's EWF's best. That song is "Shining Star," which in its funkier leanings is even more emblematic of the band to me than "September." It also happens to be the group's only Billboard chart-topper, so make of that what you will. (For comparison, "September" peaked at #8.)

The opener and lead single from Earth, Wind & Fire's sixth album, That's the Way of the World (1975), "Shining Star" is a punchy, ridiculously funky track that doesn't ever waste any time. I'm always so surprised when I remember that the song isn't even three minutes long, because it feels so complete that I just think it's got to be longer.

From its onset, the track stands out among the band's other hits, let alone all popular music of its era. McKay's walking guitar line evokes big band-era jazz, but with a modern flare in its instrumentation. The intro is also in a less fixed tempo, with the line slowing down when Verdine's bass enters, then speeding back up in time for Dunn's keyboard flourish and the Phenix Horns' first chord stabs. All that happens within the track's first ten seconds, instantly hooking the listener with a short but intense buildup to the steady beat that follows.

As if that intro wasn't enough, the main beat thunders onto the scene. While Johnny Graham begins strumming chords, Verdine's low E, the track's lowest-pitched sound to that point, arrives with a massive impact, which is only heightened by Johnson's kick drum hitting at the same time. The bass guitar and kick drum remain married for almost the entire track, intensifying its groove with a syncopation that cuts through the instruments that play above it.

Then, a beat after the bass and kick, there's the trumpet scream of all trumpet screams, on top of the Phenix Horns' lush E minor chord. More than anything, that scream, played by Oscar Brashear, defines "Shining Star"; it's got to be the one sound that people associate with the track more than anything. Brashear's scream is followed by a fall and gives way to Larry Dunn's warm Rhodes organ chords. Dunn's impact on the track, and all of EWF's catalog, cannot be understated — he provides so much in filling out the band's sound with chords, and he also takes some wicked solo lines. Along with Dunn, Al McKay's lead guitar provides the fullness that makes "Shining Star" seem like it features even more than the dozen musicians listed in the album's liner notes.

Of course, co-producer Charles Stepney's role in arranging and mixing everything going into such a maximalist instrumental backing must be recognized and lauded. Stepney always knew how to get the big sounds a track needed, as we saw in one of my early posts on Marlena Shaw's "California Soul." It's a shame that Stepney died so young the following year, given what he had already accomplished in his career.

(Remember, Stepney is a producer, not a performer, so by my rules I can put multiple of his productions into my Senior Year Soundtrack. Imagine if I decided not to repeat producers; the pop landscape would be wiped out after one Max Martin production.)

...Can you tell I love this track yet? I've gone over 4300 characters into this article without even getting into the lyrics. Speaking of them, they tend to fall on the aspirational and motivational side of things, speaking to everyone's potential for greatness. The opening quatrain is definitely the most intriguing to me:

When you wish upon a star
Your dreams will take you very far, yeah
But when you wish upon a dream
Life ain't always what it seems, oh yeah

Yeah, maybe Pinocchio isn't the best movie from which to take advice. Maurice White reminds us that our dreams only have a chance of coming true if we keep putting in the work to make them more possible. We all have the ability to do great things, but we have to harness that ability in order to see results. The title-stating chorus furthers this idea, as Philip Bailey and White state that our shining star is "shining bright to see / what you can truly be."

The chorus also introduces the song's biggest harmonic development, with the chords shifting to a move around the circle of fifths: A Major, then D Major, then G Major, then C Major (with various extensions). One could argue that the entire verse, then, is a long dominant chord that sets up the chorus... but that's not how we really hear the verse, is it? The tonal center shifts for the chorus — and I'd say it shifts to C Major, considering it's the final chord in the cycle and Bailey's melody consists of C Major chord tones — in a way that makes its harmony independent from that of the verse.

After the first chorus, the song returns to the verse harmony through a short feature of Dunn on the keys, then a shredding blues rock-like solo by Al McKay before the second verse begins. If it weren't for the Phenix Horns providing climbing chords in back of the lick, I'd be more inclined to think the solo was from Jimmy Page on some late-era Led Zeppelin track than from Earth, Wind & Fire. As out of place as it might sound from my description, though, the solo fits beautifully within the song. EWF were (and still are) all about fusing all sorts of genres to make their signature sound, and they knew (know) just how to weave superficially disparate elements together to make a cohesive whole.

As much as I love the whole track, it may be weird for you to read that my (and my father's) favorite part of "Shining Star" is the ending. I find it so satisfying when songs properly conclude, and I've found no better or more unique ending in all the Western popular music I've listened to than "Shining Star." It's a sort of tag ending, but one that goes in the minimal direction, opposite the entire song up to that point. The lyrics — a contraction of the chorus ("Shining star for you to see / What your life can truly be") — repeat each time, over an instrumental backing that gradually gets sparser. The first time, it's just Verdine's bass, McKay's guitar, Johnson's kick drum, and claps. The second time, the percussion drops out, and the bass and guitar then fade out. The third and final time, Stepney kills the long-tailed reverb that's been on the singers the entire track, leaving just the bone-dry vocal harmonies. It's an ending that sticks with you once you hear it, because it's a) so unique, b) so catchy, and c) so different from the entire rest of the track, the very beginning aside. Perhaps it was meant to almost mirror the way the song begins; that's not something I'd thought of until tonight, but now I can definitely hear it that way.

Man, what a jam-packed track — and it's only two minutes and fifty seconds long. It's truly incredible that so much musical material can be put into that little time and not feel overcrowded or cluttered. That's the magic of Earth, Wind & Fire and Charles Stepney, in their ability to push musical limits while keeping a pop sensibility. It's the reason why "Shining Star," among other stellar tracks, has endured as a beacon of sonic creativity and bliss for nearly a half-century. Happy EWF Night, indeed.


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