5-time Grammy winner Al McKay joined Earth, Wind and Fire’s founding members, the brothers Maurice and Verdine White, in 1973 at the start of the group’s classic period. One of the most influential and innovative guitarists of his generation, McKay’s rhythm guitar was a staple ingredient of all Earth, Wind and Fire’s biggest successes, including the singles Boogie Wonderland, September, After the Love Has Gone, Let’s Groove, and Fantasy.
Right from their self-titled debut album in 1971, the group’s large and frequently changing line-up carried heavy influences of Sly Stone, whose Family Stone will be remembered for their fantastic performance at Mostly 2012. However, the first edition of the group was criticised for lacking “Sly’s sense of irony” (Rolling Stone) and for not having “any personality of their own” (Village Voice).
It was not until 1973, the year Al McKay joined, that Earth, Wind, and Fire achieved their first commercial success and critical acclaim. Open Our Eyes became number one album in the black artists’ chart, which was separate at the time. It featured top 10 singles Kalimba Story and Mighty, Mighty and stand-out track Devotion, whichremains an EWF classic.
Not long after his high school graduation in the 1960s, McKay had already found fame as Ike and Tina Turner’s guitarist. He got the job after pointing out a mistake Ike was making while rehearsing The Temptations’ Losing You. This prominence brought him to the attention of Maurice and Verdine White, and with EWF not only did his guitar mastery shine but so did his songwriting skills. McKay’s first writing credits appear on Open Our Eyes’ follow up That’s the Way of the World (1975) and next record, the double album Gratitude landed McKay his first EWF hit as main writer, Sing a Song, which reached 5 in the Billboard Hot 100 and 1 in the Soul Chart.
Reviewing EWF’s next record Spirit (1976), Billboard Magazine said the album’s “arrangements, songs, sweet floating vocal harmonies and punching instrumental phrases are all best described as impeccable”. 1977’s All ‘N’ All kept EWF at the top of the charts and featured McKay-penned I’ll Write a Song for You, which later appeared in numerous films. The album won two Grammy awards for Best R&B Vocal and Instrumental Performances. Then on November 18th 1978 came September.
Featured on compilation album The Best of Earth, Wind, and Fire, the previously unreleased single September became the band’s biggest hit to date, selling over a million copies, topping the US charts and reaching 3 in the UK. This success was closely followed by album I Am, the B-side of which began with Boogie Wonderland, a track which came to define the disco age and won McKay another Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.
After recording two more albums with EWF, Faces (1980) and Raise! (1981), which both reached the Top 10, Al McKay left the group as their popularity began to wane and he became tired of the constant touring. McKay’s career has also included writing for other artists, with his track The Best of My Love a highlight of The Emotions’ career. His Earth, Wind and Fire Experience shows sell out all around the world, and feature a stellar cast of highly accomplished musicians who do not simply rehash former glories, but instead provide an entrancing evening of straight-up funk, R&B and jazz.