What Made “Shining Star” Burn So Bright?

Earth, Wind & Fire courtesy of Wikimedia

The 2016 passing of Maurice White proved a good time to take a closer look at the first hit single from White and his band Earth, Wind & Fire, “Shining Star.” Maurice White had begun his musical career as a session drummer for Chess Records and a former member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Together with his brother, Verdine, White formed Earth, Wind & Fire in 1970 as a ten-piece band with three vocalists (including White) and a three-piece horn section. White’s idea was to use this large band to blend his background in blues and jazz with the soul of Motown and Stax and the funk of James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone. Their 1971 self-titled album and a follow-up failed to garner much attention. So, White broke up the band, keeping only his brother, and recruited new musicians, including vocalist Philip Bailey.

The reformed band’s first three albums showed White still searching for the band’s sound. They showcased an eclectic blend of soft rock (a cover of Bread’s “Make It With You”), folk-rock (a cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”), jazz/fusion (“Power,” “Spasmodic Movements”), and African music (“Rabbit Seed”). Often present alongside the three-piece horn section and Larry Dunn’s funky clavinet was White’s kalimba, an African thumb piano that would feature prominently in EW&F’s recordings.

By 1974, EWF’s albums and live concerts had built a large audience, mostly within the African American community. However, mainstream success still eluded the band.

The band’s breakthrough came with 1974’s That’s the Way of the World. White had been approached about writing the score to a film about the music business starring Harvey Keitel. The film was released in 1975 and promptly bombed. Fortunately, White had predicted the film’s failure and released his soundtrack in advance of the film.

“Shining Star,” the album’s opener, was written by White, Bailey, and Dunn. According to White, he was staring at the starry sky one night when he came up with the basic lyric for the song. Working with Dunn and Bailey, he managed to craft a perfect synthesis of everything the band had done before.

The song kicks off with a two-bar boogie-woogie, ragtime guitar figure in the key of E that could have come off of a Fats Domino record. Left-handed guitarist Al McKay manages to swing it just enough to make it funky. The pattern is repeated, this time doubled by Verdine White’s bass. When the introduction ends, a blast from the brass (0:11) announces the song’s funky groove and the vocals of Maurice White and Philip Bailey.

On World, White brought in a five-piece horn section, which he dubbed the Phenix Horns. Together with the band’s saxophonist, Andrew Woolfolk, and the arrangements of White and Charles Stepney, they created one of the most powerful and influential horn sections in rock history. Alan Light commented on this in the liner notes to the EW&F collection The Eternal Dance:

Rather than incorporate the horns primarily for emphasis or punctuation, as James Brown or the Stax bands had done, EW&F wove them into the arrangements, playing fluid secondary melodic lines and then unexpectedly leaping into the foreground. Along with the early recordings of such EW&F contemporaries as Kool and the Gang and the Commodores, this sound would spawn an entire school of horn-based R&B pre- and proto-disco groups, including Slave and Brass Construction.

White’s lyrics often reflected his positive outlook on life. In one sense, he was the perfect flower child, singing about love and dreams and spirituality. In “Shining Star,” White’s opening couplet sets the stage:

When you wish upon a star,
Your dreams will take you very far

In the six-line verse punctuated by brass stabs, the shining star is in the sky, a source of inspiration. In the chorus (0:47), White tells the listener that s/he is the shining star:

You’re a shining star
No matter who you are
Shining bright to see
What you could truly be

The contrast between the verse and the chorus is a key factor in the song’s success. The verses are firmly rooted in the key of E and contain one measure of vocal followed by one measure of instrumental. Tap it out, and you’ll see what I mean:

When you wish up-on a dream  (rest-2-3-4)
Life ain’t always what it seems (rest-2-3-4)

The chorus moves around the circle of fifths without consolidating around a single key. This makes the return of the verse’s E groove so satisfying. The chorus’ vocal doubles the speed of the verse by making each measure two beats of vocal and two beats of rest:

You’re a shining star (1-2)
No matter who you are (1-2)

Before the verse can return, the song’s key is further obscured with an instrumental section (0:56). In the first two bars, Dunn’s electric piano ascends and descends over an E blues scale. Then, over a series of ascending brass chords (1:02), McKay plays a jazzy solo. After four bars, the instrumental comes to a hard stop.

Two brass stabs announce the return of the verse and the main groove (1:12). This time, the verse is extended to six couplets, delaying the inevitable return of the chorus. The sparseness of the groove with it’s repeated E9 chord makes the listener long for the chorus’s return. When it does (2:09), it’s repeated three times as if in consideration for making the listener wait over a minute to hear the chorus again.

The logical choice would have been to fade out the song over repeated choruses. But, the band takes a bolder and more memorable approach. All the instruments drop out (2:38), leaving nothing but handclaps and a few bass notes. White and Bailey sing:

Shining star for you to see
What your life can truly be

The phrase is repeated a second time, while the claps and bass fade away. On the third and final time, the vocals are laid bare and boosted in volume while the echo is stripped away. This whole coda has the effect of moving the singers closer and closer until it seems as if they are singing directly in your ears. It’s as if the shining star has come down and been absorbed into the listener — a magnificent and memorable way to end the song.

“Shining Star” was Earth, Wind, and Fire’s first crossover hit, topping both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Soul Singles charts. It also earned the group the first of six Grammy Awards it would win between 1975 and 1982.

The album That’s the Way of the World would also reach the lead position on both the Pop and Black Albums charts bolstered by the other singles from the album, “Reasons” and the title track. The album was also the start of a remarkable six-year run of top 10 albums and singles for the band.

Earth, Wind & Fire were musical pioneers. Their unique blend of jazz, rock, soul, and world music along with their positive lyrics and hooky grooves influenced artists from Michael Jackson and Prince to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Living Colour to Janelle Monae and Bruno Mars. And it all started in 1974 with “Shining Star.”

Scott Freiman

Photo Credit: Earth, Wind & Fire courtesy of Craig O’Neal on Flickr by way of Wikimedia.

PS. For more on the making of great music, check out our posts David Bowie: Sometimes Three Years Are Better Than Five, These Guys Were REALLY Behind the Music, and With The Beatles, From the Beginning. And if you like Earth, Wind & Fire, you may also like Snarky Puppy’s latest release and the musical combinations you’ll find on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.

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3 comments on “What Made “Shining Star” Burn So Bright?


    Thank you, Scott
    Great choice of song and band to dig into. These guys were the soundtrack of my childhood. I was 10 years old in 1974 (which makes me REALLY old now), growing up in heart of Washington D.C. where soul and funk was a staple. “Reasons” was the first song I slow danced to at a party, and it stayed as a “makeout” mainstay for the next 6 years. We couldn’t know at the time how majestically special this band this band actually was. We just knew how supremely wonderful it felt to listen to them.
    Their sound was so clean. The vocals were perfect, yet playful. The horns were dynamic and piercing. The groove was always funky and made us move. Thank God their sound lives on forever. My kids are huge fans and play EW&F all the time. Shining Star, September, Fantasy, Let’s Groove Tonight. etc fill our house and keep us moving.

  2. Dana Mitchell

    What a beautifully written article! Scott Freiman, your extensive knowledge and passion for music and writing is revealed in your coverage of this Earth, Wind & Fire masterpiece. It touches me deeply because I, too, have always been a music lover and a student of journalism. You took music appreciation to a new level for a lay person with your inclusion of musical descriptions the average listener is oblivious to, such as the key of the song, circle of fifths, transition descriptions, other musical terms and elements of style. Best of all, you marked the exact time within the song to correspond with the techniques applied to each significant development of the song from start to finish. I’ve heard the song countless times, but with my limited knowledge of the language of music, I could’ve never described it with such accuracy and precision to an audience. After listening to the song after your synopsis, I can honestly say that my appreciation for this piece is heightened. This article was just an explanation of musical genius. Thank you for this very impressive analysis, Mr. Freiman.
    By the way, I would love to read about your description of Lenny Kravitz’s song, “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over.”

  3. David Wood

    I landed here as a result of a search for who played lead guitar on this track. I’ll echo the other commentators sentiments in regard to how well this was written and how you able to explain it to non-musicians without condescending. It really came off as a “love letter” of sorts.

    “Brilliant” and “Masterpiece” are thrown around a little too frivolously for my liking these days, but I believe this song satisfies either definition. It is a song that was truly “crafted”, as were so many of EW&F’s songs.

    I grew up a white trash kid, and when it came to music… generally only “loud, fast and stupid” would do. But, I was always a fan of theirs, (though admittedly closeted at first)…I just couldn’t justify not being, and it baffles me how anyone could. They were inescapable from about ‘74-‘82, but few people I knew ever tired of them. Not just on the radio either..their songs lent themselves to school band/drum corps arrangements, so they really were everywhere…and deservedly so, they were/are special. Again, great article.

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