In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Shining Star” simply is. It’s one of those songs that continues to pop up over the decades, soundtracking exultant life moments and generally making everything a tiny bit brighter whenever it’s on. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know and like “Shining Star.”
But it’s easy to live with “Shining Star” without thinking about it. Up until I sat down to write this column, I can’t remember a moment when I gave even a passing thought to what the song was about. If I did, I probably thought it was about dancing — about the moment when you’re moving well enough that you can feel people watching you. But that’s not it. “Shining Star,” like a whole lot of other songs from Earth, Wind & Fire, is all about pulling strength from the heavens and unlocking your own human potential. It’s probably the most new-age hit in disco-funk history.
“Mystic funk professional” is a strange career description, but that’s what Maurice White was. White, the stepson of a doctor, grew up in Memphis, playing music with future Stax house-band leader Booker T. As a teenager, White moved to Chicago, studied at the Chicago Conservatory Of Music, and eventually became a session drummer at Chess Records. He spent some time in the Ramsey Lewis Trio, a pretty successful jazz combo, and he joined up with a couple of local friends to form the Salty Peppers, a group who recorded a few commercial jingles and regional Midwestern hits. Somewhere along the line, he also had a personal spiritual awakening, getting really into the idea of mysticism. Eventually, the Salty Peppers became Earth, Wind & Fire, a name that had something to do with White’s astrological sign.
Earth, Wind & Fire went through a bunch of lineup changes. White moved to Los Angeles and essentially rebuilt the band from scratch. They started putting out records in 1971, and cranked out five albums in quick succession. For a few years, EWF were a minor success, landing singles on the pop charts but never getting as high as the top 20. Before they broke through, the members of the band acted in a fairly obscure movie called That’s The Way Of The World. Harvey Keitel, the movie’s star, played their manager, and EWF also did the music. As the movie was coming together, they realized that the movie was going to be a dud, so they released their album That’s The Way Of The World as a proper album, not a soundtrack, making sure that it would come out before the movie did. Their plan worked. The movie lost money and left no impression on the world, but the album was huge, and it turned them into stars.
That’s The Way Of The World is a rich and varied pop album. If EWF were any one thing, they were a funk band. There was some James Brown in their sound, and there was a whole lot of Sly & The Family Stone. EWF were plenty capable nasty, rubbery grooves. “Shining Star” is proof of that. But EWF were slicker than previous funk chart-toppers like the Ohio Players and the Average White Band, and “Shining Star” is proof of that, too. Earth, Wind & Fire had plenty of ’60s supper-club R&B in their sound; Jessica Cleaves, formerly of the Friends Of Distinction, had been a member of the band for a while. They also pulled sounds from jazz fusion and disco and Stevie Wonder. And they combined all this into a propulsive, streamlined whole. Disco hadn’t fully taken over by the time “Shining Star” hit #1, but it reminds me of post-disco stuff like Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. It’s a clean, cinematic take on a sweaty, intense sound, but it still keeps a lot of that sweaty intensity.
Maurice White started writing “Shining Star” one night while recording in Colorado; he’d blissed out on how bright the stars were in the sky that night. With bandmates Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn, he turned that feeling into a song. “Shining Star” will always work as a floor-filler, but White wrote it as an inspirational song: “You’re a shining star, no matter who you are / Shining bright to see what you could truly be.” He meant all of that.
Musically, “Shining Star” shines. The groove is serious, its spidery guitars and complicated basslines weaving in and out of each other but always pushing forward. White and Bailey share lead vocals — White going low, Bailey going high, the two of them coming together beautifully on the hook. There’s a quick triumphant face-melting rock guitar solo, and I imagine Prince learned a few things about how well that worked in the context of a funk song. And the horns always stab in at the exact right moments, working as sonic punctuation marks.
It’s all very sleek and practiced, and maybe those qualities should put the song at odds with the entire idea of funk. But “Shining Star” never sounds shallow. Instead, it’s a hell of a balancing act — all these complicated musical ideas coming together to make something that radiates a pure and simple joy. Maybe that’s why you never have to think about “Shining Star.” Maurice White and his collaborators already did all the thinking for you.
Impossibly, Earth, Wind & Fire would never get to #1 again after “Shining Star,” even though they had a long and massively successful career, and even though they got close a bunch of times. But the group had a huge effect on plenty of songs that will end up in this column eventually.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s De La Soul interpolating “Shining Star” on “What Yo Life Can Truly Be,” a 1991 B-side that featured a Tribe Called Quest, Vinia Mojica, and Black Sheep’s Dres:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the classic scene from a 1996 Seinfeld episode where Elaine attempts to dance to “Shining Star” and stuns the entire world with her general awfulness:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Roots and D’Angelo interpolating “Shining Star” on “The ‘Notic,” a track from the soundtrack of the 1997 movie Men In Black:
(D’Angelo’s highest-charting single is 1996’s “Lady,” which peaked at #10. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video that Wu-Tang Clan offshoot Sunz Of Man made for their own 1998 version of “Shining Star,” which featured Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Earth, Wind & Fire themselves: