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From 1973 to 1981, Al McKay co-wrote and played guitar on an entire generation’s life soundtrack with Earth, Wind & Fire—the most sophisticated funk band of its time. But the mighty McKay’s locomotive style had been around plenty before propelling Earth, Wind & Fire to fame as one of the most visionary and successful bands of the 1970s. Prior to that he’d also done stints with The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, and Gladys Knight. If that ain’t a funk pedigree, what is?
EW&F augmented its dense, syncopated sound and catchy pop hooks with spirituality, uplifting messages, and elements of world music (before it was called that)—all of which was a big contrast to the party funk bands of the time. On chart-topping hits such as “September,” “Fantasy,” and “Sing a Song,” McKay used a variety of left-handed vintage instruments—his favorite was a ’72 Gibson ES-335—and either a modified Roland JC-120 or a Vox Super Beatle to lay out a buffet of funk guitar styles, from muted triads and swinging rock licks to sliding octave work and lush, major-7th embellishments. And his sense of time was freakish—just listening to his relentless rhythm work on “Getaway” makes your arm tired!
McKay considers feel and groove to be his God-given forte. “My gift is finding the pocket of the song,” he says. “Once I set the pocket, everybody plays to me. I came up with these grooves. This is how Maurice White and I wrote. All the songs we wrote came out of me sitting in the tuning room, tuning up before we went onstage. I’d just start playing. He’d hear it and start singing something. He’d come in the room and say, ‘What’s that?’ I’d say, ‘Nothin’.’ He’d say, ‘Tape that!’ We’d put the tape recorder on and we’d write three or four songs that way. Big songs!”