published Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Funky and fabulous: Earth, Wind & Fire's Verdine White honored with Rossville-made bass

Verdine White's custom-made bass guitar took more than 700 hours to build. It is made of blessed olive wood from Jerusalem, hand-rubbed ebony and sugar rock maple from Vermont. The headstock and fret board have more than 500 LED lights.
Verdine White's custom-made bass guitar took more than 700 hours to build. It is made of blessed olive wood from Jerusalem, hand-rubbed ebony and sugar rock maple from Vermont. The headstock and fret board have more than 500 LED lights.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Presenting the Zymol Lifetime Achievement Award, a bass guitar, to Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White, center, are Warrior Bass CEO JD Lewis, left, and Zymol CEO Chuck Bennett.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

When Warrior Instruments in East Ridge turned out its first hand-made bass guitars 20 years ago, the exotic hard woods and detailed inlay work had more than a few people saying they were almost too pretty to play. They could hang on the wall as decorative art.

People did play them, of course, and Warrior guitars are still beautiful and players around the world are making music with them. One of those guys is now Verdine White, a founding member of Earth, Wind & Fire and half of the rhythm section behind such funk classics as "Boogie Wonderland," "Shining Star" and "Let's Groove."

Warrior, which is now in Rossville, Ga., was asked by Zymol, makers of finish and care products for instruments -- and autmobiles, too -- to create the 2013 Zymol Lifetime Achievement Award for White, and Warrior CEO J Dran "J.D." Lewis delivered a custom-made bass to White in Las Vegas in late August.

As if the bass wasn't special enough with its blessed olive wood from Jerusalem, sugar rock maple from Vermont and hand-rubbed ebony, technician Scott Lee used LEDs to backlight several of the mother-of-pearl inlays on the neck, including EWF's iconic phoenix symbol. The Warrior logo on the headstock is also back lit.

From his Tampa office, Zymol CEO Chuck Bennett says the bass is "gorgeous" and that "J.D. is a master."

"That guy does things that most luthiers never even think of doing," he says. "The woods he uses and the attention to detail are phenomenal."

"Luthier," by the way, is a fancy name for people who work on stringed instruments.

Even for Warrior, the White bass is unique, Lewis says.

"We've done LED before, but this is the first LED headstock I've ever seen," Lewis says. "It was unbelievable. It has a tone like an old-school jazz bass, but it has the modern funk and R&B sounds that he [White] plays also."

Attempts to reach White for comment were unsuccessful.

Lewis says he and rest of the Warrior crew -- his wife Anna Lewis, sons Dran Michael and Gabriel Lewis, Lee and Mark Corder -- put in around 700 man hours on the White bass. Just designing and building the wooden part of the instrument was difficult because of the exotic materials used, he says, but the difficulty of getting the electronics into the bass rated 10 on a 10 scale.

"It was pretty complicated."

Warrior builds about 150 instruments a year; all are handmade and most are fitted to the buyer, Lewis says. Among others, it is currently building three guitars for Rick Derringer, famous for 1973's hit single "Rock and Roll, Hootchie Koo" and the guitarist on the Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein."

A former bass player himself, Bennett credits Lewis, as well as his own son, who plays Warrior instruments, with convincing him to expand the Zymol product line into musical instruments several years ago. Bennett says he hadn't touched a bass in 30 years, but his son had Lewis secretly create a custom-made bass for his birthday. When it arrived, Bennett was stunned to see it, but even more shocked to find that the design included the names of his six children as well as a carving of the tree of life.

"It's the identical carving I have on the wall in my bedroom, which my son had not seen because it is a new house," Bennett says. "J.D. is a devoted Christian and neither of us believe in coincidences. We are just playing out what has already been determined."

Bennett says it was a series of such events that prompted him to honor EWF's White in a public way.

"He was such an influence on me when I was playing, and we wanted to let people know about our new product and we desperately want people to understand that, without the arts, we might as well go back to living in caves," he says.

While at a North American Music Merchant convention, Bennett ran into a representative for a piano manufacturer and, during their conversation, the rep says he thought the guys in Earth, Wind & Fire would benefit from his product. A short while late, the idea for the Lifetime Achievement award was hatched.

Bennett plans to give out more awards in the future and also wants to match custom instrument makers with the recipient. He says the awards might go to another lifetime achievement recipient or they might go to a student displaying remarkable passion.

For now, he looks forward to seeing and hearing White play his new Warrior.

"I have heard from people that Verdine loves the bass and is bringing it to practice. Yes, they do practice still. Amazing. But, I hear they are planning something special for when they will using it on stage. Something with special lighting and effects."

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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