Andrew Woolfolk, whose soaring soprano saxophone put some air into the classic Earth, Wind, & Fire lineup, died on Sunday at the age of 71.
His passing was confirmed by the band’s vocalist Philip Bailey in an Instagram post. No exact cause has been given, but after noting that Woolfolk had been ill for “over 6 years,” Bailey wrote, “He has Transitioned on to the forever, from this Land of the dying to the Land of the Living. Great memories. Great Talent. Funny. Competitive. Quick witted. And always styling. Booski… I’ll see you on the other side, my friend.”
Born October 11th, 1950 in Texas, Woolfolk’s formative years were spent in Colorado, where he attended a Denver high school with Bailey. After graduation, he moved to New York City and studied saxophone with jazz great Joe Henderson until 1973, when Bailey made him an offer that changed his life.
At the time, Earth, Wind, & Fire had already put out three studio albums and performed on the soundtrack to the iconic Blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. But in 1973, saxophonist/flautist Ronnie Laws left the group, and Bailey tapped one of his oldest friends as the replacement.
Woolfolk’s first album with Earth, Wind, & Fire, 1974’s Head to the Sky, became their first platinum record. He stayed with the band through an incredible run of classics that included That’s the Way of the World, Spirit, All ‘n All, I Am, and Raise!
Earth, Wind, & Fire went on hiatus following the release of 1983’s Electric Universe, and Woolfolk entered a second act as a session musician. He guested on Bailey’s solo albums, 1984’s The Wonders of His, and 1986’s Triumph, which won a Grammy Award for Best Male Gospel Performance, while also working with artists including Deniece Williams and Valerie Carter.
Woolfolk participated in the Earth, Wind, & Fire reunion in 1987 before leaving the group for good in 1993. As part of the Vine Street Horns, he blew his way onto Phil Collins’ beloved 1996 solo record Dance Into the Light. In 2000, along with the rest of Earth, Wind, & Fire, Woolfolk was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.