Maurice White, who was 74 when he died last Thursday after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, was one of the guiding lights of 1970s glam soul music. As the co-founding leader of Earth, Wind & Fire – the biggest and most successful Black band during an era when George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, Kool & the Gang and the Ohio Players were also making records – White’s compositions alongside his talented contemporaries were rooted in more spiritual foundation. While his vice driven peers celebrated raunchy sex (Ohio Players) and bugged drugs (P-Funk), the EW&F posse was meditating, practicing yoga and reading their horoscopes.
“There were some people that might’ve thought our practices were corny, but these days, they know we were on the right track,” Verdine White, Maurice’s bass playing brother, told me in 2013. “When EW&F first came out, it was Maurice’s idea that we try to be more universal in both our music and what we projected to people. I think we accomplished that pretty good.”
Raised right by his Holiness church-attending grandma, White grew-up in Memphis, Tennessee, where his childhood friends included Isaac Hayes, Booker T. Jones and David Porter; they went to school together and roamed those wild southern streets, where the blues blared from nearby juke joints and gospel choirs harmonized on chapel risers. Although they lived in the poor part of town, his granny taught Maurice to aspire higher while steering him towards the greatness that awaited him outside the confines of their gritty neighborhood.
“At that time, we were called Negroes, ya dig?” White told New Music Express in 1975. “So I came up in that separation scene and had to accept a lower type of attitude about life. It taught me to be faithful to a few things and in turn, one day I’ll rule over many.” While his buddies were already deep into making music and would go on become the foundation of legendary soul label Stax, young Maurice had his mind on medicine. However, one day he peeped a set of drums at school and had an epiphany that he too might be able to play his way out of the ‘hood.
After moving with his mother and father to Chicago when he was 14, he later told a journalist, “…you might say my biggest influences was the street corners under lamp posts, just having nothing else to do but hang out.” After graduation, he attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition, but it was in the storied studios of local labels Chess, OKeah and Vee-Jay Records that White got another type of education. “That’s where I learned about the roots of music,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. “I learned about playing with feeling.”
Playing skins on sessions for Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”), Betty Everett (“You’re No Good”) and others in the day, at sundown, White could be found in smoky South Side jazz clubs with his friends Charles Stepney, who was Chess’ staff arranger and pianist, and keyboardist Ramsey Lewis. (“Maurice was a fiery drummer, but very soft-spoken,” Lewis said of his longtime pal in 2006.) Later, when the Ramsey Lewis Trio lost drummer Red Holt, it was White who its piano-playing leader asked to become his replacement. Lewis took the young drummer on the road and showed him the world while also teaching him about the business side of music publishing, the role of the manager and the particulars of setting up his own companies.
Though White was raised in the Baptist Holiness church, touring Asia in the mid-’60s led him down a whole other spiritual path. “I started studying Buddhism under an old master in Japan,” White told Rolling Stone in 1976. “I would just talk about things, and he’d give me books to read. We all live in a negative society that’s always telling us we can’t do this or that. Me being a black dude, I especially was always hearing that: ‘Color’s always going to stand in your way.’ I never believed that. Everything I dream of I can make a reality.”
Beginning with their 1976 album Spirit, his group began incorporating pyramids, pharaohs and other Egyptian imaginary into their lyrics and album cover imagery. Yet, back when he was still playing for Lewis, it was White’s spiritual curiosity that guided him towards the bigger truths to becoming a better man and musician. Having gotten in the habit of carrying notebooks, he was scribbling constantly. Some critics clowned the positivity and good vibes of his EW&F songs, White had no problem writing lyrics like “plant a flower and you grow a pearl,” as he did for “That’s The Way of the World.”
Sitting behind his kit, Maurice was a beast on the beat as he fused various styles into his own. “Maurice brought another color to drumming, playing in a variety of tempos and various drum licks,” Lewis once explained. “He was influenced by a fusion of R&B, classical and gospel music.” It was that synthesis of styles, including introducing exotic sounds such as the kalimba (the African “thumb piano”) and Latin/island rhythms, that would become the fusion formula behind Earth Wind & Fire’s biggest musical successes a few years later.
Leaving Lewis’ employ after three years, when White told the bandleader he wanted to start his own band, Ramsey thought he meant something small. He couldn’t have been more wrong. White first assembled a group with Windy City buddies Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead; they called themselves The Salty Peppers and gained a contract with Capitol Records. Unsuccessful, they left Chicago for Los Angeles, and Maurice called in his vocalist/bassist baby brother Verdine to join him. The Salty Peppers were supposed to make an album, but after poor singles sales, Capitol reneged on their record deal and dropped the group.
Although White eventually let go of all of the band’s members with the exception of Verdine, he had other plans spinning. Known for carrying around notebooks, White began jotting down ideas of the new band he envisioned, a multi–player ensemble that would combine hardcore funk with jazz, smooth R ‘n’ B and first–class musicality and showmanship. “He was on a plane,” recalled Verdine. “And he sketched it out. A band that would encompass all different types of music.” Naming the new group Earth, Wind & Fire, he signed with Warner Brothers and released two albums (Earth, Wind & Fire/The Need of Love) in 1971.
That same year, they also recorded the soundtrack for the groundbreaking blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. In an oft-told tale, director Melvin Van Peebles offered the group $500; although he got the music, the band’s check bounced. “They were starving in a little room on the edge of L.A.,” Van Peebles, who also collaborated on the music, told me in 2014. “I showed them what I wanted, and they did it. I would sing out my thoughts or hum it through, and that’s how we’d write.”
However, back at their label, White wasn’t feeling Warner Brothers’ attitude towards the group, and, after a NYC concert, he was approached by Clive Davis and signed with Columbia Records. Hiring singer/percussionist Philip Bailey, whose powerful falsetto came alive on “Reasons” and “September,” keyboardist Larry Dunn, who co-wrote more than a few songs, drummer Ralph Johnson, rhythm guitarist Al McKay and the Phenix Horns, their 1973 release Head to the Sky, featuring the singles “Evil” and “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” would be EW&F’s first platinum release, but, of course, it wouldn’t be their last.
For me, a young soul fan growing up in Harlem, I’d see Head to the Sky in my friend’s records collections, but it wasn’t until the 1975 release of their fiery That’s the Way of the World that I too became a convert, digging the infectious grooves of “Shining Star,” the lush balladry of “Reasons” (wonder how many babies were made to that song?) and the laid-back cool of the title track. Having brought in their old Chicago buddy Charles Stepney as producer, arranger and songwriter, That’s the Way of the World is widely considered a favorite among the band’s many memorable albums.
Originally, the LP was slanted to be the soundtrack to a film of the same name, in which the group starred with Harvey Keitel. The movie was a flop, but the album was a bona fide winner, considered by many critics to be their finest moment. “We just wanted to be the best band in the world,” fellow vocalist Philip Bailey said in 2006. “It wasn’t about trying to get rich. We were all just very much in love with the art, and we were willing to work, and do whatever we needed to do, to be the best that we could be. In our own minds, in our own hearts, we just wanted to lift the bar and, like Maurice used to say, be true to the art form. Let it carry you, and let it be the barometer by which you judge yourself, and not anybody else.”
Indeed, by putting in those hours of practice, EW&F became one of the best live acts of the ‘70s. Their performances were soulful spectacles for which they donned ornate clothes and utilized dope dance steps, where slick magic and sleek music shared the spotlight and left audiences worldwide dazzled and dazed. “Those shows were groundbreaking,” Verdine White said in 2013. “We had pyramids landing on stage, magic tricks and the wonderful choreography of George Faison. It was fantastic.”
Having witnessed the manifestation of their wild visions at Baltimore’s famed Civic Center in 1977, when they were on the All ‘n’ All tour, I can attest that EW&F knew how to take it to the next level – and the one after that. Screaming alongside my cousin Marie and baby bro Carlos, after opening acts Deniece Williams and Pockets performed (both acts were signed to EW&F’s company Kalimba Productions), the headliners hit the stage and turned that mutha out. I had been to concerts before, but theirs was a Afrocentric sci-fi vision of special effects including flying pyramids and band members. Watching as Verdine and his perfect Afro was lifted into the air as he plucked away at the bass like witnessing something from a futuristic circus where Sun Ra was the ringmaster.
Between 1975 and 1979, Earth Wind & Fire sold 30 million albums, won six Grammy Awards, and they even continued making new music into the ‘80s and beyond. Yet, when pressed on his opinion of the group’s best aural offerings, Bailey named his favorites as That’s the Way of the World, All ‘n’ All and I Am (1979), which contained their disco hit “Boogie Wonderland” and the aching ballad “After the Love is Gone,” co-written with David Foster. “Those records were the heart and soul of the band,” Bailey said, “To this day, the whole catalog is driven by those records.”
After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the late ‘80s, White continued working with EW&F before finally dropping out of their rigorous touring schedule in 1995. Five years later, on March 6, 2000, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to a standing ovation during the 15th annual induction dinner held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Ironically, the night of White’s death last week, TBS ran the “Little Kicks” episode of Seinfeld that showed goofy character Elaine Benes dancing dreadfully to EW&F’s wonderful “Shining Star.” Somewhere in the universe, I’m sure he was smiling.
R.I.P. Maurice White.
In addition to being a columnist for soulhead, cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.