The date was February 3, 2016. It was the date marked by the death of talented musician and founder of the group Earth, Wind & Fire: Maurice White. There was so much activity in my life at the time, his death seemed like just another news headline. I first heard the news as I was driving and listening to the radio. The shock of the announcement was quickly tempered by the words of the radio DJ. Immediately he spoke of the legacy of all the music Maurice White left for us to hear forever. The radio station paid tribute the best possible way; they played Earth, Wind & Fire music. Not only that day, but for the rest of the week. Yes, for a master musician like White, the best honor would definitely be to listen to his body of work. I’m sure if you asked him how he wanted to be remembered, he would want us to listen to the music he created over the years.
As I think back upon my high school years, Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire music was a fixture as I developed musically. During the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Earth, Wind & Fire produced arguably its greatest musical work, and I was right there growing musically and feeling the influence of the detailed arrangements and productions. Of course, my father (a jazz musician) greatly influenced me to start arranging music, but Maurice White had a profound effect upon my development as I prepared for college music courses. I could discern easily that Earth, Wind & Fire music was unlike any other music at the time. The music was technically well constructed, and required a great deal of musical proficiency to perform and/or analyze. The label of genius might be placed upon too many modern musical artists, but it certainly fit well upon the shoulders of Maurice White. I can’t imagine a time, even far into the future, when people will not enjoy the music of Earth, Wind & Fire.
There are several clues to be found in Maurice White’s background that explain his development into the musician who wore many hats simultaneously. He will forever be known as a singer-songwriter, record producer, arranger and bandleader. White was born in Memphis, Tennessee, December 19, 1941. He grew up in South Memphis, where he lived with his grandmother in the Foote Homes Projects and was a childhood friend of Booker T Jones. He made frequent trips to Chicago to visit his mother, Edna, and stepfather, Verdine Adams, who was a doctor and occasional saxophonist. In his teenage years, he moved to Chicago and studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, and played drums in local nightclubs. By the mid-1960s he found work as a session drummer for Chess Records. While at Chess, he played on the records of artists such as Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Sonny Stitt, Muddy Waters, the Impressions, the Dells, Betty Everett, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Buddy Guy. By 1966, he joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio.As a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Maurice played on nine of the group’s albums, including Wade in the Water (1966), from which the track “Hold It Right There” won a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental in 1966. In 1969, White left the Trio and joined his two friends, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, to form a songwriting team who wrote songs for commercials in the Chicago area. The three friends got a recording contract with Capitol Records and called themselves the Salty Peppers. White moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, and altered the name of the band to Earth, Wind & Fire, the band’s new name reflecting the elements in his astrological chart.
With Maurice as the bandleader and producer of most of the band’s albums, EWF earned legendary status winning six Grammy Awards out of a staggering 14 nominations, a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, and four American Music Awards. The group’s albums have sold over 90 million copies worldwide. Other honors bestowed upon Maurice as a member of the band included inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, The Songwriters Hall of Fame and The NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. However, more important than all of the awards should be the many musicians who have been influenced by the way Maurice White worked to create his sound. Of course, most musicians develop a particular style, but Maurice White’s style was underlined by what I call complete arrangements and productions. White brought the kalimba into mainstream use by incorporating its sound into the music of Earth, Wind & Fire. He was also responsible for expanding the group to include a full horn section – the Earth, Wind & Fire Horns, later known as the Phenix Horns. Then there was his production work with other artists that also featured the same sound elements as with Earth, Wind & Fire. Most notably White worked with two of my favorite acts: Deniece Williams and The Emotions. Both enjoyed great mainstream success with Maurice White in the production chair.
White began showing signs of the Parkinson’s disease in 1987, and was finally forced to retire from Earth Wind & Fire in 1994. He retained executive control of the band and was still very active in the music business, producing and recording with the band and other artists. After White retired from performing, I really missed his presence on stage with EWF. I still had so many albums and regularly listened. In fact, I listened to the Millennium album earlier before completing this post. One of the great things is that EWF continues to perform today. Yes, many old members are gone, but Phillip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Verdine White (Maurice White’s brother) continue to keep the EWF flame burning. Verdine’s words on facebook sums up Maurice White’s life and musical contributions well. His words helped me to understand the person that lived with his family outside all of the music.
“My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep. While the world has lost another great musician and legend, our family asks that our privacy is respected as we start what will be a very difficult and life changing transition in our lives. Thank you for your prayers and well wishes”.