Earth, Wind & Fire Advocated Positivity Through Harmony In Ways That Were Unapologetically Black, Super Cool, Joyous and Empowering. And It Was All By Maurice White’s Design.
Yesterday, we learned that Maurice White, the legendary founder and leader of perhaps the greatest band in the history of music, Earth, Wind & Fire, passed away at the age of 74.
Like most home-grown ‘70s kids, I was an Earth, Wind & Fire fan as much for the music as their aesthetic. I’d stare at my father’s album covers, hundreds of rows, stacks and stacks of albums resting keenly against cinder blocks, piled high on shelves, and lying on the hardwood floor of our apartment.
Out of thousands, the ones I stared at the longest were the disembodied head on Maggot Brain, the thigh-high silver metallic boots of Betty Davis, the cutie-pie faces of Frankie Lymon and The Jackson 5, the melting record on Heatwave’s Too Hot to Handle and the too-cool-for-school, iconic striking-a-pose album cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s The Way of the World where Larry Dunn, impeccably turned out, is both air-borne and laughing, Phillip Bailey is giving the player pose, and a bare-chested Ralph Johnson has the screw face.
Earth, Wind & Fire was unapologetically black, super cool, joyous and empowering, and it was all by Maurice White’s design, who propelled the group to become one of the most commercially successful black bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, selling over ninety million albums worldwide.
“I haven’t met a band member of his caliber yet,” said the group's former manager and promotions director Perry Jones, who has worked with artists like Charles Wright, Little Richard, Herbie Hancock and Prince. “His philosophy was right on time. The way he expressed to me what he wanted and how he saw the music business and how he saw his music changing the business and taking it to a higher level. He totally captivated me.”
“The drugs, alcohol, and bad behavior of musicians...he wasn’t interested in none of that,” Jones continued. “He was interested in uplifting our image. He read a lot and was well versed in all of the religions, he kept to a strict vegetarian diet, and he had a pill box full of vitamins. He practiced what he preached. We would get up in the morning and run three or four miles in the Los Angeles Sunset mountains every day.”
“What made Earth Wind and Fire significant was that they were an all-black band, and they set out to prove that an all-black band could be a major group,” said author and professor Todd Steven Burroughs. “They were trying to make a philosophical and cultural statement coming out of the Civil Rights movement and Black Power Movement into the ‘70s. They made that statement, and that’s why that music still resonates and why they are the only group that came out of that time period that continues to make albums.”
(Photo Credit: USA Today)
Maurice White said he was hoping to offer African-Americans, after the assassinations of black leaders in the ‘60s which fueled a new Black Renaissance in the ‘70s, “…a greater freedom from restrictions we had placed on ourselves in terms of our individual potential,” he told Rolling Stone magazine.
And it worked. Keyboardist and musical director Larry Dunn told me that they had a lot of fans coming to them and thanking them after the shows, calling them and sending letters. “One brother said, ‘Because of you, I got off heroin.’”
White, though, was an enigma.
Most people know less about the man, and more about his vision.
A doctor’s son, Maurice White was born in Memphis, Tennessee on December 19, 1941. He got into music early as a soloist in the gospel choir. He and his grade school buddy, Booker T. Jones, started a jazz quartet with Maurice on the drums, before his family moved to Chicago at the height of Chicago’s Black Renaissance.
Trumpeter Phil Cohran, who had played with Sun Ra for years and was equally adept at playing world, classical and African music, would become a major influence to him. Cohran was interested in the religions of the world and introduced concepts of healthy living, vegetarianism, spirituality, astrology, and Egyptology for people that were interested at the Afro-Arts Theater on Oakwood and Drexel Boulevards in the city.
Oscar Brown Jr. and Syl Johnson would be there, and a young Maurice White would occasionally come by and sit by Cohran’s band side, absorbing the happenings while listening to Cohran play a Frankiphone he created, which was really just an electrified kalimba.
White eventually played with a group called the Jazzmen in Chicago, which featured part of what would become Earth, Wind & Fire’s famous horn section, the Phenix horns, with Don Myrick on alto saxophone and Louis Satterfield on trombone.
He left to become a session musician for Chess Records playing on hits like Fontella Bass’s "Rescue Me” and Billy Stewart’s “I Do Love You,” among hundreds of others. It was here that he met another musician that would influence and mentor him, Ramsey Lewis.
Lewis described White as so shy and reserved that he would talk in a whisper, and when it was time to take a bow he would only halfway stand up. When Lewis invited him to play drums for the Ramsey Lewis trio, Maurice started to open up to him on the road.
Maurice carried a daybook, jotting down ideas – musical, spiritual and philosophical. He wrote down what his band would look like; that it would cater to college kids who were looking for a new free form of expression. That band had nine members. After seeing an astrologist, he named the group Earth, Wind & Fire, after the elements of his astrological chart.
And White eventually came out of his shell.
“That signature growl, ‘Yooowwww’, that came from his gospel roots,” said Jones. “But the truth is Maurice wasn’t a real good dancer, so all those motions and ad-libs you saw on the stage, he was like, ‘I gotta do something so---Yoowww!!’ But when it came to him playing that kalimba, those first five rows of women went crazy. Panties came off!”
Through several incarnations, including the only two female members of the group, jazz singer Sherry Scott, and one of the most beautiful voices to ever sing, Jessica Cleaves, Earth Wind and Fire found their unique sound with the collaborative effort of White, producer Charles Stepney, and Clive Davis. Cleaves was later replaced by the four-octave falsetto oracle that is Philip Bailey.
They made history by creating the soundtrack of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, selling the album in the foyers of the theater.
In 2000, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Individually, White was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
He played drums for hundreds of artists including Sugar Pie De Santo, Minnie Riperton, Barbra Streisand, Etta James, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. He co-produced with Charles Stepney for Deniece Williams and for The Emotions. White also co-wrote songs for Barry Manilow and even recorded a solo album when the band was on hiatus in the ‘80s.
He stopped touring with the group in the ‘80s with the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
“My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep,” said bassist Verdine White on a Facebook post. “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.”
Their pyrotechnic-filled shows and songs like the Latin-soul cut “Power”, the collared-green funky “Mighty Mighty,” the roller-skating jam “On Your Face,” ballads like “Can’t Hide Love,” the Motown-esque “I Think About Loving You,” and the popular favorites: “Reasons”; “Imagination”; “Serpentine Fire,”“September,”“Got to Get You Into My Life,” "Would You Mind," “Shining Star” and “Fantasy”, will resonate with fans for many generations because of White’s vision to make music that was otherworldly.
White fulfilled his wish. He wanted his music to inspire, not just to entertain.
“The creation of the group, the music, having the band travel to Egypt, Maurice playing the kalimba, it was really spiritual for him,” said Jones. “It was like he went back to Africa. That’s what he was reaching for, and how we all evolved and came to be what we became.”