Maurice White: Earth Wind & Fire legacy of musical brilliance
Maurice White and Philip Bailey during an Earth Wind & Fire concert at The Greek Theater July 02, 2003
Maurice White: ‘Being joyful and positive was the objective of our group … to reach all people and to keep a universal atmosphere — to create positive energy.’
LOS ANGELES — “So sad we lost a legend. Maurice White has gone on to his Boogie Wonderland. RIP Maurice; it will always be September. I’ll never stop watching “That’s The Way Of The World” — a deep masterpiece. Earth Wind & Fire Forever.” lamented one fan among tens of millions worldwide.
“‘That’s the Way of the World’ [was] my all time favorite EWF album. I remember singing ‘Reasons’ with my cousin on Bigelow Street in Cincinnati, Ohio. RIP Maurice White,” recalled another.
Another EWF aficionado asked — “OK, in memory of Maurice, what do you think are his best EWF songs that he’s sung basically by himself, and with him and Philip sharing?” The fan went on to say, “Mine are ‘Burnin’ Bush,’ and probably ‘Be Ever Wonderful.’ With sharing, ‘Shining Star’ may be the best, but I’m also partial to ‘Blood Brothers.’”
Another chimed in recalling riding around a small North Carolina town with friends on weekends in a Pontiac Bonneville in the mid-70s listening to EWF on 8-track tapes — “some of the best music ever — ‘Gratitude’ and ‘That’s the Way of the World,’ over and over again.”
This writer has his own fond memories. To me, Maurice White and Earth Wind & Fire are synonymous with bell bottom trousers, hot pants, platform shoes, psychedelic threads, Afros, apple hats, and Maverick’s Flat, the venerable Los Angeles dance club that became the hottest spot for “baby boomers” seeking an evening’s respite from a week of college rigors — especially on Thursday’s “College Night,” for some dance floor invigoration with inducement from artists like Maurice White and EWF.
That was me in the 1970s.
Untold millions came to know Maurice White, the guiding force of EWF, who founded the group in 1969. EWF’s unmatched musical stylings were the rave at night l.A.’s hippest venues — Bahama Mamas, Mavericks Flat, Juke Box Jewelry, Blueberry Hill, Carolina West, The Climaxx, Chicago West, and New York Subway, sliding across waxed dance floors to frenetic hits like EWF’s “Boogie Wonderland,” “Shining Star,” “Sing a Song,” and “Mighty Mighty,” boogieing to the “Bump,” “Rock Steady,” the “James Brown,” and the “Campbell Lock.”
These are my memories of Maurice White and his art that enabled me to negotiate the mid-to-late 70s in the midst of the Vietnam War, and Watergate eras. We kept our “Heads to the Sky,” and pondered many “Reasons” for the turbulence from the TET Offensive in 1969 in Southeast Asia to Watergate and the impeachment of the 37th president of the United States, Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon.
For more than a decade, EWF was one of the leading acts in America, with horn-driven, vocally intricate and often uplifting songs that became the soundtrack of a generation.
Noted Allmusic.com, “The band could harmonize like a smooth Motown group, work a simmering groove like the J.B.’s or improvise like a jazz fusion outfit.”
But the horns were only part of the equation. White shared vocals with longtime member Philip Bailey, whose wide vocal range and gorgeous falsetto were a signature of the group.
Then there were the stage shows, as colorful and sometimes mystical as the group’s often unusual album covers. It was the “Psychedelic Era.”
It was all part of a joyful noise, White told Songwriter Universe.
“Being joyful and positive was the whole objective of our group. Our goal was to reach all the people and to keep a universal atmosphere — to create positive energy,” he said. “All of our songs had that positive energy. To create uplifting music was the objective.”
A string of hits
White was born in 1941 in Memphis and moved to Chicago as a teenager. As a session drummer for Chess Records, he played on records by such notables as Etta James and Fontella Bass. He later joined the popular jazz group the Ramsey Lewis Trio where he was introduced to the kalimba, an African thumb piano he would use extensively in future projects, according to Billboard.
He left Lewis’ group in 1969 to join forces with keyboardist Don Whitehead and singer Wade Flemons, who became founding members of EWF, named for the three elements in White’s astrological charts. His brother joined the lineup in 1970, and the band signed with Warner Bros.
Critics were impressed, and they began to amass a cult following. It would take a few personnel changes, mainly, the addition of Bailey, before the band hit their stride. There were plenty other top bands — LTD, Commodores, Parliament — but none stood taller than Earth Wind & Fire, truly a band like no other.
EWF scored its first top 10 hit on the R&B charts with “Mighty Mighty” off “Open Our Eyes,” which eventually went gold. Their next album, the film soundtrack “That’s the Way of the World,” shot to the top of the R&B and pop charts, overshadowing the movie of the same name thanks in part to “Shining Star.” The single also was a crossover hit, bringing the band mainstream success.
White used the profits to develop EWF’s live show into a lavish, effects-filled extravaganza. He brought on magician Doug Henning to design stunts and the Phoenix Horns to provide a regular horn section, headed by saxophonist Don Myrick. The concert experience was chronicled on the double-LP “Gratitude” in 1975, which became their second straight No. 1 album and featured hits “Sing a Song” and the ballad “Can’t Hide Love.”
The next decade brought a string of top 10 albums and singles, including “Fantasy” and “Serpentine Fire” off the 1977 album “All n’ All”; a cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” from the film version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band;” and The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1’s “September.”
White stayed otherwise occupied in the 1970s by starting his own label, ARC, and producing other acts, including Deniece Williams and the Emotions, who topped the pop charts with the White-helmed hit, “Best of My Love.” EWF’s 1979 album, “I Am,” its sixth straight multi-platinum album, featured the Emotions on “Boogie Wonderland.”
EWF’s contributions to music and pop culture were acknowledged in their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. In the week leading up to the induction ceremony, White revealed he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which contributed to his withdrawal from the stage.
And yet he continued recording and performing with the band throughout the 2000s. The White brothers — Maurice and Verdine — and Bailey were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010 along with EWF band mates Larry Dunn and Al McKay.
White’s influence was evident in tributes from a wide range of entertainers, from Quincy Jones to Questlove.
“Thoughts and prayers with the family of our dear brother Maurice White,” Jones said on Twitter. “Your contributions to music will be kept in our hearts and souls forever.”
CNN contributed to this story.