Obituary: Maurice White
Founder and leader of Earth, Wind & Fire, the biggest, showiest black music band of the 1970s
Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30
Maurice White, who died on Thursday aged 74, was the singer, songwriter, producer and guiding force behind Earth, Wind & Fire, the biggest black music act of the 1970s and the most popular group in the history of American soul, funk and R&B.
Incorporating disco-friendly elements of jazz, rock, pop, Latin American and African music styles, and with White's tenor alternating on vocals with Philip Bailey's falsetto, E,W&F notched up some 26 gold and platinum hits, including 'September'; 'Boogie Wonderland'; 'Fantasy'; 'After the Love Has Gone'; 'Shining Star'; and a cover of the Beatles' 'Got to Get You Into My Life'.
E,W&F was the first black-American group to champion its African cultural heritage, through extravagant stage costumes, mystical album cover art and the introduction of the kalimba, a small African thumb-piano that added a traditional element to their sound.
With the help of the choreographer George Faison and "hippie magician" Doug Henning and his assistant, a young David Copperfield, the group were also known for their elaborate shows - full of laser lights, flying pyramids and levitating guitarists - reflecting White's interest in astrology and Egyptology.
The extravagance, however, was strictly confined to the stage; band members never succumbed to the drink and drugs lifestyle that brought a premature end to many other R&B careers. According to White's brother and fellow band member Verdine White, it was Maurice (known to bandmates as "Reece"), who kept them on the straight and narrow.
"We had fun but not like crazy," Verdine recalled. "[Maurice] was a great taskmaster, a great visionary."
By 1987, however, White was showing signs of the Parkinson's disease that would force him to retire in 1994. While his fellow band members continued to enjoy success, at least White did not have to put up with the inevitable jokes prompted by the revelation that their 30th anniversary tour in 2001 was being sponsored by Viagra.
Maurice White was born on December 19, 1941, in Memphis, Tennessee, and brought up by his grandmother, though he made frequent trips to stay with his mother and stepfather, a doctor, in Chicago.
As a boy, he sang in a church choir and was inspired to become a drummer by watching local marching bands.
"I saw the guys in the band playing drums - they had on shiny suits and were getting all the attention from the girls," he recalled. "So I decided: that's what I want to do."
White attended Booker T Washington High School, Memphis, where he was in the drum corps and formed a "cookin' little band" with his friend Booker T Jones (later of Booker T and the MGs). After leaving school, he studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and played drums in local nightclubs. By the mid-1960s, he had become a session player at the city's Chess record company studios, backing stars such as Etta James and Muddy Waters.
By 1966, he had joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio, replacing Isaac "Red" Holt on drums. Over the next three years, he played on nine of the jazz trio's albums, including Wade in the Water (1966). White described Lewis as his "mentor".
He left the Lewis trio after three years to form the Salty Peppers with Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead. Moving to Los Angeles the next year, he renamed the band Earth, Wind & Fire (after the three elements in his Sagittarian astrological sign), adding his brother, the bassist Verdine White, and others to the line-up, and signing with Warner Bros.
The group recorded two albums for Warner, neither of which sold well, and then disbanded. Then, White recruited a new band, retaining only his brother Verdine and including the percussionist and vocalist Philip Bailey.
The new line-up signed with Columbia Records, changed their musical direction from what White described as "kinda wild, almost avant-garde," and went on to stardom; nearly all of their 1970s hits were produced, and most were written or co-written, by White.
"I've got gospel in me, I've got blues, I've got rhythm and blues, rock, pop," he explained. "I've got all of those inside me."
After reaching the US Top 40 in 1974 with 'Mighty Mighty', E,W&F broke through to a wider audience with the soundtrack to the otherwise forgettable That's the Way of the World (1975), a film featuring Harvey Keitel as a scheming record label boss and the band as his dupes. The album produced two hits, 'Reasons', and 'Shining Star', turning the group into one of the most popular bands of the decade.
Even the death in 1976 of Charles Stepney, White's co-producer on three albums, could not slow their momentum. In the late 1970s, they had five double platinum albums, and a multi-platinum "best-of" collection that yielded the hit single 'September', which reached No 3 in the UK chart in 1978. It was one of four Top 10 hits the group enjoyed in Britain, the others being 'After the Love Has Gone' (No 4) and 'Boogie Wonderland' (No 4) in 1979, and 'Let's Groove' (No 3) in 1981.
After that, however, sales started to decline. Their 1983 album, Electric Universe, an attempt to keep pace with synthesiser technology, failed to produce a hit and the group disbanded.
White broadened his horizons by producing both Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, but a solo album flopped and, in 1987, E,W&F reformed, making a triumphant return with the album, Touch the World, which went gold. A second greatest-hits package went gold the following year. By the 2005 album, Illumination, White had left the stage, although he continued to write and produce for the band.
E,W&F was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and White into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 2010. He is survived by his wife and two children.