Maurice White was the visionary founder and mentor of Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the biggest-selling, most garlanded bands of all time. Drawing on Egyptian mythology and imagery and exuding a heady, contagious positivity, he blended the Gospel, rhythm’n’blues, soul, funk and pop in which he was steeped during his late teens and early twenties as a session musician at Chess Records in Chicago.
The drummer, singer, composer, arranger and producer added a couple of irresistible touches to EWF – the blasting Memphis horns section, and the vocal interplay between Philip Bailey’s falsetto and his own rich tenor.
Along with the kalimba, the African thumb piano that featured on each of the group’s albums and trademarked their production company, these elements helped EWF stand out from the crowd of fellow travellers like Kool & The Gang. They also made EWF chart mainstays and dancefloor fillers throughout the late 1970s and early ’80s with “Fantasy”, “September”, “Boogie Wonderland” (recorded with the Emotions and awarded a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance in 1979, one of six Grammys EWF received), “After The Love Has Gone”, “Star” and “Let’s Groove”, Transatlantic Top 20 hits that have remained radio recurrents and testimony to White’s genius as an all-rounder ever since.
“We’ve touched so many people with these songs. The whole objective was to try and inspire young people to believe in themselves and to follow through on their ideas,” said White. He also produced “Free”, the languid 1976 UK No 1 by Deniece Williams, co-wrote the slamming “Best Of My Love”, another British Top 5 smash for the Emotions in 1977, worked with Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond, and issued an eponymous solo album in the mid-’80s.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a decade later and forced to retire from touring. He left his stepbrother, the bassist Verdine White, Bailey and the percussionist Ralph Johnson, mainstays since 1972, in charge of the formidable current line-up of EWF that triumphed at the Proms In The Park broadcast from London’s Hyde Park on Radio 2 in 2014.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1941, White grew up with musicians like Booker T Jones, later of Stax Records and the MGs fame, but was drawn towards Chess after his mother remarried, to a podiatrist, and moved to Chicago, where Maurice took up drumming. He recorded with the Dells, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Betty Everett, Buddy Guy, the Impressions, Etta James and Muddy Waters, contributing to epochal mid-’60s singles like “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass and “Summertime” by Billy Stewart, as well as nine albums by the Ramsey Lewis Trio, including 1966’s seminal set Wade In The Water, on which they adapted Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Motown material.
In 1969, he began writing jingles and commercials and issued a brace of singles under the name the Salty Peppers before moving to Los Angeles, where he developed the EWF concept, inspired by the three elements in his astrological chart. Following a couple of false starts on Warner Bros, they came to the attention of Clive Davis, who had signed the horn-heavy Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago Transit Authority to Columbia; he bought out their contract in 1972. Another stepbrother, Fred White, joined in 1974 staying until 1983.
In his 2014 memoir, Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire, Bailey recalls “the tall, slim and dapper” White saying, “Always be strong talking about the concept” as he auditioned and assembled an ambitious eight-piece group. Following an appearance at the Uptown Theatre, Philadelphia’s equivalent of New York’s Apollo, EWF completed the Last Days And Time album, their third studio set but their first for their new label. In 1973, the excellent Head To The Sky was the first of a dozen consecutive gold, platinum and multi-platinum releases in as many years, including the landmark albums That’s The Way Of The World (1975), Spirit (1976), All’n All (1977), I Am (1979) and Raise! (1981), as well as two hugely successful compilations. “We were really in tune, playing together and it gave us the opportunity to explore new areas,” he said of his favourite album, the double Faces (1980).
White seemed to have the Midas touch and even managed to have EWF emerge with honours from the debacle that was the 1978 film version of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band produced by Robert Stigwood. Their ebullient version of the Fab Four’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” returned EWF to the UK Top 40 and ushered in the more storied chapters of their lengthy career as they triumphed with “September”, “Boogie Wonderland”, “After The Love Has Gone” and “Let’s Groove”, for which he didn’t hesitate to call on the help of fellow band members or outside writers like Allee Willis, Jon Lind, David Foster and Wayne Vaughn. Even less heralded singles like “Can’t Let Go”, “In The Stone”, “Let Me Talk” and “I’ve Had Enough” provided a satisfying listen.
White helped reinvent the sound of ’80s pop and R&B when Phil Collins borrowed the Phenix/EWF Horns for “I Missed Again” and “Sussudio”; Genesis did the same on “No Reply At All” and “Paperlate”. Collins duetted with Bailey on “Easy Lover” and “Walking On The Chinese Wall”, while White also worked with Atlantic Starr, Cher, the Dazz Band and James Ingram.
Introduced to European audiences when they supported labelmates Santana in the mid-1970s, EWF developed elaborate, spectacular stage shows. They transcended cross-cultural restrictions, incorporated lasers, pyrotechnics and other tricks, and built on the rich Egyptian imagery of their covers and lyrics.
Over the last three decades, the much-sampled, 100m-selling outfit became the All American Band par excellence. In 2000 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame, and in 2009 they were chosen by the Obamas to perform at their first formal social function. “That’s my jam!” exclaimed the President.
White’s peerless concept, allied to his perfectionism and innovative vision had worked its magic as a more ascetic version of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic to become President Obama’s band of choice, four decades after Quincy Jones and Miles Davis proclaimed EWF their all-time favourites. “They have everything – horns, electric guitars, singers and more – in one band,” Davis said at the time.
White’s memoir, Keep Your Head to the Sky: My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire, is due to be published in the autumn. EWF are to be honoured at the Grammy Awards next week.
Maurice White, singer, songwriter, drummer, producer, arranger and label owner: born Memphis 19 December 1941; married (two children); died Los Angeles 4 February 2016.