There was this amazing guy, see — born in Memphis, moved to Chicago as a teenager, studied at a conservatory, learned drums, got a gig as a session drummer at the legendary Chess Records at age 22, worked on recordings for the likes of Etta James, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, and hit singles like Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” and Billy Stewart’s “Summertime,” was a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio (1966-1969), formed a songwriting team, wrote songs for commercials, got signed by Capitol as The Salty Peppers, worked on his vocals, learned the kalimba, and moved to Los Angeles.
A fascination with Egyptology and spirituality led him to study the astrological charts for his sign, Sagittarius, which features the primary element of fire and the seasonal elements of earth and air. He’d been searching for a name for the new band he was forming, and now he’d found it in the elements: Earth, Wind & Fire.
His name was Maurice White, and he was a bonafide legend and a visionary. He is yet another in a flood of recent popular musician deaths — he passed away a month ago at age 74 from the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
“Reese,” as he was called by his bandmates and close friends, “was our leader, our father, our brother, our guru,” said Philip Bailey, Earth Wind & Fire’s chief vocalist. “We were a huge group with 10 members, but we all took a back seat to Reese. He ran the show.”
In its peak period of 1973-1981, Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the most popular bands in the country, selling upwards of 40 million albums and electrifying audiences with live concert extravaganzas that included lasers, magic, pyrotechnics, levitating pyramids and other production effects.
But in 1970, when White and his Salty Peppers colleagues, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, first moved to LA, they were still in search of a label and a unique musical sound. White convinced his brother Verdine to come join them as bassist and, through auditions, White expanded the group to ten members, adding guitar, percussion, reeds, trumpet, trombone and vocals.
This assemblage won a contract from Warner Brothers and released the debut album “Earth, Wind and Fire” in 1971, with all tracks by the White-Flemons-Whitehead songwriting team. Although it fared poorly on the charts, managing only #172, the album won some critical acclaim. The music was a tougher and rawer brand of funk than the smooth R&B sound for which EW&F became known a few years later, but critics praised “the obvious Sly Stone influence” and the overall musicianship and blended vocals. A second 1971 effort, “The Need of Love,” charted higher (#89), and included the band’s first R&B Top 40 chart hit, “I Think About Lovin’ You.”
EW&F was then tapped to play the soundtrack music for “Sweet Sweetback’s BaaadAsssss Song,” an early example of an independently produced African-American film that paved the way for the “blaxploitation” genre and such hits as “Shaft” and “Superfly.” While the film is now lauded for its trailblazing montage and quick-edit techniques, the soundtrack went nowhere and, discouraged, the group grew restless and broke up, leaving White and his brother back at square one.
Undaunted, White searched for and found an entirely new lineup, featuring the charismatic Philip Bailey on vocals, jazz virtuoso Ronnie Laws on sax and flute, Ralph Johnson on drums, Larry Dunn on keyboards and Friends of Distinction singer Jessica Cleaves. Warner Brothers had pretty much given up on EW&F at that point, but influential Columbia Records President Clive Davis caught wind of them and bought out their contract, beginning a decade-long relationship that exceeded all expectations.
The first effort on Columbia, 1972’s “Last Days and Time,” emphasized original material written by White with contributions from other band members, but it didn’t exactly turn people’s heads. White again tweaked the band’s lineup, adding a drummer and trumpeter and changing guitarists.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s first commercial success occurred with the 1973 album “Head to the Sky,” their first million seller, which reached #27 on the US pop album charts (although its two singles stalled in the mid-50s range). The group was now generating serious excitement on college campuses and in small venues in the nation’s bigger cities, and also as the support group for big-name headliners like Santana.
Beginning in 1974 with the “Open Our Eyes” LP, which reached #15, White relinquished his place behind the drums to become co-lead vocalist with Bailey, and also introduced the kalimba, an African instrument also known as a thumb piano, to the EW&F sound. White was still writing six out of 11 of the new tracks, including EW&F’s first two Top 40 singles, “Mighty Mighty” (#29) and “Devotion” (#33).
Then an interesting thing happened. Sig Shore, producer of the “Superfly” film, invited EW&F to record the soundtrack for his next movie about the dark side of the recording industry. The film would star Harvey Keitel, and EW&F would also appear as a new recording act called The Group, performing their songs in the movie, and Maurice White would even have a few speaking lines as group leader. The film was to be titled “That’s the Way of the World.”
The project went ahead, but once the band saw the film, they were convinced it would be a bomb, so they made the savvy move to release the album ahead of time to distance it from the movie. “That’s the Way of The World,” of course, was an enormous success — #1 album in the nation for three weeks in the summer of 1975, the third-best selling album of the year, and including the Grammy-winning #1 single “Shinin’ Star” and the #12 title song. Critics called the soul-and-funk classic “EW&F’s crowning achievement” and “one of the best albums of the ’70s.”
This success allowed White to hire The Phenix Horns as the group’s horn section, which became an integral part of the band’s sound, and they made an immediate impact on stage and on the mostly live album “Gratitude,” released late in 1975, which received another #1 ranking and another Top Five single, the infectious “Sing a Song.”
Earth Wind & Fire became a runaway train over the next five years as one of the top R&B bands of all time, with four Top Five albums — 1976’s “Spirit,” 1977’s “All ‘n All,” 1979’s “I Am” and 1981’s “Raise!” — and a string of hits that are still heard at dance parties, wedding receptions and proms everywhere to this day: “Getaway.” “Saturday Nite.” “Serpentine Fire.” “September.” “Boogie Wonderland.” “After the Love Has Gone.” “Let’s Groove.”
The king-sized debacle of 1978, the film and soundtrack “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” was pretty much an embarrassing blemish on the careers of everyone involved …except for one act: Earth Wind & Fire. Their version of “Got to Get You Into My Life” soared to #9 as the only hit single from the dreary soundtrack album and won a Grammy as well, while the movie and album were relegated to dumpsters from coast to coast.
In addition to his many accomplishments with Earth, Wind & Fire, White also served as producer on albums for other acts. His company, Kalimba Productions, launched the solo career of Deniece Williams in 1976 with the “This is Niecy” album and four subsequent releases. “I loved working with Maurice White,” said Williams in 2007. “He taught me the business of music and how to plan and execute a show.” He steered The Emotions in 1977, when their “Rejoice” LP reached #7 and its Grammy-winning single, “Best of My Love,” made it to #1. In the ’80s, he also participated in the production of albums for Ramsey Lewis, Jennifer Holiday, Barbra Streisand, James Ingram, Atlantic Starr and Neil Diamond.
Throughout the substantial EW&F repertoire, most of it written or co-written by Maurice White, the lyrics have been unfailingly positive in nature, full of love and peace and spirituality. By all accounts, White was a gentle soul with a deeply inquisitive mind, keenly interested in particular in cult science, mysticism, astrology and world religions. He was an early proponent of meditation and yoga and healthy eating, and he was fascinated by all things Egyptian, and all of this is in evidence on many of Earth, Wind & Fire’s album covers and in the elaborate set designs in their stage shows.
As the arc of Earth, Wind & Fire’s popularity waned, he turned his attentions to jazz, lending his expertise as a singer, instrumentalist and producer to projects ranging from regional to national to international. But his heart was clearly with the work he did with his blood brothers Verdine and Fred and his musical brothers like Bailey, Johnson, Dunn, Sheldon Reynolds, Bailey Whitworth and many others.
The original lineup of Earth, Wind & Fire was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and in 2005 the band went on a successful national tour with Chicago. They have performed at the Grammys, on “American Idol,” and even at the Obama White House in 2009.
White reluctantly withdrew from live performances in his final years as his health deteriorated, but he remained a vital inspiration and advisor right up until the end, and he evidently let it be known he hopes the band continue to perform. “He hopes we’ll keep playing,” said Bailey, “but now that he’s gone, I don’t know…”