“I started out as a kid being very religious. I wanted answers to a lot of questions that I had and I took the mystical route and did research on a metaphysical level to find the truth.” So said Maurice White, a musical visionary whose group Earth, Wind & Fire was a groundbreaking aggregation that fused soul, big band funk, pop and Latin music with metaphysics, mysticism and a cosmic consciousness. It was a unique combination of elements and although there were, certainly, esoteric components to EW&F’s unique aesthetic values, the positivity of their central message that espoused love, peace and understanding was never too obscure for the masses and they managed to make music that was attractive and infectious enough to appeal to a global audience. “We were trying to bring together all different types of music,” Maurice White told me in 2004 when I interviewed him for Blues & Soul magazine. “We were definitely trying to make the band appeal to a universal audience. People loved our sound. It was very important to us.”
Though Earth, Wind & Fire experienced phenomenal success from the mid-1970s right through to the early ’80s, it took several tough years of graft and toil to get to that point. If we rewind to the mid-1960s, Maurice White – born in Memphis, Tennessee, but then living in Chicago – was a session drummer at the Windy City’s fabled Chess Records. “I played the drums on Fontella Bass’s ‘Rescue Me’ and also Billy Stewart’s ‘Summertime,’ Little Milton’s ‘We’re Gonna Make It,’ and Betty Everett’s ‘You’re No Good.’ Also, Jackie Wilson’s ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.’ There’s a lot of tunes I played on. I was soaking up playing with everybody.” Another musician had his eye on White as he worked in the studio – keyboard maven Ramsey Lewis. “He used to come down to the studio all the time,” recalled White, “and I would be playing for some act on the label. He’d kind of sit in and listen. I didn’t know he had me in mind until he formed the group (the Ramsey Lewis Trio) and he called me. It felt great. It was an exciting time.”
But after three years on the road with Ramsey Lewis, Maurice White wanted to form his own band. That was in 1969. He formed a group called The Salty Peppers. “We made commercials together and signed to Capitol. It didn’t work out with Capitol and then we changed our name to Earth, Wind, & Fire and signed to Warner Bros,” White said in 2004.
After two patchy and largely unfocused albums for Warner – “there was a lot of experimentation,” confessed White – he completely revamped the band. “I changed them for a younger group of guys; guys who were a little more innovative. We wanted a younger sound, a more contemporary sound.” That was when singer Philip Bailey, White’s younger brother, bassist Verdine, and drummer/percussionist Ralph Johnson joined. The group signed to Columbia and released ‘Last Days & Time,’ which fused soul and rhythm and blues with funk and jazz as well as adding a piquant soupcon of African and Latin sounds. It was a heady, polyglot brew – and they even had a female singer at that point, Jessica Cleaves – but Maurice White’s all-encompassing vision to make music with a universal appeal eventually smoothed out the rough edges and unified the disparate elements so that they would soon coalesce into the band’s unique sonic imprint. A major part of their sound was the group’s vocals. After Cleaves left, White – who would rather have stayed behind the drum kit – was drafted in to do vocals opposite Philip Bailey. “I never wanted to be a singer,” the drummer disclosed in 2004. “I sang while I was a kid in a gospel group when I was six but I stopped singing when I was twelve and changed to a musical instrument. It just so happened that some of the songs that we were writing and playing were not high enough for Philip so I had to step in and sing the songs. Then we got a hit record so then I had to come out front. I found it difficult.”
Another crucial element of the band’s sound was their use of the African thumb piano, otherwise known as a kalimba. Its percussive, metallic tones were featured in several of the band’s tracks (and it also inspired the name of White’s Kalimba production company). Said White in 2004: “The kalimba has great significance and contributed to our original sound and will always be something that I use as a trademark with the group. Now it’s a sound that you can only think of us. I started to play around with it and couldn’t put it down.”
Despite White’s initial reluctance to lead the group from the front of the stage, he became a charismatic and assured front man and his smooth baritone combined with Bailey’s soaring high tenor was a key feature of the group’s appeal. As the ’70s progressed, the band honed their sound with each successive LP. As a consequence, their songs became more direct and tightly structured, the choruses more memorable, the grooves ever so danceable and the vocal harmonies lush yet crisper. By the time that 1975 arrived, Earth, Wind & Fire had upped their game and were on the cusp of greatness. That was the year they released the catalytic ‘That’s The Way Of The World,’ a record that yielded several hits (including the anthemic title track) and brought them to a wider public consciousness (it was also originally the soundtrack to a forgettable movie).
The movie might have been a turkey (“Don’t see the film, it’s horrible,” laughed White) but from that point, Earth, Wind & Fire – spearheaded by the captivating twin vocal attack of Maurice White and Philip Bailey – produced a succession of bestselling singles (‘Shining Star,’ ‘Sing A Song,’ ‘Getaway,’ ‘Saturday Nite,’ ‘Serpentine Fire,’ ‘Fantasy,’ ‘Boogie Wonderland,’ ‘September,’) and albums (‘Gratitude,’ ‘Spirit,’ ‘All ‘N All,’ ‘I Am’), dominating the latter half of the ’70s.
The band found the ’80s harder to conquer, though there were still big hits along the way (‘Let’s Groove’ and ‘System Of Survival’) and Maurice White even found time to make a solo album (“it was something that I needed to say,” he told me). As the ’80s became the ’90s, the group’s recordings began to dry up and though they continued to tour regularly, Maurice no longer went on the road with them. His absence was initially attributed to him wanting to spend more time in the studio with production projects and given that his CV as a producer featured sessions with Deniece Williams, The Emotions, Jennifer Holiday, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, no one doubted his motives. It later emerged, however, that White was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Even so, he continued to have a strong degree of creative input on some of the group’s later studio recordings though sadly he wasn’t able to contribute to the group’s most recent efforts, ‘Now, Then & Forever’ and ‘Holiday.’
Looking back over his and the band’s career in 2004, Maurice White clearly stated that his proudest moment was “being inducted into the rock-and-roll Hall Of Fame. That’s been the highlight.” But awards and record sales while impressive don’t tell the whole truth about how important Earth, Wind & Fire have been – they were sonic trailblazers who dissolved musical barriers with their transcendent messages of love, harmony and togetherness and that’s why their hopeful, optimistic songs still resonate in the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world.
Following White’s passing, Earth, Wind & Fire will receive a special award at the Grammies on February 15th. His autobiography, Keep Your Head To The Sky: My Life With Earth, Wind & Fire will be published later this year by Amistad.
Maurice White was the Yin to Philip Bailey’s Yang and his rich, earthy baritone voice was the perfect counter to Bailey’s celestial falsetto. If Bailey represented the soul of the band then Maurice White was its undoubted heartbeat. Sadly, that heartbeat is now silent but Earth, Wind & Fire’s – and Maurice White’s – musical legacy will live on.
We’ll leave the final words to the great man himself, who, contemplating his contribution to the world, told this writer twelve years ago: “It’s really been a joy to create the music and inspire other people. That’s the whole intent of it: to inspire and to celebrate life.”