*Maurice White, one afternoon in 2005, laid on me what I thought at the time was a telling bit of pop music trivia.
Sitting at the dining room table of his art-filled Bel-Air, California home, having one of several conversations I had with him over three decades, White wistfully recalled co-writing and producing pre-Earth, Wind & Fire tracks he hoped would land his “band” a record deal.
“The labels turned it down,” he said. One record company A&R exec offered a specific reason. “He said it didn’t feel like a band, that it sounded too much like just a couple of people. He was right, basically it was me and another cat playing and singing most of the stuff.”
The other “cat,” White said, straight-faced, was none other than Donny Hathaway.
Figures. After you’ve simulated a band with a monster like Hathaway, your back-to-the-drawing-board can only be forming a real band that becomes one of the greatest in modern pop music history.
Maurice White, who passed away February 4 in Los Angeles from complications of Parkinson’s disease at 74, wasn’t just the founder, leader, producer, vocalist, drummer and chief songwriter for Earth, Wind & Fire. An indefatigable visionary, White conceptualized the band from top to bottom. He shaped the music the band played, decided how its members looked on album covers and onstage, and determined how the band breathed as a persona.
A difference between Earth, Wind & Fire and say, the Commodores, Chicago, the Ohio Players or Isleys 3+3, among other super bands of the ‘70s, is that EW&F did more than simply crank out hits; fueled by Maurice’s uncompromising imagination, EW&F felt like a cultural movement.
The band’s musical philosophy of peace, love, spiritual awareness and self-acceptance was the perfect addendum to the late ‘60s funky soul positivism of Sly and the Family Stone’s hits, “Stand,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Everybody Is A Star” and “Everyday People.”
However, while Sly didn’t always appear to live his lyrical optimism, White so effectively branded EW&F as patrons of “cult sciences and astrology and mysticism and world religion and so forth, you dig,” that I was taken aback when, during a ‘70s interview, vocalist Phillip Bailey told me he was a Christian and that some of the fellas, despite the band’s early public association with vegetarianism, “actually enjoy a good steak.”
My first encounter with Maurice White was that of an anxious fan. One evening in 1974, while in West Hollywood’s Rexall Drug on Beverly and La Cienega, I spotted the nattily attired White–tweed sport jacket, dress shirt, designer jeans (pressed and creased!) and shiny brown loafers–in the toiletry section. Even groove kings need deodorant.
From the magazine section I watched White, Clark Kent to everyone in the place but me, pay for his goods. Nervously I trailed him out the glass doors and into the busy parking lot. I caught up just as he reached a lemon yellow Mercedes.
“Excuse me, Mr. White.” He turned around. “I just want to say…sir, I love your music” is all I could muster, to which Maurice offered an easy smile. “Thank you very much, my brother.” He seemed shy. I could have left my beat-up buggy in Rexall’s lot and simply floated home, I was so excited. I’d met one of my musical heroes, Maurice White.
Three years later we’d meet in a professional capacity. Columbia had just released EW&F’s eighth album, All ‘N All-—in between were chart-busting, multi-platinum LPs Open Our Eyes, That’s the Way of the World and Spirit—-and as a fledgling writer for Soul Newspaper, I was assigned the job of interviewing the band and writing the cover story.
It was a big deal. Soul rented a photo studio and photographers Bruce Talamon and Bobby Holland shot the band, after which I interviewed them. (Talamon later traveled with EW&F to Egypt and shot the iconic black and white image of Maurice White holding an umbrella above his head, walking toward the pyramids at Giza).
Holland, who’d go on to shoot both EW&F and White over the years, spoke of how accommodating White was during sessions—and how insistent he was about hiring Black professionals, something few Black entertainers do when they hit it big.
After the photo shoot, sitting with the rest of the band, Maurice was introspective yet affable as he spoke to me of EW&F’s continued quest to use music to inspire listeners to another level of compassion and self-awareness.Today, if a recording artist presented to a record company plans to exclusively make secular, popular music lyrically designed to uplift and inspire the human spirit, music that seamlessly, effortlessly, passionately spanned soul, funk, jazz, gospel, rock, African and Brazilian idioms; music that was dynamic, aggressive, intricate, tender, certainly sexy and yet infinitely accessible, that artist would be laughed out of the building, escorted by label security.
And yet that is exactly what White engineered. Quincy Jones once mentioned to me his admiration for White’s ability to craft musically intricate records that still appealed to top 40 tastes. “That’s special,” said Jones.
Q’s thoughts weren’t unique. Reportedly the first Black act to sell out New York’s Madison Square Garden, EW&F in the ‘70s was one of the biggest acts in the world. When you weren’t hearing “The Fire” proper on the radio airwaves, you heard most of the band sitting in on the White productions of singer/songwriter Deniece Williams, the Emotions (production wise, “The Best Of My Love” is the perfect pop/soul record) and jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, White’s old boss, whose trio White augmented as drummer during the mid to late ‘60s. “Sun Goddess,” the grooving 1974 hit instrumental, was Ramsey’s biggest hit since 1965’s “The ‘In’ Crowd”. He’d produce Barbra Sterisand
and Neil Diamond, among others.
From EW&F’s very beginning, White doggedly followed his instincts. On pop records he routinely incorporated the Kalimba, an ancient hand-held African thumb piano that was to Maurice was what the harmonica is to Stevie Wonder.
EW&F’s live shows were trailblazing, Cirque-like spectacles of magic, excitement and illusion. Before them, few acts executed this kind of production in concert.
The band’s success spawned other White enterprises. Kalimba Productions served as parent company to White’s production activities, while his Columbia-distributed ARC label hosted releases by among others, the Emotions, EWF and D.J. Rogers. The Complex, an expansive west Los Angeles facility White built with rehearsal
halls and recording studios, became EW&F headquarters. Maurice won seven Grammys, was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and
the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
White owned the Earth, Wind and Fire name and trademark. After illness forced him to retire from live performance in 1994, he continued to receive a percentage as a performer from EW&F shows.
Earth, Wind & Fire was White’s vision, but he could not have achieved his dream without the exceptional, resourceful musicians/songwriters who comprised the unit at the height of its success. Guitarists Al McKay, Johnny Graham and Roland Bautista; White brothers Verdine and Fred, on bass and drums, respectively; keyboardist Larry Dunn, drummer/percussionist Ralph Johnson, saxophonist/flautist Andrew Woolfolk, Phillip Bailey, co-lead vocalist/percussionist and the mighty Earth, Wind & Fire/Phenix horns, including Don Myrick on saxophones, Louis Satterfield on trombone and Rahmlee Michael Davis and Michael Harris both on trumpet-—all, as either players, writers and arrangers, gave Maurice just what he wanted in the studio and onstage.
It was as if White governed a Justice League of Badd MFs, each musician with a distinct superpower.
Another element of White’s recording success: the participation of some of pop/R&B’s most talented, intuitive players and arrangers, including Jerry Peters, Tom (Tom Tom 84) Washington, Clarence McDonald and David Foster. Songwriter/keyboardist Skip Scarborough could always be counted on to come through with sexy, mid-tempo, clave stick-accented pocket grooves such as “Can’t Hide Love,” “Love’s Holiday” and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors (produced by Maurice for the Emotions) for which White became synonymous.
And then there was Charles Stepney. The brilliant musician, songwriter, arranger and producer—-that’s his 1969 production/arrangement of Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul,” the Ashford and Simpson song, currently heard in TV commercials—was Maurice’s comrade and collaborator from White’s session drummer days in Chicago at the Chess label. He played a pivotal role in the arrangement and production of EW&F albums Open Our Eyes, That’s The Way Of The World, Gratitude and Spirit.
Stepney, it’s been said, was the only person who, after hearing Maurice lay down a vocal in the studio, could say to him, “Uh-uh, my man–you gon’ have to do that one again.” Stepney succumbed to a heart attack in 1976. Spirit was dedicated to him.
Personally, Maurice was a difficult man to know. During the moments I spent with him over the years–—in recording studios, over restaurant lunches, at his home, on the phone—he could be insightful, comforting, reassuring, inspiring and funny. His conversations were often punctuated with the phrase “Have mercy,” uttered in response to a good word or story.
But he was guarded.
Not evasive. He didn’t have to be–certain things you just knew not to ask. You think of Maurice and don’t immediately consider a wife and two children. White the producer, songwriter, musician and performer was for public consumption. His family was his private joy and he kept it that way. White could have taught today’s narcissistic celebrities something about public dignity.
My interest was in discussing White’s music; how he made records, who played on what. That low voice on Deniece Williams’ “Baby, Baby My Love’s All For You” is his; I know, because I asked him.
I used to tease White about cymbal crashes; told him that, for a drummer, he sure was stingy with them. When he was behind the drums on recordings, what often sounds like an outright cymbal crash is actually White opening up the high hat on cue to get a sustained crash sound and then closing it.
Maurice is physically gone. However his legacy was firmly in place long before he left. That idyllic musical vision of his is the reason Earth, Wind & Fire will never be an oldies act. The grand notion of love, peace and happiness never goes out of style, and coming strictly from a hip place–as hip as I can after a random session of watching CNN–I can tell you that we need White’s music now more than ever.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]