Feb 5, 2016
Another major musical figure of the 1970’s has left us. Maurice White, the major creative force behind Earth, Wind & Fire, passed away yesterday from complications due to Parkinson’s disease. His band was one of the few groups of the rock era to successfully mix R&B, funk, jazz and rock into a sound that appealed to listeners of all races.
White was born in Memphis in 1941, but moved in Chicago in his teens. There he became the house drummer for Chess Records where he backed artists like Etta James, Muddy Waters, and for the jazz-oriented sublabel Argo, Sonny Stitt. It is his sound that propelled classics like “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass and “Summertime” by Billy Stewart up the charts.
In 1966 he joined the highly successful (and former Chess artist) Ramsey Lewis to create the second great Lewis Trio that included Cleveland Eaton on bass. White played on the Grammy Award winning “Hold It Right There”, as well as classics like “Wade in the Water.” He departed the Lewis Trio amicably, and would collaborate with his former boss successfully in the future, contributing his talents to “Sun Goddess” and the Urban Knights albums.
In 1969 White moved to Los Angeles with his brother, bass player Verdine White, and two friends and began the process of creating a band that would allow him to mix jazz, R&B and rock. Naming the group after his interest in astrology, Earth, Wind & Fire was moderately successful in their initial carnation, most notably recording the soundtrack to the Black Power film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Rearranging band members and signing with Columbia Records, the band recorded one of its signature tunes, “Power” in 1972, a White composition that stands up well against jazz fusion recordings of the day.
The band began chart success in 1973, and by 1975 they had become the first Black group to top the Billboard pop singles and album charts with “Shining Star” and That’s the Way of the World. 90 million records later, the band is among the most successful and honored groups of all time. White left the group after his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in 1995, but continued to be an integral part of the band’s management and production until his death. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and White joined his bandmates onstage.
Earth, Wind & Fire was not without its critics. Funk pioneer George Clinton once dismissed them as “Earth, Too Much Wind, Not Enough Fire.” But artists like Miles Davis described Earth, Wind & Fire as his "all-time favorite band" saying, "they have everything (horns, electric guitar, singers and more) in one band". Quincy Jones has proclaimed himself to be the "biggest fan of Earth, Wind & Fire since day one." And Barak Obama hired the band to play the first social event he held upon entering the White House.