White, Maurice 1941–
Maurice White 1941–
Pop composer, producer, vocalist
The name Maurice White is practically synonymous with the musical term “crossover.” During the 1970s, a new brand of pop music was born, one that was steeped in African and African-American styles—particularly jazz and R&B—but appealed to a broader cross-section of the listening public. As founder and leader of the band Earth, Wind & Fire, White not only embraced, but helped bring about this evolution of pop which bridged the gap that has often separated the musical tastes of black and white America.
White was born December 19, 1941, in Chicago. At an early age, his family, which included ten children, moved to Memphis. Here White was immersed in a rich musical culture that spanned the boundaries between jazz, gospel, R&B, blues, and early rock. All of these styles played a role in the development White’s musical identity. At age six, White began singing in his church’s gospel choir, but soon his interest turned to percussion. He began working gigs as a drummer while still in high school. His first professional performance was with Booker T. Jones, who eventually achieved stardom with Booker T and the MGs.
After graduating high school, White moved back to the Windy City to continue his musical education at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. He continued picking up drumming jobs on the side, which eventually lead to a steady spot as a studio percussionist with the legendary Chicago label, Chess Records. At Chess, White had the privilege of playing with such greats as Etta James, Willie Dixon, and Ramsey Lewis, whose trio he joined in 1967. White spent nearly three years as part of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. “Ramsey helped shape my musical vision beyond just the music,” White said in biography provided by Great Scott Productions. “I learned about performance and staging.” From Lewis, White also learned about the African thumb piano, or kalimba, an instrument whose sound would become central to much of his work over the years.
In 1969 White moved to Los Angeles to form his own band, initially called the Salty Peppers. That band featured White on vocals, percussion, and kalimba, along with keyboardists/vocalists Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead. The Peppers recorded briefly for the Capitol label, but did not manage to reach a large audience. White switched labels in 1971, signing a new contract with Warner Brothers. He simultaneously made what may have been the smartest move of his young career: he changed the band’s name to Earth,
Born December 19, 1941, in Chicago, IL; Education: Chicago Conservatory of Music.
Career: Chess Records, studio drummer, 1962-67; Ramsey Lewis Trio, drummer, 1967-69; formed band, the Salty Peppers, which signed with Capitol Records, 1969; changed name of band to Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) and signed with Warner Bros, label, 1971; revamped EWF lineup and signed with Columbia records, 1974; appeared with EWF in the motion picture Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1978; formed own label, ARC, in conjunction with Columbia Records, late 1970s; formed Kalimba Productions, 1983, produced albums by Ramsey Lewis, Deneice Williams, Valerie Carter, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, El DeBarge, and others; returned to Warner Bros. label with EWF, 1992; withdrew from touring, but remained principal composer and producer of EWF.
Awards: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted 2000; with EWF: six Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Addresses: Publicist—Great Scott Productions, 137 N. Wetherly Drive, Suite 403, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Wind & Fire, after the three elements in his astrological chart. The new name also captured White’s spiritual approach to music—a brand of music that transcended categories and appealed to multiple artistic principals, including composition, musicianship, production, and performance. In addition to White, Flemons, and Whitehead, the original lineup included Michael Beale on guitar, Leslie Drayton, Chester Washington and Alex Thomas on horns, Sherry Scott on vocals, and percussionist Phillard Williams.
Earth, Wind & Fire cranked out three albums for Warner in less than two years: the eponymous Earth, Wind & Fire, The Need of Love, and the soundtrack album Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song. The band scored hits with two singles from those albums, “Love is Life” (1971) and “Evil” (1973), but White nevertheless became disillusioned with Warner Brothers, which had signed the group primarily as a jazz act. White, in contrast, was more interested in combining elements of jazz, rock, and soul into an evolving form of fusion, a truly universal sound. This time, he did more than jump labels. In addition to signing a new contract with Columbia, White completely retooled Earth, Wind & Fire’s lineup. Flemons and Whitehead left the group, which now featured vocalists Phil Bailey and Jessica Cleaves, guitarist Johnny Graham, guitarist/percussionist Al McKay, and White’s younger brother Verdine on bass.
The newly reformulated group’s first album, 1974’s Open Your Eyes, reached number 15 on the pop charts. From there it only got better. The following year, their song “Shining Star,” from the soundtrack album from the film That’s the Way of the World (in which the band appeared), captured a Grammy award. The album itself cracked the year’s Top Ten. Another movie appearance, in the 1978 picture Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, stoked the bands growing fame further yet, providing another top ten hit in their cover version of the Beatles’s “Got to Get You into My Life.” But it was a cultural movement quite different from any associated with the Beatles that really pushed Earth, Wind & Fire over the threshold into superstardom: disco. The band rode that dance club craze to new heights, scoring one smash single after another, and a string of platinum and double platinum albums.
Their live performances were stellar as well. Sellout crowds were spellbound by the band’s bombastic performances, which blasted a cosmic wave of peace, love, and other happy vibrations at audiences using a combination of lights, pyrotechnics, and plain old good music. Sometimes they even threw in magic illusions. Earth, Wind & Fire’s message was one of universal harmony, in both musical and cultural senses. “We live in a negative society,” White told Newsweek. “Most people can’t see beauty and love. I see our music as medicine,” he added.
In 1983, burnt out from a decade of nonstop touring and recording, Earth, Wind & Fire entered a period of self-imposed inactivity. White used the break to launch his own company, Kalimba Productions. Kalimba produced albums over the next several years by the likes of the Emotions, Ramsey Lewis, Deneice Williams, Valerie Carter, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, El De-Barge, and Jennifer Holliday. White also made a solo album of his own, which included his Top Ten cover of the Ben E. King classic “Stand By Me.” White also increased his involvement in motion picture soundtrack work. The group got back together in 1986, releasing the album Touch the World and embarking on a corresponding nine-month world tour. All told, Earth, Wind & Fire had 38 hits on the R&B charts between 1971 and 1988, 32 of them making the pop charts as well.
After touring in support of Touch the World, the band members again dispersed, only to regroup in 1990 to record the album Heritage. Two years later, Earth, Wind & Fire released The Eternal Dance, a 55-track boxed set retrospective of the band’s entire history. The appearance of such a project after a prolonged period of relative inactivity signaled to many listeners that the band was calling it quits, but that did not turn out to be case. In 1992 a new version of the band backed by a new horn section and featuring core members Maurice and Verdine White and Phil Bailey, returned to the studio—and to White’s old label, Warner Brothers. The resulting album was entitled Millennium.
By the mid-1990s, Earth, Wind & Fire was back in the swing, but without Maurice White as part of the touring group. He remained the band’s heart and soul from behind the scenes, as composer and producer. White’s withdrawal from touring gave him more time to focus on his production efforts for other artists. While some observers speculated that it was health considerations that prompted White’s decision to give up touring, White insisted it was not the case. However, in March of 2000, just before his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, White revealed to the public that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years earlier, and had in fact been experiencing symptoms since the late 1980s. But White’s battle with Parkinson’s was not enough to stop him from launching his own record label, Kalimba Records, and continuing to operate the production company of the same name. “Parkinson’s doesn’t affect my work at all,” White told Jet. “There’s nothing I could do before the diagnosis that I can’t do now.” As the 21st century began, White remained a vital and productive artist. He was no longer touring with Earth, Wind & Fire; but he had merely “crossed over” into the next phase of his stellar musical career.
(with Earth, Wind & Fire)
Earth, Wind and Fire, Warner Bros., 1971.
The Need of Love, Warner Bros., 1972.
Last Days and Time, Columbia, 1972.
Head to the Sky, Columbia, 1973.
Another Time, Warner Bros., 1974.
Open Our Eyes, Columbia, 1974.
That’s the Way of the World, Columbia, 1975.
Gratitude, Columbia, 1975.
Spirit, Columbia, 1976.
All ‘n’ All, Columbia, 1977.
I Am, Columbia, 1979.
Face, Columbia, 1981.
Raise, Columbia, 1981.
Powerlight, Columbia, 1983.
Touch the World, Columbia, 1987.
Heritage, Columbia, 1990.
The Eternal Dance, Columbia, 1992.
Millennium, Warner Bros., 1993.
Jet, April 16, 1981; November 21, 1994; March 20, 2000.
Newsweek, March 6, 1978.
USA Today, April 10, 2000.
Additional material for this profile was provided by Great Scott Productions.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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