One of the greatest ever concert I went to was in 1981 at the Hammersmith Odeon to see the wonderful Earth Wind and Fire. There were nearly as many people on stage as there were in the audience and Fred White’s 15 minute drum solo was just heaven. Beginning as a jazz outfit in 1969, they became one of the greatest funk/soul/disco bands of all time and now we’ve lost its founder, singer, producer, arranger and primary songwriter Maurice White.
Maurice was born in 1941 in Memphis, Tennessee where he grew up in an area called the Foote Homes Projects with his life-long friend Booker T. Jones. As a kid he had a fascination for percussion and took drum lessons. As a teenager he moved to Chicago and offered his services to Leonard Chess, the head of Chess records. He began as a session drummer before becoming a fulltime member of the label’s Ramsey Lewis Trio. He can be heard on various songs including Fontella Bass’ 1965 hit Rescue Me and Billy Stewart’s Summertime the following year.
He began writing his own songs and learned there was more money in songwriting and so, in 1969, quit Chess records and teamed up Don Whitehead and Wade Flemons to become a songwriting trio. Within weeks they’d landed themselves a contract with EMI’s subsidiary label Capitol records and the three of them decided to become a group and write their own material and called themselves the Salty Peppers.
It was short-lived, but later the same year he formed Earth Wind and Fire, a name that came from Maurice’s love of Egyptology and mysticism and all three words are the names of the elements that feature in his astrological chart.
He became the guiding force and recruited his brothers Verdine on bass, Fred on drums, percussionist Ralph Johnson, guitarist Al McKay, keyboard player Larry Dunn and the falsetto-voiced Philip Bailey. Many others have come and gone over the years, but this was the classic line-up. Maurice knew what he wanted, he said in a 2007 interview with Songwriter Universe, “I always envisioned a band which was self-contained, which could play many styles of music, and which could still create its own sound. It was also great to feature a big horn section in the band.”
It wasn’t only their sound that made them memorable, it was their lavish use of colour and graphics. Their stage show was always well lit often with bright summer colours – red, orange and yellow particularly. Their album sleeves were also colourful and often unusual, again reflecting Maurice’s fascination with ancient Egypt – All ‘N’ All (1977), I Am (1979) and Raise (1981) all being good examples.
Their commercial wasn’t instant; it took eight years until their breakthrough single, Saturday Nite made any impact where it peaked at number 17 in February 1977. Fantasy, arguably their best known track came exactly a year later and reached number 14. In October 1978, the Radio 1 top 20 show, which was then presented by Simon Bates, was extended to a top 40 and their cover of the Beatles’ Got to get you Into My Life opened that show as it was at number 40 that week. Then came their biggest hits, the regular floor-fillers September which reached number three followed by Boogie Wonderland (a duet with White’s protégé group The Emotions) and the heart-breaking ballad After the Love Has Gone which both reached number four. Their only other visit to the top 10 was in 1981 when another disco favourite, Let’s Groove made number three.
By 1982 their momentum began to wane and the following year White disbanded the group following the release of the album Electric Universe. Four years passed when Philip Bailey reunited with the White brothers for 10 years during which they released a further four albums including Millennium, their 16th album, from which the single Sunday Morning earned them a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
In 2000, at the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, nine members of the band were inducted and played together for the first time in over 20 years. Later that year President Clinton was hosting a dinner at the White House where his special guests were the king of Morocco, Mohammed VI and his wife, Her Royal Highness Princess Lalla Meryem. The King was so impressed that he invited the band to Morocco later that year to perform at his own 37th birthday party.
In the late eighties, White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease but he continued, writing, performing and touring until 1994. After that he effectively retired by retained exclusive control of his group.
It was Verdine who broke the news via his Facebook page, “My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep,” read his post. “While the world has lost another great musician and legend, our family asks that our privacy is respected as we start what will be a very difficult and life changing transition in our lives. Thank you for your prayers and well wishes.” it continued. Another great tribute came from a friend Quincy Jones who added, via Twitter, “Your contributions to music will be kept in our hearts and souls forever.”
The band will be honoured at the Grammy Awards next week and Maurice’s autobiography Keep Your Head to the Sky: My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire, is due for release this September and contains an afterword by David Foster the legendary songwriter who co-wrote Earth Wind and Fire’s hit’s After the Love Has Gone and In the Stone.