Tribute to Maurice White
One of my all-time favorite artists is the super singer/songwriter/producer Maurice White who passed away in February 2016. He founded the group Earth Wind and Fire. His life story and his musical journey have been such an inspiration for me throughout the years. No other artist has come close to Maurice, leaving me continually in awe of the mastery of his craft…He was truly a genius.
Maurice was born in Memphis TN, on Dec. 19th, 1941. He went to Crane Junior College and the Chicago Conservatory of Music. He was taught as a young boy that music “stirs the soul and warms the heart.” He sang in the local church choir and was a featured soloist. His grandmother sang gospel music around the house all the time, and his father listened to jazz in his office (he was a doctor) and he remembers listening to the music in his youth.
His passion and drive for music would prove successful. He became a session drummer for Okeh Records and Chess Records, working with such greats as Etta James, Fontella Bass, Little Milton, Howlin Wolf and more. White also worked and toured with Ramsey Lewis. He aspired to form a completely unique group, focusing on musicianship, and multi-cultural spirituality.
Maurice formed a group called the Salty Peppers, which later evolved into the super-group Earth Wind and Fire. (He named the group after the elements in his own astrological chart, but thought Earth Wind and Fire sounded better than Earth, Air, and Fire)…
Always believing the visual to be as important as the sound, he incorporated flashy costuming, at times even sketching his vision of what he wanted the group to look like. That vision led to 46 R&B singles, including eight gold singles, six Grammys, four American Music Awards, and over 50 gold and platinum albums for the group. Six of their albums went double platinum consecutively, something the unforgettable Nina Simone hasn’t even achieved!
They also became the first black act to top Billboard’s pop singles chart (with “Shining Star”) while also having the top album (“That’s The Way of the World”) at the same time. EW&F headlined a worldwide arena tour without an opening act, with a completely self-contained stage presentation. They won the Columbia Records Crystal Globe Award, for selling over 5 million albums OUTSIDE the U.S. and sold 100,000 tickets for consecutive nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
But even more impressive than the statistics is the huge cult following the band has to this day. The worldwide bond Maurice and company created with their fans is astounding. Maurice enthralled listeners with his upbeat passionate lyrics and tightly-layered musicality of his songs and adding interest with album covers that left listeners wondering what all the signs and pictures stood for. The Egyptian cover art was done by Shuey Nagaoka and is being imitated today by several artists.
Even when he decided to take a hiatus from the band in the eighties, he kept busy. He released a solo album which produced a sweet cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” which charted high on the R&B charts in the summer of 85. He produced tracks and sang backup on Neil Diamond’s 1986 album, “Headed For The Future”.
He produced some of the tracks and wrote some of the songs on Barbra Streisand’s album, “Emotion” – for a moving experience, check out “When I Dream”, from that album. He also produced “Feel My Soul” for Jennifer Holliday which included the hit “I Am Love,” a beautifully soulful ballad, something similar to Nina Simone’s greatest blues ballads.
After his hiatus ended, EW&F scored another top hit with the song “System Of Survival” which is included in the group’s “Touch the World” album. The video for this single is a fan favorite. Under his record label, Kalimba, he produced an album for his first artist under that label, Freddie Ravel. He also did vocals on it, and it has Maurice’s signature style all over it. A must for Earth Wind & Fire fans. For his label, he also worked with bands like Sixth Sense and has since then evolved Kalimba into a record company.
The last years of his life, Maurice had retired from the road but continued to do production work for Earth Wind and Fire and other artists under his record company. He appeared with the group to be inducted year into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. As he took the stage, he was greeted with a standing ovation by his peers and spoke of how it was “a long road, but a beautiful road” and it was an emotional moment. He set his smart goals and achieved them!
A few years before his death, he made the public aware that he was struck with Parkinson’s disease. He stated that it was hard to do because he has been in denial about it for some time and has never been ill in his life. He also stated “time has a way of healing you and your thoughts. My music has been a great revelation and teacher for me on the level of truth and understanding. In living my own truth, I realize there’s hope.” He sponsored a support group called “Courage Under Fire” for those stricken with Parkinson’s or related ailments, and fans could leave a message to him there at the site (www.adoctorinyourhouse.com).
Many celebrities have left touching messages there including producer David Foster, Brenda Russell, and Chick Corea. Maurice’ brother Verdine has stated that Maurice truly didn’t realize how much he is loved. Hopefully, the support he received from fans and friends will be a testament to that. See also this post about Donna Summer, a woman of all seasons.
Maurice built a beautiful recording studio in Santa Monica called Magnet Vision and was proud of the new talent he was working with. He continued in an executive position with the band and was always busy finding new talent. This article has only skimmed the surface as far as details of his life and the formation of his legendary band are concerned, but Maurice’s music has been a constant backdrop and inspiration over the years. Maurice, you have taught us well, and the message has stuck for many…Much love to you in Heaven!!!