If you have never heard of the founding member of super group Earth, Wind & Fire, singer, drummer, songwriter, and producer, Maurice White, then you don’t know great music. He was known for his stagecraft and inventive compositions. Let me tell you about the TrueMovement created by this man.
Maurice “Reese” White was born on December 19, 1941, in Memphis, Tennessee and was a guiding force behind the success of Earth Wind & Fire. He helped compose hit songs like two of my personal favorites, “Shining Star” and “September.”
After studying at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, he worked as a session drummer for Chess Records in 1963. At Chess, Maurice had the privilege of playing with such greats as Etta James, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Willie Dixon, Sonny Stitt, and Ramsey Lewis. Four years later, he began playing with the Ramsey Lewis Trio. He spent nearly three years as part of the Trio. “Ramsey helped shape my musical vision beyond just the music,” Maurice explains. “I learned about performance and staging.” Maurice also learned about the African thumb piano, or Kalimba, an instrument whose sound would become central too much of his work over the years.
In 1969, Maurice left the Ramsey Lewis Trio and joined two friends in Chicago, Wade Lemons, and Don Whitehead, as a songwriting team composing songs and commercials in the Chicago area. The three friends got a recording contract with Capitol and called themselves the “Salty Peppers,” and had a minimal hit in the Mid-West area called “La La Time.” That band featured Maurice on vocals, percussion, and Kalimba along with keyboardists/vocalists Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead.
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, Maurice White not only embraced but also helped bring about this evolution, which bridged the gap that has often separated the musical tastes of black and white America. It certainly was successful, as EWF combined high-caliber musicianship, wide-ranging musical genre eclecticism, and ’70s multicultural spiritualism. “I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before,” Maurice explains. “Although we were basically jazz musicians, we played soul, funk, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and dance music…which somehow ended up becoming pop. We were coming out of a decade of experimentation, mind expansion, and cosmic awareness. I wanted our music to convey messages of universal love and harmony without force-feeding listeners’ spiritual content.”
Shortly after a relocating to Los Angeles and signing a contract with Warner Bros., White changed the name of the band to Earth, Wind & Fire (the name was attributed to his astrological chart, which had no water signs). He also invited his younger brother, bassist Verdine White, to join the group. When their first albums didn’t break out, White shuffled the band’s members. Newcomers included singer Philip Bailey and keyboardist Larry Dunn; soon guitarist Al McKay became a bandmate as well.
Along with its revamped membership—only White and Verdine were holdovers from the group’s first incarnation—Earth, Wind & Fire’s music changed. The band began mixing jazz, R&B, funk, soul, and pop music. They also used African sounds, such as White playing the kalimba (an African thumb piano). With a new style and a new record label, Earth, Wind & Fire’s album H
ead to the Sky (1973) sold more than 500,000 copies. The group proceeded to put out a succession of gold and platinum albums throughout the 1970s and early ’80s.
White helped compose many of the band’s hit songs were ones that, such as “Shining Star,” “September” and “Let’s Groove.” White won six Grammys with Earth, Wind & Fire, and received an award of his own for arranging “Got To Get You Into My Life.” As a musician and vocalist, White also participated in the group’s spectacular concerts, which featured exotic touches such as pyramids and disappearing acts.
Maurice White was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame as a member of Earth, Wind & Fire and was also inducted individually into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was also known for his outside projects he worked on with several famous recording artists including: Deniece Williams, the Emotions, Barbra Streisand, and Neil Diamond. White remained with Earth, Wind & Fire until the band took a four-year break from 1983 to 1987. After reuniting, White toured with the group until 1995.
The seven-time Grammy winner stopped touring in the late 1990s, but he continued to work with Earth, Wind & Fire as a producer and songwriter. He was also with the band for its 2000 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.In 2000, White revealed that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, thus explaining his decision to withdraw from performing. He has said that not going on tour gave him the benefit of having more time to work on other projects. He was building a recording studio and founding Kalimba Records, his own record label. He also collaborated on Hot Feet, a musical set to Earth, Wind & Fire songs. In 2010, White was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
With his health deteriorating in recent months due to his long battle with Parkinson’s, White passed away in his sleep on February 3, 2016. He was 74. He was definitely a true inspiration to many of today’s artists and those to come. He legacy will live on forever!