American Icons: Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire

Maurice White performing with Earth, Wind, and Fire at the Ahoy Rotterdam; 1982. Photo by Chris Hakkens. Reproduced under the Creative Commons LIcense via Wikipedia.

He was the shining star, the drummer turned songwriter turned singer and producer extraordinaire, the heart in the heart of the soul, the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire.

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Earth, Wind & Fire. The elemental poem, connecting the natural elements at play forever on his astrological map to form his universe of song. Earth is the rhythmic bedrock, the groove, the foundation for the tower of soul. Wind is pure melody, notes in succession, the expression of the human soul, the voice. Fire is elemental passion, the heat in the blood that pumps the heart, the sparks that catch when words of love and spirit fuse with groove and melody and everything ignites. All these disparate elements he wired together and connected like miracle clockwork. Pure precision infused with authentic soul. Always crested with that element that always sent the thing home and connected directly with the heart: human voices in harmony. In a world of chaos, as he knew well, few things go deeper than that sound of humans combining their voices in perfect harmony.

He was the guy who did it. The unifier. “I think in terms of the melody,” he said. “Melody and rhythm, that’s my first thing.” It explains the purity and spirit of tunefulness that shines through all his songs. From the start, it was always about the tune.

First came gospel. It’s there he got that fire, that deep knowledge of passion injected directly into the bloodstream by way of singing. Many voices, many timbres, many different ranges and frequencies and textures, all united into one rich, joyful sound, linked by one melody and one message. He sang in church and he sang at home. Then came the drums and the passion for pure rhythm that propelled him on a path towards Earth, Wind & Fire. As the guiding light of this expansive group, the heart in the heart of the soul, Maurice White wrote or co-wrote all of their signature songs, including “The Way Of The World,” “September,” “Fantasy,” and “Shining Star.” He won seven Grammy awards and a total of 21 nominations.

Although we lost him on February 4, 2016 in Los Angeles to Parkinson’s Disease, that shining-star spirit shines forever bright in his music. He was born into a musical family in Memphis, 1941. His dad was a doctor who played sax, and his grandmother was a gospel singer. Gospel was the only music he knew for years, and it was enough. Raised by his grandmother at first in the Foote Homes Projects in South Memphis, music infused his soul.

He started singing at six. At twelve he started playing drums. He took to them like he’d played them his whole life. His great rhythmic prowess on the snare itself inspired him to join the school marching band, becoming its shining star. Not only was he a naturally gifted musician; he also had a flair for performance and dug the shiny uniform he got to wear while dancing down the field with his drum. It was a taste of things to come.

In time he moved to Chicago with his grandmother to be closer to his mother and step-father. It’s there he fell in with Chess Records, or “Chess University,” as he called it, as it’s where he gained experience and wisdom about how great records are made and how the business works.

At Chess he became an in-demand house drummer, playing on records by their legion of legendary artists, including Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Betty Everett, Buddy Guy, and Sugar Pie DeSanto. In 1966 he went off to become the drummer in Ramsey Lewis’s trio.

His own band began to coalesce when he first teamed up as a songwriting trio in Chicago with Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead to write jingles for commercials. This led to a record deal with Capitol as The Salty Peppers. Their first single, co-written and performed by all three, was “La La Time.” When the second single failed to fly they realized it was truly “La La Time,” and they moved to Los Angeles to regroup.

Maurice renamed the band after the elements that united like harmony parts in his astrological chart, Earth, Wind & Fire. He was the guiding light of the group always, the chief songwriter, lead and harmony vocalist, and producer. Always yearning for new equations of sounds to distinguish his tracks, he began to weave in the acoustic kalimba, a thumb piano, with early Moog synths, rich horn sections and lush strings. It all came together like magic, and it was a magic that emanated from his singular soul. He redefined his own group, gave funk and soul a new depth and grace, and impacted all in his wake.

Having momentously stepped out front from behind the drums, Maurice was always impeccably and chromatically attired, and danced his exultant way up the soul and pop charts, shaping the sound of the late ’70s. In time his band would sell more than 90 million records.

Although Parkinson’s forced him to cease touring, he never stopped making music, writing songs for and producing a host of great artists, including Minnie Riperton, Weather Report (he did the vocals on “Mr. Gone”), Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow. “Some things do last forever,” he said. “And by that I mean music. Music is forever. Few men are luckier than those who live a life in music.”

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