Have you felt the earth shaking over the last few weeks? Giants have been falling all around us and that has set off shockwaves that continue to rumble through our lives. First we lost David Bowie, then soon after that, Natalie Cole, and Glenn Frey of the Eagles. There have been other deaths as well, including Tower of Power trumpet player Mic Gillette, and soul singer Otis Clay.
Then last week we learned of the death of an artist whose considerable stature in the music world was established a long time ago, and has never receded. Maurice White was 74 years-old when he died, after many years of suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Although his health kept him from touring, he remained the power behind the juggernaut he created, and called Earth, Wind & Fire. What many people don’t know is that Maurice’s creativity extended well beyond his own band.
Maurice, known as “Reese” to his friends, was from Memphis. One of his childhood friends was Booker T. Jones, and the two were in a band together while attending the same high school. After moving to Chicago as a teenager, Maurice attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music, and made a name of himself playing drums in the clubs. Later on, he was an on-call session drummer for Chess Records. The Chess session guys had a band of their own that they called the Jazzmen, and later the Pharaohs. In addition to being part of that group, Maurice played drums on records by the likes of Etta James, Sonny Stitt, Muddy Water, the Impressions, the Dells, Betty Everett, and Buddy Guy. That’s Maurice on drums on smash hits like Billy Stewart’s “Summertime,” and Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me.”
You may recall that in last week’s column I wrote about Young-Holt Unlimited, and how when Eldee Young and Redd Holt left the Ramsey Lewis Trio, it was Maurice who replaced Holt on drums. He ended up playing on nine Ramsey Lewis albums in the three years he was with the trio. Maurice left Ramsey Lewis in 1969 to form a songwriting team with Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead. The idea was to write jingles for local Chicago businesses. But the trio also got themselves a record deal with Capitol Records, and called themselves the Salty Peppers. Their first single, “La La Time,” was a hit in the midwest, but when the follow-up, “Uh Huh Yeah” didn’t do as well, the trio decamped to L.A. and changed their name to Earth, Wind & Fire. That name, by the way, was taken from the elements in Maurice’s astrological chart.
The story of Earth, Wind & Fire has been told in other columns of mine. Suffice to say that the band went on to be nominated for 14 Grammys, and won six of them. They also won four American Music Awards, and earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and Maurice was individually elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 1973, Earth, Wind & Fire released their fourth album, Head to the Sky. The album was produced by Joe Wissert, and was the band’s first commercially successful recording. Head to the Sky reached #2 on the R&B chart, and #27 on the Pop chart, and was certified platinum. Among the songs on the album was “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” written by Maurice White. The single wasn’t a huge hit, peaking at #52 on Pop singles chart, and #23 on the Black singles chart.
In the late ’80s, Maurice began to show signs of Parkinson’s, and he had to retire from the group in 1994. He remained in control though, and continued to record with the band, while also producing other artists. Maurice had started producing outside of the band as early as 1976, when he worked with Charles Stepney to produce Deniece Williams. The duo produced her first album, This is Niecy. The album was #3 on the R&B chart, and included the single “Free,” which reached #25 on the Pop chart. When Charles Stepney died, Maurice continued to work with Williams, producing her second album, Song Bird, on his own. The album included the single “Baby, Baby My Love’s All for You,” which was a #13 hit on the R&B chart. Williams went on to release four more albums for Maurice’s Kalimba Productions.
“I loved working with Maurice White. He taught me the business of music, and planning and executing a plan, and executing a show,” Williams said.
When Stax Records folded in 1976, the Emotions needed a new record deal, and got one with Columbia Records. There, still working with Charles Stepney, Maurice produced the Emotions album Flowers. The title track, and “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love” were both Top 20 R&B singles. Much as he had with Deniece Williams, when Stepney died, Maurice continued to work with the Emotions, producing their second album, Rejoice. “Best of My Love,” a single from that album, topped the charts, and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” went Top 10. Maurice’s work with the Emotions led to a collaboration between that group and Earth, Wind & Fire. “Boogie Wonderland” was Top 10 on the Pop and R&B charts, and sold over a million copies. Maurice went on to produce two more albums for the Emotions.
In addition to his work with Williams, and the Emotions, Maurice worked as a drummer, singer, producer, or songwriter for artists like Minnie Riperton, Weather Report, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, the Tubes, James Ingram, and Barry Manilow. In 2007, Maurice was the executive producer of an Earth, Wind & Fire tribute album called Interpretations: Celebrating the Music of Earth, Wind & Fire. Among the artists contributing to the album were Kirk Franklin, Angie Stone, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Chaka Khan. The following year, Maurice produced an album for Brian Culbertson called Bring Back the Funk. Among the performers on the album were EW&F alumni Larry Dunn, along with Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild, Maceo Parker, and Gerald Albright. The album was #1 on the contemporary jazz charts.
Two of Maurice’s brothers, Verdine White, and Fred White, are members of Earth, Wind & Fire. When Maurice died on February 4, Verdine posted the following message on Facebook.
My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep. 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.