It is impossible to overstate Maurice White’s contribution to music.
As co-founder and chief musical visionary behind Earth, Wind & Fire, White was instrumental in changing the musical landscape of the 1970s and beyond.
In some ways, it was no coincidence.
Born on December 19, 1941, in Memphis, White lived in the same neighborhood where his contemporary Aretha Franklin was born. He grew up with David Porter, the first staff songwriter and later an influential A&R executive at the legendary Stax Records, which eventually set up shop in the general area.
But Chicago, not Memphis, is where White honed his professional music career as a young man.
Working as a session drummer at Chess Records in the 1960s, White played on the records of such greats as Etta James, Muddy Waters, The Impressions, Buddy Guy and Ramsey Lewis, as well as on classics like Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me.”
In addition, he was also a member of the Jazzmen, later the Pharoahs, comprised of fellow Chess studio musicians.
Replacing drummer Isaac “Red” Holt in the Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1966, White played on nine of their albums, including Wade in the Water, which included the Grammy-winning “Hold It Right There.”
During this time, White discovered the kalimba (or African thumb piano), which he showcased on the “Uhuru” track on the 1969 Ramsey Lewis Trio album Another Voyage.
That same year, White left Ramsey Lewis and, with friends Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, formed a songwriting team specializing in commercials but scored a Capitol Records’ recording contract and called themselves The Salty Peppers.
When the group experienced limited success in Chicago, White and his crew headed to Los Angeles where, influenced by the elements in his astrological chart, he changed the group’s name to Earth, Wind & Fire. Such a name warranted an expansion, so White, who had already enlisted his brother Verdine White, also added Michael Beale on guitar, Chester Washington on reeds, Leslie Drayton on trumpet and Alex Thomas on trombone to become a ten-man band.
Critics lauded their self-titled album released in February 1971 and their follow-up The Need of Love that November. The latter yielded their first Top 40 R&B hit “I Think About Lovin’ You.” They also landed on the soundtrack for Melvin Van Peebles’s influential film Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.
Despite this success, the band went through more growing pains the next year, with only the White brothers remaining before welcoming vocalists Jessica Cleaves from The Friends of Distinction and Philip Bailey, Ronnie Laws on flute and saxophone, Roland Bautista on the rhythm guitar, Larry Dunn on keyboards and Ralph Johnson on percussion.
During a performance in New York, they caught the ear of Clive Davis, who, as president of Columbia Records, bought them out of their Warner Bros. contract. Their debut 1973 CBS/Columbia release Last Days and Time included “Power,” an eight-minute funky, jazzy instrumental featuring guitar and saxophone White composed.
Their 1973 album Head to the Sky produced the hits “Evil,” co-written by White and Bailey, and “Keep Your Head to the Sky.” The revolving door continued with Laws, Bautista and Cleaves leaving and saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk and rhythm guitarists Al McKay, Johnny Graham and, later, younger brother Fred White joining the fold.
White also added vocalist to his many other duties.
Open Our Eyes, their 1974 album, powered by the hits “Mighty Mighty” and “Devotion,” went platinum. Earth, Wind & Fire continued its rise, attracting crowds of as many as 200,000 at festivals. White reunited with Ramsey Lewis as the band collaborated with him for the album Sun Goddess, which reached number one on the jazz charts.
They also revisited the movies, this time appearing in the film That’s the Way of the World as The Group, with White even speaking. With less than high hopes for the film, they released the soundtrack That’s the Way of the World in advance, and it surprisingly became a breakthrough album, topping the pop album charts for three weeks, eventually going triple platinum.
“Shining Star,” the Grammy-winning single from that album, is still one of their most beloved songs, as is “Reasons,” arguably one of the greatest love songs from a band. That success resulted in White adding a full horn section known as the Phenix Horns, comprised of saxophonist Don Myrick, trombonist Louis Satterfield and trumpeters Rahmlee Davis and Michael Harris.
Gratitude, their triple-platinum 1975 double album incorporating live concert performances from their 1974 and 1975 tours, topped both the pop and R&B charts, with “Gratitude” and “Can’t Hide Love” earning Grammy nominations.
White’s footprint grew beyond Earth, Wind & Fire as he began producing such artists as Ramsey Lewis, Deniece Williams and The Emotions under his Kalimba Productions banner. White scored hit singles like “Best of My Love” and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” for The Emotions and “Free” for Deniece Williams, while also garnering Grammys.
White also spread his influence widely, playing drums on Minnie Riperton’s 1970 debut Come To My Garden, contributing vocals on The Weather Report’s Mr. Gone, as well as working with Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Cher, Barry Manilow and more.
Breakthroughs with Earth, Wind & Fire kept coming. When his co-producer, the legendary Charles Stepney, passed during the production of the album Spirit in 1976, White took over, dedicating the title track to Stepney. That album, which included the hits “Getaway” and “Saturday Nite,” went double platinum.
Earth, Wind & Fire also enhanced their live performances with pyrotechnics, laser lights, flying pyramids, levitating guitarists, disappearances and more using assistance from magician Doug Henning and his assistant David Copperfield and choreographer George Faison.
Their 1977 triple-platinum album All ‘N All, which yielded the hits “Serpentine Fire,” “Fantasy” and “Jupiter,” also featured bold Egyptian and post-modern themed cover art.
The hits kept coming, with Earth, Wind & Fire winning three Grammy Awards in 1978, including one for their cover of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life,” as well as scoring megahits with “September,” with White leading vocals, “Boogie Wonderland,” a collaboration with The Emotions and “Let’s Groove.”
In 2000, Earth, Wind & Fire was inducted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
White’s influence is impossible to quantify. Artists who’ve covered Earth, Wind & Fire songs include D’Angelo, Wynonna Judd, Chaka Khan, Musiq Soulchild and Tito Puente. Rappers who’ve sampled them include UGK, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Snoop Dogg, The Fugees, The Roots, Lupe Fiasco, Tupac Shakur, Public Enemy, Jay-Z, LL Cool J and more.
Other artists influenced by Maurice White’s visionary work with Earth, Wind & Fire are far too numerous to name. Movies and television shows that have featured Earth, Wind & Fire songs include Anchorman, Night at the Museum, True Blood and The Office. In addition, White wrote songs for Coming to America and Undercover Brother.
So though his physical battle ended February 3, 2016, his legacy lives on forever.