Maurice White, who co-founded the iconic R&B group Earth, Wind and Fire died Wednesday, his brother Verdine announced in a statement, saying the musician “passed away peacefully last night in his sleep.”
White, 74, had battled Parkinson’s disease since the early 90s and had stopped touring with the band a few years after he was diagnosed.
He was regarded as a brilliant singer, songwriter, producer, arranger and composer who used his talents to assemble one of the most unforgettable acts in music history.
Our brother Maurice White passed peacefully in his sleep this morning.
The light is he, shining on you and me. pic.twitter.com/ppWTHKUyG6
— Earth, Wind & Fire (@EarthWindFire) February 4, 2016
The band blazed a trail of spiritual celebration and Afro-futurism considered far ahead of its time. Under White’s guidance, Earth, Wind & Fire manifest a sound and imagery that reflected the Black cultural identity of the 70s while at the same time crafting music that every culture could identify with.
Earth, Wind & FIre, symbolism taken from the elements of White’s astrological sign, Sagittarius, won six Grammy awards for classic records including “Shining Star,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and “After the Love Has Gone.”
Born in 1941 in Memphis, White’s musical roots come from the same ground as his neighborhood friends and future legends Booker T. Jones, David Porter and Isaac Hayes.
“There was a wide range of music that I would listen to,” White said in a documentary on the band, Shining Stars. “We kind of fused together jazz and blues and all the different types of music that was available to us.”
He learned drums as a teenager in a local drum and bugle corps before going to Chicago to study medicine at Crane Junior College. He filled in on drums for a band playing at the school and wound up studying music at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and soon became a session drummer for Chess Records. His steady hands can be heard on Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me,” as well as recordings by The Impressions, Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy and Etta James.
At 24, White joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio and played on nine of the groups albums, winning his first Grammy for “Hold It Right There,” showcasing thet fusion of jazz and pop that would define Lewis’ career and inform White’s crossover skills later.
Toward the end of his tenure in the trio, White began to experiment with the kalimba, an African thumb piano, and began to incorporate it into Lewis recordings. On 1969’s “Uhuru,” the origin of White’s signature sound can be heard with instrument countering a funk bass and danceable drumming.
By 1969, White began to have ambitions of starting his own band.
“I started having visions of this group that would create music that would have emotional gravity to it; spiritual overtones.” He assembled a band with Chicago jazz cohorts Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead to formed The Salty Peppers and gained a contract with Capitol Records. Unsuccessful, they left Chicago for Los Angeles.
Renaming the band Earth, Wind & Fire, White eventually let go of all of the band’s members with the exception of his brother, Verdine. This new band included singer/percussionist Philip Bailey, keyboardist Larry Dunn, drummer Ralph Johnson and rhythm guitarist Al McKay.
The band achieved nominal success with their first three albums, the self-titled Earth, Wind & Fire (1970), The Need of Love (1971) and Last Days and Time (1972).
But in 1973, their album Head to the Sky went gold building on the track “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” and “Evil.”
By 1974, EWF hit a creative wall, and enlisted arranger Charles Stepney to collaborate. Known for his operatic arrangements with The Rotary Connection, which featured a young Minnie Riperton, Stepney expanded on White’s vision which was beneficial on their album Open Our Eyes. Their singles “Mighty Mighty” and “Devotion,” each co-written by White, reached the Top 30 on the Billboard charts.
In 1975, with Stepney and White now as production partners, EWF had a commercial breakthrough with That’s the Way of the World. Riding the wave of the Pop Chart Topper “Shining Star,” the album sold two million copies in America. White co-wrote all the album’s songs, including the iconic title track and fan favorite ballad “Reasons.” This began a streak of six consecutive double platinum LPs for the band.
White then began to influence all aspects of the band’s image. He conceived an unrivaled stage show engineered by magician Doug Henning complete with spinning drum sets and Verdine White levitating during bass solos. Their Africanized wardrobe also mirrored their sound, giving the audience a deeper sense of the music’s origins.
In the middle of production of 1976’s Spirit, Stepney died suddenly of a heart attack, which forced White to take further charge of the group, becoming the sole producer going forward. Their next album, 1977’s All ‘N All, remains their biggest success, selling three million copies. The band released a total of 32 albums and still continues to tour.
Through Kalimba Productions, which he launched with Stepney, White also produced for a variety of artists including Barbara Streisand, Deniece Williams, James Ingram, and most famously several years of collaborations and production with The Emotions.
Despite his Parkinson’s diagnosis stopping him from touring beginning in 1994, White remained active with several projects including the 2006 musical “Hot Feet,” which he created with Maurice Hines, according to Billboard.com. He also continued his work with the band as a songwriter and producer. White served as executive producer of the 2007 tribute album Interpretations: Celebrating the Music of Earth, Wind & Fire. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.