Founder and leader of Earth, Wind & Fire, the biggest, showiest black music band of the 1970s
And a cover of the
Maurice White, who has died aged 74, was the singer, songwriter, producer and guiding force behind Earth, Wind & Fire, the biggest black music act of the 1970s and the most popular group in the history of American soul, funk and R&B. Incorporating disco-friendly elements of jazz, rock, pop, Latin American and African music styles, and with White’s tenor alternating on vocals with Philip Bailey’s falsetto, E,W&F notched up some 26 gold and platinum hits, including September; Boogie Wonderland; Fantasy; After the Love Has Gone; Shining Star; Beatles’ Got to Get You Into My Life. E,W&F was the first black American group to champion its African cultural heritage, through extravagant stage costumes and mystical album cover art. With the help of George Faison, the choreographer, and “hippie magician” Doug Henning and his assistant, a young David Copperfield, the group were known for their elaborate shows – full of laser lights, flying pyramids and levitating guitarists – reflecting White’s interest in astrology and Egyptology. The extravagance, however, was confined to the stage; band members never succumbed to the drink and drugs lifestyle. According to White’s brother and fellow band member Verdine White, it was Maurice (known to band-mates as “Reece”) who kept them on the straight and narrow. “We had fun but not like crazy,” Verdine recalled. “[Maurice] was a great taskmaster, a great visionary.” By 1987, however, White was showing signs of the Parkinson’s disease that would force him to retire in 1994. While his fellow band members continued to enjoy success, at least White did not have to put up with the inevitable jokes prompted by the revelation that their 30th anniversary tour in 2001 was being sponsored by Viagra. Maurice White was born on December 19 1941 in Memphis, Tennessee, and brought up by his grandmother. As a boy, he sang in a church choir and was inspired to become a drummer by watching local marching bands. White attended Booker T Washington High School, Memphis, where he was in the drum corps and formed a “cookin’ little band” with his friend Booker T Jones (later of Booker T and the MGs). After leaving school he studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and played drums in local nightclubs. By the mid-1960s he had become a session player at the city’s Chess record company studios, backing stars such as Etta James and Muddy Waters. By 1966 he had joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Over the next three years he played on nine of the jazz trio’s albums. He left after three years to form the Salty Peppers. Moving to Los Angeles the next year, he renamed the band Earth, Wind & Fire (after the three elements in his Sagittarian astrological sign), adding his brother, the bassist Verdine White, and others to the line-up, and signing with Warner Bros. The group recorded two albums for Warner, neither of which sold well, and then disbanded. White formed a new band, retaining only his brother and adding percussionist and vocalist Philip Bailey. The new line-up changed their musical direction from what White described as “kinda wild, almost avant-garde,” and went on to stardom; nearly all their 1970s hits were produced and written or cowritten by White. “I’ve got gospel in me, I’ve got blues, I’ve got rhythm & blues, rock, pop,” he explained. “I’ve got all of those inside me.” Even after White left the stage, he continued to write and produce for the band. Earth, Wind & Fire was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and White into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2010. Maurice White is survived by his wife and two children.