Maurice White: Tribute To A Soul Master

Maurice White, [PICTURED ABOVE, CENTRE], founder of and driving force behind Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the most musicianly yet commercial bands of the ’70s and ’80s in any genre, died on February 3 after a long fight against disease. He leaves behind a distinctive trademark sound – sharp horn arrangements, crisp, snappy rhythm sections, uplifting melodies – that even the nascent Chic imitated.

“White depped for an ailing Elvin Jones with John Coltrane – a pivotal meeting.”

Music was in Maurice White’s blood. Born in Memphis in 1941, he sang gospel between the ages of six and 12, switched to drums and was playing with Bobby Bland, among others, while deciding that a career in medicine was not for him. (His father was a doctor). Enrolling at the Chicago Music Conservatory, White was soon working at the city’s Chess studios as drummer, writer or producer, notably on tracks by Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and the Ramsey Lewis Trio, when the pianist’s rhythm section quit to form Young-Holt Unlimited. White depped for an ailing Elvin Jones with John Coltrane – a pivotal meeting, as was his friendship with Chicago arranger/writer Charles Stepney.

In the late ’60s White was ready to put into practice all he’d learned, moving to Los Angeles and forming Earth, Wind & Fire with brothers Verdine (bass) and Freddie (drums), singer Philip Bailey and a mighty horn section. After a hesitant start with Warner Bros, the band blossomed at CBS and from 1975’s That’s The Way Of The World, with its US Number 1 pop hit Shining Star, through Gratitude (Sing A Song), Spirit (Saturday Nite, Getaway), All ’N All (Serpentine Fire, Fantasy) to 1979’s mighty I Am their albums were consistent funky and melody-strewn delights.

Boogie Wonderland and Let’s Groove continued the singles run, and White’s Kalimba Productions began working with others – notably The Emotions. As White eased off EWF’s live work he began producing others – Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond among the big hitters – but in the early ’90s he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his band in 2000 and honoured as a songwriter in 2010, White leaves a rare and distinctive body of work.

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