In February of 2016, Maurice White, the guiding light behind Earth, Wind & Fire, died at age 74 after a two decade battle with Parkinson’s Disease. White was one of the most influential and important musical figures in the history of R&B music; his influence on popular music is difficult to overstate. As a songwriter, producer, arranger and singer, he was elite. As a visionary who wholeheartedly believed in the power of music to tell truths, help lives and transform society, he was one of a kind.
There is no way to look at the 70s and early 80s Soul music scene without gazing for a long period at the music and influence of Earth, Wind & Fire. A group revolutionary in its amalgamation of soul, jazz, funk and African music into an attractive, universal sound, EWF influenced an entire generation of self-contained Soul/Funk bands. For a period in the early 80s, the Soul charts were dominated by groups from ConFunkShun to the Dazz Band, all clearly influenced by the electrifying instrumentation and arrangements of EWF.
Formed in Chicago in 1969 by jazz drummer White, EWF was the personification of White's desire to mix a variety of seemingly incongruent musical styles into a unique, singular sound, and to use this sound as a backdrop for positive lyrical themes of unity, empowerment and universalism. However, it took several years and multiple lineups (the only constants being White and his brother Verdine) for the group to find its sound and its audience. In 1970 the group landed a contract with Warner Brothers and released two albums, Earth Wind & Fire and The Need of Love, both which were middling Soul charters. By 1973, a more stable lineup was established, including singers Philip Bailey and former Friends of Distinction member Jessica Cleaves (who would be gone by 1975), and band members Al McKay, Ralph Johnson, Larry Dunn, John Graham, Fred White and Andrew Woolfolk. That year they released Head to the Sky, their first top 10 Soul album, and followed it in 1974 with Open Our Eyes, their first #1.
The group's across-the-board breakthrough came in 1975 with their soundtrack album for the little known movie That's the Way of the World. The album's lead single, the bright, horn-laden, funky number "Shining Star," took the Soul and Pop worlds by storm, topping both charts and taking the album with it. The midtempo title track was a worthy follow-up single, and, with the outstanding album cut "Reasons," established EWF as a new popular musical force.
The success of That's The Way of the World set the stage for Gratitude, an album that documented the extravagant EWF live performances, which were becoming "must-see" concerts around the world. The band's next two albums, Spirit and All ‘n All, continued their winning ways and boasted a number of now classic cuts, including "Saturday Night," "Singasong" and "Fantasy." During this period, Maurice White wrote and produced songs and sounds that were years ahead of anyone else, and the singing combination of White and Philip Bailey (often overdubbed several times for backing vocals) worked marvelously with the material and arrangements.
After the release of a very popular Best of album and a contribution to the ill-fated Peter Frampton/Bee Gees Sgt. Pepper movie, EWF released I Am, another solid (if more predictable) disc that included the ballad "After the Love Has Gone" and the dance anthem "Boogie Wonderland" (with the Emotions). A general slide in the popularity of their music began in 1980 with Faces, a double-disc that barely cracked the Top 10 and yielded no significant hits. They rebounded the next year with the dance smash "Let's Groove," but the accompanying album, Raise, was a disappointment, and spelled the end of the series of landmark EWF efforts.
The group continued to record intermittently over the 80s and 90s with progressively lesser critical and commercial appeal. White issued a moderately successful solo album and shared his songwriting and production talents with many other top stars, including Deniece Williams, Jennifer Holliday and The Emotions (who made it to #1 with White’s help on “Best of My Love”), while continuing to tour and record with EWF.
A turning point came in 1992, when White was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, a devastating disease that, by the middle of the decade, restricted his ability to tour with the group. While EWF continued to record and perform for the next two decades, the loss of the brilliant leader was felt, and his general absence from the music scene as he battled his illness was a tremendous blow to music lovers everywhere.
With its revolutionary sound, positive, empowering lyrics and excellent songwriting and performances, Earth Wind & Fire established itself as perhaps the most important and influential R&B band of the 70s, and one whose recordings have continued to resonate a generation after their initial release. And while Maurice White has now passed from earth, his legend and influence will continue to positively impact music for decades to come. He was tremendously blessed by God, and he shared that blessing many times over with the world.
By Chris Rizik