For any fan of R&B music — any fan of music, period, really — it is impossible to think of the 1970s and early ’80s without recalling the shiny, groovy, exuberant sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire. And no man played a greater role in carving out that band’s gems than founding member Maurice White, who died Thursday at 74.
Shining Star, That’s The Way of the World, September, Sing A Song,Fantasy, Reasons: White helped write all of these hits. The onetime sessions drummer, who played with Ramsey Lewis’s jazz trio in the ’60s, also served as principal producer of EWF’s music — steeped in jazz and funk as well as Latin influences, but as luxuriantly pop-savvy as any AM radio classics of the time. His guidance let the band segue seamlessly into the disco era, and eventually embrace electronic textures.
The group incorporated the flashy visuals associated with the latter movements into its performances, dazzling audiences with lighting, sartorial glitz and other tricks and effects, some nodding to the band’s astrologically inspired name.
That flamboyance was, of course, grounded in a soulful virtuosity that no one could deny. EWF’s bright, horns-infused arrangements, infectious melodies, ebullient grooves and distinctive vocals — White shared leads with Philip Bailey, whose hearty falsetto was another key element — appealed to pop and R&B fans equally, and made the group favorites among both club crowds and the dance-phobic, bridging racial and cultural gaps in the process.
Inclusiveness and harmony were not just musical ideals for White and his colleagues. In a quote featured in the history portion of the band’s official site, he said, “We were coming out of a decade of experimentation, mind expansion and cosmic awareness. I wanted our music to convey messages of universal love and harmony without force-feeding listeners’ spiritual content.”
White, who released a solo album in the ’80s, worked with numerous other artists as a producer, among them Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Holliday and Deniece Williams, and collaborated with acts ranging from Cher to Weather Report. Though a battle with Parkinson’s Disease forced him to stop touring in the ’90s, White, whose many subsequent honors have included induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (with EWF) and Songwriters Hall of Fame, remained a creative force in the following years and guarded its legacy devotedly.
“Expanding awareness and uplifting spirits is so important in this day,” he is quoted as saying, on EWF’s site. White did that and much more, giving us music that joyfully defied all boundaries, and will continue to do so.
Maurice White, the founder of Earth, Wind and Fire, performs on stage on Feb. 28, 1982, in the Netherlands. The percussionist, singer and producer died Wednesday in Los Angeles at 74. Rob Verhorst, Redferns