Throughout his life, he strove to give humanity a universal soundtrack that spoke to the ideals of love, exuberance, and spiritual well-being, and with songs like “September,” “Shining Star,” and “Let’s Groove” under his belt, it is impossible to deny that his experiment was a resounding and landscape-altering success.
Born in Memphis on December 19th, 1941, White grew up in the Foote Homes Projects with his grandmother. As a student at Booker T. Washington High School, he became friends with fellow Memphis legend Booker T. Jones and the two started what may have been each’s first band. In his teenage years, White moved to Chicago where his mother and step-father were living and enrolled at the Chicago Conservatory of Music.
By the mid-1960s, he was working for the legendary Chess Records as a session drummer for artists such as Etta James, Muddy Waters, and the Impressions. While at Chess, he met jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis and soon joined his trio as a drummer. He played on nine of the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s celebrated ‘60s albums and won a Grammy for the track “Hold It Right There.” While in the Trio, he was introduced to the kalimba (an African thumb piano), which would become a crucial instrument in future Earth, Wind, and Fire songs. “Ramsey helped shape my musical vision beyond just the music,” White said. “I learned about performance and staging.”
In 1969, White left the Trio and formed a songwriting team with two of his friends, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead. They began by writing commercial jingles in the Chicago area, but soon were under contract with Capitol Records under the name The Salty Peppers. Despite making waves regionally with the song “La La Time,” The Salty Peppers proved to be a short-lived experiment. White soon relocated the band to Los Angeles later in the year and in 1970 Maurice’s younger brother Verdine moved to L.A. to join the group as a bassist.
Based on the elements of Maurice White’s astrological sign, the band’s name was soon changed to Earth, Wind, & Fire. Maurice held further auditions in L.A., ultimately bringing the group to a ten-man lineup. In 1971, the band released both their self-titled debut album and a follow-up titled The Need of Love, both of which were met with critical acclaim. Regardless of their early success, members of EWF began growing restless and the band broke up less than six months after being formed.
Undeterred, Maurice and Verdine reformed the group in 1972 and added several new musicians, perhaps most notably vocalist Philip Bailey. The following year, the band released the album Head to the Sky, which gave EWF their first two big hit singles “Evil” and “Keep Your Head to the Sky.” While each individual member played a key part in EWF’s success, Maurice White was clearly the master of the ship, both musically and within the band.
Maurice White’s dedication to healthy living and optimism extended beyond his personal life and became a hallmark to EWF’s music. As NPR’s Jason King wrote “EWF’s music served a powerful social purpose. White concocted music that meant to shield us from a world constantly threatening to harden us and turn our hearts cold…In retrospect, Maurice White’s clever idea in forming EWF was to power forward with an ethical black music that could force us to keep our heads up to the sky when it mattered most.” White’s deep interest in astrology and black positivity also deeply influenced the band’s iconic visual imagery, which was heavily reliant on ancient Egyptian symbols like the Ankh and the Eye of the Horus.
“We had a strong leader,” Verdine told The Telegraph in 2013.“We really looked up to Maurice. …You have to understand that we were 21 years old when we started our journey with Earth, Wind, and Fire and Maurice was 31…Maurice was interested in establishing a credibility of a different morality about musicians and their lifestyles. So we were into healthy food, meditation, taking vitamins, reading philosophical books, being students of life.”
In 1975, Earth, Wind, and Fire released their breakthrough album That’s the Way of the World featuring the #1 hit single “Shining Star.” On the strength of the album, which made EWF the first black act to top both the Billboard album and singles charts, the group embarked on a worldwide tour of arenas that introduced millions to their larger-than-life stage shows. In addition to the colorful African-inspired stage costumes and dazzling musicianship, EWF also employed magic tricks and other visually dazzling tricks to their shows, making them one of the hottest and most influential live acts of the era.
Throughout the remainer of the 1970s, Maurice White continued to co-write, sing, and produce some of the most anthemic hits in funk history, including “Sing a Song,” “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and “After the Love Has Gone.” Aided by their catchy melodious hooks, complicated arrangements, quirky instrumentation, idealistic message, and visual Afro-centricity, Earth, Wind, and Fire had sold tens of millions of records by the end of the 1970s and were arguably the most important African American musical group of the decade.
Above all else, though, EWF brought a universality to their music that allowed for a mass and diverse audience that eluded other artists. As Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea wrote after Maurice White’s death in 2016, “In my junior high school the white kids loved Zeppelin, the black kids loved P-Funk, the freaky kids loved Bowie, but EVERYONE loved Earth, Wind, and Fire.”
As Earth, Wind, and Fire conquered the world, Maurice White still found time to work with other artists. In the mid-1970s, White co-founded Kalimba Productions and he went on to work as a composer and producer for artists such as Deniece Williams, Barbara Streisand, Cher, the Emotions, and Neil Diamond. During a four-year hiatus for Earth, Wind, and Fire, whose members had grown understandably exhausted, White released his 1985 solo album entitled Maurice White. The album included the hit cover version of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” which reached number 6 on the Hot R&B charts. Earth, Wind, and Fire bounced back in 1987 with the album Touch the World and the hit single “System of Survival,” which reactivated the group’s grueling tour and recording schedule.
In 1996, Maurice White retired from the road after coming down with Parkinson’s disease, but he continued to collaborate with other artists and remained the producer and guiding light of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Over the years, Earth, Wind, and Fire amassed a staggering collection of awards and honors that speak to their unparalleled greatness, including six Grammys, four American Music Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and induction into the NAACP, Rock and Roll, and Vocal Group Hall of Fames. Additionally, Maurice White was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and won an individual Grammy for his arrangement of “Got to Get You into My Life.” All told, the group sold an estimated 90 million albums during their span.
Although Maurice White was undoubtedly proud of his many significant accomplishments as a musician, he was always most concerned with a greater mission: providing a soundtrack of hope and optimism to a world-weary audience. “Being joyful and positive was the whole objective of our group,” White said. “Our goal was to reach all the people and to keep a universal atmosphere-to create positive energy. All of our songs had that positive energy. To create uplifting music was the objective.”