Maurice White, a singular force in popular music, passed on February 4 after some four decades of contending with Parkinson’s disease. Following precedent-setting soul funksters Sly & the Family Stone, Maurice White led Earth, Wind & Fire to revolutionize the sound, in turn succeeded most notably by Ohio Players.
White began in music by playing with childhood pal Booker T. Jones in a high school band before moving from South Memphis to attend the Chicago Conservatory of Music, drumming in area clubs. He eventually landed session work at famed Chess Records, where he recorded with the likes of Ramsey Lewis (whom he later joined in the Ramsey Lewis Trio), the Impressions, and Sonny Stitt, as well as blues legends Buddy Guy and immortals Etta James and Muddy Waters.
White also played the drums on historic hits by Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”) and Billy Stewart (“Summertime”). With the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Maurice played on nine albums, including Wade in the Water, on which the single “Hold It Right There” won a Grammy Award.
A fledgling early incarnation of Earth, Wind & Fire worked with director Mario Van Peebles’ seminal indie film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song.
Maurice White starred as the band’s leader, head producer, principal tunesmith and lead vocalist along with Philip Bailey. Earth, Wind & Fire won a half-dozen Grammy Awards, an NAACP Hall of Fame Award, and four American Music Awards with 90 million-plus album sales worldwide.
As a member, White was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. He won seven Grammys.
White, with Charles Stepney, co-produced Deniece Williams’ This is Niecy for White and Stepney’s Kalimba Productions. After Stepney passed, White produced her follow-up Song Bird. Williams released four more albums for the company — That’s What Friends Are For, When Love Comes Calling, My Melody and Niecy.
White helped resurrect the career of former Stax stars the Emotions, producing the platinum selling Rejoice, which spawned the multi-award winning single “Best of My Love.” Earth, Wind & Fire collaborated with the Emotions on the million-selling single “Boogie Wonderland.” His solo album, Maurice White, yielded a successful cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”
White contributed music to Coming to America starring Eddie Murphy, Undercover Brother starring Eddie Griffin, and the Broadway musical Hot Feet starring Maurice Hines. At times idiosyncratic, White was always effective.
His trademark of accenting a phrase with “Yeow” came from, of all unlikely places, a pastor where he went to church in Memphis as a youngster. Ironically, though he recorded with the industry’s most complex sound boards, he judged the final product by how clearly the sound came through on the tinny speakers of cheap radios.
White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the late 1980s, which led him eventually to stop touring with Earth, Wind & Fire in 1994. However, White retained executive control of the band and remained active in the music business.
A married father of two, Maurice White died at home in his sleep in Los Angeles at age 74, survived by his wife, two sons, and his brothers Fred White and Verdine White.
By Dwight Hobbes, who welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.