Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, dies at 74

Maurice White, a percussionist and singer who founded and led Earth, Wind & Fire, a crackling mainstay of 1970s dance music that leaned heavily on funk, soul and R&B, died Feb. 3 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 74.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, his brother and band bassist Verdine White told the Associated Press.

Earth, Wind & Fire was a major crossover act known for such hits as “Shining Star,””September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” the conga-driven dance groove “Serpentine Fire,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Sing a Song” and a cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” – songs defined by a rollicking beat, jangly electric bass lines, bracing trumpet breaks and soulful vocal choruses. They reflected White’s roots in Memphis, that seminal Mississippi River crossroads for rock, blues and jazz.

Earth, Wind & Fire – named for three elements of White’s astrological sign (Sagittarius) – was known for its elaborate stage shows filled with wild lighting and pyrotechnics; arrangements that combined the African percussion instrument kalimba (thumb piano); and lengthy, jazz-influenced brass solos. The group was also distinguished by its vocal harmonies and interplay between White, a tenor, and Philip Bailey, who sang in falsetto.

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White saw the music almost totally in the service of creating good vibes and spiritual brotherhood – bridging the gap between black and white musical tastes while incorporating uplifting messages of black pride and African consciousness. The title cut of the group’s album “Open Our Eyes” was a rearrangement of an inspirational song earlier recorded by the Gospel Clefs in 1958.

“We live in a negative society,” he once told Newsweek. “Most people can’t see beauty and love. I see our music as medicine.”

Earth, Wind & Fire, which sold tens of millions of records, won six Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Its music was continually revived for films – from the spy farce “Austin Powers in Goldmember” (2002) to “Summer of Sam” (1999) – when a song was needed to instantly evoke an era.

Maurice White was born on Dec. 19, 1941, and he was raised in Memphis in a family that included nine other siblings. His father was a doctor, but he boasted of musical forebears, including a grandfather who was a New Orleans honky-tonk piano player.

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At 6, White began singing in the church gospel choir but soon gravitated to drums and played an early professional date with organist Booker T. Jones, later known as the leader of the soul instrumental group Booker T. and the MGs.

After high school, he attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music and then worked at Chicago-based Chess records as a session drummer, accompanying Billy Stewart (on “Summertime”) and Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”), among others.

During a brief tenure in the late 1960s with pianist Ramsey Lewis’s trio, White discovered the kalimba, which became a trademark part of the band’s sound. Touring at universities and club dates with Lewis sparked an awakening about changing tastes among young record-buyers.

“Being on the road with Ramsey and playing colleges for kids my own age, I saw there was a need for a different type of music – a type of music that was a little more inspirational for my age group,” White told the St. Petersburg Times.

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In 1969, he decamped for Los Angeles and, with keyboardist-singers Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, formed a group that evolved into Earth, Wind & Fire and were guided by White’s vision to defy musical categories and fuse jazz, rock and soul.

They were featured in the film soundtrack to “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), director Melvin Van Peebles’s underground hit, and were featured performers in the “That’s the Way of the World” (1975), a drama about the corporate music world that featured their megahit “Shining Star.” At its height, the band included such notable instrumentalists as saxophonist Ronnie Laws and White’s brother Verdine.

By the early 1980s, White said he felt drained by nonstop performing and touring. He returned to studio work, producing and arranging for acts including Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, the Emotions, El DeBarge and Jennifer Holliday.

He did not entirely give up recording his own music. He had a top-10 R&B cover of Ben E. King’s 1961 ballad “Stand by Me” in 1985 that was layered with electronic percussion. He also reunited his old band, sometimes singing but more often serving as composer, producer and guiding spirit.

One reason had been his worsening health. Just before his induction into the hall of fame, he publicly disclosed his struggle with Parkinson’s. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

“It’s important for me to communicate higher thought, higher spirit, higher ideas in my music as well as communicate emotionally,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “It’s important to put the emphasis on the positive aspect.”

“There are a lot of things wrong on this planet – starvation, poverty, negative thoughts, racism, a lot of weirdness,” he added. “So somebody has to communicate something to try and balance that, if it’s possible. . . . Spiritually, we don’t all have to walk the same path. I’m not speaking in terms of any denominational religion. I’m talking about a more universal thing. But people should make sure that whatever path they walk is a positive one to instill good things in yourself and others.”