We’re losing them fast.
This article is a tribute to one of Chicago’s own – the latest music icon whose time on earth has ended, but whose legacy never will.
Allow me to briefly take you back in time to exactly 40 years ago this week. It was a great time during my youth when songs like “Inseparable” by Natalie Cole, “Golden Years” by David Bowie, “Take It To The Limit” by Eagles, and “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” by the Bee Gees (on Robert Stigwood’s RSO label) were all on the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated February 7, 1976.
Also on that chart was a top-five hit co-written and co-produced by a man whose vision and spiritual inspiration laid the foundation for what would arguably become the most innovative and most successful R&B/soul band of the second half of the 1970s: Earth, Wind & Fire.
EWF’s then-top-five hit was “Sing A Song,” and the man behind it was group leader (and lead vocalist) Maurice White, who died in his sleep Thursday, February 4, 2016, after a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
White now joins Cole, Bowie, Stigwood and Eagles’ leader Glenn Frey – his chart companions from that week 40 years ago today – as artists who’ve all left us during the past five weeks.
To say 2016 has been a rough year for legendary 1970s musicians would be a huge understatement. If someone had told me on New Year’s Eve that roughly half of the ten articles I’d be writing at this early point in 2016 would be in Memoriam for newly deceased artists, I’d have shuttered at the thought.
Yes, I know death is the inevitable follow-up to life, but that knowledge doesn’t lessen the pain of experiencing some of your favorite music idols making that transition, particularly in the rapid fashion they have so far this year.
Maurice White’s Influence/ EWF’s Beginnings
The death of Maurice White is especially tough for me. Growing up, there were basically three artists whose music pervaded our household: Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers and EWF. My mother would buy every album released by those three acts, and we would be subjected to hearing their music often.
Not that I was complaining, mind you. If Mom wasn’t playing the albums, then I was. And in time, she stopped buying the records only because I became old enough to buy them myself.
As I moved into adulthood, Earth, Wind & Fire remained my favorite group (and is still in my top two). As I got older, it became clearer that many of their songs’ messages transcended anything that I could fully understand during my younger years. And what I didn’t understand about their music as a child, I grew to appreciate as I became older.
Those messages’ core elements – spirituality, the importance of love, the beauty of life, the positivity, the mysticism – were essential to EWF’s music, and all were the vision of the band’s creator, Maurice White.
White, a Sagittarius, founded the band in the late-1960s and named it for the elements of his astrological chart: Earth, Air and Fire, with Air being replaced by the more dynamic Wind. The band also became known as the Elements of the Universe, an appropriate title given the essential, worldly, life-affirming messages in their lyrics.
While it went through various membership changes over the years, EWF’s lineup consisted of nine members during its heyday in the mid-to-late 1970s, including two of Maurice’s brothers, Verdine and Fred, and Philip Bailey, whose legendary falsetto powered many of the band’s biggest hits.
Brother Verdine White, who issued a statement on the band’s behalf after his brother’s passing, continues to lead the group today.
EWF – a band UNLIKE ANY OTHER
When people of a certain age – typically those of my generation (you all know who you are) – reminisce about the days of old when music was “really good,” EWF is often cited as a prime example.
There are many legitimate reasons for this assertion, despite protests to the contrary from our younger counterparts.
It will sound like a cliché, but Earth, Wind & Fire were a real band that played real instruments – including a dynamic, rapid-fire horn section (the “Phenix Horns”) that was a tight-playing, coveted entity in its own right. As evidence, their legendary services were sought-after by other acts like Michael Jackson (“Working Day and Night”) and Phil Collins (“No Reply at All”) for popular recordings in the 1970s and ’80s.
EWF even incorporated international musical elements. White, for example, would often play the Kalimba, an African thumb piano, on the band’s albums. Several of their songs even bore the instrument’s name and White would feature extended Kalimba solos on those tunes (the best examples are on their 1974 Open Our Eyes album). Kalimba would also become the name of White’s music production company in 1975.
But perhaps the most important contributor to their astronomical success was the fact that EWF featured two prominent lead singers (White and Bailey) whose roles were clearly defined. White provided the tenor/baritone vocals and usually sang the verses, while Bailey’s falsetto powered the choruses and other hooks. Vocally, Bailey proved to be the yin to White’s yang. Their vocals complimented each other like perhaps no other duo in R&B.
You’d be hard-pressed to name another band with two lead singers whose voices were so uniquely displayed – often in the same song – in as non-competitive and complimentary a style as theirs. If you do happen to know one, please let me and other readers know in the comments below.
Occasionally during their heyday, each lead-singer (White and Bailey) would get a song all to himself; e.g., White had “All About Love,” “Love’s Holiday,” “Be Ever Wonderful”; Bailey: “Fantasy,” “Reasons,” “I’ll Write A Song For You,” songs that would eventually become their signature tunes.
But there was no question that the mastermind behind it all was Maurice White.
Even when his declining health forced him to retire from live touring in the 1990s, the band was quick to acknowledge him as their true leader. At that point, however, Bailey, the Everyman with a four-octave vocal range, would take on White’s baritone/tenor parts during concerts.
CLASSIC ALBUM and tour PERIOD (1973 – 1981)
Earth, Wind & Fire’s albums were often conceptual in nature. not only musically, but visually. For instance, they secured a Japanese artist to do their post-Modern, Egyptian-style album cover artwork, beginning with 1977’s All ‘N All. Complete with pyramids and other African-art images, the album covers connected thematically with some of the music contained inside.
And their elaborate stage performances went hand in hand with their growing record sales.
EWF’s concerts were way ahead of their time in terms of special effects (pyrotechnics, disappearing acts), grandiosity (huge stages with band members levitating in air or ascending large pyramids), and sheer entertainment. Magicians Doug Henning and David Copperfield famously directed some of their tours.
They notably became the first black band to ever sellout Madison Square Garden during 1979’s I Am tour.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to see them live during their classic period, although I did see them in 1993 and again in 2012. Needless to say, even without some of the extraordinary feats of their past tours, I was not disappointed.
Musically, they often touched on the uplifting spiritual and worldly themes I mentioned earlier, particularly in the beginning of their career before they became more commercially focused.
But commercialism – which is not always a bad thing when you make good music – eventually did set in.
The group reached superstar status with several million-selling albums, like That’s The Way of the World, Gratitude, Spirit, All ‘N All, I Am and Raise!, all of which saw EWF at their creative and/or commercial peaks, while less appreciated (but just as good) albums like Last Days in Time, Open Our Eyes and Faces captured the rise to and decline from their classic years.
What also made the band so successful, aside from tour exposure and the many big hits that they generated (which I’ll get to later), were the deep album cuts that went beyond the hits.
Maurice White likely knew that R&B radio stations, particularly in the 1970s, weren’t afraid to go deep into albums to enhance their playlists. R&B radio wasn’t the corporate-controlled conglomeration that it is today. So independent programmers took more chances back then.
There was very little risk in a station program director grabbing a six-minute album cut and placing it in regular rotation alongside a three-minute hit single. And Maurice White & Co. were all too happy to give them worthy candidates of both types.
As a result, there are at least half a dozen EWF “non-singles” that got plenty of play on local stations where I grew up. Songs like “Love’s Holiday,” “All About Love,” “I’ll Write a Song For You,” “Happy Feeling,” “Turn it Into Something Good,” and – although it’s hard to believe this was never a single release – “Reasons.” (The live version of “Reasons” on 1975’s Gratitude album is a performance for the ages.)
The fact that many of these songs were never released as proper singles (some were later released as B-sides, but none ever charted on their own) is a technicality that most people don’t know (or even care about) because those tunes were as much a part of EWF’s success story as the songs that did reach the charts.
And speaking of those big chart hits, many of them hold up as well today as they did forty years ago. Tunes like “Boogie Wonderland,” “September,” “Shining Star,” “Getaway” and “After the Love Is Gone” are just a few of EWF’s gold-selling 45s from the mid-to-late ’70s that can still make people take notice when they come on today.
In all EWF had 50 R&B chart singles, including 38 that reached the Top 40 and eight of those going all the way to #1 (one of which, “Shining Star,” also topped the pop chart). You can click here to see my ranking of EWF’s Greatest songs – a list that includes both singles and non-single releases.
JAZZ INFUSION AND INTERLUDES
Maurice White was a versatile artist who didn’t constrain himself to music’s normal boundaries. His long-time association with fellow Chicagoan and jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis gave him the musical tools he needed to expand into many genres besides the pop/R&B/funk for which EWF was well known.
That association also led to the quasi-instrumental collaboration, “Sun Goddess,” which became a chart hit for Lewis and EWF in 1974/75, and one which – along with White’s own Jazz leanings – would heavily influence EWF’s direction going forward.
Take, for example, the classic musical interludes – you know, the one-to-two-minute track segments that were interspersed throughout their albums. Some of these were just as good as the full-length songs themselves.
Among the best of them was the untitled close-out to 1975’s “All About Love” – from the That’s The Way of the World album – which ran about 1:03.
And their most popular interlude track is one most people probably don’t know by name, but they know it when they hear it. It’s “Beijo – aka Brazilian Rhyme,” from 1977’s All ‘N All album. It clocks at a measly 1:25, but it packs a mighty punch.
If you’re a true EWF fan, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I sing “ba-da-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-da-ba-ba-bow,” and “ba-de-ya-de-ya-de-ya-de-ya-de-ya-ha” in my best Philip Bailey impression. That’s essentially all there was to “Beijo/Brazilian Rhyme.” But its undeniably catchy melody and its vocal arrangement was a direct predecessor to the “ba-de-yas” that made up EWF’s big #1 hit, “September,” a year later.
Those musical album interludes (check out the YouTube clip below for a mix of the ones from 1972 – 77) were all unique elements of Maurice White’s vision, which later inspired other producers to incorporate interludes into their albums (see Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for Janet Jackson’s albums, for example) – another testament to White’s innovation and influence.
MAURICE WHITE BEYOND EWF
Maurice’s White’s extraordinary talents as a band leader, innovator, songwriter and producer gave him clout with EWF’s label, Columbia Records. This led to writing and production work for several of the label’s other artists, including Lewis, The Emotions and Deniece Williams. For instance, White co-wrote and co-produced “Best of My Love” (one of the biggest songs of the 1970s) and “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love” for The Emotions, a group who had struggled previously.
He also helmed the breakthrough hit album for Williams, This Is ‘Niecy, which included the #2 R&B single “Free” and helped launch her storied career.
White’s clout with Columbia also led to him getting his own label, ARC (the American Recording Company), under the distribution arm of Columbia and later CBS Records. Although short-lived, it was the home of several releases by Earth, Wind & Fire near the end of their peak commercial period.
PATIENCE AND DEDICATION – A LOST ART
That peak period would be roughly 1974 – 1983, when every EWF album either went gold or platinum and generated at least two top 20 R&B singles. But those golden years were preceded by some very lean ones in which EWF struggled just like many other new groups of their day.
Prior to all the success, their first three albums climbed no higher than #87, and it wasn’t until 1973’s Head to the Sky (including the singles “Evil” and the title track) that the band really started getting recognition.
That they succeeded despite those early struggles and long odds was a testimony to both the superior quality of their music, which would eventually prevail, and to the willingness of record labels back then to invest in good artists and their long-term development.
That kind of patience and dedication paid off in spades for both the label and for Earth, Wind & Fire, a result that continues to pay dividends for the band to this day.
THE FUTURE OF EWF WITHOUT MAURICE WHITE
Earth Wind & Fire have been touring and releasing albums ever since White took a break from traveling with the group in 1994. And EWF will likely go on without White – it essentially has been for some time as he has dealt with his illness.
But one thing is certain, EWF will never be the same without him. Under his leadership, the band gave us fans a life soundtrack that can all be attributed to the exceptional vision, innovation and talents of that one man.
So, for that I say thank you, Maurice White. Thank you for giving us that soundtrack to our lives, and – from me personally – for helping instill in me the passion for music that I still have to this day.
May your spirit rest eternally in power, my brother…and may it continue being ever wonderful!
Now, please click here to see my ranking of the 25 Greatest Earth Wind & Fire songs, which I created using a combination of your opinions (from my informal Facebook survey), my opinion and the songs’ overall success.
Quick note #1: EWF remain the only all black group to have two platinum #1 albums released in the same year (1975’s Way of the World and Gratitude). They were also the first black group to have a simultaneous #1 pop single and album (“Shining Star” and Way of the World in ’75).
Quick note #2: Their eight #1 R&B singles are: “Shining Star,” “Sing A Song,” “Getaway,” “Serpentine Fire,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “September,” “Let’s Groove” and “System of Survival.”
Quick note #3: During an EWF hiatus in 1985, Maurice White embarked on a solo career and remade the classic Ben E. King hit, “Stand By Me,”, which White took to the R&B top ten.
Quick note #4: EWF were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.