25 February 2016

R.I.P. Maurice White


by Brian Thornton

Another month, another death of a musical icon who made a name for himself in the musical proving ground of the 1970s.

I did not start out as a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire. In fact, it was years after their late '70s peak before I
The great Maurice White, sans kalimba
gave them much thought at all. That goes double for the guy dancing center stage, singing and either joyfully whacking on a tympani or joyfully playing on a kalimba, Maurice White.

At the time I was barely into my teens, and like many (but hardly all) of my peers, I had an intense loathing for that hottest of music fads of the era: disco. So when Earth, Wind & Fire released "Boogie Wonderland," with that steady beat and those simplistic lyrics, I lumped them in with the likes of K.C. & the Sunshine Band, Alicia Bridges, Amii Stewart, Andy Gibb (Lot of "A" listers there, I know!), Yvonne Eliman, the S.O.S. Band, and so on.

In other words, I didn't get Earth, Wind & Fire, at all.

Because you could call these guys a soul band, or a funk band, a pop band or even a rock band,  but disco? Nope. Bassist Verdine White (Maurice's younger brother) famously said of "Boogie Wonderland": "I guess you could say we were at the party but didn't get on the dance floor."

The great Maurice White, with kalimba, but sans fashion sense
And it all started with the inimitable Maurice White.

From a recent article in UK paper The Independent:

"Maurice White, a sometime jazz session drummer for the Ramsey Lewis Trio, founded the band that would become Earth, Wind & Fire in Chicago in pre-disco 1969. His outfit has undergone several sonic shifts over the years. 'When we go to Europe everyone says we’re a funk group,' says Bailey. 'But if you got to know us through "Zanzibar" [from the 1973 LP Head to the Sky], you’d say we were a fusion band. If you came in on [the 1979 single] "After the Love is Gone", you’d say we were a love song group. We’re a cross between all of those things. Maurice always called it ‘Spectrum Music’.”

And giving their catalog a listen bears this notion out. Songs like "September", "After the Love Is Gone", "Fantasy", "Shining Star", "That's The Way Of The World", "Sing A Song", and "Let's Groove", just to name a few, are all over the place, tied together by a soulful approach and the infectious joy that is EWF's calling card.

In interview after interview, band members like vocalists Phillip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and younger
Verdine and Maurice, showing some joy, but still not much fashion sense
brother Verdine are unanimous in laying the credit for this core of joy in their music at the feet of EWF founder and long-time front man Maurice White.

Of all things it was not one of their terrific original songs, but their cover of a Beatles song that really got me to pay attention and really listen to EWF. I'm speaking, of course, about "Got To Get You Into My Life". I mean, jeeze, just listen to those horn lines! And everything is so tight.

Truly a masterpiece.

And can there be a better example of "Spectrum Music" than this "Afro-Soul" reinterpretation of one of a British pop-rock band's lesser hits?

I think not.

Maurice White had health problems for decades, suffering first from Multiple Sclerosis and then from Parkinson's Disease, the combination of which led to him giving up first touring and eventually even recording with the band that he founded and helped make into a decades-spanning legend.


All that said, he seems never to have lost that megawatt smile and the joie de vivre that seems to have been his defining characteristic.

Maurice White: at age 74, still gone too soon.

Truly a masterpiece.

6 comments:

Eve Fisher said...

We've lost a lot of great musicians and actors this year: Maurice White, David Bowie, Glen Frey...

Anonymous said...

Nicely done!

But, you know: who you sayin' has no fashion sense? You had to BE there, Baby!

Signed: the girl who thought the silhouette logo of The Mod Squad had to be THE most cool thing ever in all time and all history, forever! As in: How will all the poor people of the future ever live knowing they can never be this cool because the most cool thing ever has already happened. :-)

Anonymous said...

My sister anon is wonderful! Love it.

I wanted to simply comment that some bands grew, some didn't. Look at the BGs, wonderful music in the 60s and noxious crap in the 70s.

Leigh Lundin said...

Funny, I was thinking the same thing how the Bee Gees seemed to devolve from The New York Mining Disaster 1941, I Started a Joke, and Massachusetts to disco. One era closes, another opens whether an improvement or not.

Donna Summer surprised me with an excellent recording of that quirky MacArthur Park, a hell of a lot better than Ricard Harris'. The shorter versions didn’t include all the disco worship found in the extra-length ‘suite’ version.

Velma DiVine said...

Hey! The music of the 1930s is the cat’s meow– Sing, Sing, Sing!, Chattanooga Choo-Choo, In the Mood. Paul knows what I’m talkin’ about.

Makes me think of our old friend Dick Stodghill. I miss him.

John Floyd said...

I miss Stodghill as well--what a great guy.

Excellent column, Brian. Enjoyed this one a lot.