Innovative yet popular, precise yet sensual, calculated yet galvanizing, Earth, Wind & Fire changed the sound of black pop in the 1970s —their encyclopedic sound topping Latin-funk rhythms with gospel harmonies, unerring horns, Philip Bailey's sweet falsetto, and various exotic ingredients chosen by leader and producer Maurice White. Unlike their ideological rivals, the down and dirty but equally eclectic Parliament/Funkadelic, EW&F have always preached clean, uplifting messages.
Maurice White is the son of a doctor and the grandson of a New Orleans honky-tonk pianist. After attending the Chicago Conservatory, between 1963 and 1967 he was a studio drummer at Chess Records, where he recorded with the Impressions, Muddy Waters, Billy Stewart ("Summertime"), and Fontella Bass ("Rescue Me") among others. From 1967 to 1969 he worked with the Ramsey Lewis Trio ("Wade in the Water"); he later wrote and produced Lewis' 1975 hit "Sun Goddess." While with the trio, he took up kalimba, the African thumb piano, which became an EW&F trademark. White moved to L.A. in late 1969 and formed the first Earth, Wind & Fire (White's astrological chart has no water signs), who recorded for Capitol as the Salty Peppers. Warners signed the group for two moderately successful albums, but after 18 months, White hired a new, younger band, retaining only his brother Verdine on bass.
The band's second Columbia LP, Head to the Sky, went to #27 pop and #2 R&B in 1973, starting a string of gold and, later, platinum albums. In 1975 That's the Way of the World (a soundtrack) yielded the Grammy-winning "Shining Star" (#1 pop and R&B, 1975). The band moved up to the arena circuit with elaborate stage shows that included such mystical trappings as pyramids and disappearing acts. (Effects for the 1978 national tour were designed by magician Doug Henning.) Although White's longtime coproducer Charles Stepney died in 1976, EW&F continued to sell. All 'n All became their fifth platinum album, and they won two Grammys in 1978. They were a highpoint of Robert Stigwood's 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and their version of the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life" went to #9 pop and #1 R&B.
White began to do outside production in 1975 and worked on albums by the Emotions (Rejoice, 1977), Ramsey Lewis (Sun Goddess, 1975), and Deniece Williams (This Is Niecy, 1976). He did composing and production work on Valerie Carter's Just a Stone's Throw Away (1977). EW&F's 1979 album, I Am, featured the Emotions on "Boogie Wonderland" (#6 pop, #2 R&B, 1979). In 1980 the group toured Europe and South America; 1981's Raise! (#5 pop, #1 R&B) featured the Top 5 hit "Let's Groove." While Touch the World (#33 pop, #3 R&B) went gold, Powerlight (#12 pop, #4 R&B, 1983) yielded their last major hit single, "Fall in Love With Me" (#17 pop, #4 R&B, 1983). Singer Philip Bailey also enjoyed success with his solo career, including a hit duet with Phil Collins, "Easy Lover" (#2 pop, #3 R&B, 1985), and a Grammy-winning gospel LP, Triumph! (1986). Since their inception, Earth, Wind & Fire have sold over 19 million albums.
Heritage (#70 pop, #19 R&B, 1990) featured guest rapper M.C. Hammer. For Millennium (#39 pop, #8 R&B, 1997) the group returned to Warner Bros. Records. Greatest Hits Live (#75 R&B, 1996) documents Maurice's final performances with the band during a mid-'90s Japanese tour. While EW&F continued to perform without their bandleader, Maurice built a recording studio and produced a number of jazz projects, including the Urban Knights albums, which have featured Grover Washington Jr., among others. He also founded his own record label, Kalimba Records.
In 2000, during the week leading up to EW&F's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Maurice ended speculation as to why he quit the stage by revealing that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Despite the neurological disorder, Maurice still functions as a producer, vocalist, and songwriter for the band, and played a major role in 1997's In the Name of Love (#50 R&B).
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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