Singer/drummer/songwriter/producer Maurice White founded the '70s supergroup Earth, Wind & Fire. White, a former session drummer for legendary Chicago-based labels OKeh Records and Chess Records (Etta James, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Ramsey Lewis, Sonny Stitt's 1966 LP Soul in the Night, the Radiants, among others), aspired to form a band like no other pop music had ever known. It certainly was successful, as EWF combined high-caliber musicianship, a wide-ranging musical genre eclecticism, and '70s multicultural spiritualism that included Biblical references.
The Chicago-born band had 46 charting R&B singles and 33 charting pop singles (including eight gold singles), won six Grammys and four American Music Awards, and earned more than 50 gold and platinum albums. Charles Stepney, a former Chess arranger, producer, session musician, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter, was White's main collaborator on his EWF projects and sides created through his Kalimba Productions and released on ARC, White's Columbia-distributed label. Though EWF was White's best-known band, earlier he had formed the Salty Peppers with his brother, EWF bassist Verdine White, who recorded "Uh Hun Yeah" b/w "Your Love Is Life" for Capitol Records.
Born December 19, 1941, in Memphis, Tennessee, White got the concept of EWF from a drum and bugle corps band from his hometown. He formed the band after having touring stints with Santana, Weather Report, and Uriah Heep. One night after an EWF concert in Denver, Colorado, White briefly met singer Philip Bailey. It was an encounter that was to prove vital to Bailey's future and to the history of American pop music. Bailey left college a year later and decided to pursue a musical career in Los Angeles. Once he arrived on the West Coast, he hooked up again with Earth, Wind & Fire. Maurice White had arrived in L.A. only the year before with visions of creating a truly universal music group, one that was spiritually charged and ambitious in scope, defying boundaries of color, culture, and categorization. Those ideas appealed to Bailey as well and he joined the group in 1972. Bailey's shimmering falsetto blended perfectly with White's charismatic tenor.
First recording for Warner Bros. (the ballad "I Think About Lovin' You" featured vocals by Jessica Cleaves and hit number 44 R&B in early 1972), then Columbia Records (debuting with the 1972 LP Last Days and Time), the group slowly began to build a reputation for innovative recordings and exciting live shows, complete with feats of magic (floating pianos, disappearing acts) engineered by Doug Henning. Their first gold LP, Head to the Sky, peaked at number 27 pop in summer 1973, yielding a smooth tangy cover of "Evil" and the title track single. The first platinum EWF LP, Open Our Eyes, whose title track was a remake of the classic originally recorded by Savoy Records group the Gospel Clefs, included "Mighty Mighty" (number four R&B) and "Kalimba Story" (number six R&B).
White once again shared a label roster with Ramsey Lewis, whose Columbia debut, Sun Goddess, was issued in December 1974. The radio-aired title track, released as a single under the name Ramsey Lewis and Earth, Wind & Fire, went to number 20 R&B in early 1975. A smoking cover of Stevie Wonder's 1973 number one R&B hit "Living for the City" got massive airplay. The Sun Goddess album went gold, hitting number 12 pop in early 1975. White had also played on Lewis' other high-charting LP, Wade in the Water; the title track single peaked at number three R&B in summer 1966.
The inspiration for one of EWF's most beloved singles, "Shining Star," came from thoughts White had during a walk under the star-filled skies that surrounded the mountains around Caribou Ranch, Colorado, a popular recording site and retreat during the '70s. The track was originally included in the That's the Way of the World movie that starred Harvey Keitel and was produced by Sig Shore (Superfly). The film was said by some to be the most accurate music business-themed movie ever made. "Shining Star" glittered at number one R&B for two weeks and hit number one pop in early 1975. It was included on their 1975 double-platinum LP That's the Way of the World, which held the number one pop spot for three weeks in spring 1975. The title track single made it to number five R&B in summer 1975. It also yielded the classic ballad "Reasons," an extremely popular radio-aired LP track. "Shining Star" was immortalized in a hilarious segment of TV's Seinfeld when Julia-Louis Dreyfus unleashed a dance that became known as "the Elaine."
The two-record half-live/half-studio two-million-selling set Gratitude held the number one pop LP spot for three weeks in late 1975. On the album was "Sing a Song" (gold, number one R&B for two weeks, number five pop), the Skip Scarborough ballad "Can't Hide Love" (number 11 R&B), and the popular radio-aired LP tracks "Celebrate," "Gratitude," and the live version of "Reasons." In 1976, White decided he want to record a spiritual album. The double-platinum LP Spirit parked at number two pop for two weeks in fall 1976 and boasted the gold number one R&B single "Getaway" and "Saturday Nite." Spirit is remembered as one of EWF's best albums and sadly for also being the last project of Charles Stepney, who died May 17, 1976, in Chicago, Illinois, at the age of 43.
The All 'N All LP went triple platinum, peaked at number three pop in late 1977, won three Grammys, was co-produced by Joe Wissert, and had arrangements by Chicago soul mainstay Tom-Tom Washington and Eumir Deodato. The singles were "Serpentine Fire" (number one R&B for seven weeks) and "Fantasy." The platinum greatest-hits set The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 included a cover of the Beatles' "Got to Get You into My Life," which went to number one R&B and number nine pop in summer 1978 (the flip side, the gentle acoustic guitar ballad "I'll Write a Song for You" with lead vocals by Bailey, received massive R&B radio play). The group performed the song in the 1978 Bee Gees/Peter Frampton movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Another single, "September," made it to number one R&B, number eight pop in early 1978. On the flip side was the enchanting popular radio-aired LP track "Love's Holiday" from All 'N All.
Around this time, Philip Bailey used members of Earth, Wind & Fire on an album that he produced for the singing group Free Life, signed to Columbia's Epic imprint. Their single, the Bailey-written ballad "Wish You Were Here," charted number 91 R&B in early 1979. That and the other singles, "Stomp and Shout" and a non-LP single "Dance Fantasy" b/w "There's Something Better," as well as the album Free Life, had EWF influences. "Wish You Were Here" became a post-release collectible among soft soul music lovers and was included on various compilations. The two-million-selling I Am hit number three pop in summer 1979 on the strength of the million-selling single "Boogie Wonderland" with the Emotions (number two R&B for four weeks, number six pop) and the phenomenal gold ballad "After the Love Is Gone," written by David Foster and Allee Willis, which stayed at number two R&B/pop for two weeks. Their Faces LP peaked at number ten pop in late 1980 and was boosted to gold by the singles "Let Me Talk" (number eight R&B), "You" (number ten R&B), and "And Love Goes On." The million-selling funked-up "Let's Groove," co-written by the Emotions' Wanda Vaughn and her husband, Wayne Vaughn, was the track that re-energized EWF's career, parking at number one R&B for eight weeks and number three pop, causing their Raise LP to go platinum, hitting number five pop in late 1981. Their next gold album, Powerlight, made it to number 12 pop in spring 1983 and included the Top Ten R&B single "Magnetic." Their Electric Universe LP stalled at number 40 pop in early 1974, breaking the band's string of gold and platinum albums.
White decided he and the band needed a hiatus. He signed a solo deal with Columbia that resulted in a sweet cover of Ben E. King's 1961 hit "Stand by Me" (number six R&B). Maurice White, issued in fall 1985, also included the chimey, island-flavored "Switch on Your Radio" and the airy ballad "I Need You," a radio-aired LP track. White sang backing vocals on fellow Columbia artist Neil Diamond's 1986 "Headed for the Future" and can be heard on Diamond's 1996 best-of Sony CD In My Lifetime. Reuniting with EWF in 1987, the group scored yet another number one R&B single, "System of Survival." The smash was included on the gold Touch the World album. EWF's last charting pop LP was Millennium in fall 1993.
Earth, Wind & Fire (sans White) appeared on A&E's live concert/call-in show Live by Request in July 1999. Also in 1999, White began a new Navarre-distributed label, Kalimba Records, whose roster included Freddie Ravel and the band Sixth Sense. Kalimba Productions scored hits with Deniece Williams, the Emotions, and DJ Rogers' "Love Brought Me Back." The following year, White announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He died from its effects at his home in Los Angeles on February 3, 2016 at 74 years of age.
Earth, Wind & Fire were one of the most musically accomplished, critically acclaimed, and commercially popular funk bands of the '70s. Conceived by drummer, bandleader, songwriter, kalimba player, and occasional vocalist Maurice White, EWF's all-encompassing musical vision used funk as its foundation, but also incorporated jazz, smooth soul, gospel, pop, rock & roll, psychedelia, blues, folk, African music, and, later on, disco. Lead singer Philip Bailey gave EWF an extra dimension with his talent for crooning sentimental ballads in addition to funk workouts; behind him, the band could harmonize like a smooth Motown group, work a simmering groove like the J.B.'s, or improvise like a jazz fusion outfit. Plus, their stage shows were often just as elaborate and dynamic as George Clinton's P-Funk empire. More than just versatility for its own sake, EWF's eclecticism was part of a broader concept informed by a cosmic, mystical spirituality and an uplifting positivity the likes of which hadn't been seen since the early days of Sly & the Family Stone. Tying it all together was the accomplished songwriting of Maurice White, whose intricate, unpredictable arrangements and firm grasp of hooks and structure made EWF one of the tightest bands in funk when they wanted to be. Not everything they tried worked, but at their best, Earth, Wind & Fire seemingly took all that came before them and wrapped it up into one dizzying, spectacular package.
White founded Earth, Wind & Fire in Chicago in 1969. He had previously honed his chops as a session drummer for Chess Records, where he played on songs by the likes of Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, and Etta James, among others. In 1967, he'd replaced Redd Holt in the popular jazz group the Ramsey Lewis Trio, where he was introduced to the kalimba, an African thumb piano he would use extensively in future projects. In 1969, he left Lewis' group to form a songwriting partnership with keyboardist Don Whitehead and singer Wade Flemons. This quickly evolved into a band dubbed the Salty Peppers, which signed with Capitol and scored a regional hit with "La La Time." When a follow-up flopped, White decided to move to Los Angeles, and took most of the band with him; he also renamed them Earth, Wind & Fire, after the three elements in his astrological charts. By the time White convinced his brother, bassist Verdine White, to join him on the West Coast in 1970, the lineup consisted of Whitehead, Flemons, female singer Sherry Scott, guitarist Michael Beal, tenor saxophonist Chet Washington, trombonist Alex Thomas, and percussionist Yackov Ben Israel. This aggregate signed a new deal with Warner Bros. and issued its self-titled debut album in late 1970. Many critics found it intriguing and ambitious, much like its 1971 follow-up, The Need of Love, but neither attracted much commercial attention despite a growing following on college campuses and a high-profile gig performing the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles' groundbreaking black independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Dissatisfied with the results, White dismantled the first version of EWF in 1972, retaining only brother Verdine. He built a new lineup with female vocalist Jessica Cleaves, flute/sax player Ronnie Laws, guitarist Roland Bautista, keyboardist Larry Dunn, and percussionist Ralph Johnson; the most important new addition, however, was singer Philip Bailey, recruited from a Denver R&B band called Friends & Love. After seeing the group open for John Sebastian in New York, Clive Davis signed them to CBS, where they debuted in 1972 with Last Days and Time. Further personnel changes ensued; Laws and Bautista were gone by year's end, replaced by reedman Andrew Woolfolk and guitarists Al McKay and Johnny Graham. It was then that EWF truly began to hit their stride. 1973's Head to the Sky (Cleaves' last album with the group) significantly broadened their cult following, and the 1974 follow-up, Open Our Eyes, was their first genuine hit. It marked their first collaboration with producer, arranger, and sometime-songwriting collaborator Charles Stepney, who helped streamline their sound for wider acceptance; it also featured another White brother, Fred, brought in as a second drummer. The single "Mighty Mighty" became EWF's first Top Ten hit on the R&B charts, although pop radio shied away from its black-pride subtext, and the minor hit "Kalimba Story" brought Maurice White's infatuation with African sounds to the airwaves. Open Our Eyes went gold, setting the stage for the band's blockbuster breakthrough.
In 1975, EWF completed work on another movie soundtrack, this time to a music-biz drama called That's the Way of the World. Not optimistic about the film's commercial prospects, the group rushed out their soundtrack album of the same name (unlike Sweet Sweetback, they composed all the music themselves) in advance. The film flopped, but the album took off; its lead single, the love-and-encouragement anthem "Shining Star," shot to the top of both the R&B and pop charts, making Earth, Wind & Fire mainstream stars; it later won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group. The album also hit number one on both the pop and R&B charts, and went double platinum; its title track went Top Five on the R&B side, and it also contained Bailey's signature ballad in the album cut "Reasons." White used the new income to develop EWF's live show into a lavish, effects-filled extravaganza, which eventually grew to include stunts designed by magician Doug Henning. The band was also augmented by a regular horn section, the Phoenix Horns, headed by saxophonist Don Myrick. Their emerging concert experience was chronicled later that year on the double-LP set Gratitude, which became their second straight number one album and featured one side of new studio tracks. Of those, "Sing a Song" reached the pop Top Ten and the R&B Top Five, and the ballad "Can't Hide Love" and the title track were also successful.
Sadly, during the 1976 sessions for EWF's next studio album, Spirit, Charles Stepney died suddenly of a heart attack. Maurice White took over the arranging chores, but the Stepney-produced "Getaway" managed to top the R&B charts posthumously. Spirit naturally performed well on the charts, topping out at number two. In the meantime, White was taking a hand in producing other acts; in addition to working with his old boss Ramsey Lewis, he helped kickstart the careers of the Emotions and Deniece Williams. 1977's All n' All was another strong effort that charted at number three and spawned the R&B smashes "Fantasy" and the chart-topping "Serpentine Fire"; meanwhile, the Emotions topped the pop charts with the White-helmed smash "Best of My Love." The following year, White founded his own label, ARC, and EWF appeared in the mostly disastrous film version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, turning in a fine cover of the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life" that became their first Top Ten pop hit since "Sing a Song." Released before year's end, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 produced another Top Ten hit (and R&B number one) in the newly recorded "September."
1979's I Am contained EWF's most explicit nod to disco, a smash collaboration with the Emotions called "Boogie Wonderland" that climbed into the Top Ten. The ballad "After the Love Has Gone" did even better, falling one spot short of the top. Although I Am became EWF's sixth straight multi-platinum album, there were signs that the group's explosion of creativity over the past few years was beginning to wane. 1980's Faces broke that string, after which guitarist McKay departed. While 1981's Raise brought them a Top Five hit and R&B chart-topper in "Let's Groove," an overall decline in consistency was becoming apparent. By the time EWF issued its next album, 1983's Powerlight, ARC had folded, and the Phoenix Horns had been cut loose to save money. After the lackluster Electric Universe appeared at the end of the year, White disbanded the group to simply take a break. In the meantime, Verdine White became a producer and video director, while Philip Bailey embarked on a solo career and scored a pop smash with the Phil Collins duet "Easy Lover." Collins also made frequent use of the Phoenix Horns on his '80s records, both solo and with Genesis.
Bailey reunited with the White brothers, plus Andrew Woolfolk, Ralph Johnson, and new guitarist Sheldon Reynolds, in 1987 for the album Touch the World. It was surprisingly successful, producing two R&B smashes in "Thinking of You" and the number one "System of Survival." Released in 1990, Heritage was a forced attempt to contemporize the group's sound, with guest appearances from Sly Stone and MC Hammer; its failure led to the end of the group's relationship with Columbia. They returned on Reprise with the more traditional-sounding Millennium in 1993, but were dropped when the record failed to recapture their commercial standing despite a Grammy nomination for "Sunday Morning"; tragedy struck that year when onetime horn leader Don Myrick was murdered in Los Angeles. Bailey and the White brothers returned once again in 1997 on the small Pyramid label with In the Name of Love.
After 2003's The Promise, a mix of new material and fresh looks at classics, the group realigned with several top-shelf adult contemporary artists and released 2005's Illumination, which featured a collaboration with smooth jazz juggernaut Kenny G. The album was Grammy-nominated in the category of Best R&B Album. Earth, Wind & Fire continued to tour and made a show-opening appearance on American Idol's Idol Gives Back show in 2007. Three years later, Maurice and Verdine White, Bailey, Dunn, and McKay were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The band released Now, Then & Forever, their first album in five years, in 2013. Three years later, on February 3, 2016, Maurice White died from the effects of Parkinson's disease at his home in Los Angeles; he was 74 years old.