Maurice White (December 19, 1941 – February 4, 2016) was an American singer-songwriter, musician, record producer, arranger, and bandleader. He was the founder of the band Earth, Wind & Fire. He was also the older brother of current Earth, Wind & Fire member Verdine White, and former member Fred White. He served as the band’s main songwriter and record producer, and was co-lead singer along with Philip Bailey.
He won seven Grammys, and was nominated for a total of twenty Grammys. White was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame as a member of Earth, Wind & Fire, and was also inducted individually into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Also known by his nickname “Reece”, he worked with several famous recording artists, including Deniece Williams, the Emotions, Barbra Streisand, and Neil Diamond. White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the late 1980s, which led him eventually to stop touring with Earth, Wind & Fire in 1994. He retained executive control of the band, and remained active in the music business until his death.
White was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on December 19, 1941. He grew up in South Memphis, where he lived with his grandmother in the Foote Homes Projects and was a childhood friend of Booker T Jones, with whom he formed a “cookin’ little band” while attending Booker T. Washington High School. He made frequent trips to Chicago to visit his mother, Edna, and stepfather, Verdine Adams, who was a doctor and occasional saxophonist. In his teenage years, he moved to Chicago and studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, and played drums in local nightclubs. By the mid-1960s he found work as a session drummer for Chess Records. While at Chess, he played on the records of artists such as Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Sonny Stitt, Muddy Waters, the Impressions, the Dells, Betty Everett, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Buddy Guy. White also played the drums on Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” and Billy Stewart’s “Summertime”. In 1962, along with other studio musicians at Chess, he was a member of the Jazzmen, who later became the Pharaohs.
By 1966, he joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio, replacing Isaac “Red” Holt as the drummer. Holt and bassist Eldee Young left and formed Young-Holt Unlimited with pianist Hysear Don Walker. Young was replaced by Cleveland Eaton. As a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Maurice played on nine of the group’s albums, including Wade in the Water (1966), from which the track “Hold It Right There” won a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental in 1966. White featured on other Ramsey Lewis albums including: The Movie Album (1966), Goin’ Latin (1967), Dancing in the Street (1967), Up Pops Ramsey Lewis (1967) and The Piano Player (1969). While in the Trio he was introduced in a Chicago drum store to the African thumb piano or kalimba and on the Trio’s 1969 album Another Voyage’s track “Uhuru” was featured the first recording of White playing the kalimba.
In 1969, White left the Trio and joined his two friends, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, to form a songwriting team who wrote songs for commercials in the Chicago area. The three friends got a recording contract with Capitol Records and called themselves the Salty Peppers. They had a moderate hit in the Midwest area with their single “La La Time”, but their second single, “Uh Huh Yeah”, was not as successful. White then moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, and altered the name of the band to Earth, Wind & Fire, the band’s new name reflecting the elements in his astrological chart.
Earth, Wind & Fire
With Maurice as the bandleader and producer of most of the band’s albums, EWF earned legendary status winning six Grammy Awards out of a staggering 14 nominations, a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, and four American Music Awards. The group’s albums have sold over 90 million copies worldwide. Other honors bestowed upon Maurice as a member of the band included inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, The Songwriters Hall of Fame and The NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame.
White brought the kalimba into mainstream use by incorporating its sound into the music of Earth, Wind & Fire. He was also responsible for expanding the group to include a full horn section – the Earth, Wind & Fire Horns, later known as the Phenix Horns. White began showing signs of the Parkinson’s disease in 1987, and was finally forced to retire from Earth Wind & Fire in 1994. He retained executive control of the band and was still very active in the music business, producing and recording with the band and other artists. Messages of encouragement from celebrities including: Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Boyz II Men, Smokey Robinson, Isaac Hayes, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine were published for White.
From time to time, after his retirement, he appeared on stage with Earth, Wind & Fire at events such as the 2004 Grammy Awards Tribute to Funk, and alongside Alicia Keys at Clive Davis’s 2004 pre-Grammy awards party where they performed the band’s 1978 hit “September”.
In 1976, White, with Charles Stepney co-produced Deniece Williams’ – a former backup vocalist for Stevie Wonder – debut album, This Is Niecy, which was released on Columbia Records. The album was the first project for the newly formed production company Kalimba Productions which was formed by Maurice White and Charles Stepney in the same year. This Is Niecy rose to number 3 on the R&B charts and contained the single Free which reached number 25 on the pop charts, number 5 on the R&B charts and number 1 on the UK singles charts. This is Niecy has been certified gold in the United States by the RIAA. With the death of Charles Stepney a few months after the release of This Is Niecy, White solely produced Williams’ second album Song Bird, released in 1977. The single “Baby, Baby My Love’s All For You” reached number 13 and number 32 on the black and UK singles chart respectively. Williams later released four more albums on Columbia Records for Kalimba Productions which were 1978’s That’s What Friends Are For, 1979’s When Love Comes Calling, My Melody released in 1981 and 1982’s Niecy respectively. In a 2007 interview Deniece says: “I loved working with Maurice White … he taught me the business of music, and planning and executing a plan and executing a show.”
After Stax Records became embroiled in financial problems, the girl group the Emotions looked for a new contract and found one with Columbia Records which released their album Flowers in 1976. With Charles Stepney co-producing their album with White, Flowers was their first charting album since 1969. It rose to number 5 on the R&B and number 45 on the Pop charts, and has been certified gold in the US. The singles “Flowers” and “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love” from this album reached, respectively, number 16 and number 13 on the R&B charts (number 87 and number 51 on the Pop charts).
Following Charles Stepney’s death in 1976, White took over producing the Emotions, and the album Rejoice was released in 1977. Rejoice peaked at number 7 and number 1 on the Pop and R&B charts respectively, and spawned the singles “Best of My Love” and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors”, which reached number 1 on the Pop and R&B charts and top ten on the R&B charts respectively. “Best of My Love” won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals, and an American Music Award for Favorite Soul/R&B Single. “Best Of My Love” was also the third biggest pop single of 1977, and has been certified platinum. Rejoice was the third biggest R&B album of 1977 and has been certified platinum.
In 1978, The Emotions released their third Columbia album, Sunbeam. It reached number 12 on the top R&B album charts and spawned the number 6 R&B single “Smile”. Sunbeam has been certified gold by the RIAA. In 1979 Earth, Wind & Fire collaborated with the Emotions on the single “Boogie Wonderland” which reached number 6 and number 2 on the Pop and R&B charts and has been certified gold for sales of over a million copies. The Emotions also received an American Music Award nomination for Favorite Soul/R&B Band, Duo or Group in 1979. White produced two more albums for the Emotions, on his own Columbia-distributed label, ARC Records; they subsequently went on to record an album with the Chicago-based Red Label Records, and then one with Motown.
Work with other artists
In addition to his work with the Emotions and Deniece Williams, White collaborated with several other famous recording artists. For example, he played the drums on Minnie Riperton’s debut 1970 album, Come to My Garden, and contributed vocals to Weather Report’s 1978 album Mr. Gone. White also produced Ramsey Lewis’ albums: Sun Goddess (1974), Salongo (1976), and Sky Islands (1993), Jennifer Holliday on her 1983 release Feel My Soul, Barbra Streisand on her 1984 platinum album Emotion, Atlantic Starr on their platinum 1986 album All in the Name of Love and Neil Diamond on his 1986 gold album Headed for the Future. During 1980, White sang on a live album with Walter Hawkins and the Family (a popular gospel group) in which he sang a solo along with Walter’s brother Edwin on a song called Eternal Life. In addition he co-wrote the song “Only In Chicago” with Barry Manilow which was included on his 1980 platinum album Barry, the track “Tip of My Tongue” for the rock band the Tubes which appeared on their album Outside Inside, and contributed vocals to Cher’s 1987 self-titled platinum album.
White produced two albums by the jazz group the Urban Knights, released in 1995 and 1997. Urban Knights I featured Ramsey Lewis, Brazilian percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, and American jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. and it went to number 3 on the Top Contemporary Jazz Albums charts. The group’s second album Urban Knights II featured appearances by Ramsey Lewis, Paulinho Da Costa, EW&F’s bassist Verdine White, singer-songwriter and guitarist Jonathan Butler and jazz saxophonist Najee. It reached number 5 on the Top Contemporary Jazz Albums charts. White also produced on James Ingram’s 1993 Thom Bell inspired album Always You, notably the track “Too Much For This Heart”. White arranged for the British girl group Cleopatra on their 1998 album Comin’ Atcha!, which peaked at number 20 on the UK albums chart.
In 2000 White was the executive producer of the group Xpression’s album Power with San Francisco Bay area producer/vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and educator, Maestro Curtis, whom White dubbed his protege and nicknamed him “the genius”. Their debut album, Power, was released the same year. On March 27, 2006 White was featured on the French jazz band Nojazz’s 2006 album Have Fun on the tracks “Nobody Else” and “Kool”. “Kool” marked the first time White collaborated with his friend Stevie Wonder.
White served as the executive producer of an Earth, Wind & Fire tribute album entitled Interpretations: Celebrating The Music Of Earth, Wind & Fire which was released in March 2007. Featured on the album were renowned artists including; Chaka Khan, Kirk Franklin and Angie Stone. From that album Dwele’s remake of “That’s The Way Of The World” and Meshell Ndegeocello’s cover of “Fantasy” were both nominated for Best Urban/Alternative Performance Grammy award.
White was executive producer for jazz musician Brian Culbertson’s album Bringing Back The Funk which was released in 2008. The album features, among others, White, former EW&F member Larry Dunn, Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild, Maceo Parker and Gerald Albright. Bringing Back The Funk went to No. 1 on the Top Contemporary Jazz Charts and stayed there for two weeks. Culbertson revealed in an interview that he is “…still in disbelief. I have learned so much from (Maurice) and he actually said that he learned a lot from me. It was incredible to work with him.”
In 1985, White released a solo album entitled Maurice White that included a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” featuring a guest appearance by jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright and the moderate hit “I Need You.” White’s version of “Stand by Me” reached number 6 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks and number 11 on the Adult Contemporary charts.
In 2008, Filipino singer Gary Valenciano covered Maurice White’s “Stand By Me” for his album “Rebirth”.
Screen and stage
White wrote songs for the movies Coming to America and Undercover Brother. He composed music for the television series Life Is Wild and worked in 2006 with Gregory Hines’ brother, Maurice, on the Broadway play Hot Feet for which White and Allee Willis wrote several new songs.
In the movie BAADASSSSS!, the actor Khalil Kain portrayed a young Maurice White leading the early incarnation of Earth, Wind & Fire. Released at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was based on Melvin Van Peebles’ struggles to film and distribute the movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. His son, Mario Van Peebles both directed the film and portrayed his father in the lead role. The TV sitcom Hearts Afire used “That’s The Way Of The World” as one of its theme songs and White won an ASCAP Award as one of the song’s writers.
Maurice’s younger brother, Verdine, an original member of Earth, Wind & Fire, still tours with the band as its bassist and a backing vocalist. Additionally, their brother Fred joined the band in 1974, when the band recorded “Devotion”. Maurice was a married father of three and owned two homes in California; one in Carmel Valley, and the other, a four-level condominium in Los Angeles. As recorded in his obituary, his parents, Dr. and Mrs. Verdine Adams, Sr., MD, had a total of ten children, and Maurice White was the oldest. He was affectionately called Reese by many of his brothers and sisters, according to his obituary which was distributed at his Memorial Service held at Agape International Spiritual Center March 22, 2016 in California.
White died in his sleep from the effects of Parkinson’s disease at his home in Los Angeles, California, on the morning of February 4, 2016, at the age of 74. He was survived by his wife, Marilyn White, sons Kahbran and Eden, daughter Hamia (nicknamed MiMi on his obituary) and brothers Verdine and Fred. As written in his obituary, he was the eldest of nine siblings. His brother Verdine posted the following on Facebook:
My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep. While the world has lost another great musician and legend, our family asks that our privacy is respected as we start what will be a very difficult and life-changing transition in our lives. Thank you for your prayers and well-wishes.
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