For many, Maurice White personified the idea that black men are—and can be—many things.
The student of a variety of religions, philosophies and subjects, White held an open-minded position on life and love that was rare in its time. That, of course, is what made Earth, Wind & Fire such a special gift. Just as everything from astrology to Egyptology informed the band’s music and visual presentation, so did a wide range of musical styles and instruments. Over the course of That’s the Way of the World (1975) or Spirit (1976), listeners could be in Africa one moment or Latin America the next, depending on where the needle dropped. As he noted in his wonderful autobiography My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire, it was all for the purpose of recasting black masculinity in a new light and offering affirming messages to the masses. No doubt Brother Maurice succeeded.
His musical life was a rich one. Cutting his teeth as the drummer for the Ramsey Lewis Trio, White quickly claimed a spot as a leading session player at Chicago’s Chess Records and beyond. The tireless work ethic that pushed him through the Elements’ monumental world tours and recording schedules was most certainly ground from that intense period of woodshedding, and he became a better leader and visionary because of it.
Undeterred by a few false starts, he turned Earth, Wind & Fire into an R&B band like no other, bringing the gravitas of arena rock shows to black kids all across the country. The hits are part of our fabric: “Shining Star,” “Reasons,” “Serpentine Fire,” and “After the Love Has Gone” are just a few of the gems that still brim with White’s warmth and thoughtfulness. When you add his first-rate productions for artists like the Emotions, Deniece Williams, Ramsey Lewis and Jennifer Holliday to the list, what you have is the ultimate primer on black pop.
Though he’d shied away from public life due to Parkinson’s disease some time ago, his death on February 4th still felt like a profound shift in time and space. Nonetheless, we are fortunate that Earth, Wind & Fire continue to thrill audiences, spreading the gospel that began with Maurice White’s undisputed truth. He is missed.