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MAURICE WHITE,
1941-2016

Maurice White, co-founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, died in his sleep Thursday (2/4)  after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 74.

White, a drummer and songwriter, was EWF’s visionary leader, building from funk foundations to incorporate jazz, African music, psychedelic rock and gospel as the band surged to the fore of R&B in the 1970s and changing the shape of American pop music. From the mid-1970s into the early 1980s, as their hits  segued from soul balladry to uptempo disco while emphasizing crisp musicianship and a universal spiritualism, they scored 15 hit singles and 26 gold and platinum albums.

“Shining Star,” “Sing a Song,” “After the Love Has Gone” and “Boogie Wonderland” are among the songs that took EWF to upper reaches of pop and R&B charts while eight of their albums hit the Top 10 between 1975 and ‘81.

White, whose brother Verdine plays bass in the band, was diagnosed in 1992 and kept his condition secret until the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. He stopped touring with EWF in 1995, but continued to record with the band.

“My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep,” Verdine White told The Associated Press on Thursday. “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.”

Earth, Wind & Fire will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony.

“Maurice was the guiding force behind the group’s success,” said Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow.  “His unerring instincts as a musician and showman helped propel the band to international stardom, influencing countless fellow musicians in the process. While he will be greatly missed, Maurice’s contributions to music will live on. We offer our condolences to his family, friends and creative collaborators.” 

 A  Memphis native, as a young boy he was inspired by a drum and bugle corps to try his hand at drumming. At 14, he started playing in local bands, working with his good friend Booker T. Jones of The MG’s

After finishing high school moved to Chicago where studied at the Chicago Conservatory Of Music and spent  more than a decade as a session drummer, working at Chess Records with blues artists and with many of the Windy City’s budding R&B acts, Minnie Ripperton, Rotary Connection and Betty Everett among them. As a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, he appeared on one of the jazz pianist’s biggest records, Wade in the Water. (A decade later, White and EWF members would play on Lewis’ fusion classic Sun Goddess.)

With friends Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, White wrote commercial jingles and songs, signing with Capitol Records as Salty Peppers. They had a regional hit with “La La Time” that featured White singing and playing percussion and the kalimba, the African thumb piano.

The three men moved to Los Angeles in 1971, signing with Warner Bros. and changing the name to Earth, Wind & Fire. They brought in Michael Beal on guitar, Leslie Drayton, Chester Washington and Alex Thomas on horns, Sherry Scott on vocals, percussionist Phillard Williams and his younger brother Verdine on bass.

“I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before,” Maurice says fun the band’s official bio. “Although we were basically jazz musicians, we played soul, funk, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and dance music…which somehow ended up becoming pop. We were coming out of a decade of experimentation, mind expansion and cosmic awareness. I wanted our music to convey messages of universal love and harmony without force-feeding listeners’ spiritual content.”

After releasing two albums on Warner Bros. and scoring a single R&B Top 40 hit—“I Think About Lovin’ You”—Maurice replaced every member of the band save for Verdine and left Warners for Columbia Records.

The new edition, featuring singers Philip Bailey and Jessica Cleaves, flutist/saxophonist Ronnie Laws and percussionist Ralph Johnson, impressed then-president of Columbia, Clive Davis, to buy out their WB deal and sign them.

They went gold with their 1973 release Head to the Sky, peaking at #27; had their first platinum album with Open Our Eyes; and had their first #1 with “Shining Star” in early 1975. 

The single appeared on That’s The Way Of The World, which would become their first #1 and earn them their first of seven Grammy Awards. As was the case from their first album through 1997’s In the Name of Love, White had a hand in writing all of EWF’s original material.

While EWF was a dominant force on the charts, they were also developing a reputation as one of the most theatrical acts in all of pop music, incorporating magic, floating pianos, disappearing instruments and massive stage sets into their arena act.

Between touring and recording, White started to produce other acts—The Emotions’ #1 “Best of My Love”; Deniece WilliamsThis Is Niecy—and formed  a label with Columbia, ARC

Perhaps the only act to emerge unscathed from the film of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—they hit #1 R&B/#9 Pop with a cover of Lennon & McCartney’s “Got to Get You Into My Life”—their hit parade continued with “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “After The Love Has Gone,” “Let’s Groove” and “Fall In Love With Me.”

White took a hiatus from the band in 1983, recording a self-titled solo album and producing  Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand and Jennifer Holliday. He reunited with the band in 1987 for Touch The World and a  nine-month world tour.

While traveled with the band for five years while receiving treatment for Parkinson's. He got off the road, built a studio and started Kalimba Music, which releases the music of Earth, Wind & Fire music and others.

Maurice was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.

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