Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, dies at 74
Maurice White, co-founder and leader of the groundbreaking ensemble Earth, Wind & Fire, died Thursday at his Los Angeles home. He was 74. His brother and bandmate, Verdine White, confirmed the news with the Associated Press.
The source for a wealth of euphoric hits in the 1970s and early '80s, including "Shining Star," "September" and "Boogie Wonderland," Earth, Wind & Fire borrowed elements from funk, soul, gospel and pop for a distinctive sound that yielded six double-platinum albums and six Grammy Awards.
The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and although White had ceased touring with the group since a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease in the '90s, he remained behind the scenes as the act continued to tour, including a run of sold-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl in 2013.
"[Maurice White's] unerring instincts as a musician and showman helped propel the band to international stardom, influencing countless fellow musicians in the process," Recording Academy President Neil Portnow wrote in a statement. Earth, Wind & Fire are slated to receive lifetime achievement honors from the Grammys this year.
Born in Memphis, Tenn. on Dec. 19, 1941, Maurice White sang in his church's gospel choir at an early age, but his interest quickly gravitated to the drums. He earned his first gig backing Booker T. Jones before the organist founded the MGs. He moved to Chicago in the early '60s and studied composition at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and eventually found work as a session drummer for the Chess and OKeh labels, where he played behind Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.
"That's where I learned about the roots of music," White told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. "I learned about playing with feeling."
After also backing jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis in the '60s, White moved to Los Angeles in 1969 with a band called the Salty Peppers. The group failed to gain much traction, and White changed the group's name in 1971 to Earth, Wind and Fire, a name rooted in astrology that reflected White's spiritual approach to music.
"In the beginning," White told the Tribune in 1988, "My message was basically trying to relate to the community. From that it grew into more of a universal consciousness; the idea was to give the people something that was useful."
The group's lineup evolved through the '70s and eventually included vocalist Phillip Bailey and White's brother Verdine, both of whom toured with the band into this decade. The band's reach extended into movies as well in recording the soundtrack album for Melvin Van Peebles' landmark 1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Badasss Song" and appearing in the 1978 film "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," which yielded the band's hit cover of the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life."
With Earth, Wind & Fire finding less commercial success in the '80s, White's career eventually expanded into production, which included collaborations with Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and El DeBarge.
White's hits with Earth, Wind & Fire spanned a particularly influential space between R&B, rock and disco that remains current. His music with Earth, Wind & Fire was prominently sampled by scores of hip-hop and pop acts in recent years, including Jay-Z and 2Pac. His mix of incandescent soulfulness and suave, funky arrangements informed recent bestselling albums by Daft Punk and Kendrick Lamar.
Remembrances of White came from all corners of the music world. On Twitter, Nile Rodgers, the Chic founder and record producer who was White’s peer in the ‘70s disco scene, wrote “RIP my soulful brother -- You’re one of the most amazing innovators of all time.” Bootsy Collins, bassist of the funk mainstays Parliament-Funkadelic, wrote that White was a “legend, pioneer life long friend.”
Even U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch wrote that she was “Mourning the loss” of “the voice of my generation.”
"There are a lot of things wrong on this planet," White told the Chicago Tribune in a 1985 interview. "It's important to put the emphasis on the positive aspect. I have learned that music helps a lot of people survive, and they want songs that can give them something -- I guess you could call it hope."
Times staff writer August Brown contributed to this report.