To say that Maurice White was one of the great leader figures of Black music is the only way I can possibly begin to eulogize him. And there seem to have been so many during the funk era. Issac Hayes, Sly Stone, James Brown, George Clinton, Hamilton Bohannon, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Fela Kuti, there were so many musician/bandleader/singer/producer figures who served as the focus point for the ambitions, creativity, dreams and ideas of whole organizations of men and women, musicians and musical businessmen. They all had messages that they transmitted, through their musical pronouncements, their philosophies, and just the way they did business. Whether it was the musical audacity of Issac Hayes making long playing albums with four long songs headed by his pronouncements on love or Quincy Jones going from jazz album, to teeny bopper pop, to movie soundtrack, to hardcore funk, to Michael Jackson, these musical visionaries did things their way, illuminating the Black experience and the potentials and contradictions of America in ways that were unique to them and the people who’s energies and stories they channeled.
Maurice White channeled his through two of the musical capitals of Black America, Memphis and Chicago, and he took up extended residency in the home of American entertainment glitz and glamour, The city of Angeles, Los Angeles, California. He grew up in Memphis, learning music in that blues saturated city. Growing up in Memphis he was a friend and musical associate of people like Booker T Jones. Classmates like Booker T and Issac Hayes would make their impact on the world right out of Memphis, on the hometown Stax label. Maurice would first make his in another city known for the blues, Chicago, Illinois. Chicago’s blues was urbanized, a reflection of southern Black folks hitting the bright lights of the big city.
Maurice would make his name as a session drummer with the mighty Chess record label. His greatest pre-EWF claim to fame would probably be his years as a drummer for jazz piano great Ramsey Lewis, replacing Issac “Red” Holt. From there he would go on to form Earth, Wind & Fire, including his brothers Verdine on bass and Freddie on drums, going through several it lineups of the group before landing on the classic lineup and sound that would become one of the defining ones of the 1970s.
That’s a small, tiny bit of Maurice’s biography. What I really want to talk about is his contribution to culture through the music of Earth, Wind & Fire. Maurice White came from strong southern musical roots, and melded that with an academic mindset and inclination. His stepfather, Verdine Adams, was a medical doctor, and his little brother, bassist Verdine White, was studying to be both a musician and an M.D. Maurice himself was a student at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. In Chicago, Maurice came in contact with many Afrocentric ideas that would go on to influence his life and the kind of music he created, ideas from the far out fringes of free jazz. He also came in contact with alternate spiritual systems to the Southern Christianity he was raised with, including Islam, Buddhism, and African religions.
As time goes on I’m beginning to see the funk bands of the ’70s as not only analogous to the hippie communes but also as kin to the Black militant groups that existed contemporaneously. Maurice’s Earth, Wind & Fire was of course a descendant of the great itinerant jazz orchestras of bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Earl “Fatha” Hines. And these black bands have always been organizations that offered income, international travel, worldwide acclaim, and exposure to new ideas for their members. All of these aspects were intensified with EWF, as the band actually lived together in the early years, with Maurice serving as a big brother figure.
But the thing that really makes Maurice stand out for me, is that in contrast with the “do your own thing” leadership of his main philosophical contemporary George Clinton, Maurice ran a tight James Brown ship with a loving spiritual twist. You could say in the ’60s the Godfather ran a Freedom Rider style organization, with the knowledge that any misconduct on the part of his band members could derail their journey to financial and musical freedom. Maurice ran a clean living entity not through intimidation, but through education. Maurice used to sequester the group up in remote mountainous regions to study The Egyptian book of the Dead, do yoga, take dance lessons, all the while eating organic whole foods. After a while it became too much for some band members, but it would seem he was successful in getting everybody on the same page for the unquestioned musical triumphs of EWF’s Golden decade.
I think that Maurice’s methods and message are more relevant in our current times than ever. The hedonistic, partying side of George Clinton’s legacy was celebrated during the gangster rap era of the 1990s. The current Black movement seems to call for both mens approaches. Maurice White’s clean eating, Pan-Africanism, African spirituality, universalism, collectivism, as well as his deep African American southern roots, and his original inclusion of women in the band, all speak to some of the values that are red hot in the Black community today. The best part of the deal is that he left them here for us in a package of some of the best music and strongest visuals the world has ever had. Were seeing a return to Black pop commentary from artists like D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyonce. It’s up to artists to create a means to speak that is compatible with their personalities, knowledge, and audiences. But to fail to do so at this time would be to disregard the incredible contributions of Maurice White and his musical associates. I say any artist who fails the test should no longer be allowed to listen to “September”, starting with their next family reunion. Dooming them to a hell of un funky joylessness for not heeding the ancestors call!