On Saturday, June 4, 2016, I was blessed enough to cover the ninth annual Roots Picnic in Philadelphia, PA. It was 11 hours of 24 acts ranging from experiment electro pop to dab-tastic trap rap to the epic mashup that was The Roots and Usher! My written review was featured in EBONY Magazine, but I was fortunate to collect a few personal photos with my trusty Sony CyberShot. Here are the 12 best pictures from that day:
Some of the best memories I have is riding in the car with my dad. The sight of my dad driving down the highway, using his knees to steer the car while his playing air drums when the groove gets good during a song on the tape deck always made me smile (if a little nervous). Much of the music that I hold so dear to my soul today was introduced to me while in the car with my dad; Black Ivory, Slave, Stevie Wonder, and on and on. One of the groups that was introduced to me was Earth, Wind and Fire. When my dad popped in a Maxwell tape of his favorite EWF tracks, I had no idea what to expect, but once I heard the opening horns from “Time Is On Your Side,” nothing would be the same. I found myself singing it to my then infant nephew Lamar at the kitchen table. From there, I moved on to Gratitude and wore out “Can’t Hide Love (it permanently skips on that CD now. Sorry mom).” After hearing “Fantasy” in that same car, there was really no going back. They were my favorite band ever, and remain so to this day. Maurice White, the master of the band, instantly became a hero to me for the way he sang, the way he played the kalimba, the way he led that massive band and got them all to fall in line. In 2016, Black bands are all but extinct, so this loss hits particularly hard, signifying a death knell of Black musicianship, leadership and spirituality. The following is my unedited obituary of Maurice White. A shorter version appeared in EBONY Magazine, but this is what I really wrote…
Maurice White, founder and lead singer of legendary band Earth, Wind and Fire (EWF) died Wednesday night, February 3rd, in Los Angeles, CA, at the age of 74. According to a statement from his younger brother, EWF bassist Verdine White, Maurice “passed away peacefully last night in his sleep.” EWF was one of the most successful bands of the 1970s, winning six Grammy Awards and garnering hits like “Shining Star,” “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and “After the Love Has Gone.” The band blazed a trail of spiritual celebration and afro-futurism that was far ahead of its time. As the their bandleader, percussionist, principle songwriter, lead singer and producer, White’s guidance manifested a sound and imagery that reflected Black excellence and innovation, but also possessed the foresight to craft songs and albums that could find their way into the hearts of all the hues of humanity.
Maurice White was born on December 19, 1941, in Memphis, TN. Memphis – an American musical junction point that merged down home soul, the fiery sounds of the Baptist Church, lamenting country and blues – proved to be a fateful breeding ground for White’s formative years, along with neighborhood friends and fellow future legends Booker T. Jones, David Porter and Isaac Hayes. “There was a wide range of music that I would listen to,” White stated in the band’s documentary, “Shining Stars.” “We kind of fused together jazz and blues and all the different types of music that was available to us.” White learned drums as a teenager in a local Drum and Bugle Corp before going to Chicago, IL, to study medicine at Crane Junior College. Fate once again intervened when he filled in on drums for a band playing at the school. This sparked an undying flame of musical passion that change the course of his life and, unbeknownst to him, generations of Black music. He went on to study at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and soon became a session drummer for Chess Records. His steady hands can be heard on Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me,” as well as countless recordings by The Impressions, Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy and Etta James.
At 24, White achieved his first sense of public notoriety when he joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio. From 1966 to 1969, White played on nine Lewis Trio albums, and won his first Grammy for “Hold It Right There,” which showcased the brilliant fusion of jazz and pop that would define Lewis’ career and inform White’s crossover prowess later. Toward the end of his tenure in the trio, White discovered the kalimba, a melodic African percussion instrument described as a thumb piano, which served as yet another seismic turning point in White’s life. He began to incorporate the instrument into Lewis recordings. On 1969’s “Uhuru,” the origin of White’s signature sound can be heard with spry kalimba countering a funk bass and danceable drumming.
Sing a Message to You…
That year, White struck out on his own. “I started having visions of this group that would create music that would have emotional gravity to it; spiritual overtones.” He assembled a band with Chicago jazz cohorts Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead to formed The Salty Peppers and gained a contract with Capitol Records. Success alluded them and they left Chicago for Los Angeles. One day, while looking at his astrological chart, White saw the elements of Earth, Fire and Air. He alerted it slightly and Earth, Wind and Fire was born. Younger brother Verdine joined the 10 member ensemble and they released they’re first two albums, Earth, Wind and Fire and The Need of Love in 1971 on Warner Brothers. But after 18 months, White recognized that the band wasn’t connecting to an audience that yearned to be entertained more so than enlightened. He made a crucial decision to re-create the band in order to reach the college crowds he wanted to move. Retaining only his brother on bass, White assembled a new Earth, Wind and Fire that collectively had what White called a “younger, more commercial approach.”
This new band included singer/percussionist Philip Bailey, keyboardist Larry Dunn, drummer Ralph Johnson and rhythm guitarist Al McKay. With the new members being 10 years his junior, White asserted his place as the leading voice of the nine man group. It was during recording their Columbia Record’s debut, 1972’s Last Days and Time, when White reached an uncomfortable epiphany: He had to sing. Originally, Bailey, who possessed a falsetto singing style, was pegged to be the group’s lone lead vocalist, but White recognized that someone had to sing “the man stuff” and balanced Bailey’s high pitched acrobatics with a mature, smooth baritone. Along with an emphatic horn section, songs like “Time is On Your Side” and “Keep Your Head to the Sky” revealed White’s idea of music that carried emotional weight and exuded highly spiritual messages.
Moment Of Truth…
By 1974, EWF hit a creative wall, and enlisted arranger Charles Stepney to collaborate. Known for his operatic arrangements for The Rotary Connection, Stepney expanded on White’s vision and became the “coach” to his “quarterback,” which proved profitable on their album Open Our Eyes. Their singles “Mighty Mighty” and “Devotion,” each co-written by White, reached the Top 30 on the Billboard charts, and the latter became the lyrical manifesto of the band: “So our mission is to bring a melody/ringing voices/sing sweet harmony…You need devotion/bless the children/deliverance from the fruits of evil.”
In 1975, with Stepney and White now as production partners, EWF had a commercial breakthrough with That’s the Way of the World. Riding the wave of the pop chart topper “Shining Star,” the album sold two million copies in America. This was a moment of affirmation for White, who co-wrote all the album’s songs, including the iconic title track and fan favorite ballad “Reasons.” This began a streak of six consecutive double platinum LPs for the band. White then began to influence all aspects of the band’s image. He conceived an unrivaled stage show with Doug Henning magic tricks, spinning drums sets and Verdine levitating during bass solos! Their Africanized wardrobe also mirrored their sound, giving the audience a deeper sense of where the music originated from. At a time when show bands like Ohio Players, Cameo and Kool and The Gang dominated Black radio, EWF’s emergence and crossover appeal was a testament to their greatness and White’s vision.
In the middle of production of 1976’s Spirit, Stepney died suddenly of a heart attack. This tragedy forced White to take further charge of the group he founded, becoming the sole producer going forward. Their next album, 1977’s All N All, remains their biggest studi success, selling three million copies. With All N All, followed by The Best of, I Am, Faces and Raise!, White pushed harder for the imagery to reflected his sound; the album sleeve was adorned with Egyptian architecture such as pyramids and sphinx’s, mixed with Christian images and futuristic buildings. Like counterpart George Clinton was doing with Parliament/Funkadelic, White went beyond mere funk to create a heightened sense of social and transcendent consciousness for the audience to ingest.
I’ll Write A Song For You…
Although EWF could easily crank out infectious pop hits like “Sing A Song” and “September,” the majority of their music – majestically regal horns, well-placed thumping bass, kinetic poly-rhythms and a groove-drenched double guitar attack – added depth to White’s allegoric, mystical lyricism of “Serpentine Fire” “Fantasy,” and “Jupiter,” juxtaposed with divine inspiration of “Burning Bush,” “In the Stone” and “See the Light.” However, White also had the ability to connect with songs of pure love and desire, especially with his voice. Songs like “Love’s Holiday,” “Be Ever Wonderful,” and “After the Love Has Gone” found White crooning, brooding and emoting a sensual, sincere masculinity that not many other singers could have for those compositions.
For the remainder of the 1970’s, White became a go-to producer and songwriter in the industry. He founded American Recording Company (ARC) and became the hit-making force behind several different artists, including Deniece Williams (“Free”), The Emotions (“The Best of My Love,” “Don’t Ask My Neighbor”) and ex-employer Ramsey Lewis (“Sun Goddess”). The 1980’s began strongly for EWF and White, co-writing dance staple “Let’s Groove” and winning a Grammy for “Wanna Be With You” in 1981, but with Columbia Records pushing him for more crossover hits, the pressure began to affect his and the band’s creative process, which beforehand had hinged on the perfect balance of improvisation and calculation. The 1983 album Electric Universe was a commercial flop, and a burnt out White temporarily disbanded EWF.
White regrouped shortly thereafter, releasing his critically acclaimed self-titled solo debut in 1985 and remained in-demand as a producer for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Atlantic Starr and Jennifer Holiday. In 1987, he pulled EWF out of hiatus and they released Touch the World, which included their comeback hit, “System of Survival.” At this point and beyond, EWF’s line-up would be in constant change, but White, brother Verdine, Bailey and Johnson remained as the core. In hindsight, it cannot be overstated that his ability to manage nine personalities (13 when you include the horn section) to conform to a greater good, while still allowing their individual forms to shine, during an eight year period, was nothing short of miraculous and speaks to the level of respect he commanded.
In 1992, White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and following the release of Grammy-nominated 1993 album Millennium, White retired from touring with EWF in 1994. His last official concert was chronicled on the 1996 CD Greatest Hits Live. Although no longer well enough to tour, White continued as producer and co-lead singer on albums In the Name of Love (1997) and The Promise (2003) while Bailey, Verdine and Johnson soldiered on the road without him. One of White’s last on-stage appearances with EWF came in 2000, when all nine original members were on hand to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In their speech, Bailey conceded the band’s success to White’s genius and leadership. One more time, they performed “Shining Star.” In 2005, EWF released Illumination, the first time outsiders produced EWF music. It also proved to be Maurice’s last time as an active member of the band. On the Grammy-nominated, Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis produced “Pure Gold,” White’s voice noticeably lacked the manly density of his prime, but still possessed his signature timbre and passion. White retreated from the studio altogether as his illness began to worsen. In 2010, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but was too sick to attend.
To this day, Earth, Wind and Fire continues to sell out venues all over a globe that have purchased over 90 million copies of their albums. The band’s enduring dedication to Maurice White’s dream is a testament to their continued reverence after five decades. White’s death is a grand loss because it is the physical omission of another of Black music’s purest originals. There are many stars, less geniuses, and even fewer visionaries. Maurice White turned the future into the present, and hopefully artists will look to his past to preserve their future.
I was sitting on the L train in Brooklyn on my way home from work when I got a text message right before I went underground. It was from my then editor at EBONY. Usually when I would get texts from him, it was because he had a time sensitive writing gig for me. Being the money starved man that I am, I lit up…until I noticed the content of the text: “matt, can you write a maurice white obit by 7, 8pm?” What? WHAT???? Granted, I knew Maurice was old, and I knew he was sick, nearly unable to even speak, but I was nowhere near prepared to hear that news, especially the way I received it. My gut instinct was to say no, but soon, I knew it was meant to come to my lap, as I knew NO ONE at EBONY.com, no matter how much older than I, would write an obituary on Maurice White better than me. I started writing on the train on loose papers, the quick memo app on my phone so I could get a head start once I got in front of my computer. It took me an extra hour and 40 minutes to complete it, but I was shocked, angry and determined to get it right. Maurice White deserved my best.
Two weeks later, I’m on my lunch break at Brooklyn Free Speech TV. Leading up to this moment, I’d been listening to EWF extensively, watching concert footage and documentaries to reminisce and give private tribute to Maurice. I even listening to an old interview with Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson I did for a piece I wrote in Elmore Magazine about Black bands in 2013. One of the last things I told them was please tell Maurice I’m praying for him and I hope he’s well. It seemed I was handling his passing well, just as I had when my biggest musical hero Michael Jackson passed away.
So, back to the lunch break. I’m sitting in the studio green room in front of a vanity mirror after devouring contents from McDonald’s Dollar Menu. With my iPod and headphones in toe, I played “Be Ever Wonderful,” the last track on what I believe to be EWF’s finest album, All ‘N All. I remember the first time I heard it; the opening horns were so fast I thought it was going to be a bombastic funk ending, but it slowed down and became a slow flowing, do-wop inspired ballad. “Be Ever…Wonderful! Stay as you are.” Those words to a kid like me, who didn’t fit in with anyone, were so poignant and important. Don’t change; embrace who you are, no matter what. I was alone in the green room, which was good, seeing as I like singing along with my iPod. Everything was fine, until I got to the bridge of the song and Maurice let out his OOOOOOOOOOooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOaaaaaaHHHH! A lump in my throat formed, a tightness in my chest and my chin was getting heavy. Something was about to happen that I thought I’d luckily avoided. Once the ending came, and that hulking baritone sang, “What I want to do, and what I’d like to tell you may not be as you see; as we live today, what I wanna say is be ever wonderful in your own sweet way.” That counterbalanced with Ralph’s strikes on the crash cymbols and Philip’s syrupy sweet background vocals, I knew it was too late…I was going to cry. I looked in the mirror, unable to sing along anymore, watching the tears drip down my cheeks, my face contorted to this wretched sight and goosebumps stinging every pore in my limbs. “Don’t let the world change your mind,” he sang, and I put my head in my hands let the sadness extract from my soul. This voice, this power, this heart that eased me, inspired me, saved me, was forever silent. I always feel as long as any artist is alive, no matter how past their prime they are, they still have a chance to give you that feeling you got as a kid when you heard something beautiful and different; a feeling you chase whenever you turn your radio on. Now, that chance was gone, I couldn’t take it.
It bothers me that a singer can affect me to this point more than a relative or a close friend’s passing, but it is what it is. Yes, there are more important things in life than music, but I’m not going to apologize for allowing a man like Maurice White to give me life the way he did and being greatly enriched as a result of it. What he created meant the world to me and I am heartbroken. So, what I will say, goodbye Maurice. Thank you for leaving the world better than how you found it.
*An edited version was first published by EBONY.com.*