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Until The 12th of Never: Maurice White (WDHA Uncut Tribute)

maurice white

Prelude

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.

Yearnin’, Learnin’…

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.

Heritage…

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.

Epilogue

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.* 

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Q&A: Christian Scott (Originally published in Village Voice)

February 5, 2013 Leave a comment

ImageHarlem by way of New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott has emerged as a great force in jazz, as well as its most frank provocateur of truth since Rashaan Roland Kirk. His wildly incendiary testimonials of political frustrations (“Jenacide (The Inevitable Rise and Fall of the Blood Revolution)”), personal encounters with corrupt government institutions (“K.K.P.D. aka Ku Klux Police Department”) and intense social commentary (“When Marissa Stood Her Ground”) are equally as striking as his statements of his “stretch music” ideal of fusion, melded a perplexing combination of influences and turning it into an intoxicating presentation of reverb heavy rhythms and arresting melodies.

Scott’s eighth album—the double-CD set Christian aTunde Adjuah, commemorating his new name—displays “stretch music” at its most realized. It’s full of ferocious statements of dissatisfaction and admiration for his family and New Orleans heritage. Although only 29, he’s ready to partake in a daunting challenge: bringing jazz back to black youth and dissolving age-old (and, until now, unchallenged) rules of what jazz is and who jazz is for.

 

Highlights

Christian on completing his name to Christian aTunde Adjuah:

“For me, I didn’t wanna be exclusively known as a name that was assigned to my ancestors so their captors could know that they owned them at one point. Fuck that.”


Christian on his long, politically-charged song-titles

“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t get flack for my titles. Even within the confines of the daily conversations you have with business people or people on your team; the label, agents or publicists, any of those things. It’s not a very comfortable job for someone to have to navigate selling someone any album that the first song is called “Ku Klux Police Department.” You know how hard that is for a business person? At the end of the day, I’m not budging; that’s what the song is called. If you don’t want the song to be called that, then stop these motherfuckers from pulling guns on people like me.”


Christian’s definition of his style, “stretch music:

“…it is a seamless improvisational fusion form that can literally acculturate any musical vernacular that has ever existed.”

Read the full interview at the Village Voice blog sitehttp://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2012/08/christian_scott_interview.php

 

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V.I.P.s & Me: Jose James

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Me (not so well-dressed) with singer/songwriter Jose James, following his 1st NYC Jazz Club performance at the Jazz Standard in October 2011.

He’s the man with the Glenlivet baritone; a refreshingly cold-to-the-touch vocal delivery that warms and inebriates each of his listeners and onlookers.  José James has known rivers, allowing his muse to guide him from his native Minneapolis, to Seattle, over to London, and has now found himself in Brooklyn. His albums, The Dreamer (2008), BlackMagic (2010) and For All We Know (2010) have been explorations in jazz, hip-hop and electronica, within all of which you can pinpoint his inspirations, which are about as varied as they might seem: John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ice Cube, J Dilla, Michael Jackson, Bobby McFerrin. He treats his albums like a child treats a shiny new Christmas gift, embracing, playing and mastering it until it’s time conquer the next toy, without so much as a backward glance. His forthcoming release, No Beginning No End, an exploration of soul, is just another block he walks in his metropolis of genre-shattering self-discovery.

*This is the intro to my interview with Jose – “Jose James: Unlocking the Code” –  published by The Revivalist Magazine in February 2012.  To read the interview in its entirety, go to the  link herehttp://revivalist.okayplayer.com/2012/01/31/jose-james-unlocking-the-code/ *

*Special thanks to Eric Sandler, The Revivalist, and it’s parent web-mag, Okayplayer.com*

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February 3, 2012 1 comment

I posted this last year. I’ll will continue to post it as long as it’s message can be heard.

Well-Dressed Headphone Addict


Good morn’ or evening, friends!  Black History Month is forever defunct.  The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict has declared that the government appointed 28 day period that highlights achievements by African-Americans is officially obsolete!  Now, pay attention to this next sentence: THE  TERM “BLACK HISTORY” IS REDUNDANT AND REPETITIVE.  Black history is human history; Black Men are pieces of clay molded into the image of their Creator, the Creator of all.  Spiritual beliefs aside, Black people were first on the Earth and all humans are derivative of them.  The practice of vigorously celebrating the accomplishments of important men and women of color during the month of February only, is as futile as it is dismissive.  It’s the same mentality that has ignorant folks believing and spouting that racism is no longer an issue now that America has its first Black President.

In the context of music, every single genre and sub-genre one can possibly try…

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Addition To “VIPs & Me” Page: Orrin Evans

Jazz pianist/composer/conductor Orrin Evans & me at in between sets at Zinc Bar in Manhattan

Earlier this year, I got a chance to get a “First Listen” to an album on NPRmusic.com, which is known for giving listeners a chance to hear new CDs a week prior to their releases.  Many of the best, most progressive records I’ve heard in the past nine months were first heard on this site, including Cee-Lo Green’s The Lady Killer, Adele’s 21, Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi’s Rome and Jill Scott’s The Light of the Sun.  Once again, I heard another amazing record, Captain Black Big Band.  This project, recorded live in New York City and Philadelphia, was created and conducted by jazz pianist Orrin Evans.  Evans has been on the cutting edge of jazz for more than 15 years, thanks to the tutelage NEA Jazz Master pianist Kenny Barron.  Since the age of 18, Evan’s recorded no less than 11 albums as a leader, proving to be as personal as he is accessible as a musician and songwriter.  Captain Black Big Band, which features a number new arrangements of previous compositions, is his most ambitious release to date, and his most satisfying.  It’s the most crisp, modern sounding big band I’ve heard, without going too overboard with contemporary instrumentation.  On Wednesday, July 13th, donning a beige Kango cap, a red dashki and blue jeans, Evans was a joy to meet; a man truly in love with his work and well liked and respected by his collaborators.  Their  performance that night at the Zinc Bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village felt more like a rehearsal than a professional gig, but only in spirit, certainly not in play.  Songs like “Jena 6” and “Stardust” were pristine and oh, so much fun.  In October, Evans and the Big Band will begin work on their first studio recording, which promises to be a truly significant occasion.

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Addition to “VIPS & Me” Page: The Bad Plus

Me with Jazz trio The Bad Plus after their set at the Blue Note in New York

Today, I have a new addition to my “VIPS & Me” page: The Bad Plus. As a contributing writer for Elmore Magazine: Saving American Music, I get the priviledge to review many great albums and, more importantly, get to discover innovative artists that would have otherwise elluded me.  One of those artists was The Bad Plus, a Minnesota-based jazz trio.  While doing research prior to review their latest CD, Never Stop, I stumbled on their cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  Simply put, it sounded like what I hoped a jazz version of that song would sound like, ultra heavy, funky and brooding.  These guys are notorious for their great intepretations, such as Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” and others.  Their original work is far more adventurous, which is shocking.  Pianist Ethan Iverson plays dark and  If I were you, I’d find out when’s the next time they’ll be playing near you. Seeing them live is a one-of-a-kind experience.

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Addition to “VIPS & Me” Page: Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley

February 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Me with singer/actress Cheryl "Pepsii" Riley during Black Velvet Mondays Open Mic at The Village Underground in NYC

Today, I have a new addition to my “VIPS & Me” page: Ms. Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley.  One of my favorite discoveries while living in New York City (Brooklyn specifically) is that of Black Velvet Mondays at The Village Underground in, well, the Village in Manhattan.  My first time going was back in the winter of 2008 with some old college friends.  That was my first taste of the true power of Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley.  In the late 1980’s, she had a big R&B hit with the Full Force produced “Thanks For My Child,” but these days, she’s one of Tyler Perry’s main go-to-girls for his high-grossing Madea musicals.  She not only has an unsurpassed singing voice and charasmatic sense of humor, but she’s incredibly gracious, approachable and encouraging.  Every Monday night, her versatile band, Hot Chocolate, accomodates numerous singers and musicians, coming to “share their gifts for free,” as Cheryl puts it.  I’ve been one of those people since the day I stepped in.  For me, singing on stage at Black Velvet Mondays has allowed me to stay in touch with music in the purest way possible.  It keeps my writing perspective authentic, and I feel that it separates me and my work from that of pretentious know-it-all critics and smug intellectuals who’ve never picked up an instrument in their lives.  The band is hot, the people are beautiful and the cover is unbeatable ($7), but Cheryl is the number one reason why I always return.

http://thevillageunderground.com/mondays/

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