Maurice White - More than the soul of Earth, Wind & Fire

Maurice White
Earth, Wind & Fire
Maurice White

The first weekend in February, radio stations across the country honored Maurice White, a founder of, singer for and driving force behind the band Earth, Wind & Fire, who died on Feb. 4, by playing marathons of his music. On Sunday, Mr. White and his band will be awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, joining musicians like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash and the Beatles. Casual listeners might wonder about putting Earth, Wind & Fire, best known for pop hits like “September” and “Shining Star”, in that company. But the award provides an opportunity not just to celebrate Mr. White’s music but to recognize his thoughtful negotiation of race and the music industry in the early 1970s. Mr. White, a great musician with a long pedigree as a jazz drummer, turned Earth, Wind & Fire into one of the most successful crossover acts in pop music history at a time when the industry was resegregating black and white audiences. Earth, Wind & Fire managed to appeal to both audiences: In addition to its steady presence on the R&B charts, the band had seven Top 10 albums and seven Top 10 singles on the pop charts. It may seem obvious that without Mr. White, there would be no Commodores, Kool and the Gang, or the Gap Band. It is less obvious that without Mr. White, there is probably no “Thriller”, Outkast, Pharrell Williams or Drake.
Mr. White faced the central challenge for the black musician of the time: how to find a wider audience within an increasingly consolidated music industry and a fragmenting music landscape. Rock’n’roll, reflecting the spirit of the time, was being segmented, with subgenres like Southern rock, heartland rock, heavy metal, early punk and others all emerging from studios chasing new sounds and sales. At the same time, the consolidation of the recording studios into just a few major labels fostered laser focus on white, middle-class kids and the sales they could drive. While that development crushed some musicians, Mr. White saw its possibilities. Instead of focusing on one musical tradition, he mixed the sounds and rhythms of many — from the jazz measures in songs like “Caribou” to the Latin influences in “Brazilian Rhyme” and the Caribbean steel drums of “Side by Side”. Ramsey Lewis, the jazz pianist and composer with whom Mr. White played in the 1960s, once remarked that he had the uncanny ability to bring together »all of his musical roots, from jazz, R&B, pop, gospel and classical«. His amalgamation of musical sounds was also a calculated business risk. Mr. White pressed Columbia Records, his label at the time, to ensure that pop promoters marketed his work alongside R&B promoters. Mr. White genuinely believed that musical intermixing produced a harmony — both musical and metaphorical — that would overcome the label’s profit anxiety. The producer Wayne Edwards wrote in his memoir that Mr. White believed his music »naturally appealed across racial and socio-economic lines«.
Mr. White’s approach of blending musical traditions is now familiar, but in the pop music scene of the 1970s, it was revolutionary. The band clothed its music in elaborate stage shows that featured huge sets, fireworks, magic tricks and colorful Afrocentric costumes, making Earth, Wind & Fire one of the biggest touring acts of the decade. After the riots and escalating crime of the late 1960s, black acts were under pressure to seem less threatening to white audiences. Mr. White used his band’s popularity to introduce a more sober social message about race. In the song “Evil” which he wrote with Philip Bailey, he sings: »Beauty in our face you see, Tryin’ to hide all our misery, But Evil, runnin’ through my brain, Me and evil are about the same« Cue the Negro spiritual and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear The Mask”. Beneath the band’s infectious beats and sequined costumes, Mr. White and Mr. Bailey were pointing to the lingering plight of the black musician: Sing happy, or don’t sing at all. That two of Earth, Wind & Fire’s albums, including the breakthrough “That’s The Way Of The World”, were soundtracks to blaxploitation movies, one about racism in the music business, suggests that Mr. White was challenging the industry to take a different direction. Listen to Earth, Wind & Fire with race in mind, and instead of simply driving rhythms and effortless melodies, you will hear a delicate plea for change. »The way of the world makes his heart grow cold«, the band’s anthem reminds us. Mr. White’s hope was that he would be among those who could, as another song exhorts, »turn it into something good«. We should remember Mr. White as someone who turned a cold business into something good.

The New York Times
Roger Thompson is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stony Brook University.

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