I hope that you’ve enjoyed this week’s tribute to Maurice White and the group he built that will touch music forever: Earth, Wind & Fire.
What struck me when doing research about Mr. White is that he was MUSICIAN, first and foremost. It was what he went to school to study. It was his craft. He was a MUSICIAN – always challenging himself.
How many current entertainers could be considered MUSICIANS?
Maurice White, a Voyager Who Traveled Countless Musical Paths
By NATE CHINEN
FEB. 5, 2016
Maurice White, the boundless funk voyager and smooth-soul maestro who died this week at 74, was one of music’s most gifted alchemists of style. The floor-shaking hits he created with Earth, Wind & Fire were more than marvels of pop fusion — though with their precision blend of urbane jazz, Afrofuturist R&B and fluorescent disco, they were surely that. Mr. White, who had formative experience in the vanguard of African-American art music, brought the full spectrum of those interests to the table as a tunesmith, bandleader, producer and singer. His music was populist and positivist even as it arced toward a stratospheric level of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication.
Mr. White was born and raised in one heavily musical city, Memphis, and elected to move to another, Chicago. There, as a session drummer for Chess Records, he played on hit tunes like “Rescue Me,” by Fontella Bass. He also formed a close rapport with Charles Stepney, a classically trained arranger who introduced him to the mathematical rigors of the music theorist Joseph Schillinger, who also advised George Gershwin and Léon Theremin. The systematic slant of that approach probably appealed to Mr. White, who found deep resonance in astrology (he named Earth, Wind & Fire after the elements in his natal chart).
He was also exposed to African-American experimentalism at a pivotal place and time. At the Affro-Arts Theater, a cultural hub for the late-1960s black consciousness movement in Chicago, he gravitated to Phil Cohran, a former trumpeter in the Sun Ra Arkestra and a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Mr. Cohran played the “Frankiphone” — an amplified kalimba, or African thumb piano, which Mr. White later brought into mainstream use with Earth, Wind & Fire, making it a kind of talisman for the band.
But first he spent several years in the Ramsey Lewis Trio, led by one of the savviest jazz pianists of the era. You can hear Mr. White playing kalimba on “Uhuru,” a track from Mr. Lewis’s 1969 album “Another Voyage.” It was one of a string of Ramsey Lewis albums produced by Mr. Stepney, whom Mr. White also enlisted as a co-producer for Earth, Wind & Fire.
Making those connections was one of Mr. White’s special skills, and he continued to bring together artists and ideas that crossed format and genre lines. In 1974, well into the popular ascent of Earth, Wind & Fire, he gave Mr. Lewis a crossover hit with “Sun Goddess,” a simmering R&B track stamped by one of his trademarks: an ethereally funky vocal hook bobbing through extended jazz harmonies.
Some of Earth, Wind & Fire’s most undeniable hits feature similar flashes of formal invention, woven so ingeniously into the fabric of the songs that they feel functional, even essential. Mr. White was often the architect of these moments, applying his galactic musical insight to the airtight design of unbeatable pop songs. His genius has always been there in plain sight — by no means hiding, yet somehow expertly hidden.