“Maurice White was one of the kindest people I ever met. He never had a superstar attitude and respected everyone. Earth, Wind & Fire were and continue to be a one of a kind group. Maurice’s combination of jazz, rock, funk, R&B and pop can never be duplicated. He will be missed but his music will be enjoyed forever.” / Charlie Wilson for Soulinterviews.com
The prototypical soul man, typified by the likes of Jackie Wilson, David Ruffin, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Teddy Pendergrass, was a church singin’ brotha in a sharkskin suit with chocolatey good looks, wooing the ladies with bedroom classics and romantic devotional hymns. The Black Consciousness movement expanded the soul man archetype to include the likes of brothas who were sayin’ somethin’ – Isaac Hayes’ bald Black Moses persona in a gold chainmail tank top; the quiet, earnest soul of Curtis Mayfield; and the serpentine fire and swagged out righteousness of Maurice White. Maurice, a son of Memphis (like Hayes) who migrated to Chicago (like Mayfield) had a ringside seat to the explosion of Black American SOUL music as a session drummer on many classic Chess records for artists like Billy Stewart, Etta James, and Fontella Bass. The up and coming musician also had a foot in the world of jazz that would earn him a position as drummer in Ramsey Lewis’ trio by 1967. Clearly, if your future was to revolutionize Black American Music (and, by extension, pop music in general), Maurice White was in the right place at the right time.
Maurice took all of these… elements – loaded word in EW&F world – and spun them into some of the most compelling, catchy, jazz-infused pop classics the world would ever know, slipping in lessons from the cosmos like a soulful daddy slipping ground up medicine into our chocolate milk. He continued to mine Chicago’s talent, drafting the likes of Wade Flemons and Charles Stepney to create a sound that was rooted in Blackness but built to capture the world. We sipped what Maurice offered, and became enlightened in the process. His onstage persona was enthralling, combining elements of a sanctified preacher, a sly southside Chicago player, and a righteous soul brotha wrapped into one tight, bare-armed unitard. And we were there for it. We listened to “All About Love,” absorbed the transcendent message buried in this old school gospel-soul gem, and nodded with knowing. We knew Maurice understood what life was all about on a higher level. Maurice’s authenticity and depth gave the group a certain credibility when it became more unabashedly pop with tunes like “Let’s Groove” and “After The Love Is Gone.” Surely, after enlightening the world, a deep brotha has the right to party and mourn love that has gone wrong.
All of this brings to mind a time and a place in my life. I always loved Earth Wind & Fire – the “Let’s
Groove” video was so fun, and I particularly loved when Maurice’s three heads were singing to the girl in the video – but I was musically fixated upon the Motown guys who fit that prototypical soul man mold. Temptations, Marvin, Four Tops, you know the score. But, you know, I always made sure to include “Shining Star” and “September” on party playlists. Then I met a fella who was deeply immersed in the world of Earth Wind & Fire in a very personal and concrete way. We’d have soulful conversations all over the globe about how Maurice’s musical vision and swagger was, indeed, a logical extension of the soul man tradition of which I was so fond. It didn’t take much convincing for me to realize he was right. Earth Wind and Fire kept the glitzy elegance that I love about 1960s soul while adding a layer of consciousness and spirituality that has always informed my life as a Black woman and citizen of the world. Maurice gave us, gave me, a template for being who we are while elevating our consciousness. His rich fusion of African elements and pop sensibilities ensured that we could be at home in the world no matter where we are. My passport has taken me places, but Maurice’s musical legacy ensures that I’m welcome at every port of call. Not bad for a brotha from Memphis. But then, if you really strip EWF to its basic elements – that word again – that’s what soul music started as anyway. A humble cultural relic, elevated to iconic, global trendsetting status because of the power and universality of the message. That’s soul. That’s Earth Wind & Fire. That’s Maurice. And we will continue to follow his lead and SingASong.
Tanisha Jackson for Soulinterviews.com