A Tribute to Maurice White
by Harry C. Alford
On February 3 my oldest daughter sent me a text saying: “Daddy, Maurice White died this morning.” I conveyed the sad news to my wife and realized that Maurice was like family to most of us. His songs and live performances brought joy to our nation and even the world. There is just no big band act that could perform and be appreciated by all races like Earth, Wind and Fire. That was his baby.
He was born in Memphis and started loving music by the time he was walking. He would soon work professionally under Stax Records. After visiting his mother in Chicago a few times he decided to move to the Windy City. He joined up with the historical Chess Records. There he became friends and eventually a business partner with the famous pianist Ramsey Lewis.
The first time I saw Maurice he was playing with the Ramsey Lewis Trio. They did a show at the University of Wisconsin, 1968. He was beating the drums. Also, there was another instrument he entertained us with. It was a Kalimba which is an African hand instrument that sounds like a flute. No other musician can work that instrument like Maurice. The entire hall enjoyed his solos.
In 1969, he decided to become entrepreneurial with his talent. Maurice joined with his two brothers, Verdine and Fred and a host of familiar musicians that he met along the way. Thus, the genesis of Earth, Wind and Fire began. I was working for Procter and Gamble in 1970, driving the company car on a rural route of my territory – pushing soap at every grocery store along the way. What saved me from boredom while driving in this farm country was my car’s AM radio. I picked up this soul station sponsored by Michigan State University. The DJ gave notice that he had discovered this great new group. “Their name is Earth, Wind and Fire. How creative naming themselves after the elements. If you like this group, let us know, I want to bring them on campus.”
I was impressed. However, I did not hear any of their sounds again until 1973. I was now a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army traveling to Rock Island, Illinois to participate in a race relations conference. Racial tensions were heating up in the military due to the Draft. Blacks were disproportionately being drafted into the Army. Thirty percent of us were going off to Vietnam and even a higher percentage were being killed or wounded. Every military base soon had a Race Relations Officer to detect bias and settle disputes. I represented Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah.
There were about 60 of us at this session. As always any group of Black officers in uniform would work small town sisters into a frenzy. One evening we decided to paint the town and ended up in a predominantly Black nightclub. As we sat at tables drinking the women would walk over and start hitting on us. One very shapely lady came to me and stated: “It is too busy in here. Let’s go to my apartment and listen to music. That’s all!” She showed me a brand new album and started playing it on her LP record player. I looked at the album jacket and stated: “Earth, Wind and Fire, I know about them.” It was a white cover, band members were dressed in white. One lady was in the group – Jessica Cleaves, formerly with the Friends of Distinction (Going in Circles). I fell in love with this album and played “Head to the Sky” about six straight times. I became a fan of EWF for the rest of my life.
After the Army, the company sent me to Detroit. EWF was the top talent loved by all. They would come to Pine Knob outdoor theater once or twice a year. Every song Maurice would write became a number one hit on all Black radio stations and many white stations. Maurice became a master of melodic soul. We would go to house parties and seventy percent of the music played would be EWF.
He was a great discoverer of new talent. Besides Jessica Cleaves he brought Deniece Williams and the Emotions into prominence and success. He would study a singer’s voice and write songs that were custom made to that style. The hits would keep rolling.
Then life has many curves and Maurice got hit with a Biggy. He became plagued with progressive Parkinson’s disease. By 1992, he could no longer work a stage. I last saw him slowly walking through DC’s Reagan Airport about ten years ago. Last week he died in his sleep. He has left us physically but his music will last forever. His name will remain in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His 20 Grammy nominations and 7 Grammies is a testament to his work and contribution to our culture.
Rest in Peace our Brother.
Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce ®. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org