Maurice White: Earth, Wind, Fire, Funk & Joy

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Maurice White (center) fronting Earth, Wind & Fire in 1979 (Photo Credit: NPR)

As the founder and guiding force behind Earth, Wind and Fire, Maurice White helped produce some of the most irresistibly joyous songs in the history of recorded music. EWF can paint from an emotional palette as diverse as any band’s, but no one does exuberant abandon better.

At the same time, Earth, Wind & Fire enriched popular music stylistically by bringing jazz, funk and soul into the mainstream, while incorporating direct African influences. As the band’s primary studio percussionist, White featured the kalimba — the African thumb harp — on one or more songs on every EWF album. (Notable early examples include the kalimba-funk fusion of 1972's “Power” and the more African-inflected “Drum Song” of 1973.)

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White rocking the kalimba in 1980 (Photo Credit: MySpace)

By the ’70s, brass sections were old hat in jazz and funk, but EWF’s Phenix Horns became justly famous for their staccato precision and virtuosity. Their musicality outshone not just funk rivals like James Brown’s JB Horns and the Tower of Power, but also all of the unpleasant and atonal weirdness that passed for jazz in that degenerate decade.

EWF’s knack for joy, funk and killer horns is best illustrated by their justly iconic single “September” (1978) easily the happiest song in the history of humanity. White composed the music with guitarist Al McKay, with scat vocals as placeholders for words. They invited lyricist Allee Willis to complete the song. She supplied some fine and fitting verses, but resented White’s decision to keep his original scat for the bulk of the chorus. (To her credit, Willis later conceded the correctness of the decision.)

“September” rockets into a stratosphere of exultation precisely when the vocals abandon the English language entirely and interweave their uninhibited cries of “bawdy-ah” with jaunty retorts from the Phenix Horns. EWF hits such a compelling plateau here that no matter how many times I hear the song, the fadeout at the end always comes as a disappointment, because I never want it to stop.

As the inexorable narrowing of commercial radio playlists continues, one rarely hears anything from EWF other than “September” on the airwaves. This is a pity, because White and his band produced a veritable embarrassment of riches in their prime, including a steady barrage of joyful and funky tracks like “Mighty Mighty” (1973), “Shining Star” (1975), “Happy Feelin’” (1975), “Boogie Wonderland” (1979) and “Let’s Groove” (1981).

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White in the studio on a white trap kit (Photo Credit: Chromatik)

Born today in 1941, White — a native of Memphis, Tennessee — broke into the music business as a session drummer for jazz and blues artists at Chess Records. In 1966, he began touring and recording with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, but by the early ’70s he struck out on his own to form Earth, Wind and Fire. Originally the band’s drummer and backing vocalist, the tenor began sharing lead vocal duties to provide a counterpoint to Phillip Bailey’s soaring falsetto. White continued to play drums in the studio, but took center stage as a front man in concert until Parkinson’s Disease forced him to retire from touring in the ’90s. EWF continues to tour without him, but White continued to record with the band and retain creative control until his death in 2016.

’Tis the season, so I should mention that White and EWF cut a Christmas album in 2014 (Holiday), which concludes with a new version of “September” called “December.” It sounds like they just recorded new lyrics over the old basic track. That works well enough, I suppose, but why not take the opportunity to re-record the track with funkier bass, jingle bells and a lengthened coda?

Their seasonal reinterpretation of “Happy Feelin’” as “Happy Season” works better. The track features not just new vocals, but also an extended jam that explores some of the untapped potential of the original recording.

Aside from those two reworked EWF originals, the rest of the album consists of covers of the usual Christmas classics. Holiday’s treatment of “Sleigh Ride” and “Jingle Bell Rock” are particularly painful.

However, Earth, Wind and Fire breathe improbably fresh life into other standards with funkified and brassy reimaginings of “Joy to the World,” “Winter Wonderland” and “What Child Is This?

Earth, Wind & Fire in 2014: Ralph Johnson, Maurice White, Phillip Bailey & Verdine White (Photo Credit: okayplayer)

Against all odds, the most innovative track on Holiday is a fine rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” Earth, Wind & Fire do remarkable work with unpromising raw material — a subpar song with an inherently flawed premise. (Snare Drums typically terrify babies.) White and EWF provide a plausible alternative interpretation, with the well-meaning little boy playing percussion on a kalimba and African hand drums, creating one of the few listenable versions of the Christmas staple. Sadly, Bailey’s uncharacteristically wussy lead vocal botches an otherwise admirable effort to redeem this middling hymn.

Holiday provides welcome relief from the soulless, autotuned, synthesized and programmed noise that the industry has peddled to credulous consumers for more than two decades now. Like all of White’s best work with Earth, Wind and Fire, it reminds us that the best music comes from inspired musicians playing real instruments and singing from the heart.

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History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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