Obituary

Earth, Wind & Fire founder took down racial barriers

Maurice White wanted his music to inspire hope and positive energy

NEW YORK • Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, whose feel-good funk anthems packed arenas, broke down racial barriers and made him among his generation's best-selling artists, died on Wednesday, aged 74.

Brought up in Chicago, White saw himself as an heir to the jazz greats, but developed a fresh sound of tight pop tunes that brought in elements of R&B, rock, soul and funk.

The band sold close to 100 million albums, ranking among the most successful acts of the 1970s, on the back of hits such as September, Shining Star, After The Love Has Gone, Boogie Wonderland and a cover of the Beatles' Got To Get You Into My Life.

White died at his Los Angeles home of natural causes, a publicist said. Since 1994, he had been battling Parkinson's disease, which forced him to stop touring.

"My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep," his brother and bandmate Verdine White wrote last Thursday on Facebook.

There are a lot of things wrong on this planet - starvation, poverty, negative thoughts, racism, a lot of weirdness. So somebody has to communicate something to try and balance that, if it's possible.

MAURICE WHITE

The band was one of the early acts to break the colour barrier in pop music, winning a white fanbase while remaining favourites within the African-American community. In 1979, they became the first African-American act to sell out New York's Madison Square Garden, then - as now - one of the most prestigious concert venues.

Memphis-born Maurice White, a session drummer, formed Earth, Wind & Fire in Chicago in 1969 and quickly became known for his skill at songwriting as he crafted readily danceable tunes that borrowed heavily from the city's R&B scene, but kept a concise structure in line with pop.

The group first reached the pop Top 40 in 1974 with Mighty Mighty and had its first and only No. 1 pop hit, Shining Star, a year later. While never disappearing completely, they enjoyed a career resurgence after the election of President Barack Obama, who invited the band as one of the first entertainers when he entered the White House in 2009.

On Twitter, Attorney General Loretta Lynch called White "the voice of my generation". Basketball legend Magic Johnson described the band as "the greatest group in history".

The Recording Academy, which has awarded White seven Grammys over his career out of 21 nominations, hailed his skills on stage and in the studio. "His unerring instincts as a musician and showman helped propel the band to international stardom, influencing countless fellow musicians in the process," it said in a statement.

Earth, Wind & Fire had been due to receive a lifetime achievement Grammy in the coming months.

Coincidentally, this year's honourees include Jefferson Airplane, whose co-founder Paul Kantner died last week, also at 74.

Earth, Wind & Fire helped bring together the races by leading through example rather than direct activism. Unlike contemporary funk greats Sly And The Family Stone, who brought a subtle political edge to their songs, Earth, Wind & Fire had no interest in provocation and often sang simply about dancing - helping the band triumph in the disco era.

In 1985, White said he wanted his music to inspire hope and give people "a positive image of self". "There are a lot of things wrong on this planet - starvation, poverty, negative thoughts, racism, a lot of weirdness," he said. "So somebody has to communicate something to try and balance that, if it's possible."

His desire for positive energy led him on a spiritual quest as he grew interested in ancient Egypt and toured indigenous ruins in the Americas. The song Serpentine Fire references yoga's concept of Kundalini energy. It appears on the 1977 album All 'N All, which features Brazilian rhythms and cover art from pharaonic Egypt.

Earth, Wind & Fire also won acclaim for energetic live shows, led by a forceful horn section and featuring a kalimba, an African percussion instrument played by plucking metal tines.

White, a tenor, alternated on vocals with Philip Bailey, who offered a quickly recognisable falsetto. He also served as a producer for artists including Barbra Streisand, Chaka Khan and The Emotions, a three-woman R&B trio from Chicago. His survivors also include another brother Fred, also his bandmate for many years.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2016, with the headline 'Earth, Wind & Fire founder took down racial barriers'. Print Edition | Subscribe