Funk legend Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire dead at 74

Maurice White at the 15th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner in New York in 2000.
Maurice White at the 15th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner in New York in 2000.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, who broke racial barriers by building a wide following for pop takes on funk and R&B, has died. He was 74.

His death is the latest in a string of prominent musicians who have passed away since the start of 2016.

Earth, Wind & Fire triumphed with a string of hits in the 1970s including September, Shining Star, After the Love Has Gone and Boogie Wonderland. The band was one of the early acts to break the colour barrier in pop music, in 1979 becoming the first African-American act to sell out New York's Madison Square Garden.

White suffered for years from Parkinson's disease, forcing him to stop touring. He died on Feb 3 at his home in Los Angeles, his brother and a representative for the band said.

"My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep," his brother and bandmate Verdine White wrote on Facebook on Feb 4.

"While the world has lost another great musician and legend, our family asks that our privacy is respected as we start what will be a very difficult and life-changing transition in our lives."

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

While never disappearing completely, Earth, Wind & Fire enjoyed a career resurgence after the election of President Barack Obama, who invited the band as one of the first performers after he entered the White House in 2009.

The band won acclaim not only for their songwriting but for their 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.

Earth, Wind & Fire sold nearly 100 million albums worldwide and was nominated for 17 Grammy Awards, winning six.

Earth, Wind & Fire was due to be honoured this year with a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

Coincidentally, the other honorees include Jefferson Airplane, whose co-founder Paul Kantner died last week, also at 74.