The Quiet Greatness Of Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White

The thing you have to remember about Maurice White—the dynamic founder of the legendary, elegant funk band Earth Wind & Fire who died at the age of 74 Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles—is that he was never afraid to let others shine. Think about it. A great deal of EW&F’s rich, massive catalogue, which includes such hits as “Shining Star,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “That’s The Way of the World,” “September,” and “In The Stone,” shined a spotlight on group members beyond head writer and producer White. There’s the rubbery bass guitar licks of brother Verdine White; the soaring, otherworldly falsetto of Philip Bailey; the signature brass workouts of the Seahorns.

White knew when to lay in the cut. But the Memphis native, who fought a long, courageous battle with Parkinson’s Disease, also proved to be the ultimate band leader; an expansive, genre-jumping mastermind (EW&F could jump from funk, jazz, Latin, and rock in just one song) who was so in demand, so respected in the music industry that everyone from Deniece Williams and the Emotions to Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond lined up to work with the studio visionary. EW&F’s Afrocentric/cosmic themed album covers made bold, powerful statements. So did their big-budget, arena-ready stage shows, which rivaled Kiss in sheer overwhelming spectacle. Still not up on Maurice White? VIBE presents 10 songs, some known, some vastly underrated, that you need in your life. RIP Mo…

“Sweet Sweetback’s Theme” (1971)

The White-led Earth Wind & Fire was just an unknown rag-tag Chicago-based outfit looking for their proverbial big break. Counter culture filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles was looking for a band to inject a blitzkrieg of junkyard funk into his groundbreaking independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which gave birth to the Blaxploitation genre. EW&F more than delivered.

“Devotion” (1974, Live Version)

White understood how to get the best out of his gifted players on this standout track from EW&F’s platinum Open Our Eyes, the follow-up to their first million seller Head to the Sky (1973). This soulful overture, co-written by indelible member Philip Bailey, allows ample space for his majestic falsetto, which ranks in sheer heavenly bliss with the likes of Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, the Stylistic’s Russell Thompkins, Jr., and Prince. Go with the live version.

“Drum Song” (1974)

It’s easy to forget that White made his bones early on as a drummer, working with jazz stalwart Ramsey Lewis and his acclaimed Ramsey Lewis Trio. “The Drum Song” is a startling reminder. Not so much an overdone percussive exercise; it’s a love letter to Africa.

“Got To Get You Into My Life” (1978)

In the rare tradition of a song besting the original, this Beatles cut gets a complete funk overall. Like Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 stunning version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” EW&F’s superior take on “Got To Get You Into My Life” has become more celebrated than its predecessor. Those sick brass runs? Compliments of the mighty Seahorns, a staple in EW&F’s mammoth sound.

“Love’s Holiday” (1977)

White’s lead vocals majestically stay in pocket on this underrated ballad taken from EW&F’s most commercially successful album All ‘n All. Warning: you may feel the need to break out into air guitar theatrics by the end of this breezy slow jam.

“Let’s Groove” (1981)

What may come off as cheesy wedding reception fodder is really a master class in GREAT sing-along songwriting. When the futuristic talk box intro hits you are given license to boogie in the most absurd manner. A smile-inducing classic.

“Fantasy” (1978)

How intricate was this grandiose, bombastic musical spectacle? “Fantasy” took three months to write and record, and was only finished when White found inspiration after watching the groundbreaking sci-fi game changer Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

“This Is How I Feel” (2005)

One of the last EW&F recordings to feature White, “This Is How I Feel,” produced by Outkast studio vets Organized Noize and featuring Destiny’s Child’s Kelly Rowland, Outkast’s Big Boi and Sleepy Brown, is no mere tribute record. The spirited track, taken from EW&F’s critically acclaimed comeback project Illumination, is a shining reminder of the rich influence of a band that often times defied stuffy labels. Thank you Mr. White.