Maurice was a married father of three (2 sons and 1 daughter) and owned two homes in California; one in Carmel Valley, and the other, a four-level condominium in Los Angeles. As recorded in his obituary, His parents, Dr. and Mrs. Verdine White, Sr., had a total of 10 children and Maurice White was the oldest. He was affectionately called “Reese” but Sandy by many of his brothers and sisters according to his obituary which was distributed at his Memorial Service held at Agape International Spiritual Center March 22, 2016 in California.
Best known as the founder of Earth Wind and Fire, White won seven Grammys (one as a solo artist out of 6 nominations), and the group won six (nominated for a total of 14). He also won four American Music Awards and received a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.
The group’s albums have sold over 90 million copies worldwide. Other honors bestowed upon Maurice as a member of the band included inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, The Songwriters Hall of Fame and The NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. White also worked with Ramsay Lewis, Deniece Williams, The Emotions, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond.
White grew up in South Memphis, where he lived with his grandmother in the Foote Homes Projects and was a childhood friend of Booker T Jones, with whom he formed a “cookin’ little band” while attending Booker T. Washington High School. He made frequent trips to Chicago to visit his mother, Edna, and stepfather, Verdine Adams, who was a doctor and occasional saxophonist. In his teenage years, Maurice White moved to Chicago and attended Crane Junior College and the Chicago Conservatory of Music while he played drums in local nightclubs. It was while he was at the conservatory that he got the call to fill in for a drummer a Betty Everett session at Chess Records. The song was “You’re No Good” and it marked White’s debut as a session drummer.
While at Chess, he played on the records of artists such as Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Sonny Stitt, Muddy Waters, the Impressions, the Dells, Betty Everett, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Buddy Guy. White also played the drums on Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” and Billy Stewart’s “Summertime”. In 1962, along with other studio musicians at Chess, he was a member of the Jazzmen, who later became the Pharaohs.
By 1966, he joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio, replacing Isaac “Red” Holt as the drummer. Holt and bassist Eldee Young left and formed Young-Holt Unlimited with pianist Hysear Don Walker. As a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Maurice played on nine of the group’s albums, including “Wade in the Water” (1966), from which the track “Hold It Right There” won a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental in 1966. White featured on other Ramsey Lewis albums including “The Movie Album” (1966), “Goin’ Latin” (1967), “Dancing in the Street” (1967), “Up Pops Ramsey Lewis” (1967) and “The Piano Player” (1969). While in the trio he was introduced in a Chicago drum store to the African thumb piano or kalimba and on the track “Uhuru” (from the trio’s 1969 album “Another Voyage”) was featured the first recording of White playing the kalimba.
After having touring stints with Santana, Weather Report, and Uriah Heep, White left the Trio in 1969 and joined his two friends, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, to form a songwriting team who wrote songs for commercials in the Chicago area. The three friends got a recording contract with Capitol Records and called themselves the Salty Peppers. They had a moderate hit in the Midwest area with their single “La La Time”, but their second single, “Uh Huh Yeah”, was not as successful. White then moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, and altered the name of the band to Earth, Wind & Fire, the band’s new name reflecting the elements in his astrological chart. Inspired by a drum and bugle corps band from his hometown, White brought the kalimba into mainstream use by incorporating its sound into the band. He was also responsible for expanding the group to include a full horn section (the Earth, Wind & Fire Horns, later known as the Phenix Horns).
One night after an EWF concert in Denver, Colorado, White briefly met singer Philip Bailey. It was an encounter that was to prove vital to Bailey’s future and to the history of American pop music. Bailey left college a year later and decided to pursue a musical career in Los Angeles. Once he arrived on the West Coast, he hooked up again with Earth, Wind & Fire. Maurice White had arrived in LA only the year before with visions of creating a truly universal music group, one that was spiritually charged and ambitious in scope, defying boundaries of color, culture, and categorization. Those ideas appealed to Bailey as well and he joined the group in 1972. Bailey’s shimmering falsetto blended perfectly with White’s charismatic tenor.
First recording for Warner Bros. (the ballad “I Think About Lovin’ You” featured vocals by Jessica Cleaves and hit #44 R&B in early 1972), then Columbia Records (debuting with the 1972 LP “Last Days and Time”), the group slowly began to build a reputation for innovative recordings and exciting live shows, complete with feats of magic (floating pianos, disappearing acts) engineered by Doug Henning. Their first gold LP called “Head to the Sky” peaked at #27 pop in summer 1973, yielding a smooth tangy cover of “Evil” and the title track single. The first platinum EWF LP, “Open Our Eyes”, whose title track was a remake of the classic originally recorded by Savoy Records group the Gospel Clefs, included “Mighty Mighty” (#4 R&B) and “Kalimba Story” (#6 R&B). The White brothers’ other brother Fred joined the band in 1974, when the band recorded “Devotion”.
The inspiration for “Shining Star,” one of EWF’s most beloved singles, came from thoughts White had during a walk under the star-filled skies that surrounded the mountains around Caribou Ranch, Colorado, a popular recording site and retreat during the 1970s. The track was originally included in the “That’s the Way of the World” movie that starred Harvey Keitel and was produced by Sig Shore (“Superfly”). The film was said by some to be the most accurate music business-themed movie ever made. “Shining Star” remained at #1 R&B for two weeks and hit #1 on the US Billboard singles chart in early 1975. It was included on their 1975 double-platinum LP “That’s the Way of the World,” which held the #1 album spot for three weeks in spring 1975. The title track single made it to #5 on the R&B chart that summer. It also yielded the classic ballad “Reasons,” an extremely popular radio-aired LP track. “Shining Star” would later be immortalized in a hilarious segment of TV’s “Seinfeld” when Julia-Louis Dreyfus unleashed a dance that became known as “the Elaine.”
After Stax Records became embroiled in financial problems, the girl group the Emotions looked for a new contract and found one with Columbia Records which released their album “Flowers” in 1976. With Charles Stepney co-producing their album with White, “Flowers” was their first charting album since 1969. It rose to #5 on the R&B and #45 on the Pop charts, and has been certified gold in the US. The singles “Flowers” and “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love” from this album reached, respectively, #16 and #13 on the R&B charts (#87 and #51 on the Pop charts).
That same year, Maurice White and Stepney, co-produced “This Is Niecy” the debut album of Deniece Williams (a former backup vocalist for Stevie Wonder) which was released on Columbia Records. The album was the first project for the newly formed production company Kalimba Productions which was recently formed by Maurice White and Charles Stepney. “This Is Niecy” rose to #3 on the R&B charts and contained the single “Free” which reached #25 on the pop charts, #5 on the R&B charts and #1 on the UK singles charts. “This is Niecy” has been certified gold in the United States by the RIAA.
EWF’s two-record half-live/half-studio two-million-selling set “Gratitude” held the #1 pop LP spot for three weeks in late 1975. On the album was “Sing a Song” (gold, #1 R&B for two weeks, #5 pop), the Skip Scarborough ballad “Can’t Hide Love” (#11 R&B), and the popular radio-aired LP tracks “Celebrate,” “Gratitude,” and the live version of “Reasons.” In 1976, White decided he want to record a spiritual album. The double-platinum LP “Spirit” reached #2 on the pop chart for two weeks in fall 1976 and boasted the gold #1 R&B single “Getaway” and the hit “Saturday Nite.” “Spirit” is remembered as one of EWF’s best albums and sadly for also being the last project of Charles Stepney.
After Stepney’s May 1976 death, White solely produced Deniece Williams’ second album “Song Bird,” released in 1977. The single “Baby, Baby My Love’s All For You” reached #13 and #32 on the black and UK singles chart respectively. Williams later released four more albums on Columbia Records for Kalimba Productions which were 1978’s “That’s What Friends Are For,” 1979’s “When Love Comes Calling,” “My Melody” released in 1981 and 1982’s “Niecy” respectively. In a 2007 interview Deniece says: “I loved working with Maurice White … he taught me the business of music, and planning and executing a plan and executing a show.”
Following Stepney’s death, White also took over producing the Emotions, and the album “Rejoice” was released in 1977. Rejoice peaked at #7 and #1 on the Pop and R&B charts respectively, and spawned the singles “Best of My Love” and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors”, which reached #1 on the Pop and R&B charts and top ten on the R&B charts respectively. “Best of My Love” won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals, and an American Music Award for Favorite Soul/R&B Single. “Best Of My Love” was also the third biggest pop single of 1977, and has been certified platinum. Rejoice was the third biggest R&B album of 1977 and has been certified platinum.
EWF’s “All ‘N All” LP went triple platinum, peaked at #3 (US pop chart) in late 1977, won three Grammys, was co-produced by Joe Wissert, and had arrangements by Chicago soul mainstay Tom-Tom Washington and Eumir Deodato. The singles were “Serpentine Fire” (#1 R&B for seven weeks) and “Fantasy.” The platinum greatest-hits set “The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1” included a cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life,” which went to #1 R&B and #9 pop in summer 1978 (the flip side, the gentle acoustic guitar ballad “I’ll Write a Song for You” with lead vocals by Bailey, received massive R&B radio play). The group performed the song in the 1978 Bee Gees/Peter Frampton movie “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Another single, “September,” made it to #1 (R&B, #8 pop) in early 1978. On the flip side was the enchanting popular radio-aired LP track “Love’s Holiday” from “All ‘N All.”
Also in 1978, The Emotions released their third Columbia album, “Sunbeam.” It reached #12 on the top R&B album charts and spawned the #6 R&B single “Smile”. “Sunbeam” has been certified gold by the RIAA. In 1979 Earth, Wind & Fire collaborated with the Emotions on the single “Boogie Wonderland” which reached #6 and #2 on the Pop and R&B charts and has been certified gold for sales of over a million copies. The Emotions also received an American Music Award nomination for Favorite Soul/R&B Band, Duo or Group in 1979. White produced two more albums for the Emotions, on his own Columbia-distributed label, ARC Records; they subsequently went on to record an album with the Chicago-based Red Label Records, and then one with Motown.
Philip Bailey used members of Earth, Wind & Fire on an album that he produced for the singing group Free Life, signed to Columbia’s Epic imprint. Their single, the Bailey-written ballad “Wish You Were Here,” charted at #91 (R&B) in early 1979. That and the other singles, “Stomp and Shout” and a non-LP single “Dance Fantasy” b/w “There’s Something Better,” as well as the album “Free Life,” had EWF influences. “Wish You Were Here” became a post-release collectible among soft soul music lovers and was included on various compilations. The two-million-selling “I Am” hit #3 (pop) in summer 1979 on the strength of the million-selling single “Boogie Wonderland” with the Emotions (#2 R&B for four weeks, #6 pop) and the phenomenal gold ballad “After the Love Is Gone,” written by David Foster and Allee Willis, which stayed at #2 on the R&B/pop chart for two weeks.
In addition to his work with the Emotions and Deniece Williams, White collaborated with several other famous recording artists. For example, he played the drums on Minnie Riperton’s debut 1970 album “Come to My Garden,” and contributed vocals to Weather Report’s 1978 album “Mr. Gone.” White also produced Ramsey Lewis’ albums: “Sun Goddess” (1974), “Salongo” (1976), and “Sky Islands” (1993), Jennifer Holliday on her 1983 release “Feel My Soul,” Barbra Streisand on her 1984 platinum album “Emotion,” Atlantic Starr on their platinum 1986 album “All in the Name of Love” and Neil Diamond on his 1986 gold album “Headed for the Future” and can be heard on Diamond’s 1996 best-of Sony CD “In My Lifetime.” During 1980, White sang on a live album with Walter Hawkins and the Family (a popular gospel group) in which he sang a solo along with Walter’s brother Edwin on a song called “Eternal Life.” In addition he co-wrote the song “Only In Chicago” with Barry Manilow which was included on his 1980 platinum album “Barry,” the track “Tip of My Tongue” for the rock band the Tubes which appeared on their album “Outside Inside,” and contributed vocals to Cher’s 1987 self-titled platinum album.
EWF’s “Faces” LP peaked at #10 (pop) in late 1980 and was boosted to gold by the singles “Let Me Talk” (#8 R&B), “You” (#10 R&B), and “And Love Goes On.” The million-selling “Let’s Groove,” co-written by the Emotions’ Wanda Vaughn and her husband, Wayne Vaughn, was the track that re-energized EWF’s career, parking at #1 (R&B) for eight weeks and #3 (pop), causing their “Raise” LP to go platinum, #5 five pop in late 1981. Their next gold album “Powerlight,” made it to #12 (pop) in spring 1983 and included the Top Ten R&B single “Magnetic.” Their “Electric Universe” LP stalled at #40 pop in early 1984, breaking the band’s string of gold and platinum albums.
White then decided he and the band needed a hiatus. He signed a solo deal with Columbia that resulted in a sweet cover of Ben E. King’s 1961 hit “Stand by Me” (#6 R&B; #11 Adult Contemporary) featuring a guest appearance by jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright. The solo album also included “Switch on Your Radio” and the ballad “I Need You.”
Reuniting with EWF in 1987, the group scored yet another #1 R&B single, “System of Survival.” The smash was included on the gold “Touch the World” album. EWF’s last charting pop LP was “Millennium” in fall 1993. White retire from Earth Wind & Fire in 1994.
The band (sans White) appeared on A&E’s live concert/call-in show “Live by Request” in July 1999. Also in 1999, White began a new Navarre-distributed label, Kalimba Records, whose roster included Freddie Ravel and the band Sixth Sense. Kalimba Productions scored hits with Deniece Williams, the Emotions, and DJ Rogers’ “Love Brought Me Back.” The following year, White announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which had prompted his decision to leave EWF. Messages of encouragement from celebrities including: Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Boyz II Men, Smokey Robinson, Isaac Hayes, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine were published for White.
White retained executive control of the band and was still very active in the music business, producing and recording with the band and other artists. He produced two albums by the jazz group the Urban Knights, released in 1995 and 1997. “Urban Knights I” featured Ramsey Lewis, Brazilian percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, and American jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. and it went to #3 on the Top Contemporary Jazz Albums charts. The group’s second album Urban Knights II featured appearances by Ramsey Lewis, Paulinho Da Costa, EW&F’s bassist Verdine White, singer-songwriter and guitarist Jonathan Butler and jazz saxophonist Najee. It reached #5 on the Top Contemporary Jazz Albums charts. White also produced on James Ingram’s 1993 Thom Bell inspired album “Always You”, notably the track “Too Much For This Heart”. White arranged for the British girl group Cleopatra on their 1998 album “Comin’ Atcha!,” which peaked at #20 on the UK albums chart.
In 2000 White was the executive producer of the group Xpression’s debut album “Power” with San Francisco Bay area producer/vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and educator Maestro Curtis, whom White dubbed his protege and nicknamed him “the genius”. On March 27, 2006 White was featured on the French jazz band Nojazz’s 2006 album “Have Fun” on the tracks “Nobody Else” and “Kool”. “Kool” marked the first time White collaborated with his friend Stevie Wonder.
In the 2003 movie “BAADASSSSS!” the actor Khalil Kain portrayed a young Maurice White leading the early incarnation of Earth, Wind & Fire. Released at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was based on Melvin Van Peebles’ struggles to film and distribute the movie “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” His son, Mario Van Peebles both directed the film and portrayed his father in the lead role. The TV sitcom “Hearts Afire” used “That’s The Way Of The World” as one of its theme songs and White won an ASCAP Award as one of the song’s writers.
From time to time, after his retirement, he appeared on stage with Earth, Wind & Fire at events such as the 2004 Grammy Awards Tribute to Funk, and alongside Alicia Keys at Clive Davis’ 2004 pre-Grammy awards party where they performed the band’s 1978 hit “September”.
White also served as the executive producer of an Earth, Wind & Fire tribute album entitled “Interpretations: Celebrating The Music Of Earth, Wind & Fire” which was released in March 2007. Featured on the album were renowned artists including; Chaka Khan, Kirk Franklin and Angie Stone. From that album Dwele’s remake of “That’s The Way Of The World” and Meshell Ndegeocello’s cover of “Fantasy” were both nominated for Best Urban/Alternative Performance Grammy award.
White wrote songs for the movies “Coming to America” and “Undercover Brother.” He composed music for the television series “Life Is Wild” and worked in 2006 with Gregory Hines’ brother Maurice, on the Broadway play “Hot Feet” for which White and Allee Willis wrote several new songs. In 2008, Filipino singer Gary Valenciano covered Maurice White’s “Stand By Me into his album “Rebirth”.
White was executive producer for jazz musician Brian Culbertson’s album “Bringing Back The Funk” which was released in 2008. The album features White, and among others, former EW&F member Larry Dunn, Parliament/Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild, Maceo Parker and Gerald Albright. “Bringing Back The Funk” went to #1 on the Top Contemporary Jazz Charts and stayed there for two weeks. Culbertson revealed in an interview that he is “…still in disbelief. I have learned so much from (Maurice) and he actually said that he learned a lot from me. It was incredible to work with him.”
After White’s death, his younger brother Verdine, an original member of Earth, Wind & Fire, continued to tour with the band as its bassist and a backing vocalist. With an introduction by Steve Harvey and a foreword by David Foster, White’s autobiography “Keep Your Head to the Sky: My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire” (co-written with Herb Powell) was published shortly after his death.