MAURICE WHITE: STILL BURNING BRIGHT
Maurice White (founder and creator of supergroup Earth Wind & Fire), writer of a dozen or so pop-and-soul classics and the producer of everyone from The Emotions, Deniece Williams and Ramsey Lewis to Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. David Nathan talks to pone of soul's genuine innovators.
My first encounter with Maurice was at a rehearsal studio in Los Angeles in the late spring/early summer of 1975. CBS Records had sent me, as the resident U.S. correspondent for B&S, on my first trip to the City Of Angels for interviews with Bill Withers, Ramsey Lewis and EW&F for the magazine. As I recall, Bill and Ramsey were done with relative ease; pinning down Maurice White as the spokesperson for EW&F was infinitely tougher. The group were riding the wave having breakthrough success with 'That’s The Way Of The World' after a few years of building a base and having albums that sold moderately-well.
I had seen them in action at New York’s packed Madison Square Garden, marveling at how the heady mix of R&B, pop, jazz, rock and soul coupled with an astonishing live show filled with pyrotechnics and magic tricks (yes, magic tricks!) had brought the audience to its feet time after time. Sitting there with my UK pal Paul (Leslie) Morgan, my new U.S. friends Percy and Yvonne, I was in soul heaven as Earth, Wind & Fire – Maurice with kalimba in hand – did their for-real thing.’
The thought of sitting with Maurice to discuss EW&F’s music was thrilling; getting it done would prove to be a challenge. An exasperated CBS Records publicist was finally able to get a commitment for me to attend an EW&F rehearsal with the intention of getting a few minutes with members of the group. I will never forget sitting by myself, no one else around, no publicists, no managers, no ‘handlers’ in the rehearsal studio on Sunset Boulevard watching EW&F go through their paces, trying different things with tunes like 'Shining Star', 'Reasons' (with Philip Bailey in fine form) and 'All About Love'. At some point, Maurice’s brother, Monte, let me know that the interview was not going to happen and regrettably I would have to leave!
The only way we could do the interview it seemed would be if I was willing to fly from Seattle to Los Angeles, speak to Maurice in-flight then return to Los Angeles to fly back to New York! Being the accommodating young journalist that I was back then, of course I agreed. I spent the ensuing hour or so chatting with Maurice on various subjects including reincarnation, spirituality and of course, the message in EW&F’s music. That conversation was life-changing for me: Maurice recommended two books (“Seth Speaks,” and “The Ultimate Frontier”) for me to read in light of our chat which set me on a pathway of ongoing inquiry into my life and its purpose.
The fruits of our conversation ended up in issue 168 of B&S (September 2-15, 1975) from which I draw one particular quote: “We are still in the process of perfecting, both as a group and as individuals, and in consequence, we are therefore still perfecting our music. We all feel we have a long way to go and we must constantly remain open enough for creativity to flow. If your mind is open, your heart will be the same and what comes through will be open too.”
Fast forward to 2007 and I am again speaking with Maurice, now spending most of his time writing rather than performing with nucleus of EW&F (Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson)…
B&S: When you think about your career since 1975 when we first spoke, what comes to mind?
MW: It’s been quite a run. We came from famine to feast. It’s been a great ride. I feel very positive: we’ve accomplished a lot in terms of reaching people across the world. Our music has touched many people’s souls. It’s been the background for the lives of many, triggering memories. We’ve been called the soundtrack of people’s lives. There have been lots of downs, of course but mostly ‘ups’. That EW&F is still clicking at least twenty years on and has a life of its own, that the songs have stayed alive…we’re like a good book that people go back to.
B&S: Of the many, what’s your favourite Earth, Wind & Fire album?
MW: Probably 'Faces' because we were really in tune, playing together and it gave us the opportunity to explore new areas. We were really being a self-contained band. We didn’t have any strings or horns on it when we first recorded it. I'm also proud of 'All’n’All', and 'I Am'.
B&S: And your favourite Maurice White-produced album?
MW: The Emotions’ 'Rejoice' because it had a great vibe, a great ‘feel’. Yeah, I'm proud of that production."
B&S: What are you up these days, Maurice?
MW: I’m writing a lot. I’m writing songs for the next EW&F project although I’m not sure what that’s going to be (conceptually). You see, I’m inspired by just being here, by the books I read, by watching the world. I’m putting all my energy into writing, both myself and collaborating with others.
B&S: What are your thoughts about the current music scene?
MW: To an extent, I like what’s going on but there’s no one in particular… no one stands out for me. Music has become so commercial.
B&S: In conclusion, Maurice, you have accomplished so much. Is there anything you haven’t yet done but would like to?
MW: I’ve never been to anywhere in Africa except Egypt. We’ve never performed there so I would definitely like to make that trip, probably to South Africa. I’d also like to score a movie from top to bottom. I’ve had songs in a bunch of films but never done an entire movie. I’d like to dol that – and have it to be a hit too!
I would like to express my personal gratitude to Maurice; the music of EW&F has been a constant source of empowerment to me over the years and he’s been a true inspiration to me as a genuine and for-real human being committed to making a difference. It’s “All About Love”...
Words DAVID NATHAN