Maurice White: The Bluerailroad Interview
By PAUL ZOLLO
He was the shining star, the drummer turned songwriter turned singer and producer extraordinaire, the heart in the heart of the soul, the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire.
Earth, Wind & Fire. The elemental poem, connecting the natural elements at play forever on his astrological map to form his universe of song. Earth is the rhythmic bedrock, the groove, the foundation for the tower of soul. Wind is pure melody, notes in succession, the expression of the human soul,the voice, the tune forever flowing, and with harmony entwined, perpetually in motion, flowing forever forward. Fire is elemental passion, the heat in the blood that pumps the heart, the sparks that catch when words of love and spirit fuse with groove and the melody and everything ignites. All these disparate elements he wired together, and connected like miracle clockwork. Everything to accentuate everything. Pure precision yet infused with authentic soul. He was the guy who did it. The unifier.
First came Gospel. He sang in church and he sang at home. Then came the drums, and the passion for pure rhythm which propelled him on a forever path towards one of the most essentially soulful, exultant musical experiences ever preserved on record: Earth, Wind & Fire. As the guiding light of this expansive group, the unifier of all elements, the heart in the heart of the soul, Maurice White wrote or co-wrote all of their signature songs, including “The Way of the World,” “September,” “Fantasy,” and “Shining Star.” He won seven Grammy awards, and a total of 21 nominations.
He was also an artist highly respected by his peers, and universally beloved by all those whose lives he touched.
But like other shining stars that burn so bright, his light is already gone. Just weeks past turning in the draft for this book, February 4, 2016, Maurice White died at the age of 74 in Los Angeles from Parkinson’s Disease.
But that shining star spirit shines forever bright in his chain of inspirational songs, and in those deeply dimensional musical tracks he concocted, always anchored with solid grooves, and colored beautifully with horns, strings , synths and rich vocals. The sound Maurice made.
He was born into a musical family in the musical mecca of Memphis, 1941. His father was a doctor who also played saxophone, and his grandmother was a Gospel singer. Gospel was the only music he knew for years, and it was enough. Raised by his grandmother at first in the Foote Homes Projects in South Memphis, music infused his soul.
He started singing at six. At 12 he started playing drums. He took to them like he’d played them his whole life. His great rhythmic prowess on the snare itself inspired him to join the school marching band, becoming its shining star.
In time he moved to Chicago with his grandmother to be closer to his mother and step-father. It’s there he fell in with Chess Records, or “Chess University,” as he called it, since it’s where he gained experience and wisdom about how great records are made, and how the business works.
At Chess, he became an in-demand house drummer, playing on records by their legion of legendary artists, including Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Betty Everett, Buddy Guy and Sugar Pie DeSanto. In 1966, he went off to become the drummer in Ramsey Lewis’ trio.
His own band began to coalesce when he first teamed up as a songwriting trio in Chicago – to write jingles for commercials – with Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead. This lead to a record deal with Capitol as the Salty Peppers. Their first single was “La La Time.” When the second single failed to fly, they moved to Los Angeles to regroup.
Maurice renamed the band after the elements that united like harmony parts in his astrological chart, Earth, Wind & Fire. He was the main songwriter, lead and harmony vocalist, and producer. Always yearning for new equations of sounds to distinguish his tracks, he began to weave in the acoustic kalimba – a thumb piano – with early Moog synths, rich horn sections and lush strings. It all came together like magic, and it was a magic that emanated from his singular soul.
Having momentously stepped out front from behind the drums, he was always impeccably and chromatically attired- this shining star shone in shiny suits – and he danced his exultant way up the soul and pop charts, shaping the sound of the late 70s. In time his band would sell more than 90 million records.
Eventually the Parkinson’s caused him to cease touring with the band, but like Brian Wilson with his Beach Boys, Maurice stayed at home and wrote songs and produced records. The music never stopped flowing. He also wrote songs for and produced a host of great artists, including Minnie Riperton, Weather Report (he did the vocals on “Mr. Gone”), Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow. All turned to Maurice as the magic man, wanting an infusion of his chromatic soul in their music.
I always remember, personally, being in my freshman dorm room at Boston University, 1977. These were the days long before computers. We didn’t even have a TV in our room. We didn’t want one. We had a stereo. And my roommate – who was a terrific dancer – had Earth, Wind & Fire records. It’s when I discovered what true soul – the heart of R&B – with harmonies and synth textures transcendent – sounded like. It sounded like Maurice White and his band.
We spoke on a resplendently sunny day in Los Angeles, where he graciously and generously expounded on his remarkable life in music.
Maurice White: When I moved to Chicago, I was seventeen. In order to go to college. I went to a junior college first, and then to Chicago Musical Conservatory. I wanted to be a schoolteacher. I wanted to be a music teacher.
What happened is that after about a year or so, I started to work at Chess Records. Chess Records was like Chess University. [Laughs]
It gave me an opportunity to really spread my wings. I got an opportunity to play with all of the artists I had dreamed about when I was a kid. I would pick up their records and follow their careers. I had an opportunity to play with just about everybody.
Were you already writing songs before this time?
Well, what happened, as a result of being in the business, going to Chess every day I kind of got the knack of understanding the simple songwriting you know. That was what it was really all about.
I kind of experimented a bit with some of my friends as far as songwriting but we just did like a local stuff. We did commercial jingles and things like that. So it wasn’t anything on a large level at that time.
And at Chess you got to work with Willie Dixon –
Yes, I played with Willie. I got to play drums on a lot of his records, and he played stand-up bass. I learned a lot from him.
Yes, Etta James. She was extraordinary. I worked with everybody on the roster.
And when you were playing drums, were you also beginning to produce and arrange?
Not at first. Mostly drumming at that time. I was just getting my feet wet learning the structure of song, and learning how to apply it in the proper way. It was like a university, man, it really was. All the production was done in one room and I just got a chance to pick it up.
How long were you at Chess?
For five years.
Longer than a college term-
Yes. And it was like college and graduate school all in one.
How did you hook up with Ramsey Lewis?
Ramsey Lewis was an artist on the label. And he used to come down to Chess all the time and just watch the band. Because we had a band that worked for Chess primarily. And so he would down and just watch us. And we all knew each other.
When his own band broke up, he needed a drummer and a bass player. So he called on me and a friend of mine, Cleveland Eaton, who played bass. And we’d go out on the road. It started just an experimental trip to see how I would work out. And we all gelled, so we decided to stay together, and I joined his band. I worked with Ramsey for about four years.
Before Earth, Wind and Fire you started your own band?
Yes. What happened, during the time I was with Ramsey, I had a group on the side called the Salty Peppers. And we made a little record deal with Capitol Records. We had a regional hit in the mid-western area with a song I wrote called “La La Time.” I wrote it with Don Whitehead and Wade Flemons.
What happened was when we wrapped up doing what was the formation of that band, and I didn’t know it at the time, but the members of that band the Salty Peppers became the original members of Earth, Wind & Fire.
How did that transition from Salty Peppers to Earth, Wind and Fire happen?
We all came out to Los Angeles after I quit Ramsey’s band as the Salty Peppers. So we changed our name to Earth Wind & Fire.
Yes. That’s my name. I was looking for a name for the band because I wanted to change it from the Salty Peppers. This all happened in Chicago before I had my astrological chart done. It was laid out on the table and I saw the elements that were in my chart, which were earth, air and fire. I turned air to wind. The rest is history.
We all came out to Los Angeles to try to make it. There were six of us. In fact, we had a female in the band too. Her name was Sherry Scott.
Then I augmented the band with some members I picked up out here. But it was six of us from Chicago. We stayed together for about 18 months. Then my brother Verdine eventually joined that particular band as bass player. We began to augment and expand the band, and Verdine was a part of that.
In the band, you started by playing drums?
Yes, I was playing drums at first. And I singing a little bit but I had to have some main singers because they was away from it.
By that time were you writing a lot of songs yourself?
By that time, because of circumstances, and because I didn’t have any writers to depend on, there were two other writers for in the band, Don Whitehead and Wade Flemons; they had a lot more experience in commercial writing than I had. But I picked up on it because of my experience of my playing, you know.
So we wrote all the songs together. And then Sherry Scott, she was a pretty good writer too. She contributed heavily to the writing.
So the writing would be done in a collaboration of all of you working together?
Mostly the three of us, Whitehead, Flemons and myself.
Is it true your songs always start with music?
Yes. The way I’ve always written is that we write the music first and then the music suggests the lyrics. I’ve always written like that.
Do you write on keyboard now? What do you generally usually use to write?
I usually write on keyboard now. I usually collaborate with other people. I like writing with other people.
There are only two songs that I wrote primarily from the piano by myself, “Head To The Sky” and “Devotion.”
But the band changed, and after 18 months we decided to go separate ways. So I had to reform the band, and got Ralph Johnson as drummer, and I got Philip [Bailey] as a conga player and singer and Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk and that was expanded from that point on.
How did you hear of Philip Bailey?
A real good friend, Perry Jones, was a friend of Philip’s and he turned me on to Philip.
What a perfect player for your music. And his voice and your voice are perfect together.
My intention in the beginning, when I got Philip in the band, was to put him out front. I was not going to sing. I was only just going to play drums in the back. But that didn’t work out because Philip’s range was a high range. So I needed to balance that range.
Did you enjoy stepping out front from behind the drums?
It was always hard to get out front. I didn’t like it too much. But after the girls started screaming and that stuff —
Then you got used to it.
I got used to it. [Laughter] It was pretty easy to get used to.
Also you got a fine drummer in Ralph Johnson. Early on you started using kalimba in your music.
I started playing kalimba while being with Ramsey. Because Ramsey gave me a great forum for exploring my talent. Ramsey, every night during the concert, he would feature me as a drummer. I had a twenty minute feature. During that period, of course, I played the drums. But then I started to introduce the kalimba as well. That’s how the kalimba was discovered.
That’s such a great sound. You also began to write songs with Charles Stepney.
Charles Stepney was a great friend of mine. He contributed heavily to my development. During my years in Chicago playing jazz music, Charles and I used to have a trio. We played jazz music. Also, Charles was great as an orchestrator. While working at Chess, Charles was an orchestrator there, and he knew about arranging and stuff. Once I got my band together, Charles contributed quite a bit to the sound of ours, as far as strings and horns.
So that’s why he has writing credit on “That’s the Way of the World”?
No. He has credit on that because he helped to write the melody. But he had started to work with me much earlier. I think the first album was Open Our Eyes. And he contributed very heavily to the orchestration because he was really good with that. He was my first real co-producer.
On your records, not only is the songwriting great but the horn parts, harmonies and vocal arrangements are so beautifully conceived, as perfect as the songs themselves.
Yeah. Well, everything enhances, everything enhances the other. That’s our objective of it, to make sure everything fits hand to glove.
When you write a song, are you thinking in terms of the parts of the production or does that come afterward when you go to the studio?
First of all, I think in terms of the melody. Melody and rhythm, that’s my first thing, the first thing that approaches me. And then from that point on, I’ll start to think in terms of story. But first, melody comes first for me. Melody is always to me influenced by lyrics.
So you generally finish an entire melody before you even consider lyrics?
Yes I do. And it’s worked for me all these years.
Yeah. It sure has.
Yeah, Pretty much. The melody complements the words, and the words complement the music. And you also have a string melody that complements the horn melody. It all fits together.
Some songwriters keep the tape rolling while their writing.
Yeah, I like to do that too. I do.
Do you generate melodies from chords, or do you work on the melody itself?
No. From chords. What I try to do is I try to push chords. I’m concerned sometimes when certain melodies will not fit up with certain chords. And I’ll push real hard and try to make something fit.
There’s no really formula that I use, either than to start off first with melody or rhythm. I always start from that point, you know.
Speaking of melody, “That’s The Way Of The World” has such a sweet and enduring melody. It’s inspirational.
That melody was written by Charles Stepney, and from that melody and those chords, I wrote the words. The music influenced the lyrics. It sounded in a way that suggested those words.
He wrote the melody and the chords some time before we really approached the song. And I knew it was great. It reaches a climax and just stays there. It was a great song from the beginning. Some songs are just more inspirational than others. And that’s one of the few.
It sure is.
Yeah. When it comes on, I think what happened too is that all the pieces fit together perfectly. The melody, the strings, the horn melodies, everything works hand in hand.
It’s a song – and track – that never loses its greatness.
It just gets better and better and better. It really reaches the climax and it just stays there. And one point that made that record good was the contribution of Charles Stepney. Especially with the string lines and the horn lines. By that time he had really developed as a great string writer.
He also wrote “Reasons” with you?
Right. He wrote “Reasons” with Philip [Bailey] and I. That came out of the same batch of songs. There was “Reasons” and “That’s the Way of the World.” Those two melodies were two melodies that he played for me.
It was very interesting because during our time, that was a rather early time for the synthesizer. And all melodies he had put on tape with the Moog synthesizer. Which was brand new and unknown still at that time.
So he didn’t sing them at all?
No. They were all done with synthesizer. And that was from the mid-seventies, ’75 or something like that. That sound, the sound of the synthesizer, was very new.
On “That’s the Way of the World,” did that lyric come quickly or did you have to work on it for a while?
We had to work on it for a while. The overall lyric came easy but the verses were something we had to labor for a while. It wasn’t hard, but it took time.
“Shining Star”was written with Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn?
Yes. “Shining Star” was very easy to write because we came out, and we had just recorded a melody in the studio, like a funk melody and I was just walking. We actually did it in Nederland, Colorado at Caribou Ranch, where Chicago used to record.
I love Nederland.
So you know. It’s a beautiful place. We were just walking outside and the stars were so plentiful it was almost like you could reach in the sky and pluck one out. And actually, it was having that experience of the stars in the sky being able to see them so clearly influenced me to the title “Shining Star.”
Had no idea! It’s a Colorado song!
Yeah. The environment helped. Had we not been there, I don’t think that song would have happened. The stars don’t shine as brightly in L.A.
Not the ones in the sky anyway. [Laughter] Do you recall how “September” was born?
Yep. That was written by Al McKay and myself and Allee Willis.
You came up with that melody?
Al McKay and myself. That was written actually in Washington D.C. in the middle of a riot. We were checking into this hotel in Washington D.C. and I remember there was a riot going on outside. We were just trying to find something to do so in the middle of it, we just started to write a tune. [Laughter] We wrote it while looking outside the window at the riot. And “September” was the song.
Yet that lyric wasn’t about the riot at all?
Why did you choose that title?
September had always been a favorite month. For some reason. I don’t know why.
That’s another great melody.
That was another great one, yes. A ballad with big groove.
I understand that the last time the band went on tour that you stayed at home to work on the record?
Yeah, while they were on the road. I am basically have retired from the road. And after 25 years on the road, that’s long enough for me. I’m getting more into production. I am basically a producer now. It was the first time, and we wanted to see if they could do a performance without me.
You think it works okay without you in the band when they are out there?
It works pretty well. I make an appearance every once in a while. [Laugher] I stay at home and work on a live album. We have a live album that’s coming out pretty soon. We recorded in Japan. So at first I stayed home to work on that.
Many great artists, such as The Beatles, or Brian Wilson, did some of their greatest work when they stopped touring.
Yeah. You can really concentrate on the work. Touring takes a lot out of you. It takes all your concentration.
Also, at the same time I’m dealing with a company now. I’m actually building a studio right now.
Is there a favorite Earth Wind and Fire song of yours?
Probably “That’s the Way of the World”.
Probably is my favorite. There’s another tune that I like pretty much. It’s called “Lover’s Holiday.” I like that too.
It’s a great song.
Yeah. We’ve recorded quite a number of tunes [laughter] throughout our career you know.