When a musician's career spans as many decades and is as prolific as Maurice White's was, that person is often given the benefit of being many things to many different kinds of people. Most notably, White was the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, a group whose roots are very important to Colorado. Philip Bailey, an original member of the group, was born and raised in Denver and still tours with an incarnation of the band. The band also recorded two of its seminal albums, 1974's Open Our Eyes and 1975's That's The Way of the World, at the famed Caribou Ranch studio near Nederland.
Though White had to stop singing and performing with the band in the '90s for health reasons, he was still an active participant in Earth, Wind & Fire's existence until the end. For most of his nearly three-quarters of a century on this planet, White was making music, producing music, writing music, performing music and helping others do it, too. He started as a session drummer in the late '60s and went on to form Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the biggest bands of the last fifty years.
He also had a hand in creating a movement that used music as a vehicle for empowerment, but in a subtle way — a way that sometimes let Earth, Wind & Fire's music skate under the radar as merely glossy boogie anthems when in reality, they were detailed arrangements laced with words of strength and human resilience. Because White was so deft at making happy tracks filled with unapologetic dispatches of self-love, the music of Earth, Wind & Fire is forever ingrained in our modern cultural fabric.
Prior to the curated playlists and target-demographic algorithms of the music used to fill public spaces today, you might have easily heard an Earth, Wind & Fire track in an elevator, while sitting in the dentist's chair or while wandering the aisles of the grocery store. Chances are, you actually know more songs that have the Maurice White touch — as a musician, a singer, a composer, bandleader or a producer — than you realize. You are still probably more apt to hear Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" on the radio today than, say, Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel." Both are wonderful in their own ways.
For a person like me, who was born in the '80s, when White was already quite deep in his career — his work with Earth, Wind & Fire alone had already rendered dozens of singles — a song like "September" has become synonymous with wedding-reception music. And why wouldn't it be? It's this big, bouncy, loving hug of a song, the kind of a song that can unify a dance floor. It's accessible in a timeless manner, unlike many similar hits of the era that have been cast off as "disco" (in the negative connotational sense, which I don't particularly agree with).
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Beyond its sheer tenacity and entertainment value, "September" scratches the surface where, just below, songs like "Shining Star," "Sing a Song" and "Mighty Mighty" bloom from Earth, Wind & Fire's tremendous catalogue. Sown between the catchy horns and funky bass lines are really powerful words — "Shining star come into view/Shine its watchful light on you/Give you strength to carry on/Make your body big and strong." It's an anthem for the people. "Sing a Song" is a similar paean to self-determination: "Sometimes it's hard to care/Sing a song /It'll make your day/A smile so hard to bear/Sing a song/It'll make a way." Wrapped in the breezy harmonies of a song about literally singing a song, there's the message that you have the ability to change what's in front of you. White was able to capture the purest form of music as evolutional progress, something that many artists work toward for decades but never quite achieve.
Many people are already well aware of this one man's contribution to modern music — Earth, Wind & Fire has sold 90 million albums in its long (and still-going-strong) career. But if you happen to be someone who has distilled White's legacy into the soundtrack of a party at a hotel bar, I urge you to put down the cynicism and give Earth, Wind & Fire — and the rest of Maurice White's expansive discography — another chance.
"Be ever wonderful/Stay as you are/Stay as you are/Won't you stay in your own sweet way/Don't let the world change your mind."
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies