My Life With Earth, Wind & Fire
By Maurice White with Herb Powell
Amistad, 386 pp., $27.99.
In 1969, drummer Maurice White had a pretty sweet gig. The Memphis-bred player was touring the world and making hugely successful records as part of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, bringing pop-jazz to the masses. Life was good.
But he had a dream; actually, a series of dreams. And these nighttime visions — which he felt came on a direct line from the Creator — were that he would form his own band that would, he writes, “uplift the human spirit, whether through celebrating the benefits of developing the inner life or simply creating joyous musical moments.”
This band, which he always saw as a large ensemble, would also embody his views on religion, philosophy and empowering black men, as well as being tinged with his own interests in astrology, mysticism and Eastern/Egyptian beliefs. A band whose career guidance could be found in two books that had a huge impact on White: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and Napoleon Hill’s The Laws of Success. Oh, and one that could also seriously jam.
White’s vision came true in the flesh with Earth, Wind & Fire, an ensemble who scored high on both the pop and the R&B charts in the mid/late ’70s with a staggering string of hits aimed for both the mind and the body. EWF also brought a new spectacle to touring rock shows with elements of special effects, magic (courtesy of no less than David Copperfield and Doug Henning), props and stage outfits more akin to what you’d see in the pages of a Marvel comic book than on the concert stage.
Readers get White’s pretty complete take on his life and music, balancing his own story with that of the music’s creation and those people he met along the way.
So there’s plenty of pages on the inspiration and recording of hits like “September,” “That’s the Way of the World,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Fantasy,” “Get Away,” “Reasons” and “Shining Star.” Not to mention their cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which Paul McCartney himself said was his favorite non-Fabs version of a tune.
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White also writes about his struggle as a clean-living singer/front man in an era of musical excess, though he did have a weakness for the ladies, and was by his own admission a poor, absent father. And his travails as a black man — albeit a very light-skinned one — conducting business in an industry run by whites. His theory, however, that MTV’s reluctance early on to play black artists helped kill EWF’s career in the ’80s is not believable, given how music trends were going at the time.
The narrative at least briefly touches on the dissatisfaction his bandmates had at various times about his leadership, studio direction and vision for the group, which he at times led as a less-than-benevolent dictatorship. Still, it was White’s vision that set EWF above and beyond contemporaries like the Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang and the Commodores in terms of overall musical impact.
This memoir is published posthumously, as White passed away earlier this year at the age of 74 from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. He had had the malady for years, but only chose to reveal it publicly just prior to the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, which also marked an end to his active participation as a live performer.
Today, Earth, Wind & Fire continues mostly as a touring band, led by classic members Philip Bailey (vocals), White’s half-brother Verdine White (bass) and Ralph Johnson (drums), to enthusiastic audiences. But these musical elements would not have existed without the singular drive of Maurice White. And his words here provide one magical, mystery tour.