I was deeply saddened by the news of Maurice White passing, a few days ago, and I wanted to write something right away. But then I saw the social networks, and everybody was posting RIP messages with links to September (which, for some reason, seems to be the one Earth, Wind & Fire song everyone remembers). I have nothing against September (I was actually born that month). On the other hand, I have some problems with the way people deal with the death of celebrities on social media. A very famous neapolitan poem, ‘A Livella, proclaims death to be the great equalizer. Very true on Facebook: so RIP David Bowie (song: Ziggy Stardust), RIP Lemmy (song: Ace Of Spades), RIP Glenn Frey (song: Hotel California), and RIP Maurice White: “Who’s that? Oh, the EWF guy. Sure, RIP him too.”
Maurice White was one of the most influential figures in modern black music. He’s up there with James Brown and George Clinton. Just like Clinton, he wasn’t an exceptionally gifted singer (yet he had a very unique and recognizable style), but a great creator of concepts, and assembler of musicians. EWF was the tightest band that ever played. Their grooves were simply perfect, often slow and murderously funky. The vocal arrangements were incredibly complex (also thanks to an amazing array of singers, including the falsetto virtuoso Philip Bailey), yet easy to the ear, and this is a major trait in their music. Their innovative use of horns (their Phoenix horn section went on to have a career by itself) resonates throughout Michael Jackson’s solo career (and, through him, in most contemporary pop). You can find EWF in Pop, Disco, Funk, House, Hip Hop and (immensely) R’n’B. Their live shows were a mesmerizing display of musicianship, entertainment and audience partecipation (there’s a magnificent 1975 live album, Gratitude, to prove it). White was the frontman, but also the man behind: he assembled the music, invented the concepts, wrote the lyrics. Of course EWF had top notch players, including White’s brother Verdine (who sports one of the most incredible faces in the music business) on bass, Ralph Johnson on drums and Al McKay on guitar.
Here’s an example of what they could do: in 1978 they covered the Beatles’ Got to Get You into My Life, and released it as a single (they also included it on The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1). In the US, their version reached number 1 on the Soul singles chart and number nine on the Hot 100 singles chart. Later that year it reached number 33 in the BBC Top 75 singles chart. Listen to the original, and then EWF version: the song is the same, but everything else is different. McKay’s guitar part (on which the whole arrangement is based) is frankly hard to believe: incredibly sophisticated, very complex yet suitable for a top 40 hit (so much so that this song got a Grammy specifically for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist). The interplay with the horns is millimeter-perfect, and the chorus is a celebration of the amazing vocal power they had (instead of poor Lennon trying to sound black).
I have a number of EWF favorites, but today I want to play Can’t Hide Love*, one of the most sophisticated R’n’B tunes ever written (each of the three verses has different melodic lines, the horn arrangement is symphonic and funky at the same time, drums and bass are a perfect example of a slow groove played tightest). Yet, once again, it sounds real easy. So sure, RIP everybody. But Maurice White should rest in special place: he was an innovator, an initiator and a great musical mastermind. He was a true visionary, and certainly one of the saints of Afrofuturism. Personally, I owe him countless hours of pure musical bliss, plus a trick or two I stole from his albums.**
* But if you have time, you can watch this unbelievable 50 minutes Live at the Budokan, taped in 1979.
** Full disclosure: earlier in my musical career, I’ve desperately tried to copy EWF’s horn arrangements, failing miserably most of the time.