passionate, uplifting and inspiring, the music of Earth, Wind & Fire remains unequaled
in it’s influence. Why the group achieved such monumental success is easily understood
when one traces the musical roots of founder Maurice White; the development of key players
like Philip Bailey and Verdine White; and the pivotal role of the late Charles Stepney as
arranger and co-producer on a number of the group’s groundbreaking mid-seventies albums.
It is Maurice White’s youthful exposure to varied musical forms that unquestionably helped shape EWF’s unique character. One of nine children born, White was raised in Memphis by his grandmother while his father was going through medical school in Chicago. Not surprisingly, by the age of six, Maurice was already a featured soloist in church.
As the youngest member of The Rosehill Jubilettes, a local quartet., White got his induction into life on the road traveling to local churches throughout the South. "Our goal was to be like The Soul Stirrers, a group whose members included guys like Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls" White says. "We wanted to be the stars!"
When he was 12, White remembers seeing a local band parading through town. "I saw the guys in the shining suits, I heard the drum- and bungle call…and I went home and broke a broom in half and practiced on the walls, the floor, wherever I could." White’s career as a drummer has begun in earnest.
At Porter junior High School, White had become best friends with one Booker T. Jones whose dexterity as a keyboardist made them natural allies. "Booker had a car and we drove around in town thinking we were hip!" says White. As he recalls, Memphis in the late fifties was a great breeding ground for musicians, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, blues acts, jazz players like Phineas Newborn…and Stax Records was about to start…there was a lot going on."
It didn’t take long for White to get into the intricacies of playing jazz and with Jones and two other friends, he was a regular at local clubs. While still in high school, White performed with local r&b group The Mad Lads in colleges and clubs throughout the area. High school graduation brought White’s mother in to Memphis from Chicago and White soon found himself in the Windy City preparing for college. "My father was a doctor and so for the next few years, it was all about medicine, not music. But I was passing by the band room at Crane junior (now Malcolm X) College and I was drawn to the drum chair. That’s when I met (bassist, later horn player) Louis Satterfield."
Studying with James Mack, White majored in music. Then came the fateful call…"Someone asked me to come and play on a session. It was for Betty Everett and the song was "You’re no good." There were real professional on the date…and I was scared to death!" That one momentous hitmaking session set the stage for White to become an in-demand player throughout Chicago.
"I did dates for V.J. Records (home to Jerry Butler & The Impressions, John Lee Hooker and others), I gigged around town. Satterfield turned me on to Chess Records. I ended up as a staff musician there, the resident drummer. I was in there everyday from noon to six. then I’d head off to Chicago Conservatory of Music from 7pm to 10pm and then off to a gig."
literally on hundreds of sides during his five-year tenure, 1962 to 1967 at Chess and he
remembers sessions with such r&b stalwarts as Billy Stewart, Little Milton, Etta
James, and blues stars like Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon. It was
jazz virtuoso Ramsey Lewis who managed to persuade White to hit the road as a member of
his touring trio. For almost three, White literally traversed the globe with Lewis, whose
hit streak had begun with 1965’s top five version of "The In Crowd" and
continued with "Wade In The Water." Maurice – "Ramsey was a great role
model. He really helped me shape my musical vision. I learned about paying close attention
to stage production from performing with him."
In between constant gigs and recording sessions with Lewis, White had started his own company, Hummit Productions with singer and keyboardist Wade Flemons, who had two top-twenty r&b and Hot 100 pop hits ("Here I Stand" and "Easy Lovin’") from 1958-61, and Don Whitehead, another keyboard player and vocalist who had been a member of local Afro Arts Ensemble. The company’s offices consisted of a small demo studio, an office and a photographic studio. "I was basically financing it from my salary with Ramsey," recalls Maurice, who continued playing around town, notably with the late Donny Hathaway and renowned guitarist Phil Upchurch. Indeed, Hathaway "sang all the parts and arranged the tunes for four songs I did as my first artist demo…we were real good friends."
With White, Flemons and Whitehead were the musicians who were to form the basis for Earth, Wind & Fire. In 1969, initially calling themselves The Salty Peppers, the trio cut "La La Time" and released it on their own Hummit label. A Capitol Records local rep heard the song and the label decided to pick it up for national distribution: "We re-recorded it for Capitol and we went out to Los Angeles thinking we were going to do an album…."
No Capitol album materialized so at the beginning of 1970, no longer with Ramsey Lewis, Maurice headed out to Los Angeles, but not before coming up with the idea for a group to be named Earth, Wind & Fire. "Somehow the name Salty Peppers’ didn’t feel universal enough… I came up with the name because my astrological chart had no water in it: Earth, Air & Fire didn’t sound right so I used "Wind" instead, and I literally draw a picture of what I wanted the group to look like. I was reading Napoleon Hill’s book, The Laws Of Success and I put the drawing in the back of the book…"
White recruited Chicago singer Sherry Scott, along with local percussionist Phillard Williams, and then asked his younger brother Verdine, who had been developing his skills as a bass player as a student of Louis Satterfield’s, whether he’d like to head out West…Verdine – "I’ll never forget it. Maurice called me in April and asked how I’d feel about going to California. I’d never been anywhere and I almost decided not to go. I was still in college. But literally that Saturday afternoon, June 6, 1970, I went from one life to another."
Maurice held auditions in L.A. adding Michael Beale on guitar, Chester Washington on reeds, Leslie Drayton (trumpet and initially the group’s musical arranger), and trombonist Alex Thomas to the lineup. With Flemmons playing vibes and electric piano and vocals, and Verdine on bass, percussion and vocals, a ten-member Earth, Wind & Fire was born.
Continues in The Warner Years…