Maurice White 1941-2016
When Maurice White told me that he’d deputised for the absent Elvin Jones with the John Coltrane Quartet at a Chicago jazz club called McKie’s in the early 1960s, I was as impressed as I’d been by anything Earth, Wind & Fire had played at the OMNI arena in Atlanta the previous night.
It had been quite a gig, however, full of smoke and mirrors — the musicians materialising in transparent perspex tubes which had descended from above, and dematerialising as they made their departure, and the bass-guitarist (Verdine White, Maurice’s brother) levitating during his solo spot — with costumes from ancient Egypt, as well as red-hot playing. This was February 1978, and EW&F were the happening thing, to the extent that a bunch of journalists had been flown from Europe to witness their show.
Maurice hadn’t touched a drum throughout the set, but during the interview at their hotel the next morning that’s what I got him talking about. I knew that he’d succeeded Al Duncan, who kept the backbeat snapping on Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame” and devised those lovely fills on the Impressions’ “It’s All Right”, as the leading studio drummer for R&B and soul sessions by Chicago labels such as Chess and Vee-Jay.
“When I came out of school, he was THE drummer locally,” Maurice said of Duncan. “But he had a drinking problem, so I started getting dates. And I was ‘young blood’. Of course, I learnt a lot from being around him.”
Having taken Duncan’s place, he played on Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me”, Ramsey Lewis’s “Wade in the Water”, Billy Stewart’s wild recasting of “Summertime”, and almost certainly the Dells’ widescreen classics of 1968-69, the remakes of “Oh What a Night” and “Stay in My Corner” and the fabulous “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)”, co-written by Terry Callier.
He had grown up in the 1950s, he said, in the Chicago jazz scene with a generation of musicians who would turn out to be significant, including the pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, the saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and the drummer Steve McCall, who was a particularly close friend. “At the time I simply wanted to be the world’s greatest drummer,” Maurice said.
It was meeting Charles Stepney that broadened his horizons. A pianist and arranger who began by idolising Bud Powell (“I think Eddie Harris turned him on to that”) and Burt Bacharach, Stepney worked as a staff arranger and producer at Chess, on the Dells’ records and those of his own creation, the Rotary Connection. Their bond lasted until Stepney’s death in 1976. White admired Stepney’s musical ambition: “He also listened to classical composers, and he evolved through jazz.”
White joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1966, but left in 1970 to move to LA, where he formed the first version of EW&F. It was with the second incarnation of the band, signed by Clive Davis to Columbia Records in 1975, that the hits started coming.
In Atlanta, even in the midst of all the space-age vaudeville presentation, which drove an almost entirely African American audience of 15,000 crazy with delight, I was impressed by the precision and inventiveness of the band, particularly the Phenix Horns, among whom the saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk stood out. The music may have been glittered up for the disco generation, but the role of the musicians was no different from that of their predecessors in Percy Mayfield’s, Ray Charles’s or James Brown’s bands: they were jazz musicians adapting their skills to the popular blues-based dance music of the day.
When I asked Maurice afterwards about the lavish presentation, with its Nubian gong-bashers and its Tutankhamun masks, he told me he’d been studying Egyptology for three or four years. But I was suddenly struck by a thought. Who had done this sort of thing before — and not only that, but in the Chicago jazz scene in the 1950s, when the young drummer was coming up? So I asked him about it.
“Sun Ra?” Maurice replied. “Yes, I saw him in Chicago. He had a light on top of his head. I thought he was crazy.”
* Maurice White died this week, aged 74. Here is the New York Times obituary.