White — who died Thursday (Feb. 4) at age 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease — formed the band in 1969, after a tenure as the drummer in the Ramsey Lewis Trio and a short run with his own band, the Salty Peppers. White was EWF’s visionary and conceptualizer, its chief songwriter and producer, as well as the focal point of one of the tightest, hottest-stepping frontlines in pop music.
Over time, White nurtured his younger brother, bassist Verdine White, and singer Philip Bailey as EWF leaders as well, taking over day-to-day operations when he trimmed back his role. But White remained a presence and guiding light in EWF’s world, and back in mid-January — when EWF’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award honor was announced — Verdine White and Philip Bailey reflected on his vision and legacy to Billboard:
Verdine White: Maurice started this band in the late ’60s, and he had an idea about starting a band that could do anything, and it morphed into quite an amazing thing. He had been with Ramsey Lewis and was a professional, so he probably knew more of the drawbacks than I did. I was 17, 18 years old and just happy to be out in California getting a chance to be a musician and playing with my older brother.
Philip Bailey: Maurice had a fierce work ethic. We learned from him to have the same type of work ethic. He was a consummate perfectionist. So being 21 years old when we started this whole thing, he taught me to do this at a very high level.
White: Maurice had a heavy jazz background, being with Ramsey, and he played on all those hit records with Chess and all those things. So he had this amazing background to take to this next level. He was on fire. He was a man with a mission, so he understood where it was going and he understood the times, too, and what the times needed from this kind of band.
Bailey: We went to see Broadway musicals together. I remember Maurice buying me a suit to go to a Broadway musical; it was caramel. And we were not only looking at the musical onstage, but we were looking at the eyes of the people and what kept their eyes glued to the stage. We wanted to bring theater to the concert stage.
White: We were one of the first acts to do all that stuff onstage — particularly groups of color, African-American acts. Maurice was particular about keeping all the guys on track. We couldn’t leave anything to chance. He rehearsed us hard and made sure we all knew our marks.
Bailey: Maurice really set the bar. Remember when we were in our stride back then, he was producing Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand and Jennifer Holliday and the Emotions and Deniece Williams. He was the sought-after cat at that time.
White: “September,” we did that tune in one take. And that hook — “Ba dee da/ Do you remember?” — ‘Rice just ran out of words. And Allee Willis, who [co-wrote] the tune, said, “We have to put words there.” And Maurice said, “No you don’t. As long as it feels good, that’s the most important thing. It’s how it feels.” She told me she learned a lot from that.
Bailey: As a leader now for 20 years with Earth, Wind & Fire, I make the decisions that I know that Maurice would respect, and it’s just become part of the DNA of the band now, doing it in the way that we know is in keeping with what Earth, Wind & Fire has always been about.
White: Even after he stopped touring I’d talk to him about music and we talk about where the world is today and stuff like that. We don’t reminisce too much, but we’ll be like, “Good work, baby,” stuff like that. That’s how we sort of acknowledge each other. I saw him on his birthday, right around Christmas, and he always gives me a big hug. He was never a very emotional guy. He was never like that. He was always like, “We’re doing good. Let’s keep doing it, man.” But now he always hugs me whenever I leave his house and says, “We done good,” and that says it all for me.