Sidelined by Parkinson’s disease since being diagnosed during the late ’80s, Earth, Wind & Fire cofounder Maurice White — who died at 74 on Thursday, Feb. 4 — still kept his finger on the pulse of the group and maintained a kind of “executive” oversight of the group’s career. Though no longer able to grant full-scale interviews, he did answer a few questions via email for Billboard when the group’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award was announced in mid-January — one of the final media exchanges of his life.
What led you to form Earth, Wind & Fire? What did you have in mind as far as a musical/creative vision?
I started EWF because I had a vision and music was playing in my head that I wanted to bring through. What I had in mind was exactly what Earth, Wind & Fire became.
Did the group find its footing immediately, or was there an evolution to what became the EWF “sound” — and, if so, how did you arrive there?
There was an evolution and as time went on, the sound was developed by the musicians I brought into the group.
Where did the group’s name come from?
My horoscope. (White, who was born Dec. 19, was a Sagittarius, whose principle elements are earth, air and fire.)
What was it about the “Head to the Sky” album and subsequent releases during the ’70s that led to EWF’s commercial breakthrough?
Strong, driving rhythm and easily remembered hooks. Plus a new way of combining a lot of diverse elements so everyone found something they could relate to.
What do you remember about the night you won your first Grammy Award, in 1975?
I was so excited. The validation by the industry was gratifying. It felt like my position in the chain of musical history was being acknowledged.
Where do you hear your influence in contemporary R&B, both musically and in terms of visual style?
I don’t really listen to contemporary R&B with an ear for hearing my influence. Music is a spirit unto itself and all of us musicians influence each other all along the chain.
What’s been the best thing about the career of EWF?
Speaking for myself, the best thing has been being allowed to play — having the golden ticket!