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Earth, Wind & Fire leader, founder Maurice White dies at 74

By David Bauder and Hillel Italie | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White, who was in Chicago when he founded the horn-driven band behind “September,” ”Shining Star” and “Boogie Wonderland,” died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, his brother Verdine said.

Mr. White, who was 74, suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and had retreated from the public even as the band he founded kept performing.

“My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep,” Verdine White, also a member of the band, told the Associated Press on Thursday. “While the world has lost another great musician and legend, our family asks that our privacy is respected as we start what will be a very difficult and life changing transition in our lives. ”

From 1988: How Maurice White made Earth, Wind & Fire a band for the ages

Earth, Wind & Fire, a nine-piece band centered featuring the two White brothers, singer Philip Bailey and the distinctive horn section, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. The band’s most successful period started with the 1975 album “That’s the Way of the World” and continued through the rest of the decade. Other hits included “Serpentine Fire,” ”That’s the Way of the World” and a cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life.”

Mr. White publicly revealed he had Parkinson’s at the time of the band’s Hall of Fame induction, but he had shown symptoms of the neurological disease back in the 1980s. He stopped touring with the band in 1995 because of weariness from the road combined with his health problems.

A Memphis, Tennessee native, Mr. White moved Chicago as a young man and lived with his family in the South Shore neighborhood. Studying at the Chicago Conservatory and then working as a session drummer, he became a fixture at Chess Records, where his credits ranged from “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass and “Tell Mama” by Etta James to some Muddy Waters recording dates.

While touring and recording with Ramsey Lewis, he began formulating plans for a group that would transcend musical boundaries.

“I’ve got gospel in me, I’ve got blues, I’ve got rhythm & blues, rock, pop,” Mr. White told the Sun-Times in 1988. “I’ve got all of those inside me.”

His first band, Salty Peppers, had some modest success in the Chicago area in the late 1960s. After relocating to Los Angeles and ditching all of the band members except Verdine, he renamed the outfit Earth, Wind & Fire after the three elements in his astrological chart.

Bailey’s bright falsetto defined many of Earth, Wind & Fire’s hits. “We experienced pure magic together,” Bailey said during the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, standing next to Mr. White.

The band’s early sound was jazzy, but evolved into an exuberant, horn-driven mix of jazz, funk, gospel and Big Band music. Their appeal wasn’t just on records but on stage, their concerts a whirl of dancing, fog machines, multi-colored lights and glittery costumes. Earth, Wind & Fire performed everywhere from the Super Bowl to the White House.

“Reese has a great ability to lead,” Bailey told the Sun-Times in the 1988 story, using Mr. White’s nickname. “You can get a bunch of cats together, as talented as they may be, and they wouldn’t be half as successful as Earth, Wind & Fire.”

Maurice White also had a substantial side career producing other artists, including Barbra Streisand and Cher.  In the 1970s, he co-wrote and co-produced the Emotions’ No. 1 hit “Best of My Love.”

The band performed in the movie “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and had hits with the ballad “After the Love Has Gone,” ”All ‘n’ All,” ”Let’s Groove” and “Fall in Love With Me.” The band took a four-year hiatus in the 1980s and then returned, its primary success then on the road.

“We live in a negative society,” Mr. White told Newsweek at the height of the band’s success. “Most people can’t see beauty and love. I see our music as medicine.”