Mark Young, the group’s publicist, said White died late Wednesday or early Thursday. He did not specify a cause, but White had announced in 2000 that he had Parkinson’s disease.
Earth, Wind &; Fire — whose many hits included “Shining Star,” “September,” “That’s the Way of the World” and a cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” — had a sound that was rooted in rhythm and blues but crossed musical boundaries, attracting an audience that was as diverse racially as the music was stylistically.
The horn arrangements were punchy, the bass lines funky and the rhythms infectious, but there was also room for adventurous improvisation, mellow vocal harmonies and pure pop melodicism.
“Although we were basically jazz musicians, we played soul, funk, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and dance music … which somehow ended up becoming pop,” White wrote on the group’s website. “We were coming out of a decade of experimentation, mind expansion and cosmic awareness. I wanted our music to convey messages of universal love and harmony without force-feeding listeners’ spiritual content.”
Earth, Wind & Fire, which was larger than the average rock or funk band, became renowned not just for its music but also for its elaborate stage shows, marked by pyrotechnics, choreography, lighting effects and sometimes even magic tricks. White stopped touring with the band in the 1990s.
Reviewing a 1994 concert, Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times that at its best the group’s music was “both ingenious and embracing, proffering hope and reassurance through cross-cultural synergy.”
White, who began his career as a jazz drummer, played various percussion instruments with Earth, Wind & Fire as well as the African thumb piano, or kalimba, which became an essential element of the group’s sound. He shared lead vocals with Philip Bailey, wrote or co-wrote some of the group’s biggest hits, and produced many of its records.
As a producer, White also worked with Barbra Streisand and other artists.
Maurice White was born on Dec. 19, 1941, in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised by his grandmother. He sang in a church choir and was inspired to become a drummer by watching local marching bands.
“I saw the guys in the band playing drums — they had on shiny suits and were getting all the attention from the girls,” he told The Commercial Appeal of Memphis in 2007. “So I decided: That’s what I want to do. From that point on I just became infatuated with music.”
After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, where he was in the drum corps, White moved to Chicago, where he studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and played drums in local nightclubs. By the mid-1960s he had become a fixture in the studios of Chess, the city’s leading record company, recording with Etta James, Fontella Bass and others.