Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White Dies – Their Epic Rivalry With The Commodores

Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Maurice White was the heart and soul of a band who overflowed with both. They overflowed with funk too, not to mention the touches of jazz and gospel and the grooves of Africa and Latin America that ran through their music. And all told, some of the greatest R&B and pop of the 70s and early 80s. Maurice White – the leader, co-founder and fire of Earth, Wind & Fire – has died aged 74.

Having suffered from Parkinson’s for more than 20 years, White hadn’t been a part of the Earth, Wind & Fire stage lineup for a long time, but this was always his group. He was the band’s creative driving force and his was the deeper voice counterpart to Philip Bailey’s stratospheric falsetto.

My friend Ronald LaPread from the Commodores often talked about Earth, Wind & Fire as the two groups were stadium-filling rivals in the 70s. Both had achieved massive crossover success and both could mix storming funk with quiet-storming ballads. Ronald (Commodores bassist from 1969-1986) would sometimes joke that Earth, Wind & Fire’s music was banned from the Commodores tour bus. The competitiveness between the bands was huge.

But so too was the respect. There were few things that meant more to the Commodores in the late 70s than anytime they outdid, outsold or out-charted Earth, Wind & Fire. Which was no mean feat given Earth, Wind & Fire sold an approximate 90 million albums and were one of the most consistent shifters of platinum in the back half of the 70s.

Earth, Wind & Fire in the 1970s.

I’ve always regarded the bands quite differently though. Yes, they were both spectacularly-dressed R&B ensembles with elaborate, era-defining stage shows – Earth, Wind & Fire once even enlisting the services of David Copperfield to create their live visual effects. And both bands could sing spirituals as comfortably as socially-conscious soul and as readily as party jams. Though if I consider the Commodores as funkier and grittier, I also love the polish, sheen and unrelenting positivity of Earth, Wind & Fire records.

The best of those Earth, Wind & Fire songs are immaculately produced. Songs like September, Evil, That’s The Way Of The World, I’ll Write A Song For You, Serpentine Fire, After The Love Has Gone and Fantasy etc. still sound exquisite.

It’s that last song Fantasy that has always been my Earth, Wind & Fire favourite. Like Bruce Springsteen’s Racing In The Street, Barbra Streisand’s Make It Like A Memory and the Bee Gees Spirits Having Flown, Fantasy has a final stanza so good I’m always gutted when it’s over. The result of the repeated melody and lyrical variations of “come to see / victory / in the land called fantasy…” is magic when matched with the modulation. The song is reaching a climax and every time it gets there too soon.

Ronald LaPread’s direct rival in Earth, Wind & Fire was their irrepressible bassist Verdine White. For Verdine he hasn’t just lost a bandmate, but a blood brother. 10 years Maurice’s junior, Verdine has described Maurice as his “brother, hero and best friend.”

RIP to yet another musical giant to depart us. The heart and soul and fire of Earth, Wind & Fire – for the great Maurice White, here’s Fantasy:

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