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A PERSONAL TRIBUTE TO MAURICE WHITE
Some people come into our lives and we don’t know what impact they may have. When I was first given the assignment to interview Maurice White and the members of Earth, Wind & Fire in the summer of 1975, I had no idea that the conversation we would have would affect my whole view of life. All I knew was that EWF had rapidly become my favourite ‘70s band. I remember listening to the early albums by the group when I worked at Contempo, the offices for Britain’s ‘Blues & Soul’ magazine in London, which had been partially transformed into a record store, filled every Saturday morning with wall-to-wall customers. I was struck in particular by songs like “Keep Your Head To The Sky” and “Devotion”: there was just something about the subject matter that spoke to something inside me.

I was, after all, a twenty-something young man who had already experienced life at full throttle – a major surgery at age 24 that would affect every aspect of living, love relationships gone sour and physical trauma (both as a child and as a teenager) that had left emotional wounds that would take many years to heal. On some level, I knew I was seeking something….I had had many personal conversations with God, particularly as I lay in a hospital bed at the age of 20, pleading that I had hardly begun my life journey and for the chance to live it…

Those EWF songs gave me a glimpse into something, I didn’t know quite what. I hadn’t been a particularly religious person and yet, I knew when I would sit opposite the Royal Albert Hall on summer’s days as a teenager, I would wonder about life, existence, my soul… After all, by the age of 18, I was a ‘soul’ music devotee!

I began my New York sojourn as the resident ‘Blues & Soul’ correspondent on February 8, 1975 and literally within a few months, courtesy CBS Records, I had seen Earth, Wind & Fire twice – once at Nassau Coliseum and once, most memorably at Madison Square Garden. At the time, the band was known for its’ live show, complete with ‘magic’ illusions that had group members literally disappearing and levitating, a true spectacle to behold. The experience was absolutely exhilarating and amazing and with songs like “Reasons,” “All About Love” and “Shining Star” as well as the title track for their 1975 breakthrough album, “That’s The Way Of The World” as the focal points, unforgettable.

CBS had arranged for me to go to Los Angeles to interview Bill Withers, Ramsey Lewis and EWF. The first time went off without a hitch; pinning down the band during its rehearsal time in the city proved to be challenging to say the least. After a couple of false starts, Maurice and Verdine’s brother Monte (who served as the group’s primary road manager), I finally ended up at S.I.R. studios in Hollywood, while the band rehearsed under Maurice’s direction. I was simply in awe, sitting alone – waiting for a suitable time when they would take a break – as I was having a private audience with one of the nation’s top musical groups! About thirty minutes in, Maurice told Monte that the interview wasn’t going to happen. We now had a dilemma: I was due to fly back to New York and the band were headed north to a gig in Seattle. A hurried call to the New York publicity department and the intriguing question: would I be willing to do our interview during the plane ride since at least we knew this was a guaranteed way to get Maurice and I talking? We worked out the details and a few minutes into the relatively short flight, I finally got my interview.

The text for the article that appeared in a September 1975 issue of ‘Blues & Soul’ can be found at SoulMusic.com and what’s not there is the part of the conversation that involved me asking Maurice in depth about his interest in reincarnation and spirituality. He sensed my own interest particularly on the subject of the former and I vividly recall him writing down the names of two books he suggested I read on the back of my brown envelope – “Seth Speaks” by Jane Roberts (in which a non-physical entity, Seth basically uses Jane to channel information from ‘beyond’) and “The Ultimate Frontier” by Eklal Kueshana, about a ‘model’ community created at Stelle in Illinois. It was one of the figures depicted on the front cover, the famed Pharaoh Akhenaten of the 18th Dynasty (the first figure in recorded history to espouse the idea of monotheism – the belief in one deity) that immediately drew my attention and began a reconnection that continues to this day…

Over the ensuing years, Maurice and I met on several occasions although his brother Verdine became my main interviewee for subsequent Blues & Soul interviews in August 1976, November 1977 and July 1979. The ’77 interview was particularly memorable since CBS Records had invited a group of music journalists to come out to Los Angeles from New York to see a preview of the group’s then-new show. I don’t recall details of it and I do remember chatting informally with Maurice after we all watched open-mouthed as EWF unveiled another stunning performance complete with all manner of dynamic elements that differentiated them immediately from their contemporaries. The combination of brilliant music – who can forget classics like “Serpentine Fire,” “Fantasy,” “Spirit,” “Can’t Hide Love,” “Getaway” and “In The Stone”? – and the energy of the band members along with the pyrotechnics that kept us all enthralled was unparalleled.

In July 1978, at the invitation of the late Barbara Nagel, one of my Manhattan neighbours and a longtime friend of ‘Reese’s, I got travel in a limousine with Maurice, Verdine and Philip Bailey to the New York premiere of the film, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” which had featured EWF performing their unforgettable version of “Got To Get You Into My Life”. When I walked down the red carpet after the three of them, I was simply mind blown. The after party was major – with British comedian Frankie Howerd sitting at the table with me and Deniece Williams- and off we all went to Studio 54, where pretty much all the key performers were in attendance including a few folks I knew like Billy Preston (who succeeded in embarrassing me publicly in front of a shocked Deniece…but that’s a story for my own musical memoirs)!

Maurice and I did have an opportunity to talk at the different times we met after that initial 1975 interview session about the books he had recommended which I had read. The conversations always sparked my further interest in my own journey, my soul’s evolution, my life purpose and a host of other questions that left me pondering. Needless to say, just talking with Maurice – who had studied all the world’s major religions, had spent time in Japan during his years with Ramsey Lewis and had clearly read many books on metaphysics and spirituality – was illuminating and left me with a hunger to know more about life itself. Maurice’s musical skills impacted me directly as I began a period of writing, singing and recording: I purchased my own kalima (the African instrument that he featured prominently in live performances and on recordings in the mid-‘70s) and the songs I wrote at the time (including “Look Inside,” “Talkin’ To The Wind” and “Everybody Needs Their Dreams”) bore the influence of his approach to songwriting and thanks to Barbara Nagel actually made their way to Maurice himself.

Certainly one of the most thrilling moments of my experiences with Maurice and the band was attending the rehearsals and then the groundbreaking UNICEF concert at the United Nations General Assembly in July 1979: given my own earliest childhood career ambitions to become a diplomat, it was particularly moving to see my favourite band in such a prestigious setting.

Over the years from 1979 to 1983, I did further interviews with EWF for Blues & Soul while still living in New York; after I relocated to Los Angeles in 1984, at the suggestion of Maurice himself, I was in touch with Art Macnow who had served for many years as the group’s financial advisor (and subsequently their business manager and later personal manager until his passing just two weeks before Maurice’s in January 2016) and in the wake of the conversations I was hired to work with Maurice – first on creating a storyboard for what Maurice envisaged would be a concept-driven album to serve as his solo debut and then, as his publicist (the one and only time I have undertaken such an assignment). I journeyed to Maurice’s home near Mullholland Drive for a number of in-person in-depth conversations about his ideas for the project and in among my personal papers, I still have some of the drafts (to be shared publicly at some point in the near future).

The focus was on a mythical place named Shambhala and I recall buying a book referencing it; during my visits to Maurice’s home, we found ourselves in his study filled with volumes on a myriad of subjects, including Egyptology and our conversations often covered my life-changing visit to Egypt in December 1984, during which I had played some of EWF’s music with my little cassette player among the ruins of great temples at Luxor. In one particular conversation with Maurice, we talked about the timelessness of the soul and I speculated that I would be happy to ‘take a break’ after my life ended: Maurice asked me to consider that a soul is infinite and thus, there were no breaks! I’ll never forget my reaction as I protested that the idea of ‘no break’ horrified me – while Maurice chuckled, reminding me I was thinking in purely human terms and that the nature of the soul was such that it could only be infinite; that after fulfilling its purpose in human form, it could possibly provide ‘unseen’ support for other beings in other dimensions including this plane. It was not an ‘easy’ conversation and yet, its’ content reverberates with me to this very day.

The plans for Maurice’s first album changed by the spring of 1985 when we were working consistently together on the storyline for the project, Maurice coming up with titles and subsequent tracks – such as “Life” and “Adventures Of The Heart” – were eventually released in a 2001 CD reissue of the LP. CBS Records, it seemed, were not in sync with the idea of a concept album so the storyboard went to the wayside as Maurice began collaborating with other writers and musicians – including British bass player Martin Page, Diane Warren, Michel Colombier and Peter Wolf. Maurice choose to cover the Ben E. King classic “Stand By Me” (the video shoot for which I was present and even filmed, alas my segment ending up on the cutting room floor!). Nonetheless, I began working with Maurice on a press campaign that included an interview with Dennis Hunt, the somewhat opinionated writer for ‘The Los Angeles Times,’ at the start of 1986 some months after the release of the LP.

I’d met Dennis on a few occasions and when his name came up occasionally in conversations with some of the artists I knew, there was a universal reaction: he was disliked, his approach to interviewing was considered abrasive and if doing an interview with him could be avoided, it was. When I broached the subject of having Maurice do an interview with Hunt (whose nickname among certain publicists rhymed with a scatological term referring to the female anatomy!), he bristled. He was beyond reluctant: whatever their history, Maurice was clear he didn’t want to do the interview. It took a lot of persuasion on my part and on the part of Art Macnow for Maurice to finally say ‘yes’ and I arrived with Dennis for the fateful conversation. I had briefed Dennis on what subjects Maurice did want to cover and in particular that he didn’t want to focus on his age.

It was like offering Hunt the bait: I sat in the next room as the interview began and at some juncture, the intrepid journalist asked the one question I had pointedly asked him not to: ‘How old are you, Maurice?’ As the text that can be found on the L.A. Times website reveals, Maurice was – as Hunt described it – irked: ‘"I don't mind being my age. But age can be a problem in this business. It can limit you. People think because you're over a certain age, you can only do this or that. That's not necessarily true. . I can produce jazz, pop, rock, R&B, you name it… Or I can go back to work with Earth, Wind & Fire and play to audiences of thousands and thousands of kids at a time. How many old men can do that?"

Spitefully, Hunt entitled the story that appeared in the Sunday edition of the newspaper, ‘At 44, Maurice White…’ Needless to say, Maurice was not happy – and nor was I. The damage was done, so to speak, and he vowed never to speak with Hunt again. My own credibility as his publicist was clearly tainted: fortunately, much of the work we planned had been done including an appearance on the TV show ‘Solid Gold,’ hosted by Dionne Warwick, with whom I had enjoyed a long personal and professional association. Amazingly, the two Sagittarians had never met, and I was delighted to be the conduit in having them chat with Maurice (who had been working with Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond in the same time period) talking to Dionne, a big EWF fan – she recorded ‘In The Stone’ on a live album in 1981 – about producing sessions with her, which alas never materialized.

Maurice and I stayed in touch in the aftermath of his solo career and I still recall conversations in his Bel Air kitchen about various subjects including Luther Vandross (whose work he clearly appreciated), the direction of music in the ‘80s and more. In the years that followed, we met at different EWF shows before he decided to stop touring with the band in 1994 as Parkinson’s disease (with which he had been diagnosed in the late ‘80s) began to impact his ability to perform. My last memory of seeing Maurice in person was in the mid-‘90s when I went to a recording session that he was working on with The Emotions. My close friend Angel came along since he had been developing his skills as an accomplished photographer and it was obvious that Maurice was challenged physically. We chatted briefly before it was time for the work to begin on whatever he and The Emotions (who had achieved a great deal of success from the work Maurice did with them in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s) and my final interview with Maurice was in 2007 for the 1000th edition of Blues & Soul. The text can be found at: http://www.bluesandsoul.com/feature/195/maurice_white/

As I conclude this personal tribute, I am profoundly grateful for having had the opportunities to interact with someone I consider to be one of the greatest musical innovators of our time. Beyond his stellar work with EWF, Maurice’s recordings with The Emotions, DJ Rogers, Deniece Williams and Jennifer Holliday in particular are a testament to his superb songwriting and production skills. And, fittingly, I recall how he fondly reminisced with me about his earliest work as a session drummer at Chess Records in Chicago, recording with some of my ‘60s soulful heroes – Mitty Collier, Jackie Ross, Etta James, Fontella Bass, The Radiants and Ramsey Lewis. Maurice has left behind an amazing legacy of music which will be with me and with millions of others for many years to come.

Thank you, Maurice, for showing me the eternal nature of my soul… from the lyrics of “Fantasy”: “You will find other kind that has been in search of you, many lives has brought you to recognize, it’s your life in review…” I am grateful we connected once more…


About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.
  
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Maurice White. Stand By Me.1985 by capitainfunkk
 

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