Maurice White flanked by singers Ralph Johnson and Philip Bailey during an Earth, Wind & Fire set in Los Angeles in 2004
The passing of Maurice White, drummer for and architect behind Earth, Wind & Fire, has already been widely reported—and with good reason. White, who died in his sleep yesterday at age 74 after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, was a towering figure in pop music: EWF have sold more than 90 million albums during a career that's lasted nearly 50 years, and White produced countless hits for others as well. Most obituaries have mentioned the years he spent in Chicago in his teens and 20s, working as a studio musician at Chess Records (playing on legendary sessions by the likes of Etta James, Fontella Bass, Sonny Stitt, Sugar Pie DeSanto, and the Dells) and later replacing drummer Isaac "Red" Holt in the wildly popular jazz trio led by pianist Ramsey Lewis.
Like many Chess musicians, White was a jazz player at heart, and in the late 60s he was part of an important cluster of musicians that gravitated toward the innovations of Chicago cornetist and composer Phil Cohran. White played for a while in the Pharaohs, an adventurous R&B band that included many folks who were also in Cohran's Artistic Heritage Ensemble. Musicians in both groups would end up following White to Los Angeles in 1970, where he transformed the Salty Peppers (an R&B combo he'd started in Chicago with keyboardist Don Whitehead and singer Wade Flemon) into Earth, Wind & Fire. Soon two musicians from that Chicago cluster, Donald Myrick and Louis Satterfield, would join EWF as the core of the influential Phenix Horns.
Most of the obituaries I've seen mention the importance of the kalimba to EWF—the African-derived thumb piano was a recurring element of the group's sprawling sound, which melded soul, jazz, and funk with a lush pop gloss. The story goes that White discovered the instrument when he was playing with Lewis, finding one in a local music store, but I'm pretty sure his primary inspiration was Cohran, who first amplified a kalimba as a member of Sun Ra's Arkestra in the late 50s, calling it a "frankiphone." White brought his own sound to the instrument and integrated it into a much different and more ecumenical aesthetic, giving the thumb piano its greatest popular exposure in the States. Below you can check out "Kalimba Story," a funky EWF jam from the 1974 album Open Our Eyes that places the instrument front and center. It's followed by one of Cohran's greatest performances on the frankiphone, the 1968 track "The Minstrel."