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

Story highlights

  • Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the premiere musical acts in the 1970s and '80s
  • Maurice White's band was known for its powerful horn section, uplifting lyrics and danceable tracks

(CNN)Maurice White, the Earth, Wind & Fire leader and singer who co-wrote such hits as "Shining Star," "Sing a Song" and "September," has died, according to his brother, EWF bassist Verdine White.

He was 74.
    "My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep," Verdine White said in a Facebook post. "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. Thank you for your prayers and well wishes."
    For several years in the 1970s and '80s, EWF was one of the leading acts in America, with horn-driven, vocally intricate and often uplifting songs that became the soundtrack of a generation.
    White, who founded the group in 1969, was the guiding force behind its sound.
    "I always envisioned a band which was self-contained, which could play many styles of music, and which could still create its own sound," he told Songwriter Universe in 2007. "It was also great to feature a big horn section in the band."
    Noted, "The band could harmonize like a smooth Motown group, work a simmering groove like the J.B.'s or improvise like a jazz fusion outfit."
    But the horns were only part of the equation. White shared vocals with longtime member Philip Bailey, whose wide vocal range and gorgeous falsetto were a signature of the group.
    Then there were the stage shows, as colorful and sometimes mystical as the group's often unusual album covers.
    It was all part of a joyful noise, White told Songwriter Universe.
    "Being joyful and positive was the whole objective of our group. Our goal was to reach all the people and to keep a universal atmosphere -- to create positive energy," he said. "All of our songs had that positive energy. To create uplifting music was the objective."

    A string of hits

    White was born in 1941 in Memphis and moved to Chicago as a teenager. As a session drummer for Chess Records, he played on records by such notables as Etta James and Fontella Bass. He later joined the popular jazz group the Ramsey Lewis Trio where he was introduced to the kalimba, an African thumb piano he would use extensively in future projects, according to Billboard.
    He left Lewis' group in 1969 to join forces with keyboardist Don Whitehead and singer Wade Flemons, who became founding members of EWF, named for the three elements in White's astrological charts. His brother joined the lineup in 1970, and the band signed with Warner Bros. (Another key member: co-producer Charles Stepney, a mentor to White.)
    Critics were impressed, and they began to amass a cult following. It would take a few personnel changes, mainly, the addition of Bailey, before the band hit their stride.
    EWF scored its first top 10 hit on the R&B charts with "Mighty Mighty" off "Open Our Eyes," which eventually went gold. Their next album, the film soundtrack "That's the Way of the World," shot to the top of the R&B and pop charts, overshadowing the movie of the same name thanks in part to "Shining Star." The single also was a crossover hit, bringing the band mainstream success.
    White used the profits to develop EWF's live show into a lavish, effects-filled extravaganza. He brought on magician Doug Henning to design stunts and the Phenix Horns to provide a regular horn section, headed by saxophonist Don Myrick. The concert experience was chronicled on the double-LP "Gratitude" in 1975, which became their second straight No. 1 album and featured hits "Sing a Song" and the ballad "Can't Hide Love."
    The next decade brought a string of top 10 albums and singles, including "Fantasy" and "Serpentine Fire" off the 1977 album "All n' All"; a cover of the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life" off the film version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band;" and The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1's "September."
    White stayed otherwise occupied in the 1970s by starting his own label, ARC, and producing other acts, including Deniece Williams and the Emotions, who topped the pop charts with the White-helmed hit, "Best of My Love." EWF's 1979 album, "I Am," its sixth straight multiplatinum album, featured the Emotions on "Boogie Wonderland."

    Honored by Rock Hall, songwriters

    The group's momentum began to wane after "I Am," and White disbanded the group after the release of "Electric Universe" in 1983. Bailey reunited with the White brothers for four albums between 1987 and 1997, producing the Grammy-nominated hit "Sunday Morning."
    EWF's contributions to music and pop culture were acknowledged in their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. In the week leading up to the induction ceremony, White revealed he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which contributed to his withdrawal from the stage.
    And yet he continued recording and performing with the band throughout the 2000s. The White brothers and Bailey were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010 along with EWF bandmates Larry Dunn and Al McKay.
    White's influence was evident in tributes from a wide range of entertainers, from Quincy Jones to Questlove.
    "Thoughts and prayers with the family of our dear brother Maurice White," Jones said on Twitter. "Your contributions to music will be kept in our hearts and souls forever."