How Maurice White, and Earth Wind & Fire lifted us up, up, up

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Music of Earth, Wind and Fire, led by Maurice White, who died this week, was ubiquitous, influential, joyful music of '70s radio
  • It was state-of-the-art R&B, with staying power in decade where African-American culture, music surged into mainstream

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)Midsummer, 1975, anywhere in America:

You're in a car driving through a neighborhood, any neighborhood. It doesn't matter whether it's middle-class or working-class, predominantly black, white or brown.
It's late afternoon and there are kids playing outside. There's a radio on and the sultry, sticky air is pierced by a pounding, guitar-driven beat with the voices of these children singing together, as one:
"When you wish upon a star...."
The first line is familiar, but the melody isn't. Neither is the line that follows:
"Dreams will take you very far, yeeaaah..."
The kids hammer their voices harder along with the emphatic beat:
"When you wish upon a dream...
"Life aint always what it seems, oh yeah...."
This, for its time, was sleek, hard-driving, state-of-the-art rhythm-and-blues. And everybody was connected to its beat, its thrust and, most important, its optimism.
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Optimism, saying the least, isn't the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to the 1970s. But think about the middle of that decade: The storms of both Vietnam and Watergate had passed, the last vestiges of legal segregation had been purged and, though things were far from ideal, there was a brief moment of release from turmoil -- and, with it, greater possibility.
As impossible as it now seems, we all shared that giddiness, regardless of where we lived.
Both the song, "Shining Star," and the album it came from, "That's the Way of the World," evoked that buoyancy and provided the words to express it. The group behind that music was Earth, Wind and Fire and the chief architect behind that sound was Maurice White.
He died Thursday at age 74.
If the days after still find us grieving for White, who stopped touring with the band about 20 years ago due to Parkinson's disease, it's because we're grieving for that long-ago sense of possibility and uplift Earth, Wind and Fire gave us.
Theirs was a gift that keeps on giving whenever one of their classics somehow pops up in the background of our present-day lives, from "Mighty, Mighty" and "Sun Goddess" to "Reasons" and "All in All" and "Let's Groove" and "Sing a Song" and on and on.
Check your pulse if any of those titles don't make you warm and happy remembering a familiar hook or a lyric.
That Earth, Wind and Fire -- or EW&F, as their fans love to say in shorthand -- achieved such lasting prominence was remarkable given that they emerged in a decade marked by a great surge of African-American culture whose influence was vast enough to affect not just music, but movies, television, books, art and fashion.
Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Jacksons, Parliament-Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, The O'Jays -- these and many other black musicians assumed mainstream prominence and affected the course of pop music for decades to come.
EW&F assumed a front-line status among such formidable company with their tight orchestration, infectious rhythms and messianic reach. (Having a soaring vocalist such as Philip Bailey in your quiver didn't hurt either.)
To some elite rock critics, the sound that Maurice White helped patent seemed a touch too slick, too infused with what longtime Village Voice pundit Robert Christgau labeled "humorless platitudes" and "colloquial homiletics."
But over time, even his resistance to EW&F was worn away by the group's unrelenting joy and unapologetic pleasure.
They're still touring. They're still having -- and delivering -- fun. But it's sad to know their guiding spirit is no longer on the planet. We take our lead from one of their songs and give him -- and them -- our undying "Gratitude".