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My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire [Book Review]

Summary

My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire is an autobiography by Maurice White written in collaboration with Herb Powell. The book tells the story of White’s early life growing up in Memphis and his eventual move to Chicago where he decided to pursue music as a career. Fans of Earth, Wind & Fire (EW&F) might particularly enjoy learning about the vision that went into forming the group, the making of various songs, and how it was all translated for live stage shows. The book would also be a great pick for people who are interested in music history and/or the music industry though they might not necessarily be fans of the band.

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Show Notes

White was born in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1940s and lived there until around the 1950s. Reading about this was a bit odd as I visited Memphis last year and hit up most of the music history spots. But I don’t remember seeing or hearing any mention of White being born and raised in the city.

His childhood coincided with the later Great Migration, a period in America’s history where a lot of Black people left the South for other parts of the country in search of opportunities and to escape racism. In White’s case, his mother had given birth to him when she was 17-years-old and was having a hard time finding a decent job that would allow her to reliably support herself and her child. There were factory jobs available but those were typically reserved for men. Options for most women were limited to working in someone’s home as a domestic or at one of the local commercial laundry businesses. With only two industries and being unable to get a job in one of them, she was stuck.

She decided to move to Chicago but didn’t have a job lined up. It would be difficult to get established and even more so with a four-year-old in tow. As a result, White’s mother who he would call Mother Dear (or Madear) left him with an older woman that he would come to call Mama. He viewed her as his grandmother despite her not being a blood relative. I don’t believe in pawning your kids off on other people to go off and have a good time. But it’s different if a parent is trying to work and improve things for the family. And it’s quite loving for others to step in and help out with a child.

With one parent temporarily absent because of work, I immediately wondered why White was being left with someone aside from his father. It turns out that his biological father wasn’t exactly a positive example of manhood. His dad had moved to Memphis from Mississippi where he became a gangster with plans to become the “Al Capone of Beale Street.” He’s described as a rough and tumble man who was also very harsh with White though he was a small child at the time. While his father was alive for about a year during the time when his mother was in Chicago, White was left with Mama. White didn’t go into details about the circumstances of his father’s death but he was five years old at the time he passed away.

Growing up White was also influenced by the example set by some of the men in his neighborhood, in the sense that they were not the type of men he aspired to be. Some of the men struggled to find jobs that would allow them to make enough to support themselves financially. Yet, they would spend all of their money partying on the weekends only to be broke again by Monday. Not to mention that many were also described as prone to beating up the women in their lives, hastily resorting to violence, and otherwise exhibiting a superficial and dysfunctional form of manhood.

Outside of being raised by his mother, going to live with Mama was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. Mama was a grown woman in at least her 40s who offered maturity and stability. But because she wasn’t his mother, Mama wasn’t exactly affectionate or loving in a touchy-feely way. Yet, she took the time to motivate and encourage him. She spoke with him about developing character and determination which helped White build a sense of self-confidence. The daily affirmations that she taught him gave him confidence which helped him to navigate not just his childhood but also made him want more for himself as he got older. Mama was ahead of her time and tried to teach him how to be a fully formed human being.

An interesting note is that while White later became a great musician during his early years he didn’t have access to musical instruments. Or at least not instruments of his own at home. He started with two drumsticks but no drums and learned the basics by beating on the front porch and other random things.

Like many other Black singers and musicians one of the first places White sang and played musical instruments was in church. White grew up in the Pentecostal church but was also exposed to the secular music that Mama was listening to music at the time. A mix of artists like Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles were the soundtrack of his early life. These early exposures to music had a tremendous impact on him as a musician. He picked up on how music could reflect and affect people’s moods. It later influenced his philosophy of wanting to create music that was uplifting and inspiring.

I’d only seen pictures of Maurice White as an adult so it was interesting to read about the problems he endured as a Black kid with a very light complexion and light-colored hair. I know that colorism exists within the Black community. Usually, the discussion is about stereotypes and discrimination against Black people with dark skin but to some degree, it swings both ways. All of it is grounded in White supremacy and is complete nonsense. White discusses being ridiculed because he didn’t look like the people around him. He was targeted and bullied at school which made him very self-conscious and though he eventually learned to stand up for himself those feelings remained with him for the rest of his life.

White’s life as a musician began at the age of six when he saw a group of kids coming through the neighborhood dressed in sharp-looking uniforms. The group of kids was the local bugle corp and while he certainly liked music by that point, he was more interested in wearing the uniform. Just imagine that something as mundane as an outfit helped to set the course of his life.

He was also fortunate to have grown up during a time when music was being taught at his school and he learned the fundamentals and history of music. These experiences offered him an opportunity to explore, create, and gain experience with instruments. Living in Memphis during this time meant doo-wop, jazz, rockabilly, and early rock and roll were all around.

Coming from humble though not poor beginnings a lack of access to resources could have derailed his interests. But the parents of White’s neighborhood friends bought them instruments and records to support their emerging interests. And White in turn gained access to records and instruments because of his friends who were willing to share. It felt like the stars aligned and White was in the perfect place at just the right time to be influenced by it all.

During this time Memphis was very segregated with regards to how and where people lived. Beale Street is described as being the “Harlem of Memphis”. An exciting place filled with music where Black people would gather. Yet, White still had early brushes with racism within the Black community as well as with the city in general.

One incident that stuck out to me occurred when he crossed over the railroad tracks to deliver newspapers and was attacked by police officers for being on the White side of town. It was physically painful but also mentally and emotionally upsetting. In a sense, it was an unfortunate rite of passage as this was a frequent occurrence in Memphis.

Police harassment and brutality had been a longstanding reality for Black residents. But the Civil Rights Movement was ramping up at this time and the police and other people in town were desperate to maintain the status quo. In efforts to preserve and perpetuate white supremacy, they randomly attacked and brutalized black people. White explains that you could be walking down the street and a police officer or some other racist White person might just randomly beat you up. To make matters worse, there was nothing you could do about it.

If you’ve never been to Memphis, Arkansas is right across the river to the west and Mississippi is to the south. As a kid, White would be sent across the river to stay with his aunt in a small town in Arkansas where they picked cotton. It didn’t sound like he picked much cotton but rather primarily earned extra money by running errands and giving adults water while they picked cotton. The work is physically demanding and it opened White’s eyes to the labor that Black people put into helping to build America.

This is the second musician I’ve read about whose hatred of picking cotton motivated them to escape the South to get more out of life. Pardon my ignorance but somehow I just assumed that people stopped picking cotton when slavery ended. Many of my ancestors were and current relatives are farmers so I know it’s hard work. But picking cotton sounds like a special breed of terrible.

I remember when I visited Memphis that much was made of Black people from various parts of the Delta who moved to the city for better opportunities. Yet, it’s telling that when White was growing up, there were few options for him as he neared high school graduation as there was a concentrated effort to limit opportunities for Black people. And given the pervasive and brutal racism of the time, it was very likely that he would have found himself in some kind of trouble.

Maybe it was a factor of the times and many people being focused on surviving and making their way in a new city. But there have been several books I’ve read about people where they or their parents move from the South to somewhere else and there’s little to no communication. Not everyone had a phone back then but people still wrote letters so those were some potential means of communication. I don’t recall if he mentioned his mother calling or writing letters but from the age of four to when he graduated from high school, he’d only seen his mother once. It was when he had made a short visit to Chicago and met her new husband and his younger siblings.

It’s not exactly clear why White remained in Memphis so long after his mom had settled in Chicago. And even after he moved to Chicago, he was already in his late teens and only lived with her and the rest of the family for a short period before going out on his own. His mother hadn’t abandoned him but the distance between them resulted in a noticeable lack of intimacy that one would expect between a mother and son. I think this later affected his relationships, especially romantic relationships with women.

White’s father passed away when he was quite young but they didn’t have the best relationship during the short time that he was around. It was cool that White managed to establish a healthy relationship with his stepfather who was a more positive male role model and he came to regard him as “Dad.”

At first glance, it’s surprising that Dad was a podiatrist but the family was living in the projects. But there is also the consideration that at the time, the housing complex was still relatively new and was a step up from most of the other housing options that were available to Black people. Segregation existed in Chicago though in a different form when compared to segregation in the South. In Chicago, Black people were restricted to specific areas of the city, regardless of whether or not they could afford to buy a house or rent an apartment in a nicer area.

While I don’t know the average salary for a podiatrist at that time, I assume it was fairly decent. But the family wasn’t financially comfortable because Madear and Dad had quite a few kids by the time White moved to Chicago. They then had a few more after his arrival bringing the total to about eight. It’s probably politically incorrect but accurate to describe kids as crumb snatchers because they can be rather expensive.

I understood the expectation that as an older teen / almost full-fledged adult, White would take a greater share of responsibility for himself. It’s completely reasonable that he be expected to further his education and/or hold down some kind of a job. Yet, while he should have been expected to pitch in and help out, his siblings were not his children, and providing for them was not his responsibility.

Any young man or young woman would want the freedom to use some of the money they earn as pocket money so they can go out with friends, pursue their interests, etc. Expecting them to do more than chip in on a bill or two or picking up / dropping off a sibling to teach them responsibility is too much. It burdens them with raising a family that they didn’t create at the very same time they’re trying to take the first steps to create a life of their own. It was asking too much for him to be expected to work full-time and then turn over his whole paycheck to help support the family.

In meeting his stepfather and building a relationship with him, Dad was a real standup guy. For a while, White had been pursuing a career in medicine hoping to make Dad proud by following in his footsteps. But eventually, he realized that music was his true calling. As is to be expected Dad was initially uneasy because medicine seemed like a safe and secure path while success as a musician was more fickle and fleeting. It was sweet that Dad came around and not just accepted his decision to pursue music but encouraged him to follow his dreams.

I like reading these kinds of autobiographies that artists have written where it’s years, maybe even decades later and they’re looking back over their lives. At the moment while emotions are still raw, it can be difficult for an individual to objectively analyze the role they’ve played in a disagreement. With some time and distance White was able to be honest about his mistakes and shortcomings in the past. He explains his frame of mind and thought process at that time though sometimes it comes across as making excuses rather than accepting accountability.

There’s a lot to be learned about effective leadership and how to motivate others within his story of developing and leading EW&F. White generally began with the best of intentions but made some mistakes and bad decisions along the way. Early on as a leader he just gave orders but over time he developed a better understanding of how to lead by inspiring and motivating the people within the band. It’s something that takes time and effort as few people are born with a natural sense of how to lead.

By not accepting accountability and learning from your actions, a person is then at risk of making the same mistakes over and over again. At that point, it’s no longer a mistake but rather a habit. And in not assessing one’s actions and making the necessary adjustments, you miss out on opportunities to learn and grow as a person. Another key lesson that I learned was the need to be discerning about the types of people you invite on the journey to help fulfill your vision.

Traditionally, musical acts spent years on the road touring to build up a following and jump-start their careers. They might perform in small venues for years before securing a record deal. Things are a bit different nowadays because while artists are still expected to build a following before a recording contract they can now use the internet as a powerful marketing and distribution tool. After signing some labels would completely take over management of an artists’ image, musical projects, tours, etc. A lot of artists were discouraged from getting too involved in the business side of things. What I’ve realized is that the artists who end up with long money eventually got smart and made it a point to develop an understanding of the business and took greater creative control.

White used the knowledge he’d gained from working studio sessions and with various labels to properly structure EW&F. Taking creative control of the band allowed him to do relatively well for himself through publishing and production credits and rights. The group landing at Columbia was a great move for them because unlike some of the other labels they pretty much just left them alone. All of the years spent touring and perfecting their stage show and stopping now and then to record an album allowed them to build a huge devoted fan base.

Aside from that I respected White’s approach of being in the music industry but not of the industry. Drugs, alcohol, and all other manners of self-destructive behavior have long been present in the entertainment industry. But I liked that White made a conscious decision to preserve his principles, morals, and philosophy to not get sucked into what was going on. For the most part, he treated the record industry as a business and conducted himself as a professional. Thinking about the long-term and maintaining discipline and self-control arguably helped to ensure EW&F’s staying power.

Reading My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire was an incredible journey because he’s a man and views things through the prism of his gender. He even describes these different periods of his Black manhood. It was a conscious decision on his part for EW&Fto offer a complex and realistic representation of Black manhood. His goal was to avoid playing into stereotypes of typical Black male personas and instead put forward something complex and multi-layered.

It was very important to White that EW&Fwas him. The name “Earth, Wind & Fire” was based on his astrological reading which showed that there was no water, which represents emotions, in his chart. His mission, philosophy, and interest in studying different ideologies and spiritual views had a tremendous impact on his approach to music. The music of EW&Fwas based on things that he wanted to see and hear. It was an experiment with genres that spoke to him as a musician and determined the songs they would record and how they should appear on stage.

My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire tells the story of EW&Fbut because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, you also get an opportunity to learn a lot about the different eras of the recording industry. There’s also some insight into different genres and musical styles that were popular over the years. In a way, the book is about more than one man and his band’s experience, it’s also about music history and the history of the recording industry over several decades.

For aspiring musicians, it’s a great opportunity to learn about music theory as well as the business of music. Learning about EW&F’s transition through different labels, how royalties work, putting together studio sessions, recording albums, trying to keep musicians in line, trying to get musicians to work together towards a cohesive musical vision. There’s also insight into how stage shows come together and the process of planning and executing a tour.

At some points, White touches on things that were going on elsewhere in the industry such as trends that would have an impact on the expectations of record labels, radio stations, and later television stations. As expectations changed, labels changed promotions and marketing. Hardships that other artists were experiencing with regards to airplay and other issues would play a key role in the industry’s history.

White explains his experiences in the 1950s where Black artists and music were certainly present but the industry was dominated by White people within the industry. Black people were not necessarily a part of the industry, in the sense that they made music but many record labels didn’t have divisions for Black artists or genres. At that time things were very segregated, it could be argued that it’s still rather segregated now, or at least had been until relatively recent years. Gatekeepers decided who got play on the radio, record deals, promotion, touring, etc.

Black people were limited with regards to where they could work and their function within the industry. The gatekeepers quite often functioned as a way to profit from the music and talent of Black musicians without necessarily building their careers long-term or ensuring they shared in the financial success. Changes came about in the 60s when Black musicians began to move more to the forefront. And as Black musicians became more visible, more Black professionals began to work within the industry. The industry began to open up though it still hadn’t quite integrated at that point.

The development and trajectory of EW&Fin some ways followed a typical path which also tracked the trajectory of Black music to a degree. White started out touring with live jazz bands that played small clubs and venues. Appearing as a session musician on other people’s records gave way to him creating a band and using what he’d learned. In the 70s, he began to tour more extensively with EW&F, in the early days playing at predominantly Black colleges and then later colleges in general. Building up a fanbase through those shows while also achieving a degree of crossover success.

A lot of Black entertainers were limited to traditionally Black venues like the Apollo in Harlem, Fox Theater in Atlanta, etc. which formed what was referred to as the chitlin circuit. Moving into the ’70s more Black musicians were now able to play larger venues that had traditionally only been open to White bands and artists. Being able to play venues such as Madison Square Garden or Nassau Coliseum exposed Black artists to a wider potential fan base and enabled them to have larger shows.

Black artists were now selling more records and a select few were able to achieve the same level of commercial success as White artists. With that came the increased potential for financial success especially as Black artists began to take greater creative control over their music. They took greater control over the business of their music by getting more into publishing, writing, and producing for other artists as well as establishing their own record labels.

With the advent of the 80s and 90s, it became clear that while some progress had been made racism was still present within the industry. There had been an ongoing fight with record labels and radio stations to get Black artists an equal shake at promotion and placement. The fight continued into the 80s with MTV initially refusing to play music videos by Black artists on their channel.

Some Black artists and professionals tried to push back against stereotypes. But then rap music came along and as it gained popularity, labels and executives fell back into the lazy and racist habit of very basic and cookie-cutter ideas about Black manhood. White didn’t seem to have anything against rap music but rather pushed back against the idea that one artist being successful with a certain image or a message didn’t mean that everyone else had to follow suit. He specifically referred to cheesy attempts at refreshing the band’s image by randomly teaming them up with younger artists, pandering really, which just seemed desperate.

EW&Fhad already experienced some of their biggest hits and albums by the time I was born so they weren’t really on my radar until I got older. My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire spoke to their rise and…not really a fall, but more so just a transition of EW&Ffrom a hot young group in the 70s to established in the 80s. Moving through the journey of the music industry, the changing of times, being able to sidestep disco which put a lot of careers on pause. There’s something to be said for being able to survive by adapting while remaining true to yourself.

It’s eye-opening when you take into consideration that EW&Fwas selling a lot of albums for its time. But as occurs with most artists the real money is made in publishing, it’s intellectual property which I refer to as “never done money.” Once a song is published it can generate revenue for years to come. But many artists have to rely on touring to make money because they either don’t sell a lot of singles/albums, perform but don’t have songwriting or production credits, or sign away / sell off their publishing as part of their record deal.

You gain a better understanding of how touring works and the amount of planning needed to design an elaborate stage show. I’d never really thought about the importance of properly putting together show promotion and ensuring that you don’t end up losing money on a tour by spending more than you bring in. I came away with a greater understanding of how all of these things have to work in tandem to ensure financial success.

I knew White had written for EW&Fbut was unaware that he not only wrote for but also developed other artists. I assumed that he had done well for himself financially. But then he explained his approach to recording using a variety of producers, musicians, and songwriters as well as flying the group around to record at different studios. Stuff like that would quickly eat into the album production budget. And then the rate at which albums were released meant that quite often they were recording albums at rather expensive rates without enough time between albums to recoup the money. They were constantly going on tour with very elaborate stage shows and while money came in from shows they weren’t keeping much of it because so much was going out. It sounded like White was financially comfortable but wasn’t nearly as rich as I thought he might have been in part because he was spending some of his own money to make up for the band’s financial shortcomings.

The group was built on a solid foundation of touring but the downside to that is they had to constantly stay on the road to generate money. Some artists are fortunate to be able to make a good amount of their money off of album sales. It enables them to take breaks between albums and the constant grind of touring. It meant constantly being on the move and that can make it difficult to live a normal life as far as having a family and being there on a day-to-day basis.

In the case of White’s first child, the woman who was his daughter’s mother was described as being a friend that he had been seeing on and off over several years who became pregnant. There were no issues with him claiming the child as his but with him being all over the place and the woman not touring with him it meant he wasn’t consistently present in the child’s life. He was providing for the child but wasn’t there physically and later in life it was something that he regretted.

Quite often there’s this idea promoted that being a good husband and father is primarily based on a man’s ability to financially provide for his family. But traditionally there’s less emphasis placed on men being physically present and actively involved in the lives of their children. It’s certainly part of a man’s responsibility to help to financially support his children. But, men should be fully-fledged human beings within their lives and households. Everyone in the household is short-changed when a man is relegated to solely being a paycheck.

I did raise an eyebrow at the reality that White recognized how not having his mother around affected him emotionally. Yet, he didn’t recognize that his lacking presence in his children’s lives would also result in strained relationships. Especially given that he appreciated and admired his stepfather for the role that he played in the lives of his children. I appreciated that he eventually came to realize that the amount of money he could give wasn’t a replacement for his presence. He didn’t beat himself up about it but it was a kind of hindsight is 20-20 thing where looking back he could see where he went wrong.

White goes on to delve more deeply into his leadership of EW&Fwhile they were working on specific albums. As the band’s creator and director, he’d always exerted creative control. I understood not wanting to create by committee because the back and forth can go on forever. But in multiple instances, the environment sounded like a dictatorship and likely contributed to the revolving door of talent. While it was a successful group, a lot of the band’s functions and moves were dependent on the whims of this one person.

EW&Fwas like a family that he created for himself. He felt like he missed out on having a traditional family and parental relationship as a child. It’s interesting that Mama, a woman, was in his life but he didn’t include women in this quasi-family that he created for himself. Aside from a few background singers and the occasional feature from a woman for a particular song, the band was primarily male. He didn’t like his father’s insensitivity and domineering demeanor when he was a child but admired Dad. Yet, he attempted to dominate the other men in the group by asserting complete control over the direction of the band.

Eventually White had his sister move in with him and despite his claims that he needed quiet and space to himself, somehow living with his sister worked out. In having his sister live with him he was able to have someone else in the house and experienced a sense of family. And because it was his sister she didn’t have the same expectations of a romantic partner. He’d get the comfort and intimacy of a woman without her expecting much of anything from him as a man.

Marriage isn’t for everyone but all of this strategizing and maneuvering sounds like a lot of hassle. Why not just simply tell potential partners from the beginning, “I’m perfectly fine with us dating but I don’t ever want to get married or live with a romantic partner. Are you still interested?” But the reality is that he was dishonest about his intentions because he wanted his romantic relationships to be on his terms. For someone who at that time was deeply interested in exploring and understanding his inner self, he was incredibly insensitive and unconcerned with the feelings of others. He came across as being incredibly emotionally underdeveloped.

White wasn’t an active parent until he had his last child later in life at which point both he and EW&Fhad slowed down. He was then able to have a different relationship with that child compared to his two older kids. Some of that could have been a matter of his viewing the children’s mothers as their primary caretakers while his role was to provide.

On more than one occasion he spoke about being obsessive, nurturing, and committed to Earth, Wind & Fire. He spent so much of his time and dedicated his life to the band because it was like his child. That’s a bit of sad irony because he had actual human children but didn’t acknowledge that they also needed him as their dad to be present and provide them with care and guidance. He wasn’t around much during the pregnancies, wasn’t present for the births of at least his two older kids, and didn’t work to build a relationship with them as children.

Unfortunately, White experienced some health issues later in life in the form of Parkinson’s disease which limited his ability to be as involved with the newer iterations of EW&F. So much of his identity and life’s purpose were based on his music and Earth, Wind & Fire. It came to a point where he had to reassess his identity as a person outside of Earth, Wind & Fire when he was no longer physically capable of playing his original role in the group.

It had a huge impact on his life with regards to how he saw himself, interacted with other people, and interacted with the public. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at a relatively young age and describes himself as being an introvert. By the end of My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire, I felt as though I knew this guy though we had never met. So it was fairly sad to read about him transitioning into this next phase of life dealing with this illness and how his feelings of shyness and introversion made it difficult for him to cope with having Parkinson’s.

Maurice White had been working on My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire with his co-writer but unfortunately died shortly before it was released. You get the story of his life from birth up to shortly before his death. Throughout My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire, you get a sense that our early experiences can seem insignificant at that moment. But it can have a tremendous impact on how we view and experience life, who we are as adults, how we view ourselves, and how we interact with other people.

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