The world has lost a great talent with the recent death of Maurice “Reese” White, the driving force of this iconic group.
I first learned of his passing from a tweet Bette Midler wrote… “Maurice White, a founding member of Earth, Wind and Fire, has died. Great music, energy, great spirit. The Lord must need a band up there.” Bette’s words are perfect. I cannot begin to improve on them. What I would like to share is the profound impact Earth, Wind & Fire had on my sense of self.
I grew up in a rural setting. There were just over 100 students from 3 towns in my graduating class. From an early age, I was an outcast who knew I was different. Everyone else seemed cut from the same bolt of cloth: athletes, farm-boys, and punks who bullied me relentlessly. When I saw the parents of these kids, they were adult versions of the same. It soon became clear why. The town had been a static farming community for centuries—and in the late 60’s and early 70’s it still remained smug, self-satisfied, and ignorant of any other way of life. My great-grandfather had built a summer cottage 60 years before, and my mother had owned her own place since the 30’s. Yet, when my family moved there in the late 50’s, we were still considered outsiders.
Being tall and un-athletic, with bright red hair and an Irish complexion, I knew I’d never fit in. There was more to it than just that. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, my tormentors saw in my gentle ways a nascent homosexuality I’d yet to recognize in myself. In those days, that was all it took to be cast from the herd. There has to be something better than this, I constantly told myself. As I reached my high school years and began to contemplate college, the future looked grim. What if being an outsider was just my lot in life and this is what it will always be like?
At first, college seemed an escape, but then a different, and perhaps more insidious form of harassment showed its face as students competed for prime performance slots. Sarcasm, mockery, and intimidation were all within bounds and, in my unsophisticated case, an extremely effective weapon. Refusing to give as good as I got, while still placing well in auditions, I drew a lot of fire. The problem must be me, I thought. What is it about me they hate so much? The isolation and tension of my circumstances took its toll. I grew reticent, angry, uneasy in crowds, and perpetually on edge.
As a budding musician, I kept up with trends outside my core focus of orchestral music. And I found Earth, Wind & Fire. At first, their music drew me because of it’s phenomenal brass section. I played the trumpet and was naturally drawn to the riffs and on point pyrotechnics. It wasn’t long before I was paying close attention to words of inspiration from songs written by Maurice and his brother Verdine. Those lyrics, delivered by Phillip Bailey’s soaring falsetto, gave me chills.
Here’s a sample from the song “Mighty Mighty,” written in 1974.
“Everyday is real, don’t run from fear
‘Cause better days are very near
There are times when you are bound to cry
One more time, head to the sky…
Walk around, why wear a frown?
Say, Little people, try to put you down
What you need is a helpin’ hand
All the strength, at your command…
We are people, of the mighty
Mighty people of the sun
In our hearts lies all the answers
To the truth you can’t run from…”
By 1975, I was beginning to realize my discomfort with my “truth” was part of the problem. People sensed my lack of authenticity and timid efforts to compensate for it. That, combined with rampant prejudice, was ensuring I’d have the same experience wherever I went. I realized I was trying to accommodate a world that would never accept me. At this crucial moment, Reese spoke again with these words from “That’s The Way of the World.”
“You will find peace of mind
If you look way down in your heart and soul
Don’t hesitate ’cause the world seems cold…”
Though the struggles chronicled by Earth, Wind and Fire were not mine by birth, I certainly resonated with the fight. The prevailing, white male culture seemed to be setting all the rules. Even though I, too, was a white male, I would never be an insider. Over time, I began to see that as a gift, though in my twenties, I just wanted to escape. When I graduated from college, it was to the lyrics to “Getaway.”
“So you say you tried but you just can’t find the pleasure
People around you givin’ you pressure
Try to resist all the hurt that’s all around you
If you taste it, it will haunt you…
Watch for the signs that lead in the right direction
Not to heed them is a bad reflection
They’ll show you the way into what you have been seeking
To ignore them you’re only cheating
So come, take me by the hand
We’ll leave this troubled land
I know we can getaway…”
I watched for the signs, and they did show the way. When my first partner—a kind, loving, man of color who knew more of oppression and hatred than I could begin to imagine—came into my life, I was at peace. The year we moved in together, Reese spoke again—perhaps most powerfully—in the 1978 release of “Fantasy.”
“Every man has a place
In his heart there’s a space
And the world can’t erase his fantasies
Take a ride in the sky
On our ship, fantasize
All your dreams will come true right away…
You will find other kind
That has been in search of you
Many lives has brought you to
Recognize, it’s your life now in review…
And we will live together
Until the twelfth of never
Our voices will ring forever, as one…”
I found my “kind.” The path laid out by Reese’s lyrics led me to loving friends of all ages and lifestyles who have contributed to a rich and rewarding life. Reflecting back, I’m taken with the fact that his words seemed to arrive at just the right moment. To this day, whenever I listen to Earth, Wind & Fire, I feel a connection to the young man who was struggling to make his way. It’s as if a large part of my personal struggle lives on within the music. When I listen now—from that much better place—I am grateful for the choices I made and the strength I found.
Godspeed, Reese White, as you start a new gig “up there.” Thanks for showing me the way. I can think of no better send off than your lyrics from “Shining Star.”
“Shining star come in to view
Shine its watchful light on you
Give you strength to carry on
Make your body big and strong
Born a man child of the sun
Saw my work had just begun
Found I had to stand alone
Bless it now I’ve got my own
So, if you find yourself in need
Why don’t you listen to these words of heed…
You’re a shining star
No matter who you are
Shining bright to see
What you could truly be.”