Let’s Groove, Shining Star, Boogie Wonderland, September – these pop and disco hits by the US group Earth, Wind & Fire are among the most popular from the 1970s to 80s era. The funky, versatile drummer on them all was Fred White, who has died aged 67.
Exuding joy, imagination and unity, EW&F, as their fans called them, made music that emphasised good times both on the dancefloor and off. A blend of soul, funk, jazz, Latin, Afro and pop, with smooth vocals, dynamic brass arrangements, dance-club friendly rhythms and catchy choruses, the records still sound fresh today and remain a staple at weddings, sports events and celebratory occasions.
The band was the brainchild of Fred’s elder half-brother, Maurice White. Fred – who changed his surname to White, as did his bassist brother, Verdine Jr, to emphasise his fraternal relationship with Maurice – joined EW&F in 1974, after the band’s breakthrough album – their fifth – Head to the Sky (1973).
A professional since the age of 15, White – described as a ‘“musical prodigy” by Maurice – had previously played on Donny Hathaway’s superlative Live album (1972), and with the rock band Little Feat, appearing on their 1974 album Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.
Maurice, meanwhile, had had more than a decade’s experience as a drummer – both for Chess Records and the jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis – when he formed Earth, Wind & Fire in 1970, the name coming from his astrological chart. As singer, co-drummer, songwriter and producer, Maurice was the boss, initially changing record labels and replacing members furiously, keeping only Verdine on bass.
Noting Fred’s ability to play across genres, Maurice invited him to join the band. With Ralph Johnson already on drums, and Maurice joining them behind his kit during both live performances and studio sessions, EW&F were a formidable rhythmic outfit. After Fred joined, completing a lineup of eight musicians and a three-piece horn section, Maurice announced he finally had the band he had always wanted.
In his posthumously published autobiography, My Life With Earth, Wind & Fire (2016), Maurice wrote: “Fred was the brick wall. He provided a rock-solid tempo and a rock-solid feel, priceless qualities in a drummer. He was one of the best things going for us.”
The band’s first album to feature Fred, That’s the Way of the World (1975, initially conceived as a soundtrack to a forgettable film), topped both the US Billboard and Soul album charts, with the first single from it, Shining Star, also topping both charts and winning that year’s Grammy award for best R&B performance by a duo or group. The follow-up album, Gratitude, released later the same year, sold more than 3m copies in the US.
Spirit (1976) was the first to break through in the UK, with the single Saturday Nite reaching No 17 in the charts. The follow-up LP, All ’N All (1977), went Top 20 in the UK, and from now on EW&F would regularly place albums and singles in the UK charts, their music appealing equally to pop, disco and jazz-funk fans, while their spectacular live performances – Fred’s drum kit would rise in the air, spin around and turn upside down, all while he kept drumming – sold out arenas.
Maurice’s interest in Egyptology and science fiction saw the stage set involve flying saucers and pyramids, while the band, dressed in platform boots and shiny outfits, cooked up a huge funk sound that turned every concert into a party. Among their many hits, almost all written by Maurice and Verdine (with contributions from other band members), were the dancefloor favourite Boogie Wonderland (1979, featuring the female vocal trio the Emotions), the dynamic September (1978), the soulful ballad After the Love Is Gone (1979), the funk anthem Let’s Groove (1981) and Got to Get You Into My Life – a cover of the Beatles’ song that was their contribution to the 1978 film Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club.
Born in Chicago, Fred was the youngest of three sons of Edna (nee Parker) and Verdine Adams, a doctor and amateur saxophone player. Maurice was Edna’s son from a previous marriage. Fred took up the drums aged nine, soon following his older brothers into the music industry. As the youngest member of EW&F, White was both its jester and troublemaker, his energy and arrogance firing up the band. He initially drummed alongside Johnson but, by 1977, insisted that he be the band’s sole drummer, so Johnson was shifted to percussion.
His headstrong behaviour would cause him to come into conflict with Maurice – tensions saw the bandleader announce a hiatus in 1984, and Fred was not invited to rejoin in 1987 when they reformed. After leaving EW&F he led a life outside the spotlight. In 2000, Fred, along with his brothers and six other band members, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.The band’s chart status waned as musical tastes changed but, with sales of more than 90m albums, alongside hundreds of millions of 45s, they remain popular, their hits regularly heard across radio, TV and film. Verdine, as the last original member, continues to tour Earth, Wind & Fire.
Maurice died in 2016. White is survived by Verdine Jr and by his sister Geri.
• Frederick Eugene (Adams) White, musician, born 13 January 1955; died 1 January 2023