Remembering Maurice White Five Years Later
The Earth, Wind & Fire musician died on Feb. 4, 2016
Five Years is our new series that takes a look at significant cultural figures five years after their death. We’re kicking it off with a tribute to Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire by David Gomez, the bassist for the L.A.-based queer-core punk band Longstocking.
My sister, Irene, was the oldest of four siblings and as such, anointed house radio DJ by our parents—the rest of us had no say. That’s the way it is in a Mexican family: seniority rules. Smoggy and sweltering L.A. nights, listening to either 93 KHJ or KISS AM/FM in our shared bedroom. It was the ‘70s and Earth, Wind & Fire dominated the airwaves. I can’t remember a time when their songs weren’t on the radio and as much as my sister’s pop tastes drove me crazy and straight into punk rock, I’ve always loved EWF. I appreciate the vision of Maurice White as a musician, singer, producer, wellness advocate and the main architect behind the group.
As a kid, I would trip the “F” out on their album covers, with the band decked out in shiny space suits with Egyptian motifs. EWF were Afro-Futurism before the term existed and although they weren’t “out there” like Parliament/Funkadelic or Sun Ra, they were my gateway to a higher consciousness. The nostalgia of EWF’s sound is like a portal to my first junior high slow dance. I’d had a crush on a beautiful Filipina since first grade and by some stroke of luck, she became my unfortunate dance partner that night. As the deejay played the extended live version of the classic, “Reasons,” I held her tighter and as Philip Bailey wailed ecstatically. She wiggled out of my embrace and exclaimed, “How long is this fucking song!” I was crushed, though my passion for music propelled me to teach myself bass by playing along with records. Though other R&B groups were funkier or way more hip, I tuned into the genius of Maurice White’s arrangements. Each song of theirs is a masterclass in songwriting. As a bassist, I learned how to play along with a drummer, carefully matching each note on the bass to each kick and snare. I learned how to create space and carefully fit bass riffs where the space allows me to. Many musicians attribute a similar experience with The Beatles, but for Black and Brown folks, Earth, Wind & Fire were our Beatles. The power of their positivity, love and self-determination, that you can be a shining star, no matter who you are, rang true for us.
I’ve had the honor of collaborating with Tamala Poljak, the creator and principal songwriter of the band Longstocking, since high school. They are one of the most prolific songwriters I’ve known. When I joined Longstocking, it was a two-piece consisting of Tamala on guitar/vocals and a drummer. At first, my bass lines were standard fare for mid-90’s indie rock bands but before we went back into the studio, we got a new drummer, Sherri Solinger who shared my affinity for funk and R&B records like EWF. She knew how to create and take musical space and soon along with rhythm guitarist Woody Stevenson, we were as lockstep as our favorite funk rhythm sections. We laid a solid foundation where Tamala’s songs were free to roam. I think that is what set our record, Once Upon a Time Called Now, apart from what our peers were doing at the time.
“Radio Agony,” a Longstocking song about pop radio holds my contribution to the long-lost tradition of the hidden tracks—I slipped in a favorite Verdine White bass riff from “That’s The Way Of The World.” The moment perhaps imperceptible to the listener allowed me to warmly telegraph my gratitude to Earth Wind & Fire and my big sister too.
Longstocking’s album is out this Friday. You can preorder it here.