Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Author Herb Powell Breaks Down the Writing of the Maurice White Biography ‘My Life With Earth Wind & Fire’

*In keeping with the opening lyric of Earth Wind & Fire’s hit single “September,” Los Angeles based music journalist A. Scott Galloway met with author Herb Powell on the 21st day of September, sitting by a duck pond in Kenneth Hahn Park.

The occasion was to discuss Powell’s outstanding book, “Maurice White: My Life With Earth Wind & Fire” (Amistad Books). The book transcends its title to give fans the most intimate portrait of the internationally renowned and adored super group’s mysterious but world renowned leader – a once in a lifetime opportunity for first time author Powell who aced the assignment with flying colors.


Galloway reviewed the book glowingly for The Urban Music Scene website (click here to read)

What follows for Electronic Urban Report are the fruits of a 3-hour conversation with Powell about Maurice White that we are sharing today in celebration of what would have been Maurice White’s 75th birthday: December 19, 2016. Enjoy.

Galloway: What did it mean to get the golden opportunity to be the gate keeper of Maurice White’s memoirs?

Powell: I have to go back to Petersburg, Virginia with my brothers when we were in a band called Eye-95. We literally worshipped Earth, Wind & Fire. I have a picture in the playroom of our home where we had a mural of Earth Wind & Fire. Noting but EWF album covers, pictures and posters – a whole wall, exclusively devoted to them. That’s how deep it is to me and that’s why I dedicated the book to my brothers because we shared in this journey.

General Johnson (leader of the 70s soul band The Chairmen of the Board) resurrected his original band The Showmen. I played in that band for a year and a half. I went to Howard University for a year. My older brother Grady – who played piano, kalimba and percussion, and was president of the fine arts department at Howard University – and I came to California with the exclusive purpose to meet Maurice White. That year Philip Bailey, Deniece Williams and Jerry Peters came to D.C. (81-82) with their Christian Crusade. We had a demo at the time that we gave to Philip. He told us, “Maurice is always looking for material.” A soon as Grady graduated, we were moving to California. We came out, gave the demo to Maurice’s sister Gerri.

On the old radio program Radioscope in the 80s when we first came to California, they had an A&R panel critiquing demos live on the show. They called what we were doing in Eye-95 as sounding like “European R&B.” We weren’t trying to be commercial. We were doing our own thing. Maurice called us about 3 months later and our lives were forever changed.

That started a mentor/mentee relationship that lasted almost 25 years. I worked in his office at Kalimba Productions from the mid to late `90s. He called me to say he was starting a little label and wanted me to help A&R. We got really close after that time. He trusted me. He said to me, “I can tell your father was a preacher. I can tell you were loved as a child. I feel their love on you and it radiates out.”

Fast forward to the book project, he had gone through two other writers. According to him, “They didn’t get me!” In those writers’ defense, Maurice was a tough nut to crack unless you engaged him on certain parameters. I knew all of the eastern philosophy, the spirituality and the music like the back of my hand. That was a leaping off point. Once we got the deal together, the most rewarding thing is that he admitted that writing the book was spiritually and psychologically therapeutic for him. Right up to the end, his pride and his will were intact – Parkinson’s Disease and all. I thought he was gonna outlive all of us.

Galloway: Did the two previous writers (one Black, one White, both men) get complete manuscripts completed?

Powell:  No. They may have gotten 30 pages in…  I think they were looking for more from Maurice than he was ready to give or wanted to give at the time.

Galloway: When was the first attempt made to write a book on Maurice?

Powell: About 2007.

Galloway: Really? That late in his life?

Powell: Yeah. Here’s the thing. Quincy Jones had been trying to get Maurice to do a book for 20 years…back in the `80s. For his birthday one year, Quincy gave him this big book about how to organize his life and streamline his thoughts. Q thought that would be a leaping off point for Reese, but the book collected dust. I think Maurice finally recognized the importance of writing a book after he did the play “Hot Feet” with Maurice Hines, realizing that time was getting short in his life. His stepfather dies, Louis Satterfield (longtime friend and band trombonist) died. I think he felt some urgency. That’s when he tried the other writers.

The beautiful thing for me is that he came to me to write his book. If I had gone to him asking to write it, he would have said “No.”

See, part of Maurice’s great gift is that he knew who he was. And in knowing who he was, he didn’t talk much. He read a lot! He was always reading something, and always giving people books to check out.

Galloway: Books and the act of reading them are very interesting because they require a certain amount of discipline and time spent absorbing the content. People aren’t going to crack a book until they are really ready to deal with it. In my review of your book, I advised people to sip not guzzle because it operates on several different levels. So what you’re saying is Maurice knew who he was, wasn’t necessarily keen to write a book but felt the weight of time pressing on him. So tell me about the day he came to you and said he wanted you to help write his memoirs.

Powell: He called me on a Saturday morning and said, “Hey man, can you come by the house today?’ “Sure Reese.” So I go up there, he sits me down and just blurts out, “I had two dreams that you wrote my book.” Maurice deeply believed in his dreams. He had had many in his lifetime that he believed were messages from The Divine. Now I had already written liner notes for EWF’s Spirit CD rerelease and the box set The Eternal Flame.

Galloway: What are some of your most profound takeaways in talking to him?

Powell: For all his worldliness, Maurice was Black and from the South – Memphis, Tennessee. Some people thought that he catered to White folks in his career. In the early `80s, there were angry stories about how Blacks became aware that big Black acts had White management. But Maurice and Bob Cavallo came up together, so it wasn’t a racial thing. In my case, being African American helped relate what I would call “the sauce of it.” Some days we talked about White folks. Some days we talked about Negroes…in not so flattering terms. I hope this comes out in the book that as much as he wanted to transcend race in his art, he still recognized the struggle of being a Black man. That’s why he worked so hard, especially with the Spirit album cover, on a very progressive stance of how Black masculinity was viewed. Black guys in yoga positions and Sufi movements. He wanted to expand the perception of Black masculinity.

So much of this book is about faith: to achieve your dreams, to believe in yourself and to be yourself. That transcends race, sexuality and religion. You have to have the faith to put yourself out there. Maurice had implicit faith in himself – so many of his ideas were unorthodox for a Black person in the music biz. It took courage to not be pressured from the Black or White side – to just be himself.

It’s so idiosyncratic how they tried to put him and his music in a box. He believed that was a lie from the pit of hell. To me, “Serpentine Fire” is one of the high points of EWF’s career. It’s a profoundly odd record, lyrically, musically. It is at the peak of disco. And they came with this African Tango mishegas (Yiddish for “insanity”). Even the guys in the band didn’t get it! Yet it works because it’s Black, churchy and mystical.

Galloway: It’s interesting that Maurice admits that his faith in being unorthodox would later backfire on him, the first most profound time being with the release of “Let Me Talk” as the lead single of Faces. In hindsight, we all know there were many other songs on that double LP that would have been easier first singles to market. It thrilled the hell out of me and my crew – all aspiring musicians – but it went over a lot of the general public’s heads. The nail in the coffin occurrence was with “Magnetic” two albums later on Electric Universe.

Powell: “Let Me Talk” reflected how Maurice always believed EWF had to come out – bold, masculine, straight ahead, knock it out. That’s in the book. One thing not in the book that I’ll share with you is that Andrew Woolfolk, who worked with Phil Collins after EWF, said that Phil ended his show with a cover of The Impressions’ “It’s Alright” – smooth and mellow. He said it was so beautiful… With EWF, they always had to end the show in such a way that if there wasn’t a riot in the parking lot afterwards, they hadn’t done their job! Verdine was a co-leader in that philosophy.

Galloway: Walk me through the process of how you and Maurice worked together to chisel this book.

Powell: We started with 7 or 8 interviews done at his house, usually starting at around 2 in the afternoon. With his Parkinson’s and his pride at work, he had to get his meds together so he wouldn’t be shaky. We generally worked from 2 until 5 or 6. That’s when I got the formative stuff. Then when I interviewed Booker T. Jones and David Porter from his days in Memphis, that’s when it got exciting. They were able to put meat on the bones and I was able to go back to Maurice who would react and elaborate. They were really instrumental in me getting the formative years of his life together 60 years ago! That stuff would remind him of so much.

It was beautiful to see that develop. Booker T and Maurice…their love for music was so brotherly. They discovered music together but Booker T was a giant who could play everything. Maurice was a couple of years younger and really gravitated toward Booker T because he didn’t have any family around him. It really imprinted upon him as a child that music was his family and his home. That played itself out the rest of his life.

Galloway: One thing I always wished was for Maurice to collaborate with giants that were on his level. Why did we never get a Maurice and Quincy Jones project, Maurice with Stevie Wonder or even Maurice with Sting. I’m talking sitting down in a room and creating something new from their combined talents, not singing one of each others’ established hits.

Powell: I really believe that Maurice had a suspicion about his health early on. His tremors started in `85. He didn’t get it diagnosed until 5 years later. It made this already withdrawn person even more withdrawn. So at a time when he could have been collaborating with different people, or even being the elder statesman, it wasn’t going to happen. He told me in the `90s, ‘Man I’m ready to be an executive.’ He wasn’t ready to relax into being an executive, man! He was still feeling himself as a writer/producer/singer. He’d built a studio on 5th Street in Santa Monica. But he knew the Parkinson’s was coming up on him. What could have been his most productive years in the `90s became all about keeping his health issues private. He was still working on music and feeling it, but when you’re trying to do that, it puts three curtains between you and whoever you’re dealing with. You can’t do that when you’re trying to be creative. We wrote a song together for a film. When he would start getting tremors, he’d hide his hand under his thigh.

Galloway: What about the 80s years between his solo album and the re-launch of EWF with Touch the World? Did you get a sense that he felt everything he chased after EWF had to be on a grand level? Like, why didn’t he ever go back to playing jazz, even on a club level, just for fun? Why didn’t he do an album devoted to just the kalimba? These are easy, no-brainer things that fans would have loved to see and that would have showed more intimate side of him.

Powell: He did a lot of one-offs. He produced Urban Knights (a Chicago based contemporary jazz collective), a song with Ramsey Lewis called “A Part of Me.” His tech, David Hampton, told me that Maurice got together with Herbie Hancock and wrote something. He wrote with Brenda Russell. He even talked with Billy Joel about doing a project together.

Maurice was a mother behind the drums. But once Freddie came into the band, man…Freddie took that band to another level. He had such a big foot. Maurice was just in a different head space. He wasn’t as interested in playing drums.

Galloway: Did he even still have a drum set in his house?

Powell: No. he had a studio upstairs, an immaculate Fender Rhodes, a custom eight track board that he’d record demos on, and a vocal booth. Now, he had a drum set at The Complex. He’d sit behind it and play a little bit, but post-78, he was most interested in being a producer, a singer and a writer. So much of his childhood pride was wrapped up in being a great musician who’d been acknowledged by (record executive elite) Billy Davis, Clive Davis, the Chess Brothers, and Mo Ostin. Plus, recording techniques were changing. He’d played drums for over 20 years and was into other things. All I can tell you is he did write a lot of songs in that period…a lot.
Another thing is that when he broke up that band, he was whipped. He even got a case of hives. He went to Switzerland to get it checked out. He was so high strung. For all of his ability to be isolated and to chill, he needed a real break. The road thing was funny for him, too, especially financially and energetically. Remember, he was 10 years older than everybody else. And his motto was, “Never let them see you sweat.” He always wanted to be decisive and in control. Keeping up those appearances has its own weight.

That’s why I was so happy that towards the end of the book and his life, it was so therapeutic for him to let some of this stuff out…the mistakes he made as well as everything he was proud about.

Galloway: Let’s move into family. What kind of input and, if any, pressures were on Maurice as family realized he was writing his memoirs? What were family’s concerns and how much did they pry at you as the co-writer to figure out what was going on with this book? There had been so many secrets.

Powell: I got miniscule much push back on that. Maurice was very clear about what kind of book he wanted to write. We could have gone deeper into some of the other women or sexual escapades…but he wasn’t interested in that and rightfully so. He may have sold a few more books but not that many.

This is the irony: for all of Maurice’s privacy, he was a family guy. Two of his brothers were in the band. Two of his siblings worked with him (Monte and Geri).  He lived with his sisters Pat and Karen for over 25 years until Karen got married then Pat left. However, he was his own man. And he loved his freedom.
Galloway: What about his children?

Powell: In the book, he expresses his regrets about his children. I give him a lot of credit for owning that. What he wanted to say about that is in the pages in terms of his disappointments. He was a great provider, which he considered as the first rule of fatherhood. Plus, the fact that he dedicated his book to his children says a lot. He wanted them to know his story.
Galloway: Did you interview members of Earth Wind & Fire for background?

Powell: Yes. I interviewed Verdine, Larry, Andrew and Freddie. Al wasn’t ready to talk but I got some stuff from him out of old interview tape I found where I used to work at Westwood One (radio network). Bands are funny organisms…all the different personalities and agendas. In a band like EWF where Maurice was clearly the figurehead, some guys didn’t feel they got all the credit they deserved.


Galloway: Did Maurice ever admit to you that THAT band in the peak era with Larry, Freddie, Al. Johnny, Philip, Andrew and the Phenix Horns (That’s The Way of The World to Faces) was The One…assessing what each of those individuals brought to the sound, the look and the vibration of the band? Or did he feel like any member was replaceable?

Powell: I think he knew. There was a point when he was getting some pressure to fire someone from the band…someone that was not a family member…and he didn’t do it. So it would take a lot for him to let someone go. There were guys in the band that didn’t write songs or whose songs never made it onto the album.  Sometimes they felt discouraged. I don’t blame them.

Man, from 1976 to 2005, Maurice was getting a box of songs on tapes a week – from all over the world. That’s how many people wanted Maurice to give them a look. And to his credit, he listened to every one of them. That’s why he called me in 1990 to sift through them. He said he couldn’t do it anymore.

To his credit, Maurice never looked at resume. He looked at talent. The people that he brought in for songwriting, arranging, producing, were usually not heavy hitters. David Foster wasn’t David Foster when he brought him in. George Massenburg wasn’t George Massenburg when he hired him for engineering. There were so many people that he brought in, including me.

I’d never written a book. My pitch was, “Give me 8 months and I’ll write half the book. You don’t like it, we’ll call it quits.” He loved it. He went through and highlighted stuff he thought was really good, put some question marks next to other things. So I knew what to push forward with and what to kill off. To his credit, he helped a lot of people.

Galloway: As a first time author, you got a voice on Maurice that reads as authentic and made this book a riveting read. Beyond the fact checking, the stories and the timeline, you captured his voice. How did you do that?

Powell: I knew him. I could mock him pretty easily. We use to laugh about that a lot! I’ve also been in a men’s group for 15 years – the most transformative thing of my life: guys getting together once a week to talk about life and our spirituality. As the son of a preacher, I was told you tell your secrets to two people only: Jesus and a dead man! (laughter)

But my men’s group taught me the value of sharing with other men. How it’s a release valve, and so spiritually and psychologically transforming. Maurice and I agreed on several things. One was that religion/spirituality/psychology – at their highest forms – are one and the same. In that agreement, I was able to talk to him in a way that other people didn’t. I had the chance to challenge him and he couldn’t shy away because I was sitting right across from him. I told Maurice, “Man, you’ve been giving the same interview for 20 years. I can look at an interview with you from 1973 to 93, it’s the same talk.” He had his game down pat all those years, but he and I were something different. It was down home. It was warm. As time went on, I’d go by his house and he’d joke, “Oh, the Rabbi’s here! The good deacon is in the house!” It was very southern and became a running repartee between us which helped a lot.

I can’t tell you how many people I interviewed that were his closest people that told me, “I never knew this or that about him.” When Verdine read the first draft, he said, “Man…he really opened up to you, didn’t he?” He was a patchwork…this kind of person to this one and another kind of person to that one.

So the voice was simply me having the blessing to talk to him in a way that other people hadn’t talked to him, and to get to some of his key motivational issues. His yellow skin is the reason you get the EWF universality. That skin color thing in Memphis in his childhood really fucked with him. Getting his ass kicked almost every day. When I read that back to him, he said, “Man…you got to me.”

During the writing process, I read the book to him probably 20 times.

Galloway: Wait, you READ his own book back to him?

Powell: Oh, yeah…because it was easier for him that way. I’d bring my laptop, I out the big TV screen in front of him. So he’s reading the page with his pad and pencil. I’d be like, “Whatchu writin’? Might as well tell me so I can change it right now!” (laughs) First I gave him the big binder for which turning the pages was challenging for him on certain days. So I just brought the laptop and read aloud to him as he read along with me on the computer screen.

He trusted me. I consider it one of the most significant blessings of my lifetime. I’m still trying to calculate what that means to me, Scott. I have a picture of me at 12 years old with my brothers playing bass in our band Eye-95 and a mural of Earth Wind & Fire behind us. To go from that in Petersburg, Virginia to this day, God is saying something.

One reason I think I resonated with Reese is he told me more than once, “You never tried to hustle me.” I think that says a lot about what his life was like in the `80s, `90s and beyond.

Galloway: People coming at him in ways that he was seeing right through?

Powell: Yeah, and he had trust issues. He wasn’t as bad as Prince. I was telling my brother just the other day that one of the saddest things of my life is that Prince doesn’t get to read this book on Maurice.

Galloway: You do not have a traditional author’s background. How did you prepare to write this book?

Powell: I have a degree in radio, TV Film at Cal State Los Angeles. My mother was an English professor on a university level. I don’t have training as a writer but you work it out as you go. For me it was like jazz. David Ritz told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll discover things as you go along.

I was also helped tremendously that EWF’s longtime production manager Frank Scheidbach shared his datebooks with me. I had very specific dates of where they were and what they were doing. That helped in terms of being accurate and due diligence pertaining to dates.

There are biographies that I liked along the way; “Timebends: A Life Arthur Miller,” “Personal History” by Katherine Graham (about her husband, Phil Graham), “Miles” by Quincy Troupe (about Miles Davis).

In terms of getting the information, it was important to start writing. I waited six months after I started interviewing people before I started writing.  I knew it was going to be a challenge because I knew Maurice was going to be a tough nut to crack. It wasn’t until a year after we were into it that he really started to loosen the gears – actually began to look forward to me coming over. That’s when it became smooth sailing.

The stuff with the children was hard for him to admit. The stuff with the wives was hard, too. He didn’t want to expose that. Maurice had a business partner, Leonard Smith, who insulated him in the heyday. When Maurice became famous and realized he didn’t have to do all the political social things, that’s when people say he took the mystery thing too far. I mean, Maurice was invited to every Oscars, Grammys and all the after parties – he didn’t go anywhere, man!

Galloway: All the better for Verdine – gotta love him – who wanted to go everywhere! (laughter) Verdine came up on Maurice’s shunning of the spotlight. But that is where I opened my glowing critique of your book. It’s the Maurice Mystique that makes us want to learn so much more about him. We didn’t see him out at night with the celebrity dime piece on his arm. He truly appeared to be about all of the higher consciousness things he wrote and sang about.

Powell: What was great for me is that he was so encouraging about what he liked. He’d read a piece and say, “That right there is gold.” I’d say to myself, “You like that? I’m about to give you that times a hundred.” He was my client but there was a part of me that just wanted to make him happy. Because, again – he came to me. If I had asked to write his book, I never would have gotten it in a mullion years.

Galloway: How did you come to start each chapter with a line from a song?
Powell: Because Maurice believed in the inward journey, much of the music was written from a philosophical standpoint. When you looked back over his life, a lot of his lyrics applied to his journey. Songs like “Take it to the Sky,” that was his life. If the book sounds like a justification of his life, it is. Because he gave Earth Wind & Fire everything. Every recording session, mix session.  I don’t believe the band even knew how much he put into it…and they were there.

Galloway: In my review, I admitted one mystery you didn’t solve for me was the origin of all those wonderful short interludes on Earth, Wind & Fire LPs. What light can you shed on those for a brother?

Powell: I do believe, as you have said, that Charles Stepney was influential with that (dating back to interludes on Rotary Connection albums). I also believe Maurice looked at these interludes as an opportunity to do things that he wanted to do. For instance, in the book, Maurice shared that he was really into (jazz and classical pianist) Keith Jarrett. Maurice also wanted to do an album of all trombones. And that interlude at the end of That’s the Way of The World with all the African chanting, that was stuff he wanted to explore further but couldn’t.

Andrew Woolfolk told me that when EWF sounded its absolute best is when Maurice would sit behind the drums and play with them during sound check. The public never got a chance to see that. It was Maurice unrestrained, playing full out onstage. That’s a reflection of that whole thing where Maurice likened himself to the weather in Chicago: THUNDEROUS.

Galloway: What are you looking to do next?

Powell: I wanted my next book to be Prince… Someone else I’m interested in is Thom Bell. He’s just so colorful and never got his due. That beautiful music he created on the Delfonics, the Stylistics and the Spinners alone is music that is the very fabric of White Pop/Adult Contemporary radio…the DNA of it, spun every day to this day. These are the songs that made Black people stand taller because it was so elegant. There haven’t been records like that before or since.

One of my biggest problems with the media is the way it makes a fetish out of Black people, Black music and Black entertainment should be criminal. After all we have contributed to American entertainment… They relegate Black music to “funk” because that’s in line with their caricature of Black music. They want to keep Black music grimy, sweaty…

I challenge white artists to stand up and be counted for their African American roots. What’s always going on with Black people is not getting our due across the strata of American life. And I’m not optimistic… Now since Hip Hop has muddied the waters in terms of “Black authenticity”: 2Pac is “blacker” than Seal. Biggie is blacker than Maurice White because he’s “truer to The Game.” Maurice says it in the book. He’s from the projects of Memphis, Tennessee but that doesn’t make his journey more authentic than Bill Parsons who’s from the suburbs.

herb powell & a scott galloway
Author Herb Powell with A. Scott Galloway in Kenneth Hahn Park in Los Angeles, September 21, 2016

Galloway: What does it feel like to have been the now late yet ever wonderful Maurice White’s friend and confidante?

Powell: Me being in Maurice’s life is like the story of Esther in the Bible where it says, “You’ve been brought to the kingdom for a time such as this.” Those last years of Maurice’s life, I spent more time with him than just about anybody. They were therapeutic for him, which was my greatest reward. I felt like I was doing a solid for him and everybody that loved the music of Maurice White and Earth Wind & Fire. That’s something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

A. Scott Galloway

(A. Scott Galloway ([email protected]) is a music journalist since 1988 with backgrounds in radio, music retail and as a drummer. Among his 300+ credits as a writer of liner note essays for classic CD reissues is Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1981 album Raise! as reissued by Iconoclassic Records in 2011.)


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