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With Earth, Wind & Fire on hiatus in the '80s, Maurice White turned to solo and production work

Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White died Feb. 3, 2016, at the age of 74. The following is from a 1986 interview with The Times' Dennis Hunt.

When Earth, Wind & Fire singer Philip Bailey was making the national media rounds promoting his first solo album and his No. 1 single, "Easy Lover," he got fed up with talking about EWF.

His album came out at the end of 1984. Earlier that year, EWF had completed a tour that, according to rumors, was its last. Was the group, one of Columbia Records' biggest money makers since the mid-'70s, finished? Was it on hiatus? Was leader/singer/percussionist Maurice White really as unpopular with the band members as rumors indicated?

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Though he never rapped his leader, Bailey did hint that White, in a working situation, was a hard-nosed, no-nonsense boss. Regarding the main question--the future of EWF--Bailey, exasperated, would reply: "I don't know. Go ask Maurice. If anybody knows, he does."

But White preferred to do his talking--about EWF or anything else--after the release of his first solo album, "Maurice White," which came out last fall.

One afternoon, at his home in Bel-Air, White--as usual affable but somewhat reserved--set the record straight about EWF.

"The band is on hiatus," he said. "We had worked together for over 12 years. It's just time to do things on our own. I don't want to be forced to do an album because of a contractual obligation. We'll probably do something together again but I don't know when, maybe the end of this year, maybe next year. Who knows?"

While making the last EWF album, White decided he needed a break from the band. He wasn't at all satisfied with "Powerlight," released at the end of 1983.

"I knew while I was making it that it was time for me to do something else," he said. "The creative juices weren't flowing freely. Plus I had to get the album finished quickly because we had to do a tour. At the end, it was really rushed. The whole experience wasn't right. I knew I had to get away from the band. So I changed my focus. My main goal now is to achieve certain individual status for myself."

So far, he hasn't accomplished that goal. Commercially, "Maurice White" has been a disappointment. The album has done well on the black charts but has never really crossed over to the pop market. Though loaded with pop hit potential, both singles, "Stand by Me" and "I Need You," were pop fizzles. White obviously isn't too happy with the promotional effort by Columbia Records but tactfully refused to bad-mouth the company.

These days, White is more active as a producer. He just finished working with Neil Diamond, producing four songs, one a White composition.

This project has raised some eyebrows. What's a hip R&B/rocker doing working with Mr. Middle-of-the-Road?

"I've known Neil for years," White said. "I had some time off and he wanted somebody to work on his album. He usually does his own producing. He had finished four or five songs and wanted another sound to go with what he already had.

"He wanted me to bring in songs with some energy, songs with a certain impact. Neil does a certain kind of music. He does it very well. He doesn't need me to do that kind of middle-of-the-road music. He brought me in to give him something different. It's not R&B. I'm not going to turn Neil into James Brown. There's a little R&B feel on the songs I did with him, as much as he can handle and not sound like a fish out of water."

White gets offers all the time for his services as producer. He usually declines. What prompts him to say yes?

"If I feel I can write a song for the artist," he replied. "It all starts with the song. Without it, there's nothing. If the artist already has the songs, I may do it--if I like the songs."

As a producer, his most heralded project was producing three songs--one his composition--for Barbra Streisand's 1984 album "Emotion." Though the album was panned, White's songs were generally singled out for praise. The consensus was that if White had produced the whole album, it would have turned out much better.

White was only partly satisfied with the effort: "We could have done much better if we had more time. I was called in at the end of the project. I had to find the songs, too."

Two things about the project still disturb him. First, none of his songs were released as singles. "I still can't believe that," he said. "They could have been hits. I know it. I talked to Columbia about it but they didn't have the final say on the selection of singles. The whole thing was very frustrating."

For him, problem No. 2 with the Streisand project was even worse: "I read Barbra's book and found out that she had gone back into the studio and remixed (reedited) my songs. This was after I thought they were completely finished. They snuck back and did it and didn't tell me. I wasn't happy with that at all. Obviously she didn't like the way she sounded. That I can understand. But if you change my work at least have the courtesy to let me know. Finding it out months later in a book isn't the nicest way to find out."

But that experience hasn't soured him on working with Streisand. "I'd probably work with her again," he said. "But only if I produced the whole album and I had time to prepare properly."

Lately, White has been in the studio producing the jazz-oriented group Pieces of a Dream. He couldn't think of any pop or rock artists he's anxious to produce but did express an interest in working with Keith Jarrett, the jazz pianist with the wildly unorthodox style.

"It would be a challenge," White explained. Considering that both are strong-willed men who don't like to be told what to do, there might be a cataclysmic personality clash.

Smiling, White observed: "Yes, sparks would fly."

White is 44 years old. Being reminded of his age somewhat irked him. "I don't mind being my age," he said. "But age can be a problem in this business. It can limit you. People think because you're over a certain age, you can only do this or that. That's not necessarily true. . . . Look at all I've done."

White, a Memphis native, was a drummer in Ramsey Lewis' mainstream jazz trio in the '60s before turning to R&B/rock with Earth, Wind & Fire, which began recording in 1971. His producing projects also reflect versatility. In addition to producing Streisand, Diamond and Pieces of a Dream, he has produced pop-soul singers Deniece Williams and Jennifer Holliday.

"I can produce jazz, pop, rock, R&B, you name it," he noted proudly. "Or I can go back to work with Earth, Wind & Fire and play to audiences of thousands and thousands of kids at a time. How many old men can do that?"

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