Maurice White, founder of the influential band Earth, Wind and Fire, died in Los Angeles early Thursday morning, the band's publicist has confirmed. He was 74 and had long suffered from Parkinson's disease.
A Memphis native, White's music career began in Chicago in the late 1950s when he was still in his teens. He found work as a studio drummer for the legendary Chess Records, playing on records by such artists as Etta James, The Impressions and Buddy Guy, before joining jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis' trio in 1966. With Lewis, he would win a Grammy in 1966 and play on such influential jazz/pop crossover albums as Wade in the Water and Dancing in the Street.
In 1969, White formed a songwriting trio with two friends, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, called The Salty Peppers. After scoring a minor hit called "La La La," the group relocated to Los Angeles, where they were joined by White's brother Verdine and renamed themselves Earth, Wind and Fire.
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Led by White and fellow percussionist/vocalist Philip Bailey, Earth, Wind and Fire would go on to become one of the most popular groups of the 1970s, with a smooth, soulful sound that, over the years, fused elements of jazz, funk, R&B, pop and disco into a distinctive blend. Among their many hits were "Shining Star," "Sing a Song," "Serpentine Fire" and perhaps their most indelible classic, "September," one of the biggest singles of the disco era.
Earth, Wind and Fire won six Grammys and sold an estimated 100 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. After being diagnosed with Parkinson's in the early 1990s, White stopped touring with the group, but continued to record with them and join them for occasional one-off performances and public appearances.
White's brother Verdine, the group's bassist, released a short statement via Earth, Wind and Fire's Facebook page, saying, "My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep. While the world has lost another great musician and legend, our family asks that our privacy is respected as we start what will be a very difficult and life changing transition in our lives. Thank you for your prayers and well wishes."