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'A Higher Force' Is the Tenth Member of Maurice White's Ascetic Earth, Wind & Fire

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A gong sounds. The stage fills with smoke and flashing strobes. Three massive pyramids descend from the heavens, releasing nine spotlit figures draped in glittering red capes. “Stand!” intones a voice over the chorus of rising cheers. “Stand and prepare to greet the elements of the universe. Presenting…Earth, Wind & Fire.”

It may all seem a little hokey to oldsters, but EW&F has caused a frightening drain on the Gross National Allowance. Their current 80-stop tour has outgrossed the Eagles and even Elton John in some halls. They have had three straight gold singles (Getaway was the latest); and Spirit, the LP they had the audacity to release the same week as Stevie Wonder’s new epic, became their fourth in a row to go platinum (double gold). That sort of business makes EW&F the hottest soul band in charted time and means that its appeal is “crossing over” to the point that whites now comprise 50 percent of its houses. “This band has a very positive effect on people,” explains Maurice White, 31, the group’s leader, vocalist, songwriter and percussionist. “It’s weird, man, but I feel we were elected to this by a higher force.”

That isn’t the jive it sounds. For all the funk and flamboyance of their act, EW&F is the most ascetic group abroad in the land this side of the Osmonds. White proscribes smoking (including cigarettes), drinking and most meat (there’s some backsliding into Southern fried chicken). “I don’t like to overindulge in anything—even sex,” says guru White. The sublimation doesn’t affect their music, which has dominated the r&b awards at this year’s Grammy and Rocky ceremonies. Actually, it’s more rhythm than blues, with a jazz core and creeping disco commercialism (as in Maurice’s signature cut, Shining Star).

White was weaned on the Memphis sounds of Booker T, Isaac Hayes and the Baptist Holiness Church. The eldest of nine, Maurice was expected, like his dad, to become a doctor but instead attended the Chicago Conservatory. With one semester to go, he dropped out to become a studio drummer for Ramsey Lewis, among others.

It was on a world tour with Lewis that White was turned on to Buddhism by “an old master in Japan.” He returned to L.A., founded EW&F in 1970 and has run it like a Zen roshi. Before each concert the members do 20 minutes of meditation in a prayer circle. “We’re not a democracy,” Maurice admits, “but I don’t dominate the guys. They have their own freedom as long as it doesn’t interfere with the group.”

Home for White is a four-level condo in Beverly Hills, where he lives alone. “Maybe marriage can work if you have a certain kind of lady who can understand this profession,” he says doubtfully. He plays a little “not very good” tennis and rides horses around Carmel, where he also owns property. But taking care of business is his obsession right now. “There’s never been a black group as big as the Rolling Stones,” he says. “And we want to go until we reach that.”