2016’s Bad Month for Makers of the Music has spilled over into February.
Coming after the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey earlier in the month, and Paul Kantner’s passing late in the month, we find that we have lost two more musicians. Kantner’s former Jefferson Airplane bandmate Signe Toly Anderson Ettlin died the same day he did, Jan. 28, at age 74; the tape ran out for Earth Wind and Fire founder Maurice White, also 74, early in the new month, during the night of Feb. 3-4, Parkinson’s disease claiming his life.
Anderson’s death was overshadowed by that of Kantner, a founding Airplane member. I didn’t learn of it until several days after the fact, after I had already posted last weekend’s extra edition of CGIOMH.
Signe Toly at the time, and previously a jazz and folk singer in her hometown of Portland, Ore., she didn’t join the Airplane until after Marty Balin, Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen had formed the group. She didn’t stay with the band long, quitting after becoming pregnant by the man she married after signing on with the Airplane.
Anderson’s husband then was Jerry Anderson, a member of Ken Kesey’s counter-culture troupe, the Merry Pranksters — like the Airplane, a fixture of the early San Francisco psychedelic scene. She was concerned about taking her newborn child on the road with the Airplane (although on the road with the Pranksters wasn’t an infant-friendly environment, either).
Anderson was replaced by Grace Slick — who it turns out, was not the band’s first choice as their new female vocalist. I think the Airplane sounded better with Slick taking the lead, than Anderson, who had a strong voice but sounded stiffer; that may have had more to do with the band’s development from its first album — the only studio LP on which Anderson performs — and its later efforts.
After bailing on the Airplane, Anderson returned to her native Oregon, but continued performing with a regional band, during her marriage to Anderson and subsequent remarriage. She had a series of health problems, including a battle with cancer, and died as the result of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
EW&F, formed in 1969, isn’t exactly in this blog’s wheelhouse. But I always liked their music, what I heard of it, and one appearance on some 1970s TV show convinced me that they were a dynamic live act. The current iteration of the band is playing in Milwaukee late next month, sharing the bill with Chicago — definitely a night of horns — and I had entertained thoughts of going.
White seems destined for a musical career from early on, being born in Memphis, Tenn.; he and a childhood friend, Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the M.G.’s) had a band in high school. He moved to Chicago in his teens, where he studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music.
White graduated from drumming in Windy City nightclubs to being a session drummer with Chess Records, the legendary blues and R&B label, backing the likes of Etta James, Ramsay Lewis (whose Trio he later joined) and Muddy Waters. In 1969, he and two friends formed the Salty Peppers, which had one minor regional hit.
After a move to Los Angeles and the name change to Earth Wind and Fire, White added a horn section and the distinctive sound of the African thumb piano, the kalimba. The band started to have some critical and commercial success, but broke up in 1971; White reformed it with a different lineup, including his brother Verdine.
With Maurice White as bandleader, co-lead vocalist and producer, EW&F had 30-plus charting singles, including a No. 1, “Shining Star,” in 1975. The different variants of the group recorded 21 studio albums, including the top-charting “That’s the Way of the World” (also in ’75).
White produced records for other performers, including the Emotions and former Stevie Wonder backup singer Deniece Williams. He also worked with a number of other acts, including Neil Diamond, Minnie Riperton (also a Chess Records alumnus), Barbara Streisand and Weather Report, put out one solo album and wrote music for television and movies.
But he began exhibiting Parkinson’s symptoms in 1987, at the age of 46. The disease forced his retirement from EW&F seven years later, although he maintained executive control of the band, made occasional appearances with it, and otherwise remained active in the music business.
EW&F perhaps wasn’t strictly Baby Boomer Music, but it was good, innovative R&B-influenced pop. White was nominated for four Grammy Awards as an individual performer, and his band won a Grammy in 1978 (for “Got to Get You into My Life”). A pretty impressive body of work.