The 2016 death parade claimed two more victims last week: Maurice White and Dan Hicks. The former was widely successful and amassed an incredibly impressive resume. The latter was a lifetime musician who never quite hit the big time but got really close once. White has over a thousand credits as a composer, singer and producer. Hicks recorded about a dozen and a half albums, none of which I am familiar with. I doubt you have heard of Dan Hicks’ band—the Hot Licks, but I am pretty certain that you have heard of Maurice White’s band—Earth Wind and Fire.
Dan Hicks was originally from Arkansas but ended up in the San Francisco area where he would eventually assemble the musicians who would become the Hot Licks. In 1973 Hicks released his fourth album, Last Train to Hicksville, which garnered some positive attention and landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. What did ol’ Dan do to parlay this opportunity into stardom? He summarily dismissed the Hot Licks and slipped back into the obscurity from whence he came. (Dan brought the Hot Licks back together a few years later, but by then the window of opportunity had closed.) I’m not exactly sure what to call Dan Hicks’ style of music, but I do know that this performance on Conan O’Brien’s show is fun to watch, especially the mid-song dancing interlude.
During the Nineteen-eighties, Prince and Michael Jackson firmly established the Middle Ground between predominantly black R&B and predominately white pop/rock. Prince and Jackson commanded that territory for years but they were not the first to tread that ground. A decade earlier seeds were being planted in the Middle Ground by bands such as the Commodores, Ohio Players, Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth Wind and Fire.
Middle class white folks, even those of us in the Deep South, didn’t give a flip that these musicians were black. We loved this music, we bought the albums, we walked through the halls of our middle schools and high schools singing these songs, and we loved these artists not in spite of their being black, but partly because they were black. The ethnicity factor was part of the appeal. This music filled places inside of us that Boston and Fleetwood Mac couldn’t even touch.
Those who stayed up late to watch The Midnight Special on April 18, 1975 were in for a treat. The guest hosts that night were Earth Wind and Fire. As Maurice White and his bandmates put on an amazing performance, a scene played out in living rooms all over the country as people spontaneously jumped up to dance. Male or female, black or white, young or old, it didn’t matter. If you couldn’t dance to “Shining Star” there was something fundamentally wrong with you.
The ratio of blacks to whites in the Montgomery, Alabama high school I attended was roughly 50-50. Montgomery was widely known as a hotbed of racial enmity. At the time, the injustices of discrimination were still in the fairly recent past. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but we all got along–in the classroom, in the gym, in the cafeteria, on the practice fields, at the ball games–we came from different neighborhoods but we coexisted peacefully.
The same probably could be said of many racially mixed American high schools at the time. But beneath this surface of congeniality lurked embers of bitterness and contempt that smoldered and broiled in toxicity. The toxins occasionally would seep out in small portions, but much of it remained hidden for years, then erupted violently in places like Baltimore. Oakland. Ferguson. These places do not delineate good or bad, right or wrong—there are no “sides” to choose—there is just one immense and tragic loss of harmony.
Whether or not they were conscious of this, Maurice White and his musical contemporaries were fostering a form of clandestine diplomacy. I was one of many who naively believed that music was part of the answer to healing wounds and preventing disaster. Unfortunately, our country is eaten up with a cancer that music’s harmony of diversity has not cured. Some of us still naively believe that music does indeed possess such healing powers.
But I digress. Watch the videos. Keep dancing. And keep believing.