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Earth, Wind & Fire Members Who Died Too Soon

Earth, Wind, & Fire has won six Grammys and sold over 90 million albums. Their success began with their 1975 album That’s the Way of the World. They were even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Their goal was always to use their music to inspire others, but they had plenty of their own issues to overcome. Their founding member had an illness that forced them to go on hiatus for years. There were times when tragedy forced them to change members.

Keep watching to learn about the many Earth, Wind & Fire members who died too soon.

Maurice White

Maurice White was born in Memphis on December 19, 1941. He was the grandson of a New Orleans piano player and showed musical talent early.

He began working early and studied at the Chicago Conservancy and was hired by a session drummer for Chess Records. That let him play with a variety of famous artists, including Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, and Muddy Waters.

He founded THe Salty Peppers in Chicago in the 1960s. They were modestly successful but he decided to relocate to Los Angeles. The only band member he brought along was Verdine, and he renamed the band Earth, Wind, & Fire after the elements in his astrological chart.

Their early sound was a fusion of jazz, funk, gospel, and Big Band. Their first top-five R&B single came in 1974 with Mighty Mighty. They got a crossover hit the next year with Shining Star. 

They also held flashy concerts with glitter costumes, fancy dancing, fog machines, bright lights, and even magic tricks. They even performed at the Super Bowl and the White House.

Maurice also created successful songs for other artists such as Barbara Streisand and Cher. He co-wrote and co-produced The Emotions’ #1 hit Best of My Love. He also had a hit with a cover of Stand By Me from his self-titled solo album.

He began showing symptoms of Parkinson’s in 1980 and had to stop touring. He revealed his condition when Earth, Wind, and Fire were inducted into the Hall of Fame. He told the Associated Press that year that the purpose of the band’s music was to inspire as well as entertain and that he was grateful for how many people they’d reached.

Maurice White died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 74 on February 4, 2016. His brother and co-founder Verdine White asked for fans to respect his privacy.

Wade Flemmons

Wade Flemmons was born on September 25, 1940. His father Samuel introduced him to gospel music, but he moved to Michigan with his mother when his parents divorced in 1955. He began recording music in 1958.

When he was 17, he recorded Here I Stand at the age of 1958 with his band The New Comers. It reached #80 on the hot 100, and he signed with Vee-Jay Records in Chicago. He also appeared on American Bandstand and the Alan Freed Show.

It took time before he had another hit. He did session work at Chicago recording studios and wrote commercial jingles. One of his partners was Maurice White. They played together in a band called the Salty Peppers in 1969 before he became part of Eart,h Wind, & Fire from 1971-1972.

Wade was a prolific songwriter and wrote over 200 songs in his lifetime. A few of them that he created while he was away from the group are still popular in the UK. They include The Other Place and Jeanette, both of which were recorded in 1968.

Wade got married in 1980 to Brenda. They had a daughter and three sons. One of them, Brian, also became a musician.

Wade Flemmons died of cancer at the age of 53 on October 13, 1993. He was buried as a veteran of the Vietnam War in the Fort Custer National Cemetery in Augusta, Michigan.

Roland Bautista

Roland Bautista was born in Los Angeles on May 30, 1951. He discovered music and fell in love with the guitar at an early age. He played for The Velvet Illusions as a teenager until they broke up in 1967.

Roland joined Earth, Wind & Fire in 1972. His first major project with them was the album Last Days and Time that year. He left when it was released and put out two solo albums, Bautista in 1977 and The Heat of the Wind in 1978.

He returned to Earth, Wind, & Fire in 1981 after the death of Al McKay and worked on albums such as Raise! Powerlight and Electric Universe. The band went on hiatus in 1983 and got back together four years later.

Roland took that time to work with other groups such as The Crusaders and The Jacksons. He enjoyed mentoring up-and-coming musicians such as Welton Gitre, William DuVall, and Brandon Williams. He also worked with disadvantaged children and played golf in his free time.

Roland Bautista died of natural causes at the age of 60 on February 29, 2012. Many of his hits are still popular today. His work with The Velvet Illusions was released in a compilation in 2019. His net worth at the time of his death was estimated at around $2 million.

Jessica Cleaves

Jessica Cleaves was born on December 10, 1948. She was the female lead singer for The Friends of Distinction. Their vocal version of the 1968 hit Grazing in the Grass stayed at the top of pop and soul charts for over 4 months.

The Friends played around clubs in LA until NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown decided they had potential and became their manager. He got them an audition and recording contract with RCA records.

The band continued to make hits, including I Really Hope You DO, but Jessica was getting bored. She left in 1972 to join Earth, Wind, & Fire as their backup singer.

She eventually left them as well, singing for Funkmaster George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. After that, the public rarely saw her again.

Jessica Cleaves died at the age of 65 on May 2, 2014. Little was revealed about her death, but a memorial website included posts from friends and coworkers such as George Clinton. Her godson, Armand Araujo, is even reportedly working on a film about her life called Jessica Cleaves: My Friends of Distinction.

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Andrew Woolfolk

Andrew Woolfolk was born on October 11, 1950, in Texas but raised in Colorado. He met Earth, Wind, & Fire singer Phillip Bailey there who asked him to join the band. He’d been studying music with saxophonist Joe Henderson and considering a career in banking but accepted the offer.

He first worked on the record Heat of the Sky in 1973, and it was the band’s first one to go platinum. That led to a string of successes, and Rolling Stone praised Andrew’s “fluent soprano sax” on the 1975 album That’s the Way of the World. It became their first #1 album on the Billboard 200 and became triple platinum.

The success kept coming through the 70s but dipped in the 80s. Andrew worked with other artists during their hiatus. He worked with Deniece Williams and Valerie Carter. He also appeared on Phillip Bailye’s gospel albums, including The Wonders of His in 1984 and Triumph in 1986 which won him a Grammy for Best Male Gospel Performance.

Andrew came back when Earth, Wind, & Fire reunited until officially leaving in 1993. He worked with Phil Collins several times after that. He appeared on his 1996 album Dance into the Light, went on tour with him, and appeared on a live recording with him at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Andrew Woolfolk died at the age of 71 on April 24, 2022. Philip confirmed he’d been battling the effects of a stroke for years.

Fred White

Fred White was born in Chicago in 1955. His entire family were musicians, including Verdine and Maurice White. He was a child prodigy on the drums and found success with acts such as Donny Hathaway.

He co-founded Earth, Wind, and Fire in 1970 and was joined by his brothers within a few years. He appeared on all four of the band’s consecutive top 10 records. His natural rhythm helped make songs such as September a No #8 hit at release with 1.2 million streams on Spotify today. He also played with other groups. 

Fred White died at the age of 67. No official cause of death was released. Verdine expressed his sadness over losing a brother who was not only talented but “could always make a seemingly bad situation more light-hearted.”

Robert Brookins

Robert Brookins was born on October 7, 1962. He was raised in California and immediately took to music, singing at the age of four, drumming at five, and playing the keyboard at nine. He started his own band at 11 called Little Robert & the Fondles. They won Mowtown’s 1974 Soul Search Contest.

Robert later formed a band with his brother Micahel called Afterbach. They released a critically acclaimed album called Matinee in 1981. He then joined with Phillip Bailey on the 1983 album Continuation then Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson on the 1984 album The Two of Us.

He composed Deniece Williams’ 1984 album Let’s Hear it For the Boy and The Isley Brothers’ 1985 LP Masterpiece. He produced for several other artists, but one of the most successful was the LP IF I Were Your Woman. It had four top-20 R&B charting singles, including a #1 and a #10. It was certified gold in the US.

He finally collaborated with Earth, Wind, & Fire on their 1990 album Heritage. He became their keyboardist and music director and performed on their 2003 album The Promise.

He also continued to find success with other projects after leaving the band. He produced Wayman Tisdale’s 1996 Album in the Zone. The album’s title song reached #7 on the jazz charts, and the album reached #9.

Robert Brookins died of a heart attack on April 15, 2009. Andrew Hamilton said in an article for AllMusic that “the often overused term multi-talented” was fitting to describe him. An annual concert is held in Sacramento in his honor every year. The Sacramento City Council also renamed Nuevo Park in his honor in 2019.

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