Maurice White may be best known as the founder of Earth, Wind, and Fire. What some fans may not remember, however, is that he launched a solo career in the mid-eighties that produced three moderately successful singles. One such song, "I Need You," showcases his powerful voice and stands as an underrated soul ballad.
After Earth, Wind and Fire released their 1983 album Electric Universe, the group found themselves at a crossroads. They had experimented with the emerging synth-funk sound, and met with mixed critical and commercial results. While the single "Magnetic" received airplay, the album fell short of EWF's usual sales figures. Burned out, White decided that the group should take an extended hiatus; they would eventually reunite in 1987 with their comeback album Touch the World. Between those years, White signed a solo deal with Columbia and released his self-titled debut in 1985. While the album fared modestly well on the R&B charts, peaking at number 12, it stalled at number 61 on the Billboard Hot 200.
Similarly, the beautiful ballad "I Need You" barely cracked the Hot 100 and reached no higher than 30 on the R&B charts. Interestingly, the audience most receptive to the single turned out to be adult contemporary fans; White's cover of "Stand by Me" also received a warmer welcome in that demographic. Even though those two tracks as well as others on Maurice White smack of 80s over-reliance on synthesizers and electronic drums, they effectively spotlight White's impressive vocal range. Exhibit A remains "I Need You."
Penned by songwriter Mary Unobsky, "I Need You" sets a tender tone with melodic keyboards and minimal percussion. White then enters the picture, his restrained voice transitioning to falsetto for emotional effect. "You're the only woman that I've ever known / Who's got me losing control" he softly croons. Communicating the feeling of uncertainty and loss of control, he sings the next lines in a higher range: "Oh, I wish my heart could beat without you / But have I gone too far?" But the most dramatic moment occurs in the chorus, when White lets his voice soar. One can sense the passion as his voice rises in volume and force: "You think that I need all the love you're giving / And I need you / 'Cause living alone isn't really living at all." Here White provides a master class in singing with emotion, yet not overwhelming the listener with vocal acrobatics.
As if the chorus did not offer enough drama, the bridge further proves White's prowess as a vocalist. He sustains the note on the word "all" from the chorus, then lets his voice ascend to sing the first word of the middle section: "Who decides which one we love / Or when we're going to fall?" he ponders. He protests that "I don't need to hands to hold," but then the music drops to just the keyboards, with White softly singing "Two lips to whisper / I need you." Stripping away much of the music to create a melodramatic moment may be an old trick, but it works well not only to convey romance, but also to highlight the nuances of White's supple voice. As he delivers the final lines, he further amazes the listener by sustaining the note on the word "alone." Anyone who doubts White's ability to command a song without EWF is silenced with "I Need You."
Today White no longer performs due to his struggle with Parkinson's Disease. However, his work with EWF and his underrated solo material stand as testimonies to his talent as a vocalist, arranger, and songwriter. Experience his many gifts by listening to EWF albums, but do not overlook "I Need You" and his eponymous 1985 album for more appreciation.