One of my favorite songs of the 1970s is the enchanting and soulful “That’s the Way of the World” by Earth, Wind & Fire. The song was the title track from their magnificent sixth studio album That’s the Way of the World, released in March 1975. I loved the entire album, and had it on repeat that summer when I also experienced my first significant love affair.
Named for band founder and front man Maurice White’s astrological sign of Sagittarius (which has a primary elemental quality of fire and seasonal qualities of earth and air), Earth, Wind & Fire was formed in Chicago in 1969. White had formerly been a session drummer for Chess Records, as well as a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. He eventually moved the band to Los Angeles, where it grew to include as many as nine members.
Their extensive lineup underwent numerous changes over the years, but some of the notable members have included Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, Larry Dunn, Al McKay, Roland Bautista, Robert Brookins, Sonny Emory, Fred Ravel, Ronnie Laws, Sheldon Reynolds and Andrew Woolfolk. They’re known for their exotic kalimba sound (characterized by the Mbira, a family of traditional musical instruments of the Shona people of Zimbabwe), exuberant horn section, elaborate stage shows, and the dynamic contrast between Philip Bailey’s falsetto and Maurice White’s baritone vocals.
Their first five albums each met with successively greater success, and two of the singles, “Mighty Mighty” and “Devotion”, from their fifth album Open Our Eyes cracked the Billboard Top 40. But it was “Shining Star”, the lead single from That’s the Way of the World, that would be their breakout hit, going all the way to #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Soul Singles charts. The song also won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, but I digress…
“That’s the Way of the World” was the second track from the album to be released as a single, in June 1975. It reached #5 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart, but only #12 on the Hot 100, which I always thought was a travesty, as the song is so phenomenal. I used to compile my own Weekly Top 10 back then, and it was a #1 hit as far as I was concerned. To this day, it remains my favorite of Earth, Wind & Fire’s many great songs.
It’s a beautiful and uplifting song of love, hope and optimism, but with a darker undercurrent touching on how racism and intolerance can corrupt an innocent child. The serene R&B melody is sublime, and I love the jazzy horns, lovely keyboards and funky guitars. And, as always, the dual vocal harmonies of Maurice White and Philip Bailey are fabulous.
Hearts of fire creates love desire Take you high and higher to the world you belong Hearts of fire creates love desire High and higher to your place on the throne We've come together on this special day To sing our message loud and clear Looking back we've touched on sorrowful days Future, past, they disappear You will find (you will find) peace of mind (yeah yeah) If you look way down in your heart and soul I don't hesitate 'cause the world seems cold Stay young at heart 'cause you're never old at heart That's the way of the world Plant your flower and you grow a pearl Child is born with a heart of gold The way of the world makes his heart so cold
On their 2004 version of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Rolling Stone ranked “That’s the Way of the World” at #329, however, the song was dropped altogether on their revised list that just came out on the 15th of this month (a list with which I have many issues). Surprisingly, the inferior (to me) and grossly overplayed “September” ranks at #65 on the more recent list. But it’s their most popular and most-streamed song by far, so what do I know?
One thing I learned in researching for this write-up is that the album That’s the Way of the World was initially written as a soundtrack for a film of the same name that was produced and directed by Sig Shore, who also produced the 1972 film Super Fly. The film starred Harvey Keitel, Ed Nelson, and Earth, Wind & Fire as “The Group”. Keitel played a record producer who hears The Group performing and is impressed by their act. The band was convinced the film would be a flop (which it was), and decided to release the soundtrack prior to the film’s premier. It turned out to be a smart move, as while the film bombed, the album became a huge hit.