In the spring of 1975, the expansive soul/funk/pop combo Earth, Wind & Fire hit the big time. For three weeks, starting May 17 of that year, their sixth album, That's the Way of the World, soared to the top of Billboard's album chart; in that time, the single "Shining Star" also reached the peak of the Billboard Hot 100.
At the time, the group had barely touched the Top 40 and only their last two albums had been modest sellers. What was the secret? The answer was two-fold: the year before, the band had brought their electric live act to the rock festival California Jam. Though they were one of the first acts on stage - Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were the headliners, and Black Sabbath and the Eagles - the crowd of nearly 200,000 paying fans were enthralled, as were people who later saw portions of the program on ABC's Rock Concert series.
That same year, EWF founder Maurice White recruited several of his bandmates to play on Sun Goddess, a jazz fusion album by pianist Ramsey Lewis. A departure for both Lewis and the band, the electric arrangements (featuring White, his brother Verdine on bass, singer Philip Bailey) featured tight horn arrangements, an idea Maurice would bring to the table for EWF's next project (including Sun Goddess saxophonist Don Myrick, who'd join the group's new Phenix Horns). It proved to be a stunning crossover, topping the soul and jazz charts and reaching the Top 15 of the pop survey.
Ultimately, That's the Way of the World, featuring the funky "Shining Star," downtempo grooves like "Reasons" and the title track and upbeat runs like "Happy Feelin'," transcended their intended context as well. EWF were conscripted to appear in a Super Fly-style film, also called That's the Way of the World. In it, they played an aspiring band managed by a hard-nosed exec played by Harvey Keitel. The group wisely predicted the film would stiff but sought to use the project to present their most ambitious music yet.
"That's the Way of the World would not be a soundtrack in the traditional sense," White later wrote in his memoir. "I made sure that the EW&F concept would be reflected in the score, which meant no departures from our established themes." That meant love, harmony and spirituality reflected in the songs, albeit with an expanded studio sound (horns and even strings), and the tightest musical formations they could wind into. "Everybody had to play with more discipline, restraint, and focus," Maurice wrote. "I didn't want to lose the band's vital, primal energy. My conviction only strengthened the cooperation between us."
The group achieved their goals and then some: That's the Way would be the band's first of two No. 1 albums released in 1975 (the second being the live album Gratitude) - and every one of their LPs through 1981 would reach the pop Top 10. It was an incredible run of music that keeps the band (continuing with Bailey, Verdine White and percussionist Ralph Johnson) going to this day as a beloved live act - a vision of musical harmony that Maurice, who passed away in 2016, would be deeply proud of.