Earth, Wind and Fire had logged four albums when they went in the studio in 1975 to record That’s the Way of the World. The recording was to serve as the soundtrack to a long forgotten film of the same title. Through six albums, including two for the Warner label and the inspiration mid-tempo funk jams “Keep Your Head to the Sky” and “Devotion”, the group had earned a solid reputation, but had never had the kind of commercial breakthrough that would place them on the same level as Billy Preston, Stevie Wonder or Sly and the Family Stone. With the release of the singles “Shining Star” and later “That’s the Way of the World” the group finally made inroads into the commercial mainstream, remaining there until the early 1980s. That’s the Way of the World: Alive in 1975 is a collection of live recording from the 1975 tour that supported the release of That’s the Way of the World including dates at the Nassau Coliseum in Strong Island (Uniondale, New York) and the Civic Center in Baltimore, Maryland.
Since the early days of the group, EWF had been renowned for their spectacular live shows, a tradition that continues even today, though group leader Maurice White no longer travels with the band. The ability to “do live” is witnessed on the opening track as the B-more crowd can barely contain themselves as White steps to the stage to introduce “Shining Star” (“alright ya’ll. Do ya’ll feel alright . . . we got to do it with fire, we gotta testify”), EWF’‘s first pop #1. The late saxophonist Don Myrick and the Phoenix horns are already in tight sync creating the classic EWF soundscape that owes itself to the mentoring of the late Charles Stepney, White’s days apprenticing at Chess Records (where he met Stepney), and the group’s appreciation for the big band sound, which on some level made the band a funk-era version of the Count Basie Orchestra. EWF’s jazz sensibilities are also apparent on “Happy Feeling” which is grounded by Johnny Graham’s “grits ‘n’ electric” guitar lines. The song of course comes alive behind the “happy” falsetto vocals of Phillip Bailey, whose only peers at the time were Motown legends Eddie Kendrick (at the height of his solo career) and Smokey Robinson. Though Kendrick and Robinson were more famous at the time, Bailey’s falsetto seemed simply effortless as he literally claims a song like “Happy Feelin” from the insurgent groove of the Phoenix Horns.
Of course the whole world would finally come to appreciate Bailey’s skills on the live version of “Reasons” that was released on the live EWF recording Gratitude (1976). The studio version of “Reasons” originally appeared on That’s the Way of the World, but like Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” (Let’s Get It On, 1973), the song became one of the group’s most appreciated tunes after the live version of the song was released. The Alive in ‘75 version of “Reasons” was recorded at the Baltimore Civic Center and is much more sparse and restrained than the Gratitude version of the song. By the release of Gratitude, the song was a staple of EWF live performances (still is), including the memorable vocal and sax exchanges between Bailey and Myrick, which the duo is clearly still working out on the Alive in ‘75 version.
EWF reaches back to their previous recording Open Our Eyes (the title track is one of the great early EWF ballads) for live versions of “Evil” (recorded at the Nassau Coliseum) and the EWF anthem “Mighty, Mighty” (“We are people of the mighty. Mighty people of the sun”) Both songs again highlight some of the group’s more intricate jazz sensibilities. The songwriting capabilities of brothers Maurice and Verdine White and Bailey were validated when jazz artists such as pianists Ramsey Lewis (who EWF collaborated with on his classic “Sun Goddess) and Doug Carn (who did a brilliant rendition of “Mighty, Mighty on his 1974 recording Adam’s Apple) recorded their material. Lewis in fact joins EWF on stage at the Nassau Coliseum for a live rendition of “Sun Goddess”. The song, which was the title track of a 1974 Lewis release, captured pop, soul, and jazz audiences that year, much the way Quincy Jones did with Body Heat, released the same year. A live version of the song was also released on Gratitude, though the extended Lewis solo on the Alive in ‘75 version of the track, makes that version a treat. It was a reunion of sorts as White was the drummer of the Ramsey Lewis trio after the duo of Young and Holt, who recorded the summer time favorite “Soulful Strut” in 1968, left the group.
That’s the Way of the World: Alive in ‘75 naturally closes with a live version of “That’s the Way of the World”, which is easily the most recognizable EWF tune (anybody who says “Boogie Wonderland” needs a critical beatdown). White introduces the song as an “old time church groove” as he gets the crowd up off their feet (they were probably already standing by the song’s introduction). Like the studio version, Johnny Graham gets his funk licks in while White is in classic vocal form as he sings “ain’t nothin’ but a feeling. Yeah ha ahh” during the song’s breakdown, segueing into the funk scat that is so memorable at the end of the studio version of the song. The most beautiful moment in the song is when White gets the crowd clapping in sync (“Right here we gonna take you all the way back. You ever been to church? We talkin’ about the sho’nuff thing, ya’ll. Now I’ma take you all the way back to the front row seat where they used to testify. There was a time, when they didn’t have any instruments, all they had was this soul, the moving of their bodies. So I want to feel you clap your hands. Give me the spirit.”) while they chant “That’s the Way . . . of the World”.
By 1979, EWF would cross-over to “rock” audiences with have major hits like their version of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” (the group appeared in the Sergeant Pepper film), their amazing All N’ All (recording) and the discoed “Boogie Wonderland” which also featured The Emotions. That’s the Way of the World: Alive in ‘75 catches EWF at their artistic peak shortly before they are transformed into pop phenomenon, for that reason alone it is a worthwhile investment.
// Notes from the Road
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