For as far back as I can remember beginning as a pre-teen, I’ve been a huge fan of Stevie Wonder; one of the earliest 45 singles I ever bought was “My Cherie Amour”. Of all the many albums he released over a career spanning more than 50 years, my favorite is his magnificent masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life.
Born Stevland Morris in 1950, he became blind shortly after his birth (he was born six weeks premature, and the oxygen-rich atmosphere in the hospital incubator aborted the growth of his eyes and caused his retinas to detach, resulting in blindness). Despite his handicap, he was a child musical prodigy, learning to play piano, harmonica and drums as a young boy. He signed with Motown’s Tamla label when he was only 11 years old, and first became known professionally as Little Stevie Wonder. In 1963, his single “Fingertips, Part 2” topped the Billboard Hot 100, making him the youngest artist to ever have a #1 song on that chart. He eventually dropped “Little” from his name, and in 1966 came roaring back as Stevie Wonder with his electrifying hit “Uptight”. From that point on he would practically rule the charts for the next 20 years.
Released in September 1976 when he was 26, Songs in the Key of Life was Wonder’s 18th album. It’s generally regarded as his magnum opus, and the culmination of his “classic period”, which began in 1972 with the releases of Music of My Mind and Talking Book, the latter of which included the song “Superstition”, which featured the distinctive sound of the Hohner Clavinet keyboard that came to define Wonder’s sound. His next three albums produced during this highly creative period – Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life – all won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, making him the only artist to have won the award for three consecutive album releases. In 1976, when Paul Simon won the Best Album Grammy for Still Crazy After All These Years, he quipped, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn’t make an album this year.”
Surprisingly, Songs in the Key of Life almost didn’t happen. Despite the fact that by 1975 Wonder was one of the most successful music artists in the world, with his three previous albums all critical and commercial successes, he seriously considered quitting the music industry. He’d become interested in humanitarian issues in Africa, and wanted to emigrate to Ghana to work with handicapped children. Fortunately for his music fans, he reconsidered and went on to sign a lucrative new contract with Motown to continue recording more albums.
The album was recorded primarily at Crystal Sound studio in Hollywood, with some sessions recorded at the Record Plant in Hollywood, the Record Plant in Sausalito, and The Hit Factory in New York. According to Wikipedia, during the recording process, Wonder would often stay in the studio 48 hours straight, not eating or sleeping, while everyone around him struggled to keep up. “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak,” he said. A total of 130 people worked on the album, including notable jazz and R&B artists Herbie Hancock, who played Fender Rhodes on “As”, George Benson, who played electric guitar and sang backing vocals on “Another Star”, and Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams, who sang backing vocals on “Ordinary Pain”.
That Wonder’s creative flow kept going til he peaked is an understatement, as he ultimately recorded an astonishing 21 songs, released as a double album and a bonus 7-inch 45 featuring four tracks, along with a booklet containing all the song lyrics and credits. Incorporating a wide range of genres and music styles, including soul, R&B, pop, funk, jazz, gospel, Afrobeat and even classical, Songs in the Key of Life is widely considered one of the greatest albums ever recorded and his signature album. It’s the best-selling album of his long career, and ranks #4 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s most-recent 2020 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2002, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and in 2005 was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, which deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The album is Wonder’s celebration of love, a testament to his faith, and his belief in the idea that love can conquer hate. In the booklet that accompanied the album, he wrote: “’Songs in the Key of Life’ is only a conglomerate of thoughts in my subconscious that my Maker decided to give me the strength, the love+love-hate=love energy making it possible for me to bring to my conscious an idea.” Opening track “Love’s In Need of Love Today” sets the tone for the album with Wonder’s heartfelt plea for people to put hate aside and try and love one another, a message that certainly bears repeating today: “Hate’s goin’ round/Breaking many hearts/Stop it please before it’s gone too far.”
Some of the album’s highlights are the big hits “I Wish”, a joyously upbeat song that sees Wonder reminiscing on the joys of his childhood, and “Sir Duke”, a jazzy tribute to the legendary Duke Ellington, both of which went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though not released as a single, “Isn’t She Lovely”, a loving ode to his baby daughter Aisha, went on to become one of his most beloved songs. But the album’s full of many more outstanding tracks and deep cuts like the gorgeous love song “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, the enchanting and hopeful “If It’s Magic”, the bittersweet “Summer Soft” and the pleasing multi-cultural gem “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing”.
Two of my personal favorites are the spectacular Side 4 epic tracks “As” and “Another Star”, both of which were released as singles but failed to crack the Top 30. The soulful “As” has a beautiful, almost gospel feel, and encapsulates the album’s overall theme of the enduring power of love. Wonder sings “Did you know that true love asks for nothing/Her acceptance is the way we pay/Did you know that life has given love a guarantee/To last through forever and another day.” Wonder goes on to list all the ways his love will endure, then the song immediately segues into “Another Star”. An electrifying eight and a half minute long masterpiece, this song is one of my favorites on the album, and ranks among my all-time favorites of Wonder’s many great songs. I love the exuberant Latin beat, sunny keyboards and soulful guitars, but the highlights for me are the exhilarating horns, head-bopping percussion and Wonder’s jubilant vocals that warm my heart and bring a tear to my eyes. Though the lyrics speak of an unrequited love, Wonder extolls the virtues of his love interest with such joy that you just cannot help being swept up in his bliss. Both songs really showcase his phenomenal songwriting, musicianship and vocal abilities.
Wonder also addressed issues of racism and social injustice on such tracks as “Pastime Paradise”, “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”, the latter two of which he co-wrote with radio DJ, poet, songwriter, producer, rapper, and community activist Gary Byrd. On the brilliant and haunting “Pastime Paradise”, Wonder speaks first to those who remain stuck in the past, clinging to their racist and bigoted beliefs, then to the victims of that institutional racism, bigotry and other forms of oppression, “living in a future paradise/looking in their minds for the day that sorrow’s gone from time.” He admonishes us to start “living for the future paradise”, and “Shame to anyone’s lives living in a pastime paradise.”
On “Village Ghetto Land”, Wonder uses a sedate classical minuet as a lovely musical backdrop that sharply contrasts with the biting lyrics that speak to the harshness of ghetto life: “Broken glass is everywhere/It’s a bloody scene/Killing plagues the citizens unless they own police/Children play with rusted cars/Sores cover their hands/Politicians laugh and drink – drunk to all demands.” The urgent, jazz/funk infused eight and a half minute long “Black Man” speaks to the accomplishments of often-overlooked people of color: “Heart surgery was first done successfully by a black man/The railroads for trains came on tracking that was laid by the yellow man/Friendly man who died but helped the Pilgrims to survive was a red man/Farm workers’ rights were lifted to new heights by a brown man/And the leader with a pen signed his name to free all men was a white man.” The song ends with a dramatic spoken call and response by teachers and students of the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble in Harlem, shouting out the names and accomplishments of notable people of color as well as whites.
I’ve already made note of the album’s incredible legacy, but want to elaborate a bit more by referencing some of the accolades other noted artists have heaped on Songs in the Key of Life. Elton John once wrote “Let me put it this way: wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of ‘Songs in the Key of Life’. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” In an interview with Ebony magazine, Michael Jackson called Songs in the Key of Life his favorite Stevie Wonder album. George Michael cited the album as his favorite of all time, and along with Mary J. Blige, he covered “As” in 1999. Michael also performed “Love’s in Need of Love Today” on his Faith tour in 1988, and released it as a B-side to “Father Figure”. He also performed “Village Ghetto Land” at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988. He later covered “Pastime Paradise” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet” in his 1991 Cover to Cover tour.
Rapper Coolio sampled the haunting groove of “Pastime Paradise” on his 1995 single “Gangsta’s Paradise”. Prince called it the best album ever recorded, Mariah Carey has named it one of her all-time favorites, and Whitney Houston also remarked on the influence of the album on her singing. In an interview with webzine CLRVYNT, heavy metal singer Phil Anselmo described a live performance of many of the album’s songs with reverence: “Watching Stevie Wonder and just being in his presence is truly like watching a living, breathing miracle right before your eyes. It really is. It was stunning, and it still stuns me to this day.” (Wikipedia)
Stevie Wonder was unquestionably one of the most important and influential musicians of the 1970s, and Songs in the Key of Life was his greatest triumph in a career spanning five decades.