EML’s Favorite Albums – STEVIE WONDER: “Songs in the Key of Life”

Stevie Wonder

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”.

Songs in the Key of Life album

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.

“Magic” Songs

While driving to an appointment this morning, I heard the Cars song “Magic” on the radio, and started thinking of all the hit songs either titled Magic or having the word in their title. So, without further ado, here are the memorable hit songs from 1960 to the present with ‘magic’ in their title.

1.  MAGIC – Pilot (1975)
The first hit song simply titled “Magic,” this fun, upbeat pop-rock tune by one-hit wonder Scottish band Pilot was produced by Alan Parsons of the Alan Parsons Project (who themselves had a string of hits from 1976-84). It was a big hit, reaching #5 and spending 12 weeks on the Billboard Top 40.

2. MAGIC – Olivia Newton-John (1980)
The biggest “magic” hit of them all, Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic” spent 4 weeks at #1 and 16 weeks on the Billboard Top 40. This really terrific song was featured in the really terrible musical Xanadu which, in addition to Newton-John, also starred Gene Kelly. The song was written by John Farrar who, along with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, also wrote the lyrics and music for the film soundtrack. Though the film was a flop, the soundtrack album was hugely successful, spawning several other hits for Newton-John and ELO (whose career was nearly wrecked by their involvement with the film).

3. MAGIC – The Cars (1984)
The second single from their phenomenal album Heartbeat City, The Cars’ “Magic” is an awesome pop-rock song – but then I’m biased, as I pretty much love all their songs. It was a modest hit, spending 11 weeks on the Billboard Top 40 and peaking at #12.

4. MAGIC – Robin Thicke (2008)
This “Magic” by American R&B singer Robin Thicke is from his third studio album Something Else. The song was written by him along with his then wife Paula Patton and James Gass.  It reached #2 on both the Billboard Adult R&B and Dance Club Charts, and #6 on the R&B/Hip Hop Chart, but only #59 on the Hot 100.

5. MAGIC – Coldplay (2014)
Another great “magic” song, this one by Coldplay was the first single from their rather experimental album Ghost Stories. It was a departure from their usual music style, and received critical acclaim, though some complained that it sounded too much like the Muse song “Madness,” with its similar chord progression and climactic flourish. The song peaked at #14 on the Billboard Top 40 and #1 on the Adult Alternative Chart. There’s no denying that the song’s video is absolutely brilliant. Chris Martin plays both the good and bad guys, and Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi plays the beautiful magician.

6. THIS MAGIC MOMENT – Drifters (1960); Jay & the Americans (1969)
This song was composed by lyricist Doc Pomus and pianist Mort Shuman, and was a modest hit first for Ben E. King and the Drifters, who took it to #16 in 1960. Jay & the Americans recorded another version of the song in 1968, and it reached #6 in March 1969, and spent 10 weeks in the Top 40.

7. PUFF, THE MAGIC DRAGON – Peter, Paul & Mary (1963)
This sweet, poignant song was written by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow of the folk band Peter, Paul & Mary, and was based on an earlier poem by Lipton. The song was a big hit, peaking at #2 and spending 11 weeks in the Billboard Top 40.

8. DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC? – The Lovin’ Spoonful (1965)
The Lovin’ Spoonful were one of the most successful American pop-rock bands of the mid 60s and their catchy, upbeat song “Do You Believe in Magic? was their first chart hit, peaking at #9 and spending eight weeks in the Billboard Top 40.

9. MAGIC CARPET RIDE – Steppenwolf (1968)
From the legendary hard rock band Steppenwolf, this amazing song was so representative of the psychedelic influence in a lot of rock songs during the period from 1966-69. It was a huge hit, reaching #3 and spending 13 weeks in the Billboard Top 40.

10. MAGIC BUS – The Who (1968)
This great classic from The Who was written by Pete Townshend in 1965 while they were recording My Generation, but the song was not recorded by the band until 1968. Although they were one of the biggest bands in the world from the late 60s through the early 80s, selling millions of albums and selling out hundreds of concerts, they had relatively few big “hits” on the Billboard Hot 100 (which was also true for many other rock bands). “Magic Bus” peaked at #25 and spent only six weeks in the Top 40.

11. BLACK MAGIC WOMAN – Santana (1970)
Undoubtedly one of the best of the “magic” songs, “Black Magic Woman” is a rock classic from the legendary guitarist Carlos Santana and his band. The guitar riffs in this song are incredible. It was hugely popular, peaking at #4 and spending 12 weeks in the Top 40.

12. MAGIC MAN – Heart (1976)
The second single from Heart’s brilliant debut album Dreamboat Annie, “Magic Man” was their first Top 10 hit, peaking at #9. Ann Wilson said it was about her then boyfriend Michael Fisher, who was the band manager and several years older than her. The song’s unique sound was produced by the use of a Minimoog synthesizer.

13. COULD IT BE MAGIC – Barry Manilow (1975); Donna Summer (1976)
“Could It Be Magic” was  written by lyricist Adrienne Anderson and pianist Barry Manilow. The melody was based on Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor. Initially released in 1971, it was later re-recorded, and released as a single in 1975. It was Manilow’s third charting single, peaking at #6 and spending 13 weeks on the Billboard Top 40. Disco diva Donna Summer recorded another version of the song for her album A Love Trilogy, which peaked at #3 on the Billboard Dance Chart, but only at #52 on the Hot 100.

14. STRANGE MAGIC – Electric Light Orchestra (1976)
British symphonic rock band Electric Light Orchestra was immensely popular and successful, with twenty Top 40 singles during the years 1975-86.  From their fifth studio album Face the Music, the beautiful track “Strange Magic” was their third charting single, peaking at #14 and spending nine weeks in the Top 40.

15. YOU MADE ME BELIEVE IN MAGIC – Bay City Rollers (1977)
This song was the fifth charting single from the Scottish pop band Bay City Rollers, and the only song of theirs that I could ever tolerate. It peaked at #10 and spent 12 weeks in the Billboard Top 40.

16. IF IT’S MAGIC – Stevie Wonder (1977)
One of Stevie Wonder’s most beautiful songs, “If It’s Magic” is from his magnificent opus album Songs In The Key Of Life. This song never charted, but I included it on this list because it’s such a wonderful track.

17. EVERY LITTLE THING SHE DOES IS MAGIC – The Police (1981)
One of the best of many awesome songs from The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” is from their fantastic fourth album Ghost in the Machine. This song was unique in that it includes the piano as an instrument, uncommon for most Police songs. It was a big hit, peaking at #3 and spending 15 weeks in the Top 40.

18. YOU CAN DO MAGIC – America (1982)
This really lovely pop-rock song by America was released ten years after their massively successful debut single “A Horse With No Name,” an indication of their staying power. “You Can Do Magic” was their seventh Top 10 single, peaking at #8 and spending 15 weeks in the Top 40.

19. MAGIC STICK – Lil’ Kim & 50 Cent (2003)
“Magic Stick,” by hip hop artist Lil’ Kim, is from her third studio album La Bella Mafia. The song features fellow American rapper 50 Cent and was produced by Carlos “Fantom of the Beat” Evans. Despite not having a physical release or music video, the song was a huge hit, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

20. 24K MAGIC – Bruno Mars (2016)
The most recent “magic” song on this list – and currently at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of the date of this post – the wonderfully funky and upbeat “24K Magic” looks to be another smash hit for R&B singer Bruno Mars.

Let me know what you think of these songs, or if I left out any other “magic” hit songs.