Decades Later, “Songs in the Key of Life” Is As Fresh As Ever

Stevie Wonder 1970s Public Domain

In 1976, Stevie Wonder released a sonic masterpiece, Songs In The Key Of Life. Songs was one of the most ambitious albums ever with a gestation period of two years. The double album and bonus EP are a collection of thought-provoking lyrics, perfect performances, intricate arrangements, unforgettable melodies, and hooky choruses. Its existence is even more amazing when you consider that most of the instruments and vocals on the album were performed by the 26-year-old Wonder himself, working days without food or sleep.

Lyrically, Songs In The Key Of Life lives up to its title, as it takes us on a journey through life. It is not a sequential path – the songs move somewhat randomly through birth and death, happiness and sadness, joy and pain, love and loss. Throughout the album, Wonder explores the political and the spiritual, the personal and the communal. Wonder’s overwhelming sense of optimism and his belief in the power of love are the unifying themes of the album.

Stevie Wonder had been a star at Motown since 1963 when he was a 13-year-old prodigy known as “Little Stevie Wonder” and released his first of many hit singles, “Fingerprints.” Wonder, blind since birth, was a remarkable sponge for everything happening at the Motown factory, soaking up the harmonies of The Four Tops and The Supremes, the smooth vocals of Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, the musicianship of The Funk Brothers, and the songwriting chops of Holland-Dozier-Holland. All of these Motown influences, plus those of Ray Charles, would help Wonder develop his unique style over the course of fourteen albums he released on the label between 1962 and 1970.

Things started to change with 1971’s Where I’m Coming From. As his contract with Motown approached its end, the twenty-one-year-old took advantage of his negotiating power to take more control over his music and lyrics than the Motown “factory” had previously allowed. He began to move beyond the “Motown Sound,” going into new directions lyrically and musically, exploring religious and political themes in his lyrics and expanding his arrangements to include the latest synthesizers. This album was just a hint at what Wonder would accomplish over the next several years across four award-winning albums – 1972’s Music Of My Mind and Talking Book, 1973’s Innervisions, and 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale. The last three albums won multiple Grammy awards, including Album of the Year for Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. This was an extraordinary run for any artist, and it seemed impossible for Wonder to go any further. (When Paul Simon won the Album of the Year Grammy in 1975, he thanked Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album that year!)

With Wonder’s superstar status established and his Motown contract expiring, several other labels made a play to sign the artist. In the end, Wonder decided to remain with Motown, but not before negotiating a seven-year, seven-LP, $37 million deal that gave him full artistic control, making this the largest deal made with a recording star up to that point. Motown had placed a huge bet on Wonder, and they waited with bated breath to hear what would come next.

Motown would have a long wait. Wonder would hint at a release date, then change his mind. His first idea was to release Fulfillingness’ Second Finale, a dark album reflecting his disappointment in the American government and the violence of the mid-70s. That idea was abandoned, along with many others. Over two years, Wonder wrote new songs as quickly as he threw old ones out. He would work forty-eight hours at a time, forsaking sleep and food. He invited scores of musicians to join him (130 additional musicians perform on the album), making use of multiple studios in New York and Los Angeles. These musicians, the majority of whom were A-list players like Herbie Hancock and George Benson, struggled to keep up with Wonder, who treated them like his own personal orchestra, calling for them at any hour of the day to help flesh out the sounds in his head. Wonder oversaw all aspects of production, as his songs were mixed, remixed, and remixed again.

Motown became frantic at the repeated delays. After all, this was an artist who had been producing albums at the rate of one every nine months. Wonder would show up at Motown meetings wearing a t-shirt saying “We’re Almost Finished!” Motown execs with $37 million on the line hardly saw the humor.

Shortly before the album’s release date, Wonder invited Motown execs and the press along with all the musicians who played on the album to Long View Farms Studio to hear the final results. The overall reaction was one of astonishment.  With Songs In The Key Of Life, Wonder had taken everything that had made his last several albums so astonishing and brought it together under a unifying theme, one that had come to him in a dream.  It effortlessly moved between traditional soul music and jazz, funk and gospel. Songs flowed into one another in glorious suites with pauses only to flip over each record. The music continued for more than ninety minutes, spanning a double album and a four-song EP that Wonder called A Something’s Extra. Yet, when it was all over, you couldn’t wait to hear it all again.

Opening the album was Wonder’s plea to a divided and violent America, “Love’s In Need Of Love Today.” 1976 was the year of the country’s bicentennial, and it was a time to examine America’s accomplishments and failures across two hundred years while looking into the country’s uncertain future. It was the time of Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, and the energy crisis. There had been two assassination attempts on President Ford. Gains in civil rights for African Americans had yet to be reflected in their schools and neighborhoods. The optimism of the sixties had turned into the cynicism of the seventies reflected in TV shows like the new Saturday Night Live.

“Love’s In Need Of Love Today” opens with a gospel choir to create the mood (Wonder performed all the vocals). With his opening lines, Wonder sets the stage for the song, as well as the album:

Good morn or evening friends
Here’s your friendly announcer
I have serious news to pass on to everybody
What I’m about to say
Could mean the world’s disaster
Could change your joy and laughter to tears and pain

There are serious and disturbing things happening all around us, Wonder is saying. We can choose to ignore them, leading to tears and pain. Or, we can look to a brighter future with love as our guide. It’s a little simplistic, of course, but there’s nothing but sincerity in his plea. Acting the role of a television evangelist, Wonder asks for donations, but of love not money. “Hate’s goin’ round,” he sings. “Stop it please before it’s gone too far.”

The opening stanza also illustrates the competing forces that thread through many of the album’s songs. Wonder’s songs exist in a dual world, one where happiness and sadness can co-exist. There’s always the danger of succumbing to the forces of evil. Yet Wonder keeps pulling us back to positivity and the possibility of a brighter future. On “Love’s In Need” and many other songs on Songs In The Key Of Life, Wonder repeats the choruses for several minutes as if he is bursting with joy, building up his strength and courage, and trying awfully hard to bring the listener along for the journey.

Religion is another overriding theme of Songs, and Wonder spells out his vision in “Have A Talk With God.” He preaches to the lost, broken, and suicidal. There’s no need to be alone when you can talk with “the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout the world,” sings Wonder. Listening in headphones, one can hear the interplay of Wonder’s multiple layers of keyboards and synths against the funky drumbeat and percussion – all instruments he played himself.

Wonder’s journey brings us to the ghetto in “Village Ghetto Land” with a somewhat horrifying look at the conditions of the inner city. It’s a topic that Wonder had addressed on previous albums, such as Innervisions’ “Living In The City,” but here he lays out the stark conditions of poverty in even grimmer detail.

Much like The Beatles had done with “Eleanor Rigby,” Wonder accompanies his vocal with cold, stabbing string chords. In the case of “Village Ghetto Land,” the strings are synthetic, played on the new multitimbral (and very expensive) Yamaha GX1. Wonder was a synthesizer pioneer and one of the first to use keyboards like the Clavinet, the Moog, and the ARP2600. Wonder’s blindness was somehow not an obstacle when it came to mastering these complicated electronic instruments with their multitude of dials, switches, and patch cords. With the GX1, Wonder could play multiple notes at once rather than one at a time as with earlier synthesizers.

Next comes one of the album’s two instrumentals, “Contusion.” The title was a reference to the 1973 car accident when a log had come crashing through Wonder’s car window, breaking his skull and putting him in a coma for nearly a week. “Contusion” is also a pun on “fusion,” the jazz-rock hybrid that had recently reached the mainstream with groups like Weather Report and Return to Forever and artists like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. “Contusion” is Wonder’s experiment with fusion, and it features Wonder discovery Greg Phillinganes on keyboards. (Phillinganes would go on to become an in-demand session musician, including a three-decade relationship with Michael Jackson and The Jacksons.)

From the futuristic jazz fusion of “Contusion,” Wonder goes back in time for his tribute to “classic” jazz artists, “Sir Duke.” Featuring a four-piece horn section, “Sir Duke” was a joyful celebration of jazz with shout-outs to Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, and “Sir” Duke Ellington. The jubilant chorus (“You can feel it all over”) helped propel “Sir Duke” to number one when it was released as a single.

The other chart-topping single from the album, “I Wish,” begins side two of the album with an instantly recognizable overdriven bass solo that is quickly joined by Wonder’s multiple lines of keyboards. When the drums kick in, the song becomes an exultant and humorous celebration of childhood. The funky four-piece horn section, more Stax than Motown, punctuates Wonder’s vocals with brass stabs while Wonder and his sister, singer Renee Hardaway, provide the backing vocals.

According to Wonder, “I Wish” had originally been a song about “war and cosmic…spiritual stuff.” It was while attending a Motown picnic that Wonder got the idea for the revised lyrics. Bassist Nathan Watts had gone home for the night after an intense day in the studio. At 3 AM, he received a call from Wonder summoning him back to the studio, saying “I’ve got this bad song!” Indeed it was!  Like “Sir Duke,” it reached the top of the singles chart.

“Knocks Me Off My Feet” is the first love song on the album, a genre Wonder had already mastered with songs like “My Cherie Amour” and “For Once In My Life.” It’s a sweet lyric where Wonder is both self-deprecating (“I don’t want to bore you with my trouble”) and romantic:

We lay beneath the stars
Under a lovers tree that’s seen through the eyes of my mind
I reach out for the part of me that lives in you
That only our two hearts can find

The music reflects Wonder’s overwhelming love with cascading piano arpeggios, while at the same time his cautiousness is reflected in the musical “hesitations” (where the drum fill occurs) each time Wonder sings “there’s something about your love” and before “knocks me off my feet.” Wonder again performs all the parts.

Songs like “I Wish” and “Sir Duke” look at the past through rose-colored glasses. By contrast, “Pastime Paradise” is a song about the danger of living in the past. Wonder admonishes those who think things were better in the past “glorifying days long gone behind.” Maybe, he suggests, they should take a closer look at the past few years: race relations, segregation, mutilation, isolation, exploitation, etc. Better to look to the future “for the day that sorrows gone from time,” although the future is not without its share of potential problems. Wonder’s music speaks to a message of unity for a better future with its mix of two choirs (one gospel and one Hare Krishna) along with Latin rhythm and percussion.

A gong leads the listener into “Summer Soft,” a story of romance that moves across the four seasons. Wonder seems disoriented as his relationship with his lover changes like the weather. Musically, Wonder modulates from key to key, mirroring the evolution of his relationship.

Evidentially, things didn’t work out between Stevie and his lover, and he is forced to confront his loss in “Ordinary Pain,” a song divided into two sections. In the first, Wonder is accompanied by vocalist Minnie Ripperton and ex-wife Syreeta Wright as he tries to console himself with the idea that his lost love is just an “ordinary pain” – in fact, it’s a “necessary pain.” Wonder pretends that he is over the relationship (“tell her you’re glad/it’s over”) while trying to “hold back [his] tears.”

The smooth jazz of the song’s first section shifts dramatically for the second section. It’s time for the lover to have her say, and boy does she! Vocalist Shirley Breiner scolds Wonder over a funky accompaniment that is a complete contrast to the first section of the song. As she endlessly lists all of Wonder’s faults, the chorus mocks Wonder, following each of Breiner’s comments by singing “ordinary pain.” There are two sides to every story, Wonder is saying, another example of the duality present throughout Songs In The Key Of Life.

“Isn’t She Lovely” opens side three with its simple, but ridiculously catching celebration of the birth of Wonder’s daughter Aisha. It is impossible not to smile when listening to Wonder’s vocal or his chromatic harmonica. The song’s simple structure underlies the complexity of the arrangement, its jazz chords, and its stellar performances by Wonder and keyboardist Phillinganes.

“Isn’t She Lovely” is a fixture at weddings, sweet sixteens, and baby namings.  Surprisingly, it was never released as a single. Wonder refused to cut the six-minute song despite its repeated choruses (not to mention the sound of Aisha being bathed). The resulting song was too long for a single, but it still became the best-known song from Songs In The Key Of Life.

The beautiful “Joy Inside My Tears” could be Wonder’s message to his wife or the daughter she gave him. As in “Pastime Paradise,” Wonder cautions against those who look to the past or the future without “living for today.” Time is fleeting, and “lasting moments are coming far and few between.” It’s the love of his wife (or for his daughter) that have brought Wonder happiness. The song comes to an “end” after three minutes. But as he does throughout Songs, Wonder repeats the chorus for nearly another three minutes as the love inside him seems to overflow. These repetitions are never boring because the music is so powerful and the vocals so joyful.

“Black Man” is Wonder’s history lesson to his listeners. “The first man to die/For the flag we now hold high/Was a black man” (Crispus Attucks, at the start of the Revolutionary War.) “The ground where we stand/With the flag held in our hand/Was first the red man’s.” The point, “this world was made for all man,” is driven home for nearly six minutes. Wonder provides a solid groove underneath, once again performing all of the parts except horns. For the last section of the song, Wonder’s vocoded vocal is sent to the background while a series of “teachers” shout out questions to their students, the answers continuing the theme of multicultural contributions to society. The idea quickly wears thin, and it’s the one track where one might be tempted to flip the album over early. (Nowadays, it’s a simple push of the “next track” button in iTunes.)

The fourth side of Songs In The Key Of Life is dedicated to love. The first song, “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” contains lyrics that alternate among Zulu, Spanish, and English. The song hearkens back to the album’s opening song with its call for the healing power of love:

I am singing of tomorrow
I am singing of love
I am singing someday love will reign

“Ngiculela” is followed by one of the most beautiful songs on Songs, “If It’s Magic.” Wonder sings of the magic of love, questioning why we don’t treat it more carefully. In Wonder’s world, love “fills you up without a bite/And quenches every thirst.” Wonder delivers a stellar vocal accompanied by the “magical” arpeggios of jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. By the end of the song, the spell dissipates with a flourish from Wonder’s harmonica.

Wonder has sung of love as the key to a bright future and as something that needs to be treated with respect and treasured. On “As,” love is the key to reaching God and God’s eternal love. After questioning why love can’t be everlasting in “If It’s Magic,” Wonder shows how it can be in “As” with a long list of “impossible” events (rainbows burning the stars out in the sky, Mother Nature saying her work is through) that are the only things that could cause him to stop loving. After a mid-song rap by Wonder, he is joined by his backing vocalists to sing an extended outro over tasteful electric piano fills from Herbie Hancock (as well as Wonder himself) and guitar from esteemed session guitarist Dean Parks (who would also contribute to the following year’s Grammy award-winning album, Steely Dan’s Aja).

The sound of timbales and other Latin percussion launches “Another Star,” the celebratory number that brings side four to its conclusion. George Benson contributes on electric guitar and backing vocals alongside the returning horn section. Wonder once again speaks to past, present, and future. He has fallen in love and had his heart broken. And yet, he can celebrate the love affair while wishing his ex a bright future:

For you
There might be another star
But through my eyes the light of you it’s all I see
For you
There might be another song
But in my heart your melody will stay with me

The song’s repeated choruses seem to push Wonder towards a brighter future. Just when the song is ready to begin fading out, Wonder takes a moment to reflect as the band drops out leaving only the rhythm section. This is a cause for the music to build all over again, as Dizzy Gillespie discovery Bobbi Humphrey layers some of her jazz flute on top of the grooving musicians. It’s an incredibly joyful ending to the album’s fourth side.

But four sides were not enough to contain Wonder’s songwriting. Over the preceding two years, he had accumulated more than enough material to add a third record to the album. Instead, he created a four-song EP (Extended Play) that continued the album’s themes. He called this EP A Something’s Extra.

There’s a comical element to the four songs on the EP, and it begins with “Saturn,” an unusual dip into science fiction for Wonder. Wonder had recently contemplated leaving America to work with the poor in Africa. He channels that desire to escape into “Saturn,” which he co-wrote with guitarist Mike Sembello. In the song, Saturn is the paradise that allows Wonder to escape the sadness of his current planet. Wonder’s description of Saturn, where they have rainbows, orange snow, and a two-hundred-year life span, is over-the-top, and Wonder’s sci-fi synthesizers complement the song’s humor.

The humor in “Ebony Eyes,” a delightful serenade to a “Miss Beautiful Supreme,” is reflected in the song’s bouncy arrangement and Wonder’s keyboards and scatted, vocoded background vocals. It’s one of the loosest feeling performances on Songs complete with shout-outs to saxophonist Jim Horn. It’s the sound of a band running through a song for the first time, a musical reflection of a bunch of guys serenading “the devastating beauty” in their midst.

The clavinet heavy “All Day Sucker” is the funkiest song on the EP. The “sucker” in the song is Stevie himself who pursues a lover who refuses to return Stevie’s affections. Carolyn Denis plays the role of the lover, repeatedly teasing Wonder with her taunts of “All Day Sucker for your love” as “Snuffy” Walden drives the point home with his distorted guitar solo.

The EP concludes with the breezy instrumental “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call).” It’s the sound of sitting on a Southern porch swing, watching the wind against the trees and thinking over the day’s events. The star of this song is Wonder’s chromatic harmonica. It begins as the solo instrument (over Wonder’s Fender Rhodes and drums and Nathan Watts’ bass). A second harmonica enters mid-song followed by a third, each one spread across the stereo spectrum. The song provides a chance to reflect on Songs’ messages as it brings the album to a peaceful conclusion.

(Interestingly enough, when Wonder recently performed the complete Songs In The Key of Life in concert, he chose to embed the EP’s tracks earlier in the running order so that he could end with the uplifting “Another Star.” In contrast to the peaceful “Easy Goin’ Evening,” the danceable groove of “Another Star” and the “la la la” chorus create an exciting and enthusiastic ending to the album.)

Songs In The Key Of Life entered the charts at Number One two weeks before the album was even released. At the time, this was a rarity, and Songs was only the third album to debut at number one. (The other two were Elton John’s 1975 albums Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies. John, by the way, called Songs In The Key Of Life “the best album ever made.”)  The album’s first two singles, “I Wish” and “Sir Duke,” also reached number one. Songs garnered four Grammy awards, including Wonder’s third Album of the Year in four years. (Frank Sinatra is the only other solo artist to receive the award three times.) In many polls, Songs In The Key Of Life is voted one of the top albums of all time.

When Stevie Wonder finally released Songs In The Key Of Life in September of 1976, it was a culmination of an extraordinary burst of creativity. Although he would have many more hit albums and singles, Wonder would never again create such a masterpiece. The album’s multifaceted celebration of life is just as relevant today as it was in 1976, and the joyful music it contains continues to influence countless musicians decades later.

For a more detailed look at Songs In the Key Of Life, I highly recommend Zeth Lundy’s contribution to the excellent 33 1/3 series: Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life.

Scott Freiman
To read more from Scott, follow @beatleslectures on Twitter or check out DeconstructingTheBeatles.com.

PS. You may also enjoy Scott’s in-depth looks at concept albums you may have missed, Steely Dan’s eight-minutes of genius “Aja,” the new Monkees’ album, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star.”

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1 comment on “Decades Later, “Songs in the Key of Life” Is As Fresh As Ever

  1. I think the name of his first recording was Fingertips

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