Soul Retrospective: Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

Stevie Wonder-Songs in the Key of LifeStevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life is acknowledged as one of the best albums of all time. Although Wonder made it look deceptively easy, the work was created from 15 years of hit-making and fearless talent that seemed to mature with each album.

The time leading up to the making and release of Songs in the Key of Life all but dictated that Wonder’s album would be one that’s been described as a “magnum opus.” Still, throughout much of 1975 many didn’t know what was going on with Wonder; he had recovered from near-fatal 1973 car accident and reportedly wanted to move to Ghana and retire from the music business and work with children.

After being courted by different labels, Wonder re-signed with Motown for a $13 million contract in late 1975. Songs in the Key of Life occurred during an interesting time in Wonder’s life, when he was becoming even more confident in his abilities and had enough commercial, monetary, and critical success where he could call more shots. Of course, during these times, a few changes were also afoot: Wonder split with early ’70s co-producers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, the duo who had overseen Wonder’s albums from Music of My Mind to Fulfillingness First Finale.

Wonder worked on Songs in the Key of Life from 1974-1976 in a variety of studios such as the Hit Factory (New York),  Record Plant (Los Angeles), Record Plant (Sausalito), and Crystal Sound (Hollywood). In the intervening years, Wonder’s last album Fulfillingness First Finale won four Grammys, including Album of the Year. Motown pulled out all the stops for the much-delayed Songs in the Key of Life. The original release featured 24 songs, two albums, and a single EP that featured four additional songs. A little before its release, Stevie Wonder sent members of the press to a farm in Long View Farms, Massachusetts for a Songs in the Key of Life listening party. The festivities were captured by a film crew and covered by Newsweek, giving one the sense of the magnitude a new Stevie Wonder release garnered in the mid- to late ’70s. The album was officially released in October 1976.

The best of Songs in the Key of Life seemed to be a culmination of the previous five years of work, melodies, and lyrical exploration that distilled in an almost autumnal synthesis and pointed towards Wonder’s musical future. At this point, Wonder was emerging as a humanitarian and a few songs deal with ecumenical and personal concerns. The solemn though not needy “Love’s In Need of Love Today” all but seemed to be the album’s perfect intro and mission statement. Insistent without being preachy, “Have a Talk With God” probably sounds the closest to Fulfillingness First Finale more than anything here due to the prominent ARP synthesizer.

In the two short years between albums, Wonder had become more adept at merging complex songs and lyrics. The still-startling “Village Ghetto Land” is Beatles-esque in its song structure; the string instrumentation is Wonder and his Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer, which he called the “Dream Machine.” Another album favorite, “Pastime Paradise,” also features the GX-1 and mines similar lyrics to great effect.

Although Songs In The Key of Life was the essence of sonic modernity upon its release, the album did look back for two of its best tracks. The rollicking and poetic “I Wish” and swinging  Duke Ellington send-off “Sir Duke” were nostalgic in lyrics and musical style. Those two tracks and the jazz-rock of “Contusion” also show the proficiency of Wonder’s backing band, Wonderlove, and how attuned they were to Wonder’s rhythmic sense.

For an artist who seemed to mature from album to album, (e.g., Music of My Mind to Talking Book), Songs in the Key of Life arguably finds the appreciable changes just as profound within a collected work. The original side side two Songs in the Key of Life have some of Wonder’s most gentle and unabashedly tender points like the perfect “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “Summer Soft,” and no other love seemed to be as profound as the one exhibited on “Isn’t She Lovely.” The song became an album favorite despite the fact that it was never released as a single. From that  high point came the cathartic ballad “Joy Inside My Tears.” Wonder then followed that dirge-like track with the sharp and educational, “Black Man.”

Perhaps more so than other Wonder albums, the collected strength and varied sounds on Songs In the Key of Life had an endless symbiotic effect, especially near the end. Songs like the evocative “Ngiculela Es Una Historia/I Am Singing,” the poignant “If It’s Magic,” as well the spectacular “As” and the stomping “Another Star” seemed to capture the album’s central themes in an exuberant and engaging fashion.

Aside from the original albums, Songs in the Key of Life also had four songs on a single EP entitled A Something’s Extra. This was reportedly a gift to fans since the album took so long to produce. However, most of the memorable statements were on the proper album though the pretty “Saturn” and the jazzy instrumental “Easy Going Evening” are the best of the tracks from the EP.

Songs in the Key of Life was released in October 1976, debuted at #1 on the pop charts, and had a non-consecutive run at the top spot for 14 non-consecutive weeks. “I Wish” was the first single and hit #1 on both the R&B and pop charts. “Sir Duke” was released in the spring of 1977 and also went to #1 on the R&B and pop charts. “Another Star” and “As” were released as singles in later 1977 and were mid-range hits. Songs in the Key of Life sold 3 million copies by mid-1977. Wonder won four Grammys for Songs in the Key of Life, and won Best Male Vocalist in R&B and Pop, Producer of the Year. Songs in the Key of Life also won Album of the Year.

Throughout the late ‘70s, Songs in the Key of Life continued to sell. “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” and “Isn’t She Lovely” were featured on the 1982 two-album set Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium 1. In 1984, Songs in the Key of Life was issued on CD, and the 1999 4-CD box set, At the Close of a Century, had nine tracks from Songs in the Key of Life including “As,” “Another Star,” and “If It’s Magic.”

In 2014, Stevie Wonder launched his Songs in the Key of Life  performance tour. The tour debuted at Madison Square Concert and it was an emotional night as Wonder played the album in sequential order. The Songs in the Key of Life tour was tremendously popular and proved the staying power of the album and the fact that Songs in the Key of Life has become a veritable greatest hits unto itself. In 2015 CBS broadcast the 2 hour, “Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key Of Life: An All Star GRAMMYs Salute.”

Songs in the Key of Life has sold over 10 million copies.

—Jason Elias

Jason Elias is a pop music historian and a music journalist.

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