“Of all the albums, Songs in the Key of Life I’m most happy about. Just the time, being alive then. To be a father and then… letting go and letting God give me the energy and strength I needed.” – Stevie Wonder, Q magazine (April 1995 issue)
For the five years between 1972 and 1976, Stevie Wonder was on fire and exuded an expansive and potent energy that seemed to rise from its own volition. During this ‘classic period’ he released some of his finest music earning him near universal love and admiration.
Wonder was bursting with inspiration and in 1972 he released two albums: Music of My Mind and Talking Book. The following year he put out the Grammy Award winning Album of the Year Innervisions and he later received the same accolade for his 1974 effort Fulfillingness’ Full Finale. And then he went quiet before releasing the album that would not only be the pinnacle of his career, but one of the best albums of all time.
Listen: Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy on Stevie Wonder ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ on Classic Album Sundays on Worldwide FM
Despite this unprecedented success, Wonder was frustrated with the music business including the label that had fostered his career since his adolescence. The frustration was historic as when the former childhood star turned 21 years old, he was due the money he had earned a minor but Motown only paid him $1 of the $30 million owed. In 1971, following the lead of Marvin Gaye who had won artistic control with his ground breaking album What’s Going On, Stevie also negotiated full creative control and also won the right to retain his publishing through his own Black Bull Music.
But it wasn’t enough and Wonder proved that aside from being a trailblazing musical talent, he was also a darn good businessman. In 1975 he threatened to quit the music business altogether and planned on going to Ghana where he wanted to help disabled children. He had harboured a long-term interest in the West African country and later spent several weeks there at the President’s invitation. Stevie was so serious that he even began planning his farewell concert but Motown founder Berry Gordy caught him just in time and up against rivals Arista and Epic Records, offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse: a seven-year, seven-album $37 million contract, the largest contract offered to a single artist up to that time. Work then began on his opus.
For his new recording, he wanted to express and encompass the many stages and aspects of life and he needed time to accomplish this monumental task. As he later told Oprah Winfrey, “Bach and Chopin took years to write their stuff. I’ve had to experience some life so that there’s more for me to sing about, to express.” Stevie set out to create his most epic undertaking yet, and the wait began.
Today albums are released every day both independently and via major record companies so it is difficult to comprehend the extent of anticipation for Stevie’s new album. He had recently won multiple Grammy Awards, had toured with the Rolling Stones and was a mainstay on both pop and R&B radio. Most artists of his caliber were under contract to release one album per year but Stevie not only kept his fans and the media waiting, but also his record company who were hoping for an October 1975 release but after many delays, finally subjected themselves to a longer wait with a bit of humour eventually printing up T-shirts that proclaimed “We’re almost finished”.
Stevie worked day and night and spent long hours in the studio perfecting the songs, often without food or sleep. In his words, “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak.” There were times where it was almost delivered but then withdrawn and haggled over and further perfected. But finally the effort paid off, as in September of 1976, he released his opus, the 17-track double album with the 4-track 7-inch EP and 24-page booklet, Songs in the Key of Life.
The album is a musical melding of soul, R&B, Latin, funk, reggae, jazz and pop with the signature Wonder chord structures and indelible melodies. Topics range from the personal to the universal including the birth of his daughter Aisha with ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, an alternative history lesson with ‘Black Man’ and poverty with ‘Village Ghetto Land’. There are recollections from childhood “I Wish’, love gained and lost, proclamations of faith and socio-political commentary packed within the album’s grooves – something for everybody to grasp and understand. And even though it was painstakingly created and perfected over the course of two years, it surprising sounds spontaneous and effortless.
The album credits 130 collaborators including Herbie Hancock, Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams, his ex-wife Syreeta Wright, harpist Dorothy Ashby, and George Benson amongst others. However, it is still unmistakably the work of an auteur as he alone wrote, produced, arranged and composed pretty much everything on the album himself (only three songs list cowriters and he sings all of the leads and most of the backing tracks). There is no doubt that Songs in the Key of Life is Stevie’s singular vision and infused with his spirit throughout.
The album’s reception was overwhelming as it garnered him his third Grammy Album of the Year Award and three other Grammy’s along with three other nominations. It knocked Frampton Comes Alive out of the Number One spot on the Billboard charts and became the second best-selling album in 1977 after Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
It was a favourite album of Prince and Elton John amongst a host of other musicians from the past to the present. Songs in the Key of Life remains the pinnacle of Stevie Wonder’s entire career and the finest example of his genius, a word that is not used lightly, even by the standards of another, Bob Dylan, who said of Stevie when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, “If anybody can be called a genius, Stevie Wonder can.”
By Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy