Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ Turns 40: The Masterpiece That Captured Every Color of Life
Stevie Wonder’s magnum opus transcends and transforms. Today, 40 years after its release, it’s still an album that every creative should reference, if not emulate.
The double album is the superstar musician’s favorite indulgence. A double LP, more often than not, is a status symbol for top-tier pop artists to both flex creatively and to announce themselves as an artiste of the highest order. Double albums are, by nature, sprawling; a testament to both the artist’s creative ambition and ego-driven indulgence. In the post-CD era, double albums are especially unnecessary and overstuffed—even the best double albums since 1987 are weighed down with just too much music—and not all of it is inspired. But in the 1970s, the album was still the tool with which artists transmitted their most evocative musical ideas, and the double album was a sign that you’d reached a certain level of artistry.
And while the LP era gave us a plethora of great double albums—the visceral urgency and variety of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., the mish-mash collection of eccentricities on the Beatles’ “White Album,” Marvin Gaye’s achingly personal Here My Dear, Elton John’s melodic pop opus Goodbye Yellow Brick Road—none of those great albums achieve the kind of balance in creative scope, musical variety and consistent listenability that Stevie Wonder captures so masterfully on his magnificent Songs In the Key of Life.
He’d had to fight to get to this place. In the 1960s, Wonder was one of Motown’s hitmakers, but hadn’t had anywhere near the level of consistency that label standard-bearers like The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye had enjoyed. His commercial lulls even led to in-house speculation at one point that it would be best for the label to drop the former child star.
“If I were the president of the company I’d do the same thing,” Wonder recalled decades later in a 1984 interview with David Breskin. “Straight out. But fortunately, it all worked out … to everyone’s surprise—or to some people’s surprise. Because some people would say things like, ‘Oh, that boy’s gonna really be great. You don’t know how talented that boy is.’ And the others would say ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, uh-huh, sure.’ They didn’t really vibe on me. Now [Motown greats] James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin always said I’d be great. I had the confidence that something good was gonna happen but I didn’t know when. And then … it began to happen.”
He’d been writing and producing with mixed results as far back as the late ’60s but, as has been well-documented, Wonder would reach a creative high throughout the 1970s. From 1972’s Music of My Mind (and you could make an argument for its predecessor Where I’m Coming From), Stevie parlayed his creative autonomy into a run of brilliant albums. He’d gotten creative control after a power struggle with Berry Gordy and Motown and he’d transformed himself from a Hitsville teen star of the ’60s to the preeminent singer-songwriter of the 1970s.
It all seems so preordained now that it’s easy to forget that we almost lost Stevie Wonder at the height of his brilliance.
Just days after the release of his 1973 classic Innervisions, Wonder was involved in a terrible car accident that left him comatose for five days. He’d been riding in the front passenger seat of a rental car in North Carolina when the vehicle struck the back of a flatbed truck. It is often claimed (even by Wonder’s mother) that the truck was carrying logs that came through the windshield of the car Wonder was riding in with his cousin, John Wesley Harris, who was driving. Accounts from both the truck driver and Wonder himself indicate that there were no logs—the bed of the truck itself came through the windshield. Wonder was asleep and knocked unconscious on impact, suffering serious head trauma. He was hospitalized in Winston-Salem, and things looked dire. He fell into a coma and had severe bleeding. Media outlets from around the world scrambled to get information on what happened. Roberta Flack, Paul McCartney and the Jackson 5 all reached out to the injured star.
Wonder would slowly regain consciousness; the famous story is that his publicist Ira Tucker sang “Higher Ground” to him and it eventually led to him tapping his fingers to the beat. He would wake from his coma, but temporarily lost his sense of smell. The scars are still visible on his forehead.
“The only thing I know,” Wonder told reporters during his first media appearance at the hospital shortly before he was dismissed, “is that I was unconscious, and that for a few days, I was definitely in a much better spiritual place that made me aware of a lot of things that concern my life and my future, and what I have to do to reach another higher ground.”
That “higher ground” meant a lot of things; Wonder would later indicate (without going into detail) that he’d gotten into some regrettable behavior while on the road with the Rolling Stones in 1972 and the accident renewed his spiritual focus.
“I think subconsciously it made me more attentive to my life,” Wonder would say in ‘84. “My own self, inside, more than anything that anyone could physically see. I think we were rushing a lot back then, and performing a lot and moving a lot. I’m not saying we were living a wild life, but that was the direction things were going in. There was no true direction.”
But now Wonder had a direction. He would release Fulfillingness’ First Finale, his first post-accident album, which would win the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1975. The crash and Stevie’s heightened sense of purpose would lead to him almost walking away from his uber-successful career at its apex. Wonder planned to emigrate to Ghana in 1975 (a sentiment he would revisit frequently throughout his career) and even plotted a farewell concert. But that year, a new contract with Motown, on the heels of a bidding war with Arista and Epic, reinvigorated his interest in music and he was happy to be able to continue pursuing his ambitions in Motown, specifically.
“I look at them as a family,” Wonder would explain. “I think there is nothing wrong with being part of an achievement of your culture, particularly when there are not that many in comparison that are recognized. So I say, ‘Listen, for as long as our relationship is satisfactory and we are comfortable with what we do, I will be there with you, because I want to be part of that history being made.’ I would want someone to say, ‘Well, Stevie Wonder, while he was alive, stayed with a company owned by a Black man for forty years.’ Or however many years it turns out to be.”
With his career and life in a stable place, more than ever, Wonder desired to push himself to even greater creative heights and now he had the leeway to go as far as he wanted. In 1975, he would withdraw into the studio at Crystal Sounds in Hollywood for an extended period to work on his upcoming project.
“It went on for two years almost every day, many hours and huge amounts of material,” recalled engineer John Fischbach in an interview with TapeOp. “I guess it was really his most prolific time — he did more songs in those two years I think than he had done before. Something like 200 songs.” Wonder’s perfectionism was only matched by his willingness to collaborate. He had always been open to work with others on his most ambitions projects; he’d co-written songs with his ex-wife Syreeta Wright and with Motown’s Henry Cosby, and he’d featured everyone from Jeff Beck to the Jackson 5 on his songs. But on this new album (working title: Let’s See Life the Way It Is) Wonder would recruit a veritable “who’s who” of legendary instrumentalists and singers to fully realize his remarkable vision.
Bobbye Hall and Eddie “Bongo” Brown are among the percussionists featured on the album, with Calvin Hardaway and Gary Byrd co-writing songs. Legendary flautist Bobbi Humphrey and George Benson’s guitar genius would be featured on the the disco-friendly, samba-inflected groove “Another Star.” The two-part epic ode to heartbreak “Ordinary Pain” features a glorious guest vocal from Shirley Brewer and backing vocals from Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams and Syreeta Wright. Mike Sembello’s prominent lead guitar is featured heavily throughout the album, most evident on the fusion workout “Contusion”—and he co-wrote “Saturn” with Wonder.
Jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby gives Wonder the elegant backdrop that carries the lilting “If It’s Magic,” and an 18-year old Greg Phillinganes is also a prominent contributor, adding his distinctive keys to “Pastime’s Paradise,” “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Joy Inside My Tears.” And Herbie Hancock’s distinctive Fender Rhodes glows on what may be the album’s crowning achievement, the soaring ode to love on a higher level “As.”
Hancock has praised Wonder’s “orchestral use of synthesizers” and said that “Stevie doesn’t fall into the trap that I do. Stevie lets the synths be what they are, something that’s not acoustic.”
Wonder was crafting the richest, most varied sound he’d ever produced, an album that would truly reflect every mood, every nuance, every color of life. He would explain to Mike Douglas a year after the album’s release that his visual impairment has never limited his ability to experience life in the fullest sense and reflect it in his music.
“For me experiencing things, you have an understanding of what a color is, what a picture is from actually being told what it’s about at some…earlier space in time in your life,” Wonder shared. “Experiencing certain things…to feel the sun; you feel the warmth. I know that red is an exciting color. You think of fire. What I feel from you is what I see. And what I see in you is what I feel.”
The anticipation for the next Stevie Wonder album had been building steadily in the two years since the release of Fulfillingness’ First Finale—so much so that Motown began printing “We’re almost finished” T-shirts.
As the album was near completion in the summer of 1976, Wonder decided to add even more music to the double LP; a “bonus” EP called A Something’s Extra included the aforementioned “Saturn,” a bouncy piano pop called “Ebony Eyes,” the synth-driven “All Day Sucker” and a gorgeous harmonica instrumental called “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call).” It was all packaged with a 24-page booklet and lyric sheet, outlining every word and every contributor to what was a monumental artistic achievement. And the official name would be Songs In the Key of Life.
Released on September 28, 1976, Songs In the Key of Life would exceed even the already high expectations that had been set by Stevie’s remarkable run of post-1972 albums. Upon release, it would debut at No. 1—something only Elton John had achieved up to that point. And it would remain the at the top spot for 13 weeks, holding off hit albums by Earth Wind & Fire, Rod Stewart and Led Zeppelin. It would become the second-best selling album of the year (behind Fleetwood Mac’s blockbuster Rumours) and, as was becoming standard, it would take the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1977—Wonder’s third such honor in a row.
The hit singles “I Wish” (a nostalgic look back at Wonder’s rambunctious childhood) and “Sir Duke” (an ode to the late Duke Ellington and other icons of Black music who’d then-recently passed) both peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Album cuts like “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” “Pastime’s Paradise” (famously repurposed by Coolio as “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995) and “Isn’t She Lovely,” a sentimental dedication to his baby daughter, Aisha, became as well-known as those two ubiquitous singles.
Wonder’s topicality, which had been ever-present on his albums since the late ’60s, was still in sharp focus. With synth baroque strings adding to its mournful lyrics, “Village Ghetto Land” echoes Wonder’s previous looks at poverty on songs like “Living For the City.” The Gary Byrd-assisted “Black Man” may be one of the album’s more heavy-handed moments, but it was evidence of Stevie’s focus on race issues and social problems through his own unique lens. And “Ngicuela – Es Una Historia - I Am Singing” connected Africanness to a global sense of connection, with lyrics sung in Spanish, Zulu and English. The ’70s saw Wonder become an icon to the rock counterculture, as his Grammy wins and tour with Rolling Stones won him favor with the long-haired ex-hippies who’d mostly ignored him in the 1960s. But Wonder’s status didn’t diminish his sense of purpose and his awareness that, as a Black artist with such a platform, he could do more by injecting Africanness into the pop sphere.
Songs In the Key of Life is often cited as the end of Stevie’s “classic period.” While it’s hard not to see it as a culmination, whether or not it constitutes the finale is highly debatable. He would follow it with Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, an album that is casually mockable but one that also has steadily risen in stature among fans; and that album was followed by Hotter Than July; another smash record that may not have matched its predecessors in ambition, but surely is better than most of the albums released by Wonder’s contemporaries at the time.
However one chooses to rank Songs… in Wonder’s catalog and regardless of how one feels about his music before or after, what should be obvious is that this is an album that transcends and transforms; a record born of one artist’s unique worldview and blessed with extra hands from some of the greatest musicians of the 1970s. It’s an album that every creative should reference, if not emulate. It is art, music, love and life—all over the course of 104 minutes of musical brilliance. And its music and themes are timeless. After all, there are still dark forces that can only be stamped out by light, as Stevie sings on the downbeat opener “Love’s In Need of Love Today”:
The force of evil plans to make you its possession. And it will—if we let it destroy everybody. We all must take precautionary measures. If love and peace you treasure—you’ll hear me…
We hear you, Stevie. Let’s hope the world never stops listening.