ALBUM OF THE MONTH
FIVE REASONS TO LISTEN:
- The most successful release, commercially, of Stevie’s career, sustained by his recent in-concert performances of the entire album in sequence.
- The first album by an American musician to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
- Recognized with four Grammy® awards, including Album of the Year.
- The fourth-longest No. 1 album of the 1970s, outranked only by Carole King’s Tapestry, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
- The home of two back-to-back No. 1 singles, “I Wish” and “Sir Duke,” and songs subsequently covered and sampled by many artists.
FOUR FAST FACTS:
- Original release date: September 28, 1976.
- No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts for 14 weeks, and top of the R&B best-sellers for 20 weeks.
- Diamond-certified in 2005 for 10 million U.S. sales by the Recording Industry Association of America.
- Original list price of the set’s two LPs and four-song “bonus” EP was $13.98 – equivalent to $59.98 in 2016.
Songs In The Key of Life is currently featured in Hot Albums on iTunes, so click here for a great opportunity to grab this legendary album.
FULL TRACK LISTING:
- Beginning in late 2013, Stevie’s live performances of Songs In The Key of Life in its entirety have kept the album in the public eye (and ear). These shows have mostly been staged in the U.S., although he played the set this summer in London’s Hyde Park for more than 50,000 people. “In one sense,” he told the British crowd that July afternoon, “I’m very happy that Songs In The Key of Life is still significant almost 40 years later. In another sense, I’m not happy about that. The reason is that the songs and the words that we talk about, those conditions still exist in the world, and that hurts my heart.”
- Stevie cut an early version of “Contusion,” the jazz-rock instrumental, in late 1973, but most of Songs In The Key of Life was recorded in 1975-76 in four studios: Record Plant facilities in Los Angeles and Sausalito, Crystal Industries in Hollywood, and the Hit Factory in New York. “There were times,” said bassist Nathan Watts, “when he’d stay in the studio 48 hours straight. You couldn’t even get the cat to stop and eat.” Said to cost $600,000 to make, the three-disc album was released two years after Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which had topped the Billboard charts during the summer of ’74. The media launch for Songs… took place on September 7, 1976, at the 145-acre Long View Farm in North Brookfield, Massachusetts. Flown there from New York, critics and music journalists gathered for a preview of the music in the company of Stevie, who wore a cowboy outfit for the occasion, complete with gun belt, on which the words “Number One With A Bullet” appeared.
- The first 45 from Songs… was “I Wish,” issued in December 1976 and at the top of the charts by January. Stevie later explained that he wrote it on the day of a Motown picnic, on a summer Saturday in ’76. “I had such a good time at the picnic that I went to Crystal…right afterward and the vibe came right to my mind: running at the picnic, the contests, we all participated.” (He also remembered the raging toothache he suffered that day, which prevented him from eating the hot dogs.) “[The picnic] was a lot of fun…and from that came the ‘I Wish’ vibe. And I started talking to Gary [Olazabel, studio engineer] and we were talking about spiritual movements, ‘The Wheel of ’84,’ and when you go off to war and all that stuff.” But Wonder realized that cosmic lyrics were not appropriate. “The music was too much fun. The words didn’t have the fun of the track.”
- The follow-up to “I Wish” was “Sir Duke,” Stevie’s tribute to the music of Duke Ellington and other storied American musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. “With ‘Sir Duke,’ I knew the title from the beginning but wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us,” Stevie told a college symposium in 1977. “So soon are they forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation. They gave us something that is supposed to be forever.” Musicians on the track include bassist Nathan Watts, guitarists Mike Sembello (lead) and Ben Bridges (rhythm) and alto saxman Hank Redd. Released in March 1977, “Sir Duke” rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May; it was Stevie’s sixth single to rule the pop charts since 1963’s “Fingertips – Pt. 2.”
- Alongside the album’s hit singles, perhaps the most compelling track is “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” – not least because Stevie performed it during the nationwide telethon, America: A Tribute To Heroes, which was broadcast soon after the 9/11 catastrophe. That performance, with Take 6, underscored the power of the song’s lyric and its relevance to the tragedy in New York. TV writer and Rolling Stone contributor David Wild had suggested “Love’s In Need…” to the telethon producer, Joel Gallen. When Wild saw its taping in Los Angeles, “I remember breaking down in tears,” he later said, “as it hit me that this visionary – yes, visionary – genius had somehow written a song that explained what we were doing then perfectly.” When Stevie played the song in concert in New York last year, “I broke down,” he said. “I’ve seen people come and go, and live and die, cry and laugh. It all came rushing back.”
- The first three tracks of Songs… may be the most spiritual Stevie has ever sequenced, and with the exception of Eddie “Bongo” Brown’s percussion of “Love’s In Need Of Love Today,” the musicianship is all Wonder. He was working with a test model of a Yamaha GX1 synthesizer, which allowed him to source multiple sounds, such as strings, brass and keyboards. “I didn’t want full strings, just a light, Al Green feel,” he said recently. On “Village Ghetto Land,” the Dream Machine, as he described the GX1, permitted Stevie to create the string-quartet mood, starkly underlining the tragedy of the lives depicted. On “Have A Talk With God,” the track is as pastoral as the lyric – and Stevie’s vocal – is reverential, philosophical.
- “Isn’t She Lovely,” the first track of the vinyl set’s second LP, features a cameo appearance by Stevie’s then-newborn daughter, Aisha Morris. In recent years, she has been making another appearance: as an adult, singing in her father’s band. The bass player on seven of the album’s tracks, Nathan Watts, continues in that band, too. Meanwhile, familiar names are found in the album credits, such as those singing background on “Ordinary Pain”: Deniece Williams, the late Minnie Riperton, and onetime Supremes member Lynda Laurence. Guitar great George Benson is heard on “Another Star,” the album’s third single, while Herbie Hancock plays keyboards on “As,” its fourth. On the two No. 1 singles, “Sir Duke” and “I Wish,” are Steve Madaio (trumpet) and Trevor Lawrence (tenor sax), who previously fuelled an earlier Wonder chart-topper, “Superstition.”
- The Hare Krishna chorus of “Pastime Paradise” is the work of the West Angeles Church of God Choir, on a song later reconfigured by Compton rapper Coolio (with Larry Sanders, alias L.V.) into “Gangsta’s Paradise,” a No. 1 smash in 1995. It also was featured in the movie soundtrack of Dangerous Minds, starring Michelle Pfeiffer as a former marine who becomes a ghetto high school teacher. Coolio performed his hit with its originator on The Billboard Music Awards TV show in ’95. “I went to Stevie’s studio and we changed the music so there would be room for him to sing,” said Coolio, subsequently. “It didn’t come to a head until I was actually on stage and he walked out from the back, singing.”
- Stevie’s talent, transcendant when set to music, also resonates when he speaks. After remarks at his London concert this July about the contemporary relevance of Songs In The Key of Life, he turned to the Black Lives Matter movement and its positive impact. “What I’m hopeful about is that we can make a difference,” the superstar declared from the Hyde Park stage. “And if you, too, feel that we can make a difference, I encourage you to choose love over hate. It’s just that simple. Choose love over hate, right over wrong, kind over meanness. Hope over no hope at all.”
“It’s about creating a marriage of all the instruments and vocals, bringing them together to make a statement. It’s similar to the way arrangers hear all the parts in their head. Whether it’s the Beatles, Sly Stone, Prince or Ed Sheeran, you start with an idea or vision and bring what you hear in your mind to reality” – Stevie Wonder to Marc Myers in The Wall Street Journal, 2015
“Go Wonderlove!” – Stevie Wonder on “Sir Duke”
VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE TRACK ON THE ALBUM:
Producer: Stevie Wonder.
Songwriters: Gary Byrd, Calvin Hardaway, Mike Sembello, Stevie Wonder.
Re-makes: “Another Star” (Nnenna Freelon, 2002), “As” (George Michael with Mary J. Blige, 1999), “I Wish” (sampled on Will Smith’s “Wild, Wild West,” 1999), “Isn’t She Lovely” (David Parton, 1977), “Knocks Me Off My Feet” (Luther Vandross, 1996), “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” (Blackstreet, 1994; Joan Osborne, 2002), “Pastime Paradise” as “Gangsta’s Paradise” (Coolio, 1995), “Sir Duke” (Stanley Turrentine, 1987), “Village Ghetto Land” (Ali Campbell, 2007).