Timeless Affairs: Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life
Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner within Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we'd like to shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in some cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their full length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of the music today and continue to shape the future.
Today, we're honoring the 45th birthday of one of the greatest albums in the history of recorded music. Stevie Wonder's wonderful landmark album 'Songs in the Key of Life', was released as a double LP with a four-track 7'' bonus EP titled 'A Something's Extra' in 1976. He has written, produced and performed on it at a time when he was seriously considering retirement from the music business altogether. Yet, this masterpiece was created and it led to an extremely personal album with a subliminally unified theme, representing life and what it's all about, attempting to cover as many topics as possible in almost two hours of time in a 21-song set. So if you sit down and listen to this masterpiece top to bottom today, it'll definitely take you places.
"Give me the key in which I am to sing, and, if it is a key that you too feel, may you join and sing with me" - Stevie
Stevland Hardaway Morris, has been topping the charts ever since he signed a record deal with Motown at 11 years old, under the name "Little Stevie Wonder" at the time. The recipient of 25 Grammy Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Wonder has released 23 studio albums to-date and remains one of the best-selling artists of all-time.
'Songs in the Key of Life', Stevie's 18th studio album, was recorded over the course of 2,5 years in two studios: The Hit Factory in New York and Crystal Sound in Hollywood, with John Fischbach and Gary Olazabal as engineers. It was quite unheard of to be taking this amount of time to produce a record in those days, Motown even printed "We're Almost Finished" T-Shirts at some point. Immaculate productions have been crafted by Stevie in collaboration with a core group of musicians and guest appearances by many greats including Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams. There was a lot that needed to be said, following up on Curtis Mayfields, Isaac Hayes' and Marvin Gaye's concept albums in the early 70's, addressing the social ideas in a way that is real, yet reaches the people who might not be willing to listen otherwise.
Right from the first note on the opening track 'Love's in Need of Love Today' one can't help to be completely captured by the powerful melody, piercing vocals and a message that is just as relevant today as it's ever been. What a way to open an 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"
On the A side of the record, Stevie proceeds to remind us of the importance of God in the synth-funk tune 'Have a Talk With God', share haunting imagery in the neighborhood tour on 'Village Ghetto Land' (co-written by Gary Byrd) and a tribute to Duke Ellington, who passed away in 1974, on 'Sir Duke'.
Side B starts with 'I Wish', a song reminiscing on Stevie's childhood days, the mischiefs he'd get into and all the little things that brought him joy even in the rough times. Followed by one of the most beautiful love songs ever made: 'Knocks Me Off My Feet' and the Eleanor Rigby-esque 'Pastime Paradise', which was also famously sampled on Coolio's hit 'Gangsta's Paradise'. The incredibly rich arrangements here are composed on the latest polyphonic Yamaha synth a.k.a. the Dream Machine and lyrically the song elaborates on how some people live in the past and some in the spirit of the day when all people will be one.
"They've been wasting most of their time / Glorifying days long gone behind / They've been wasting most their days / In remembrance of ignorance oldest praise"
Hearing 'Summer Soft' after this strange summer just passed is gonna make you feel all types of ways and wonder about the fleeting nature of things, feelings and life in general. 'Ordinary Pain' confirms that emotion in the most beautiful manner and it features Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams on backing vocals. Deep as an ocean.
'Isn't She Lovely' opens the 2nd LP with the purest celebration of life, the birth of Stevie's daughter Aisha Morris. Aisha is an Arabic name meaning “living” or “full of life.” During the making of the album, Stevie brought home a portable reel to reel tape recorder - to record his daughter during bath time together with her mother Yolanda Simmons. So Aisha is the baby you hear at the end of the song, in case you were wondering and I'm wondering, perhaps 'Joy Inside My Tears' was also meant for her. The following track 'Black Man' (co-written by Gary Byrd) highlights all of the great achievements by american people of all different descents.
"Now I know the birthday of a nation / Is a time when a country celebrates / But as your hand touches your heart / Remember we all played a part / In America to help that banner wave"
The next song opens the fourth side with lyrics in Zulu and Spanish. 'Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing' talks about how love is what’s all that music is about. 'If It's Magic' features Stevie's vocals over the most astounding harp melody by Dorothy Ashby, with Stevie's signature harmonica shining at the end. Without saying the word "love" explicitly, the song accentuates how precious it is and yet how there's enough for everyone. Always. The side ends on 'As' with Herbie on Fender Rhodes.
"As around the sun, the earth knows she's revolving / And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May / Just as hate knows love's the cure / You can rest your mind assure / That I'll be loving you always"
The upbeat latin disco inspired 'Another Star' heartbreakingly describes a break up with George Benson playing electric guitar and before you know it, the 2nd LP ends on that note right there. 'Saturn' was originally meant to be about Saginaw, Stevie's birthplace, until Michael Sembello, who's been a prominent personality throughout the process of making this album, misheard the lyrics. Since that moment, Saturn began to represent this idealistic utopian place far away from Earth where people realize their true potential as spiritual beings. 'Ebony Eyes' and 'All Day Sucker' get into desire and admiration and the bonus EP ends on a snazzy instrumental 'Easy Goin' Evening'
"On Saturn / People live to be two hundred and five / Going back to Saturn where the people smile / Don't need cars, 'cause we've learned to fly / On Saturn / Just to live to us is our natural high"
His songwriting and his voice echo through virtually all R&B-related sounds that have followed. The powerful goosebump-evoking performance below from 1995 Billboard Awards is one of the many iconic moments in hip hop that Stevie's legacy birthed and one of countless examples of how influential this album has really been and continues to be.
Personally, one of my biggest highlights of the early pandemic's days was Stevie calling Questlove just to say "I love you" during a 24-hour tribute marathon on the occasion of his 50th birthday.
According to Stevie himself, there are still some tunes stored away from the making of his magnum opus that have yet to be released and we just can't wait till that magic gets to see the light of day. 'Cause 45 years later, these songs are still as fresh as ever.