Songs In The Key Of Life – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1976)
UK Chart Position – 2
US Chart Position – 1
There was a huge amount of anticipation surrounding the release of this album. It had been two years since his US chart-topping “Fulfillingness First Finale” and the leaks emanating from his record label was that this was going to be an extremely special follow-up. Potential release dates came and went and there was actually a mini-fashion explosion in “Stevie’s Almost Ready” t-shirts. In September 1976 the album appeared and it was a biggie in very sense. A double album and a bonus extended play seven inch single made it an expensive proposition. I know that I couldn’t afford to buy it until I found it much cheaper after it had been out a few years. On its CD release the 21 tracks fitted easily onto 2 discs.
Despite the tongue-twisting title Stevie’s previous album had topped the US Charts and been a Top 5 success in the UK in 1974.
I do acknowledge the common perception that this is one of the greatest Soul albums of all time. I do feel, however, that it could have benefited from a little editing, in the length of a couple of the tracks and I think there’s another couple that could have been dropped together without compromising this album’s status or reputation. It is not the highest ranking Stevie Wonder album on my list but it is still an essential purchase. The list of the Greatest Soul Albums of the 1970’s voted for by thousands on the Soultracks.com website has it at number 3 behind Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”. It was very much Stevie Wonder’s statement on the mid 70’s which came exploding through the speakers like a torrent.
It contained two UK Top 5 singles and 1 Top 30, two US number 1’s and two Top 40 singles and a handful of tracks which although never released as singles are all-time classics and rank amongst the best of Stevie’s output.
For an album which had such a big fanfare it has a rather muted beginning and does take a while to get into its stride. Album opener “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is certainly a pleasant enough track but is an early example of a track which would have benefited from having a minute or so lopped off the end as it all gets a bit rambly and noodly. I didn’t think it stands out especially amongst other tracks really until George Michael (who said “Songs In The Key Of Life” was his all-time favourite album) began performing it on tour and as a B-side to his chart-topping “Father Figure” single. Michael’s version seemed to me to breathe a bit of new life into this original and I think as a track it has dated quite well. The insidious funk-lite of “Have A Talk With God” has not weathered the passing of time and sounded better on release than it does now. Lyrically rather heavy-handed “He’s the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout the world” this has never been one of my favourite tracks on the album.
It’s the third track where things really crank up a gear when Stevie takes on his social commentator role on “Village Ghetto Land”. One thing Stevie Wonder always does well is to dress up protest into something that sounds really good. He’d done this before on tracks like “Living For The City” and here again. There’s a majestic synthesized neo-classical orchestral opening, courtesy of the Yamaha- GX1and this is counterposed with some pretty hard-hitting lyrics of poverty and crime; “Families buying dog food now/Starvation roams the streets”. It works superbly.
Next up is the bruising, funk instrumental “Contusion” (contusion/bruising see what I did there?) which is not exactly vital to the existence of the album. It leads the way to the second US chart-topping single from the album (it reached #2 in the UK, his highest chart position for over 6 years) and is perhaps one of his most commercial tracks ever. Stevie could sometimes veer towards a fine edge of the annoyingly poppy or cheesy but because of that little dash of Wonder magic he is able to sprinkle over he ends up triumphant. This was certainly the case with his biggest UK hit “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, but also “My Cherie Amour”, with “Isn’t She Lovely” on this album and also “Sir Duke.” This joyous blast of nostalgia serves very much as a history lesson for a new generation. When I first heard this track as a young teenager I did not really know who Duke Ellington was nor his importance in the history of black music and here we also find out that “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo and the King of all, Sir Duke/And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out there’s no way the band can lose.” This is all-time classic pop name dropping alongside Madonna’s rap in “Vogue” and the fashion designers in “He’s The Greatest Dancer”. This is a lovely tribute track from its infuriatingly catchy brass introduction to singalong chorus. It’s the musical equivalent to eating marshmallows but knowing just when to stop before they make you feel queasy.
The second side on the vinyl version kicks off with the first single release which also topped the US charts and went Top 5 in the UK. This is a track which I think has got even better with time and now ranks up amongst Stevie’s best. “I Wish” reminisces on childhood and the passing of time in a storm of commercial funk. The childhood depicted is not one of cosy innocence as its about sneaking out, hanging with hoodlums and playing doctor but whatever was going on Stevie wishes those simpler times would come round again.
There’s a charming simplicity to “Knocks Me Off My Feet” as well as a strong melody which ensures this is a highspot. And like all Wonder songs with strong melodies this has led to a number of cover versions over the year perhaps most strongly by Luther Vandross on his 1996 “Your Secret Love” album. “Pastime Paradise” has a Hare Krishna choir on back-up and what I have always felt of as an African feel as Wonder dons the mantle of social commentator once again attacking those who view the world through rose-coloured glasses when the reality is; “Dissipation/Race relations/ consolation/ segregation/ dispensation/ isolation/ exploitation/ mutilation/ miscreation/ confirmation to the evils of the world.” It’s a song which has been very much absorbed into hip-hop culture. A sample took on a life of its own when it was used by Coolio on his “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995 where it was the biggest selling single of the year in the US, Australia and New Zealand and the second biggest selling (behind Robson and Jerome’s “Unchained Melody”!) “Summer Soft” starts off as another pretty ballad, surges upwards for the chorus but is another track which ultimately goes on a little too long. The first CD closes with “Ordinary Pain”, a song in two parts which has a first half which is a nifty little soul ballad which chugs along very effectively with Stevie very much in charge until it winds down almost to a stop before taking a funkier edge with a response from Shirley Brewer, aided by an impressive back-up group which features amongst others Minnie Riperton, Syreeta Wright, one-time Supreme Linda Laurence and Deniece Williams. At over 6 minutes it is another track which could have benefited from fading earlier.
Luther and Coolio – two artists inspired by the tracks on this album
The second CD opens with the album’s high-spot and possibly Stevie’s best ever track. “Isn’t She Lovely” a father’s song to his baby daughter could really have gone either way and versions of it being used in beauty pageants have pushed it well over the edge but taken here in its original full-length version it’s a powerful piece. Stevie knew this and refused to allow Motown to release it as an edited single, which would have watered down its potency and its surprising funkiness. In the UK, in particular, there was a great demand for a single release and there is no doubt that it would have topped a chart. A limp cover by white session singer David Parton almost did but eventually stalled at number 4 and even the ignominy of this did not get the original out as a single. The Parton release seemed to be the latest (and perhaps one of the last) of a long line of tracks where a white artist would water down a black artist’s vision and achieve great success, a situation which had been occurring regularly since the dawn of popular music. I’ve said elsewhere that editing could have done a lot for this album but I would not edit one single section of this track, there’s brilliant use of harmonica and even daughter Aisha playing in the bath.
After the bluster and grandeur of “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears” feels understated, a mature, graceful, atmospheric ballad which sort of creeps up on you. “Black Man” is another history lesson as Stevie aims to redress the balance of traditional American history lessons by stressing the importance of the role of people of colour in the development of the USA. “It’s time we learned the world was made for all men.” Musically, the first section is a good paced funky track but however worthy the second half call and response catechism section where Stevie uses 43 voices of the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble of Harlem to question and answer landmarks in the history of ethnic groups it does begin to grate on the listener. Stevie is not usually as didactic as this and has been much better at getting a message across without compromising the musicality of the piece but this is more questionable here.
The simplicity of “Ngicuelela-Es Un Historia-I Am Singing” feels even more effective after the last track. This is a quite lovely track sung in Zulu, Spanish and English and the high quality is maintained with “If It’s Magic” which beautifully and quite chillingly features just Stevie on vocals and harmonica and Dorothy Ashby on harp in probably the best ever use of this instrument in a pop song. Extraordinary.
“As”, the 4th single release brought out after the album had been around for a year unsurprisingly underperformed reaching number 36 in the US Top 40. It is another one of those tracks that you get the message clearly long before it ends. It’s a good track but for me had a new lease of life when turned into a 1999 duet between George Michael and Mary J Blige. This is one of those rare occasions when a Wonder cover is better than the original. Both turn out performances that rank up there amongst the best in their career and got a UK#4 hit. Stevie’s version at over 7 minutes long pushes the song to the extreme. This is also the case with the 8 minute plus track “Another Star” which in a slightly more edited form would have been one of the album’s highlights. As it is, it starts to get on your nerves. Motown did put out an edited version of this track as a single which got to #29 UK, 32 US. In the edited version it is a thrilling salsa-influenced track with George Benson on guitar and backing vocals. The whole thing gallops along at a fair old crack, but on the album version the repetition of the “la la la” chorus once again overeggs things.
This is where the original double album ended and you had to fish around in the packaging to get to the bonus seven inch record. I didn’t bother that often because it felt like these were tracks not considered to be good enough to be included on the album but here on the CD their importance has been reinstated. In the mid 70’s we were all a little obsessed with things spacey, and Stevie ventures onto Earth Wind & Fire territory with “Saturn”. This is a good quality pop track with fairly trite lyrics of a Saturnite returning to his planet because of disillusionment with the way the Earth is going. It’s all rather grandiose, which because of that Wonder magic again escapes being pretentious and ends up being rather good. Following that “Ebony Eyes” is a fun novelty-type song which reminds me a little of “Your Kiss Is Sweet” which Wonder co-wrote and produced for ex-wife Syreeta. “All Day Sucker” has never really done it for me and is probably the weakest track on display and the whole thing is rounded off by “Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call) quite a mournful little harmonica-led instrumental.
There is no doubt that this album represents Stevie Wonder at his creative peak and these 21 tracks have influenced many artists who followed Stevie into the charts at least over the next decade. Prince said it was his all-time favourite album and artists such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston have also been keen to stress its importance for them and much of the solo career of George Michael derives musically from this recording. It is a great album but I did come to it a little late and this might be the reason why it is not actually my favourite of Stevie Wonder’s studio albums. That would come a few years later. It is an unrestrained slab of big dollops of genius which must have delighted the record company and re-established Stevie Wonder as one of the most important artist of the 1970s.
The video chosen comes from a 2009 concert in London where Stevie sung a medley of “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely”. One of the backing singers is daughter Aisha, to whom the song is dedicated and who was making those baby gurgling noises on the track all those years ago.
Songs In The Key Of Life is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £6.99 and used from £2.66. In the US it is available for $11.85 and used from $4.36. In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.