Midweek Music Moment: Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder

If any one artist ruled the mid-1970s, it was Stevie Wonder. He moved from “Little Stevie Wonder” to one of the world’s most talented and bestselling musicians. It wasn’t by chance. His talent produced a string of superb albums: Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) and 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life. I know my first college roommate and I probably wore out the grooves on the first three during the time we lived together.

songs-in-the-key-of-lifeThe highly anticipated Songs in the Key of Life debuted at number one on the albums chart and spent the last 11 weeks of 1976 and the first two weeks of 1977 there. It was displaced for two weeks by Hotel California and Wings Over America before returning to the top one last time the week of January 29, 1977. I still remember the day the two LP album (with a bonus EP) was released. I went to the local record store to get it the day it was released, returned home and spent the afternoon listening to it straight through (more than once) with headphones. It is still the Wonder album to which I am most likely to turn when I have the urge to listen to his music (such as occurred seeing him play at the pre-inauguration concert at the Lincoln Monument).

Songs in the Key of Life shows the breadth of Wonder’s talent both as a songwriter and as a musician. On many of the tracks, he is the only one playing the instruments. And part of the theme is made clear from the opening track. “Love’s in Need of Love Today” urges that love is endangered by the amount of hate in the world, a topic he visits a couple times on the LP. Showing there’s still truth to his message, Wonder also performed the song on the post-9/11 “America: A Tribute to Heroes” telethon. But love isn’t the only topic on the album and Wonder covers a full range of matters.

For example, there’s the politics of “Village Ghetto Land” (“Tell me would you be happy in village ghetto land”). There’s a Return to Forever-like fusion piece, “Contusion, followed by “Sir Duke,” a burning, big brass tribute to music and jazz in particular (“For 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”). There’s also the personal side of “Isn’t She Lovely,” Wonder’s celebration of the birth of his daughter, including sounds of him and her while she’s being bathed. (I must say, though, if the version of the song on Lee Ritenour’s 1977 Captain Fingers, with Bill Champlin on vocals, doesn’t surpass the original, it certainly matches it.)

This is also an LP that again supports one of my complaints about CDs. One side of the original LPs — side four — comes off as utterly classic and a perfect ensemble of songs. But on the CD version, not only is it preceded by side 3 of the original LPs, two of the songs on the EP follow it. As a result, the exquisite closing to the original LP is taken out of its original context.

Side four consists entirely of songs of and about love and Wonder simply excels on Side 4. Each song makes you think he has magically and beautifully captured the essence of the emotion, only to hear him use a different style and surpass himself with the next. The first, “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” uses Zulu, Spanish and English — with Wonder the only instrumentalist — to again urge the importance of love in the world and individually. As it fades out, Wonder changes the mood dramatically on “If It’s Magic.” Here, he is accompanied only by a harp and a bit of closing harmonica and asks why we aren’t as careful about love as we are “making sure we dress in style.” The pace shifts again immediately on “As,” a personal song of love again advocating the importance of love, saying it should and must exist “Until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea” and “Until the day that eight times eight times eight times eight is four.” The song, which includes Herbie Hancock on keyboards, has an up-tempo, ultimately driving beat that will have you tapping a foot or a finger or nodding your head. It actually hit number 2 on the disco/dance charts. As the extended outro of “As” fades, Wonder closes by moving from the universal to the personal and from a dance rhythm to an infectious Latin beat. “Another Star” tells of how “no other love could do” and that the protagonist was left heartbroken.

Any one of Wonder’s mid-70s quartet could easily be considered a must for any record collection. All four made Rolling Stone‘s list of the top 500 albums of all time, three of them, including Songs in the Key of Life, in the top 100. But if you want a full sample of Wonder’s talents — with the added bonus of four consecutive songs that are as incomparable as they are varied — Songs in the Key of Life does that. It is as grand as it is ambitious.

Did you know that life has given love a guarantee
To last through forever and another day

“As,” Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life

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