Essential Records: Stevie Wonder's 'Songs In The Key of Life'

Posted by Amoebite, December 1, 2014 02:22pm | Post a Comment

Essential Records

Songs In The Key Of Life is hailed by many as one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Music industry icons like Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Elton John and Mariah Carey all sing its praises. By the time Stevie Wonder gifted the world his magnum opus - at just 25 years old - he had already released 21 albums under the famed Motown label. Amazing!  

Stevie Wonder Where I'm Coming FromOne month before his 21st birthday in 1971, Stevie Wonder released Where I'm Coming From, a definitive production that gave way to a new aesthetic, style, and sound not aligned with the polished, clean, stand up image Motown championed for its artists. In essence, Wonder was shedding his "Little Stevie Wonder" persona and declaring his musical independence. Armed with a new recording contract giving him artistic control, Wonder co-wrote the album with then girlfriend and former Motown secretary, Syreeta Wright. Together the two penned songs that showcased a new, funkier style Wonder was developing outside the confines of Motown. Digging deeper to perfect his new sound, Stevie followed with Music Of My Mind in 1972, the precursor to what became his unrivaled golden era of output. Music Of My Mind was entirely written, produced, and performed by Wonder (with the exception of a single part in two songs) masterfully utilizing Arp synthesizers, Moog keyboards, and live instrumentation. This was Wonder's first truly cohesive effort realized all on his own. The transformation from "Little Stevie Wonder" to bonafide one man production powerhouse was complete.

Essential Records

Next came three consecutive stellar albums, Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973) and Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974) - all worthy of their own "Essential Records" write up. Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale earned Wonder back to back Album of The Year awards, and peaked at #1 on the Billboard 200 and R&B charts respectively. Many music critics and fans at the time believed the culmination of these three albums were the peak in Stevie Wonder's already widely successful career. Heralded as a pop icon and musical genius, Wonder was now more famous than ever. The master songwriter and producer had arrived. With his previous contract now completed, Wonder was gaining interest from other record companies wanting to sign him. Stevie used this leverage to go head to head with Motown founder Berry Gordy to up the ante. A smart and shrewed businessman, in 1975, Wonder negotiated an unprecendented seven year, seven album deal with full artistic control, signing for $13 million dollars. The staggering deal was the highest of any recording contract of the time.

Stevie WonderThe first release under his new contract was Songs In The Key Of Life. Announced as a double album with an initial release date for October 1975, Songs In The Key Of Life was arguably the most anticipated album of the '70s. Easily his most ambitious production to date, Wonder wrote, produced, composed, and arranged every song. Despite singing all the leads and playing on every track, Wonder enlisted a total of 130 people to work on the album. Some of the guest musicians included jazz legends Herbie Hancock and George Benson with guest vocals by soul icon Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams, and Syreeta Wright. Wonder worked tirelessly in the studio, often going long hours without eating or sleeping. Hell bent on delivering the best possible album he could, he kept tweaking and re-mixing tracks, which resulted in missing street dates several times. At one point, Motown tried to capitalize on the delay by prinitng t-shirts that read, "We're Almost Finished." After two full years in productionSongs In The Key Of Life hit retail stores September 28, 1976. It was packaged as a double disc with a bonus 45" vinyl containing four extra songs for a total of 21 tracks. Included was a magazine sized booklet with song lyrics, detailed liner notes, and a thank you list to 150 people (artists and celebrity types).  

Songs in the Key of LifeLiving up to its gargantuan hype, Songs In The Key Of Life debuted at #1, becoming only the third album in history to do so and the first by an American recording artist to achieve that feat. It spent 13 weeks on Billboard's Pop Albums chart in the #1 spot and stayed in the Top 10 for 35 weeks, yielding four Billboard Top 40 singles, two of which peaked at #1. The first single released was "I Wish," which became a Top 10 hit around the world and is one of Stevie's most sampled songs. The follow up single, "Sir Duke," was a tribute to the late great Duke Ellington who passed away in 1974. Ellington's music had a big influence on Stevie and "Sir Duke" serves as an homage to the jazz legend, as well as other iconic artists including Count Basie, Glen Miller, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald who are all named in the song. "Sir Duke" hit #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Soul Singles charts and went to #2 on the UK Singles Chart. Songs In The Key of Life also spawned one of Wonder's most popular songs, "Isn't She Lovely." Despite requests from Motown, Wonder did not allow the label to release the song as a single. "Isn't She Lovely" was written in celebration of the birth of his daughter Aisha. The track features audio of a baby being born and includes samples of baby Aisha playing with Stevie. You can hear the baby making noise while water splashes from the bath. "Isn't She Lovely" has become a standard in American music yielding cover verisons by Frank Sinatra, Sonny Rollins, John McLaughlin, and countless others.  

In 1977, Stevie Wonder won four out of seven GRAMMY nominations, taking home Album Of The Year, Producer Of The Year, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Songs In The Key of Life has been preserved into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress which called it, "culturally, historically, and aestheically significant." We couldn't agree more and it is most definitely an essential record.


- by Ray Ricky Rivera

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