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Songs in the Key of Life is the eighteenth album by American recording artist Stevie Wonder, released on September 28, 1976, by Motown Records. It was the culmination of his “classic period” albums.[1] The album was recorded primarily at Crystal Sounds studio in Hollywood, with some sessions recorded at the Record Plant in Hollywood, the Record Plant in Sausalito, and The Hit Factory in New York City. Final mixing was performed at Crystal Sounds.[2]

An ambitious double LP with a four-song bonus EP,[3] Songs in the Key of Life became among the best-selling and most critically acclaimed albums of his career. In 2005, it was ranked number 57 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and it was preserved into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, which called it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

ContentsEdit

 [hide*1 Background

Background[edit]Edit

By 1976, Stevie Wonder had become one of the most popular figures in R&B and pop music, not only in the US, but worldwide. Within a short space of time, the albums Talking BookInnervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale were all back-to-back top five successes, with the latter two winning Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1974 and ’75, respectively. By the end of 1975, Wonder became serious about quitting the music industry and emigrating to Ghana to work with handicapped children. He had expressed his anger with the way that the U.S. government was running the country. [4][5] A farewell concert was being considered as the best way to bring down the curtain on his career. Wonder changed his decision, when he signed a new contract with Motown on August 5, 1975, thinking he was better off making the most of his career. At the time, rivals such as Arista and Epic were also interested in him. The contract was laid out as a seven-year, seven LP, $37 million deal and gave him full artistic control, making this the largest deal made with a recording star up to that point.[4] Almost at the beginning Stevie took a year off from the music market, with a project for a double album to be released in 1976.[6] There was huge anticipation for the new album which was initially scheduled for release around October 1975. It was delayed on short notice when Wonder felt that further remixing was essential. According to Stevie Wonder, the marketing campaign at Motown decided to take advantage of the delay by producing “We’re almost finished” t-shirts.[7]

Work on the new album continued into early 1976. A name was finally chosen for the album: Songs in the Key of Life. The title would represent the formula of a complex “key of life” and the proposals for indefinite success.[8] The album was finally released on September 28, 1976 after a two-year wait as a double LP album with a four track seven-inch EP titled A Something’s Extra (“Saturn”, “Ebony Eyes”, “All Day Sucker” and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)”) and a 24-page lyric and credit booklet.[7][9]

Recording[edit]Edit

[1][2]Wonder used an Electro-VoiceRE20 microphone (pictured) to record his voice for upbeat songs such as "I Wish". A variety of microphones was used for other songs.[2]

The working title was Let’s See Life the Way It Is.[10] Wonder recorded the great majority of the album at Crystal Sounds in Hollywood, with Gary Olazabal as first engineer, and studio owner John Fischbach as co-engineer.[2] Some material was recorded at the Record Plant in Hollywood and the Record Plant in Sausalito. During a period when Crystal Sounds had a prior obligation to record another artist, Wonder and Fischbach traveled to the Hit Factory in New York City to work for about six weeks on one basic track.[2][11] As a perfectionist, Wonder spent long hours in the studio for almost every track he recorded. He was “not eating or sleeping, while everyone around him struggled to keep up”.[6] According to himself, “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak”.

A total of 130 people worked on the album, but Wonder’s preeminence during the album was evident. Among the people present during the sessions, there were legendary figures of R&B, soul and jazz music – Herbie Hancock played Fender Rhodes on “As”, George Benson played electric guitar on “Another Star”, and Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams added backing vocals on “Ordinary Pain”. Mike Sembello was a prominent personality throughout the album, playing guitar in several tracks and also co-writing “Saturn” with Wonder. Some of the most socially conscious songs of the album were actually written by Wonder with other people – these included “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man” (co-written with Gary Byrd), “Pastime Paradise” co-written with Ronald Simmons and “Have a Talk with God” (co-written with Calvin Hardaway).

Commercial performance[edit]Edit

Highly anticipated, the album surpassed all commercial expectations. It debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart on October 8, 1976, becoming only the third album in history to achieve that feat and the first by an American artist (after British singer/composer Elton John’s albums Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies, both in 1975). In Canada, the album achieved the same feat, entering at number one on the RPM national albums chart on October 16.[12] Songs in the Key of Life spent thirteen consecutive weeks at number one in the US, and eleven during 1976. It was the album with the most weeks at number one during the year. In those eleven weeks, Songs in the Key of Life managed to block four other albums from reaching the top – in order, Boz Scaggs’sSilk DegreesEarth, Wind & Fire’s SpiritLed Zeppelin’s soundtrack for The Song Remains the Same and Rod Stewart’s A Night on the Town.[13] On January 15, 1977, the album finally dropped to number two behind Eagles’ Hotel California and the following week it fell to number four. On January 29 it returned to the top for a fourteenth and final week. The album then began its final fall. It spent a total of 35 weeks inside the top ten and 80 weeks on the Billboard albums chart. Songs in the Key of Life also saw longevity at number one on the Billboard R&B/Black Albums chart, spending 20 non-consecutive weeks there.

In all, Songs in the Key of Life became the second best-selling album of 1977 in the US, only behind Fleetwood Mac’s blockbuster Rumours, and was certified as a diamond album by the RIAA, for sales of ten million copies in the US alone.[14] It was the highest selling R&B/Soul album on the Billboard Year-End chart that same year.[15]

Songs in the Key of Life was also the most successful Stevie Wonder project in terms of singles. The lead-off, the upbeat “I Wish” was released in November 1976, over a month after the album was released. On January 15, 1977, it reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart, where it spent five weeks at the top. Seven days after, it also reached the summit of the Billboard Hot 100, although it spent only one week at number one. The track became an international top-10 single, and also reached number five in the UK. “I Wish” became one of Wonder’s standards and remained one of his most sampled songs. The follow-up, the jazzy “Sir Duke”, surpassed the commercial success of “I Wish”. It was released on March 1977 and also reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (spending three weeks at the top starting on May 21) and the R&B Charts (for one week, starting on May 28). It also reached number two in the UK, where it was kept off the top spot by the song “Free” by Deniece Williams, who had provided backing vocals on the album.

As sales for the album began to decline during the second half of 1977, the two other singles from Songs in the Key of Life failed to achieve the commercial success of “I Wish” and “Sir Duke”. “Another Star” was released in August and reached only number 32 on the Hot 100 (number 18: R&B, and number 29: UK) and “As” came out two months later, peaking at number 36 on both the Pop and R&B Charts. Though not released as a single (because, even when Motown asked Wonder to release it, he refused to), “Isn’t She Lovely” received wide airplay and became one of Wonder’s more popular songs. It was soon released by David Parton as a single in 1977 and became a top-10 hit in the UK.

Critical reception[edit]Edit

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic [16]
Billboard favorable[17]
Robert Christgau A[18]
PopMatters favorable[19]
Rolling Stone favorable[20]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide [21]
Sputnikmusic 4.5/5[22]
The Village Voice favorable[23]
Virgin Encyclopedia [24]
Yahoo! Music favorable[25]

At the time of release, reporters and music critics, and everyone who had worked on the album, traveled to Long View Farm, a recording studio inMassachusetts for a press preview of the album. Everybody received autographed copies of the album and Stevie gave interviews. Critical reception was positive. The album was viewed as a guided tour through a wide range of musical styles and the life and feelings of the artist. It included recollections of childhood, of first love and lost love. It contained songs about faith and love among all peoples and songs about social justice for the poor and downtrodden.[26]

On February 19, 1977, Wonder was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, an award that he had already won twice, in 1974 and 1975, for Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale.[9] Since 1973, Stevie’s presence at the Grammy ceremonies had been consistent – he attended most of the ceremonies and also used to perform on stage. But in 1976, he did not attend as he was not nominated for any awards (as he had not released any new material during the past year). Paul Simon, who received the Grammy for Album of the Year in that occasion (for Still Crazy After All These Years) jokingly thanked Stevie “for not releasing an album” that year. A year after, Wonder was nominated for Songs in the Key of Life in that same category, and was widely favored by many critics to take the award. The other nominees were Breezin’ by George BensonChicago X by ChicagoSilk Degrees by Boz Scaggs, and the other favorite, Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive!, which was also a huge critical and commercial success. Wonder was again absent from the ceremony, as he had developed an interest in visiting Africa. In February he traveled to Nigeria for two weeks, primarily to explore his musical heritage, as he put it. A satellite hook-up was arranged so that Stevie could be awarded his Grammys from across the sea. Bette Midler announced the results during the ceremony, and the audience was only able to see Wonder at a phone smiling and giving thanks.[27] The video signal was poor and the audio inaudible. Andy Williams went on to make a public blunder when he asked the blind-since-birth Wonder, “Stevie, can you see us?”[26] In all, Wonder won four out of seven nominations at the Grammys: Album of the YearBest Male Pop Vocal PerformanceBest Male R&B Vocal Performance and Producer of the Year.

Legacy and influence[edit]Edit

With time, the album became a standard, and it is considered Wonder’s signature album. “Of all the albums,” he told Q magazine (April 1995 issue), “Songs in the Key of Life I’m most happy about. Just the time, being alive then. To be a father and then… letting go and letting God give me the energy and strength I needed.” Songs in the Key of Life is often cited as one of the greatest albums in popular music history.[28] It was voted as the best album of the year in The Village Voices annual Pazz & Jop critics poll; in 2001 the TV network VH1 named it the seventh greatest album of all time; in 2003, the album was ranked number 56 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Many musicians have also remarked on the quality of the album and its influence on their own work. For example, Elton John said, in his notes for Wonder on the 2003 Rolling Stone’s list of “The Immortals – The Greatest Artists of All Time” (in which Wonder was ranked number 15): “Let me put it this way: wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of Songs in the Key of Life. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” [29] In an interview with Ebony magazine, Michael Jackson called Songs in the Key of Life his favorite Stevie Wonder album. George Michael cited the album as his favorite of all time[30] and with Mary J. Blige covered “As” for a 1999 hit single. Michael also performed “Village Ghetto Land” at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988.

R&B singers in particular have praised the album – Mariah Carey generally names the album as one of her favourites, and Whitney Houston also remarked on the influence of Songs in the Key of Life on her singing. (During the photoshoot for her Whitney: The Greatest Hits, as seen on its respective home video, the album was played throughout the photo sessions, at Houston’s request.) The album’s tracks have provided numerous samples for rap and hip-hop artists; for example, “Pastime Paradise”, which itself drew on the first eight notes and four chords of J.S. Bach’s Prelude No. 2 in C minor (BWV 847), was reworked by Coolio as “Gangsta’s Paradise”. In 1995, smooth jazz artist Najee recorded a cover album titled Najee Plays Songs from the Key of Life, which is based entirely on Wonder’s album. In 1999,Will Smith used “I Wish” as the base for his US number-one single “Wild Wild West”. The song repeated the main melody of “I Wish” as a riff and some lyrics re-formed.

In April 2008, the album was voted the “Top Album of All Time” by the Yahoo! Music Playlist Blog, using a formula that combined four parameters – “Album Staying Power Value + Sales Value + Critical Rating Value + Grammy Award Value”.[31]

In December 2013, Stevie Wonder did a live concert performance of the entire “Songs in the Key of Life” album at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. The event was his 18th annual House Full of Toys Benefit Concert, and featured some of the original singers and musicians from the 1976 double-album as well as several from the contemporary scene.[32]

Track listing[edit]Edit

Original vinyl release[edit]Edit

Side one
  1. “Love’s in Need of Love Today” (Stevie Wonder) – 7:06
  2. “Have a Talk with God” (Calvin Hardaway, Wonder) – 2:42
    • Stevie Wonder - All instruments synthesizer
  3. “Village Ghetto Land” (Gary Byrd, Wonder) – 3:25
  4. “Contusion” (Wonder) – 3:46
  5. Sir Duke” (Wonder) – 3:52
Side two
  1. I Wish” (Wonder) – 4:12
    • Nathan Watts – bass
    • Hank Redd – alto saxophone
    • Raymond Maldonado – trumpet
    • Trevor Laurence – tenor saxophone
    • Steve Madaio – trumpet
    • Stevie Wonder – vocals, Fender Rhodes, ARP 2600 synthesizer, drums
  2. Knocks Me Off My Feet” (Wonder) – 3:36
    • Stevie Wonder – acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, drums, vocals, synth bass
  3. Pastime Paradise” (Wonder) – 3:27
  4. “Summer Soft” (Wonder) – 4:14
    • Ben Bridges – rhythm Guitar
    • Ronnie Foster – organ
    • Larry “Nastyee” Latimer – percussion
    • Stevie Wonder – vocals, piano, bass synthesizer, drums
  5. “Ordinary Pain” (Wonder) – 6:16
    • Mike Sembello – lead guitar
    • Hank Redd – alto saxophone
    • Stevie Wonder – lead Vocals, Fender Rhodes, bass synthesizer, drums
    • Minnie Riperton, Mary Lee Whitney, Deniece WilliamsSyreeta Wright – background vocals
    • Shirley Brewer – reply
    • Linda Lawrence, Terri Hendricks, Sundray Tucker, Charity McCrary, Madelaine Jones – reply’s background vocals
Side three
  1. Isn't She Lovely” (Wonder) – 6:34
  2. “Joy Inside My Tears” (Wonder) – 6:30
    • Stevie Wonder – lead Vocals, background vocals, piano, bass synthesizer, drums
    • Greg Phillinganes – keyboard
    • Susaye Green – background vocals
  3. Black Man”(Byrd/Wonder) – 8:27
    • Stevie Wonder – Fender Rhodes, bass synthesizer, synthesizer, talk box, drums, percussion
    • Hank Redd – alto saxophone, tenor saxophone
    • Steve Madaio – trumpet
    • George Bohanon – trombone
    • Glen Ferris – trombone
Side four
  1. “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” (Wonder) – 3:48
    • Charles Brewer, Shirley Brewer, Renee Hardaway, Nelson Hayes, Marietta Waters, Nathan Watts, John Fischbach, Amale Mathews, Josette Valentino – background percussion
    • Stevie Wonder – vocals, Koto synthesizer, bass synthesizer, drums
  2. “If It’s Magic” (Wonder) – 3:12
  3. As” (Wonder) – 7:08
    • Nathan Watts – bass, handclaps
    • Dean Parks – guitar
    • Herbie Hancock – Fender Rhodes, handclaps
    • Greg Brown – drums
    • Stevie Wonder – lead and background vocal, Fender Rhodes
    • Mary Lee Whitney – background vocals
    • Dave Hanson, Yolanda Simon, Josette Valentino – handclaps
  4. Another Star” (Wonder) – 8:08
    • Bobbi Humphrey – flute
    • George Benson – guitar and background vocals
    • Hank Redd – alto saxophone
    • Raymond Maldonado – trumpet
    • Trevor Laurence – tenor saxophone
    • Steve Madaio – trumpet
    • Nathan Alford, Jr. – percussion
    • Carmello Hungria Garcia – timbales
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal and background vocals, piano, drums
    • Nathan Watts – bass
    • Josie James – background vocals

A Something’s Extra[edit]Edit

The “A Something’s Extra” 7" EP was included with the special-edition version of the original LP. These tracks are also on most CD versions of the album, either split between both discs or appended to the end of the second disc.

Side one
  1. “Saturn” (Michael Sembello, Wonder) – 4:54
    • Mike Sembello – lead guitar
    • Ben Bridges – rhythm guitar
    • Gregory Phillinganes – keyboard
    • Stevie Wonder – all other instruments
  2. “Ebony Eyes” (Wonder) – 4:11
Side two
  1. “All Day Sucker” (Wonder) – 5:06
    • Ben Bridges – rhythm guitar
    • Mike Sembello – rhythm guitar
    • W. G. “Snuffy” Walden – lead guitar
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocals, background vocals, bass synthesizer, Clavinet, drums
    • Carolyn Denis – background vocals
  2. “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” (Wonder) – 3:55
    • Nathan Watts – bass
    • Stevie Wonder – Fender Rhodes, harmonica, drums

CD release[edit]Edit

No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. "Love’s in Need of Love Today"   Stevie Wonder 7:06
2. "Have a Talk with God"   Wonder, Calvin Hardaway 2:42
3. "Village Ghetto Land"   Wonder, Gary Byrd 3:25
4. "Contusion"   Wonder 3:46
5. "Sir Duke"   Wonder 3:54
6. "I Wish"   Wonder 4:12
7. "Knocks Me Off My Feet"   Wonder 3:36
8. "Pastime Paradise"   Wonder 3:28
9. "Summer Soft"   Wonder 4:14
10. "Ordinary Pain"   Wonder 6:23
11. "Isn’t She Lovely"   Wonder 6:34
12. "Joy Inside My Tears"   Wonder 6:30
13. "Black Man"   Wonder, Byrd 8:30
14. "Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing"   Wonder 3:49
15. "If It’s Magic"   Wonder 3:12
16. "As"   Wonder 7:08
17. "Another Star"   Wonder 8:28

Personnel[edit]Edit

  • Susie Fuzzell – vocals
  • Carmelo Garcia – percussion, timbales
  • Anthony Givens – vocals
  • Audrey Givens – vocals
  • Derrick Givens – vocals
  • Mildred Givens – vocals
  • Michael Lee Gray – vocals
  • Mimi Green – vocals
  • Susaye Greene Brown – vocals
  • Bhakta Gregory – vocals
  • Renee Hardaway – percussion, vocals
  • John Harris – sound effects
  • Jeania Harris – vocals
  • John Harris – programming
  • Troy Harris – vocals
  • Nelson Hayes – percussion, sound effects, vocals
  • Terry Hendricks – vocals
  • H. David Henson – assistant engineer
  • Don Hunter – programming, sound effects
  • Adrian Janes – vocals
  • Josie James – vocals
  • Calvin Johnson – vocals
  • Carol Johnson – vocals
  • Patricia Johnson – vocals
  • Madelaine Jones – vocals
  • Bhakta Kevin – vocals
  • Phillip Kimble – vocals
  • James Lambert – vocals
  • Linda Lawrence – vocals
  • Irma Leslie – vocals
  • Kim Lewis – vocals
  • Carl Lockhart – vocals
  • Gail Lockhart – vocals
  • Raymond Maldonado – percussion, trumpet
  • Carolyn Massenburg – vocals
  • Article May – vocals
  • Charity McCrary – vocals
  • Linda McCrary-Campbell – vocals
  • Lonnie Morgan – vocals
  • Kim Nixon – vocals
  • Lisa Nixon – vocals
  • Larri Nuckens – vocals
  • Larry Latimer – percussion, vocals
  • Amale Mathews – percussion, vocals
  • Gary Olazabal – engineer, bass sound
  • Edna Orso – percussion, vocals
  • Marietta Waters – percussion, vocals
  • Josette Valentino – percussion, vocals, handclapping
  • Gwen Perry – vocals
  • Gregory Rudd – vocals
  • Rukmini – vocals
  • Yolanda Simmons – vocals, handclapping
  • Keith Slaughter – vocals
  • Rosona Starks – vocals
  • Dennis Swindell – vocals
  • Sundray Tucker – vocals
  • Gary Veney – vocals
  • Sheryl Walker – vocals
  • Mary Lee Whitney – vocals
  • Syreeta Wright – vocals
  • Michael Gray – vocals
  • Susaye Greene – vocals
  • William Moore – vocals
  • Fountain Jones – programming
  • Aisha Morris – crying on "Isn't She Lovely"

Singles[edit]Edit

Year Single Chart Position
1976 "Another Star" Club Play Singles 2
1977 Pop Singles 32
Black Singles 18
Adult Contemporary 29
"I Wish" Pop Singles 1
Black Singles 1
Adult Contemporary 23
"Sir Duke" Pop Singles 1
Black Singles 1
Adult Contemporary 3
"Isn't She Lovely" Adult Contemporary 23
"As" Adult Contemporary 24
Black Singles 36
1978 Pop Singles 36

Charts[edit]Edit

Peak positions[edit]Edit

Chart (1976/77) Position
Australian Kent Music Report[33] 6
Austrian Albums Chart[34] 15
Canadian RPM Albums Chart[35] 1
Dutch Albums Chart[36] 1
French SNEP Albums Chart[37] 1
Italian Albums Chart[38] 2
Japanese Oricon Albums Chart[39] 40
New Zealand Albums Chart[40] 5
Norwegian VG-lista Albums Chart[41] 6
Swedish Albums Chart[42] 9
UK Albums Chart[43] 2
U.S. Billboard 200 [44] 1
West German Media Control Albums Chart[45] 23

Year-end charts[edit]Edit

Chart (1976) Position
Australian Albums Chart[33] 49
Canadian Albums Chart[46] 3
Dutch Albums Chart[47] 14
French Albums Chart[48] 11
UK Albums Chart[49] 21
Chart (1977) Position
Australian Albums Chart[33] 39
Canadian Albums Chart[50] 5
Dutch Albums Chart[51] 7
Italian Albums Chart[38] 9
UK Albums Chart[49] 18
U.S. Billboard 200[52] 2

Certifications[edit]Edit

Region Certification
Canada (Music Canada)[53] 2× Platinum
France (SNEP)[54] Gold
United Kingdom (BPI)[55] Platinum
United States (RIAA)[56] Diamond

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