Songs in the Key of Life
Songs in the Key of Life is the eighteenth studio album by American singer, songwriter and musician Stevie Wonder. It was released on September 28, 1976 by Tamla Records, a division of Motown. The double album has been regarded by music journalists as the culmination of Wonder's "classic period" of recording. The album was recorded primarily at Crystal Sound 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 conducted at Crystal Sound.
|Songs in the Key of Life|
|Studio album by|
|Released||September 28, 1976|
|Studio||Crystal Sound, Hollywood; Record Plant Los Angeles; Record Plant Sausalito; The Hit Factory, New York City|
|Stevie Wonder chronology|
|Singles from Songs in the Key of Life|
By 1974, Wonder was one of the most successful figures in popular music; Wonder's previous albums Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale were all back-to-back critical successes. However, by the end of 1975, Wonder seriously considered quitting the music industry and planned to emigrate to Ghana to work with handicapped children. Plans for a farewell concert had begun, but Wonder subsequently changed his mind and signed a new contract with Motown on August 5, 1975. This outlined a seven-year, seven-album, $37 million deal with full artistic control. At the time, it was the biggest recording deal in history.
Songs in the Key of Life was released as a double LP with a four-song bonus EP. It debuted at number one on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart becoming only the third album to achieve that feat and the first by an American artist at the time. The lead single "I Wish" reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100; the follow-up single "Sir Duke" also reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Songs in the Key of Life spent thirteen consecutive weeks at number one on the Billboard 200, becoming the album with the most weeks at number one during the year. It was the second best-selling album of 1977 in the US. In 2005, Songs in the Key of Life was certified Diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Songs in the Key of Life won Album of the Year at the 19th Grammy Awards. It is the best-selling and most critically acclaimed album of Wonder's career. Widely regarded as Wonder's magnum opus and one of the greatest albums in the history of recorded music, many musicians have remarked on the quality of the album and its influence on their own work. Additionally, notable musicians have cited it as the greatest album of all time. It was voted number 89 in Colin Larkin's All Time Top 1000 Albums and ranked number 4 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2002, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2005, Songs in the Key of Life was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, which deemed it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
By 1976, Stevie Wonder had become one of the most popular figures in R&B and pop music, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. Within a short space of time, the albums Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale were all back-to-back-to-back top five successes, with the latter two winning Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1974 and 1975, 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. 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 ($175,801,484 in 2019 dollars) and gave him full artistic control, making this the largest deal made with a recording star up to that point. Almost at the beginning Wonder took a year off from the music market, with a project for a double album to be released in 1976.
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 Wonder, the marketing campaign at Motown decided to take advantage of the delay by producing "We're almost finished" T-shirts. 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. The album was 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.
The working title was Let's See Life the Way It Is. Wonder recorded the great majority of the album at Crystal Sounds in Hollywood, with Gary Olazabal as engineer, and studio owner John Fischbach as engineer. 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 but only used one basic track. 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." According to Wonder, "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 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 on 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) and "Have a Talk with God" (co-written by Calvin Hardaway). Nathan Watts, Wonder's newest bass player at the time, originally recorded a bass track for "Isn't She Lovely" that Wonder replaced with his own keyboard bass for the final version. The same guide-track method was employed for "Knocks Me Off My Feet".
|Christgau's Record Guide||A|
|Encyclopedia of Popular Music|
|The Great Rock Discography||8/10|
|The Rolling Stone Album Guide|
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 in Massachusetts for a press preview of the album. Everybody received autographed copies of the album and Wonder gave interviews. Critical reception was immediately 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. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau said, "in themselves the words are much funnier and trickier than the sociospiritual bullshit of Maurice White or Kenny Gamble; as validated by the wit, pace, and variety of the music, they come close to redeeming the whole genre."
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. 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 Benson, Chicago X by Chicago, Silk 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. 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?” In all, Wonder won four out of seven nominations at the Grammys: Album of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Producer of the Year.
Legacy and influence
Over 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. It was voted as the best album of the year in The Village Voice's 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, re-ranked number 57 in a 2012 revised list, and re-ranked number 4 on the 2020 list.
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." 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 and with Mary J. Blige covered "As" for a 1999 hit single. Michael performed "Love's in Need of Love Today" on his Faith tour in 1988, and released it as a B-side to "Father Figure". He also performed "Village Ghetto Land" at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988. He later covered "Pastime Paradise" and "Knocks Me Off My Feet" in his 1991 Cover to Cover tour.
R&B singers in particular have praised the album – Prince called it the best album ever recorded, Mariah Carey generally names the album as one of her favorites, 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 importance has also been recognized by heavy metal musicians, with singer Phil Anselmo describing a live performance of Songs in the Key of Life as "a living, breathing miracle".
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".
In December 2013, 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.
In November 2014, Wonder began performing the entire album in a series of concert dates in the US and Canada. The start of the tour coincided with the 38th anniversary of the release of Songs in the Key of Life.
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. Songs in the Key of Life spent thirteen consecutive weeks at number one in the US, and 11 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’s Silk Degrees, Earth, Wind & Fire's Spirit, Led Zeppelin's soundtrack for The Song Remains the Same and Rod Stewart's A Night on the Town. 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 10 million units in the US alone (each individual record or disc included with an album counts towards RIAA certifications). It was the highest selling R&B/Soul album on the Billboard Year-End chart that same year.
Songs in the Key of Life was also the most successful 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 in 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 chart (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 on the R&B chart, and number 29 in the 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, "Isn't She Lovely" received wide airplay and became one of Wonder's most popular songs. It was soon released by David Parton as a single in 1977 and became a top 10 hit in the UK.
All tracks are written by Stevie Wonder, unless otherwise noted.
|1.||"Love's in Need of Love Today"||7:05|
|2.||"Have a Talk With God"||Calvin Hardaway, Wonder||2:42|
|3.||"Village Ghetto Land"||Gary Byrd, Wonder||3:25|
|2.||"Knocks Me Off My Feet"||3:35|
|1.||"Isn't She Lovely"||6:33|
|2.||"Joy Inside My Tears"||6:29|
|1.||"Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing" (translation by Thoko Mdalose, Raymond Maldonado)||3:48|
|2.||"If It's Magic"||3:11|
A Something's Extra EP
Original LP editions included a bonus 7" EP, titled "A Something's Extra", containing four bonus tracks.
|1.||"Saturn"||Michael Sembello, Wonder||4:54|
|1.||"All Day Sucker"||5:06|
|2.||"Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)"||3:58|
Credits adapted from Songs in the Key of Life liner notes.
- Stevie Wonder – lead vocals, musician, arrangement, composer, producer
- Nathan Watts – bass guitar (4-6, 16, 17, 19, 21), percussion (14), handclaps (16)
- Raymond Pounds – drums (4-6)
- Greg Phillinganes – keyboards (4, 11, 12, 18)
- Michael Sembello – lead guitar (4, 5, 10, 18, 20)
- Ben Bridges – rhythm guitar (4, 5, 9, 18, 20)
- Eddie "Bongo" Brown – collinga (1)
- Shirley Brewer – backing vocals (4, 14), "Ordinary Pain" reply vocals (10), handclaps (11)
- Josie James – backing vocals (4, 17)
- Michael Gray – backing vocals (4)
- Artece May – backing vocals (4), handclaps (11)
- Hank Redd – alto saxophone (5, 6, 10, 13, 17)
- Trevor Lawrence – tenor saxophone (5, 6, 17)
- Raymond Maldonado – trumpet (5, 6, 17), percussion (8)
- Steve Madaio – trumpet (5, 6, 13, 17)
- Renee Hardaway – backing vocals (6, 14)
- Bobbye Hall – percussion (8)
- West Angeles Church of God Choir – backing vocals (8)
- Hare Krishna – backing vocals (8)
- Ronnie Foster – organ (9)
- Nastee Latimer – percussion (9)
- Minnie Riperton – backing vocals (10)
- Mary Lee Whitney – backing vocals (10, 16)
- Deniece Williams – backing vocals (10)
- Syreeta Wright – backing vocals (10)
- Linda Lawrence – "Ordinary Pain" reply backing vocals (10)
- Terry Hendricks – "Ordinary Pain" reply backing vocals (10)
- Sundray Tucker – "Ordinary Pain" reply backing vocals (10)
- Charity McCrary – "Ordinary Pain" reply backing vocals (10)
- Linda McCrary – "Ordinary Pain" reply backing vocals (10)
- Madelaine "Gypsie" Jones – "Ordinary Pain" reply backing vocals (10)
- Josette Valentino – handclaps (11, 16), percussion (14)
- Dave Henson – handclaps (11, 16)
- Brenda Barrett – handclaps (11)
- Colleen Carleton – handclaps (11)
- Carole Cole – handclaps (11)
- Nelson Hayes – handclaps (11)
- Edna Orso – handclaps (11)
- Tucker – handclaps (11)
- Susaye Greene – backing vocals (12)
- George Bohanon – trombone (13)
- Glenn Ferris – trombone (13)
- Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble – verbal replies (13)
- Amale Mathews – percussion (14)
- Charles Brewer – percussion (14)
- John Fischbach – percussion (14)
- Marietta Waters – percussion (14)
- Nelson Hayes – percussion (14)
- Dorothy Ashby – harp (15)
- Greg Brown – drums (16)
- Herbie Hancock – keyboards (16), handclaps (16)
- Dean Parks – guitar (16)
- Yolanda Simmons – handclaps (16)
- Bobbi Humphrey – flute (17)
- George Benson – guitar, backing vocals (17)
- Nathan Alford, Jr. – percussion (17)
- Carmello Hungria Garcia – timbales (17)
- Jim Horn - saxophone (19)
- Peter "Sneaky Pete" Kleinow – steel guitar (19)
- W. G. Snuffy Walden – lead guitar (20)
- Carolyn Dennis – backing vocals (20)
|1976||"Another Star"||Club Play Singles||2|
|"I Wish"||Pop Singles||1|
|"Sir Duke"||Pop Singles||1|
|"Isn't She Lovely"||Adult Contemporary||23|
|Canada (Music Canada)||2× Platinum||200,000^|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Platinum||300,000^|
|United States (RIAA)||Diamond||5,000,000^|
* Sales figures based on certification alone.
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