Stevie Wonder is heading out on a short tour that will bring him to Madison Square Garden on November 6, performing his landmark classic album, Songs in the Key of Life, from start to finish.
The album is an emotional juggernaut, an immensely generous gift from the heart of a genius, and a masterpiece by almost any measure. Mr. Wonder set forth to cover the breadth suggested by the album’s title, nothing less than the “key of life.” And if he did not quite hit it all, his aim was true. It was the culmination of a four-album run (astonishingly released in just a 39-month timeframe) of sustained excellence unmatched aside from the Mt. Rushmore of 1960s-1970s giants of popular music—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and maybe Van Morrison. Over the course of the sprawling record, two full-length LPs and a four-song 7-inch EP, he makes nary a misstep. From the musical compositions, to the lyrics, astonishing performances and sterling production, it has to be counted as one of the greatest records of all time. If simply judged as an album of vocal performances, I can think of none better. Here is one of the greatest singers of the 20th and 21st centuries at the prime of his abilities, commanding our attention for 22 songs spread over three slabs on vinyl.
Retailing for $13.98 in 1976, it was a gargantuan hit record, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. It spent 13 weeks at No. 1 and 35 weeks in the Top 10, yielding four Billboard Top 40 singles, two of which went to No. 1. It was the first album released under Mr. Wonder’s staggering new seven-year, $37 million contract with Motown Records.
I was 10 when it came out and after being swept away by the unrelenting groove of the single, “I Wish,” I marched right down to the record store and plopped down my allowance money. It was the first album I bought on my own. I knew Stevie Wonder’s music already from the radio. Funky singles like “Superstition,” “Higher Ground” and “Boogie on Reggae Women” were all big hits. As the oldest kid in my Long Island family, AM radio was my main exposure to music in the early 1970s. I had already amassed a collection of Top 40 singles I had purchased, plus some key LPs and ’60s singles I had inherited from neighbors. But “I Wish,” a song by a 26-year-old man waxing nostalgic for the time when he was the age I was right then, propelled me to commit to my first significant musical investment. I wanted that record like most of my friends coveted a 10-speed bike.
I think if I had been my adult self and bought the record on the basis of the hard R&B heard on “I Wish,” I would be initially let down by how the album opens, enigmatically on a kind of mellow note. As a kid, though, my mind was open. In fact, while I loved those funk-infused singles, I was also a big fan of Stevie’s smooth ballads. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “My Cherie Amour,” also spoke to me. That chorus change of “My Cherie Amour” (“Oh Cherie Amour, pretty little one that I adore…”) in particular buckled my knees.
Here are some of my personal faves, the songs that are the most representative of the album and those I most look forward to hearing performed live:
Love’s in Need of Love Today
Songs in the Key of Life opens with a rich a cappella ensemble of male voices introducing “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” which could be all layered overdubs from Stevie. It’s hard to tell. While the album came with a 24-page booklet with lyrics and liner notes, with an extensive personnel list—and a gratitude page that nods to everyone from Kareem Abdul Jabaar, to David Bowie, on down to Frank Zappa—the credits listing who does what on each song is as haphazard as the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Mr. Wonder, though, plays much of the instrumentation on the album himself, including drums, and is surrounded by a core band that forms the backbone of the album. The stellar bass player, Nathan Watts, is a standout among an impressive group, and remains a steady sideman with Mr. Wonder to this day.
You don’t want it to end. It takes you by surprise. You thought the guy was just warming up. He is already out-singing anyone you have ever heard.
Mr. Wonder enters softly, “Good morn or evening friends/Here’s your friendly announcer.” All at once, we get a glimpse of some of the strengths and perhaps one of the few faults in the record. We get the warmth and a bit of the humor that remain themes throughout the record. But we also have a bit of the clumsy syntax that peppers the text of the songs. Stevie is one of those songwriters who will make an end run—at times, more like a flea-flicker double reverse—to complete a rhyme. In that regard, he is less like Cole Porter and more like Bob Dylan and who can complain about that? Like Mr. Dylan, the words are submissive to the master rhythm. So consistently does Mr. Wonder reimagine syllabic accents and leave us hanging on rhymes, that it appears to be by design and has become a lovable trademark of sorts.
The song’s message is simple. The Beatles sang that “all you need is love.” Ten years later, here is a dire warning that love itself is in need of love. In the voice of a broadcast news anchor, it serves as a perfect introduction to the album, which in addition to intimate moments, offers a wide-lens view of the state of the world during the mid-1970s, subject matter as broadly ambitious as the extensive scope of musical styles it contains.
The sonics, the warmth of the track itself, draws you in. You surrender yourself to the overall sound, rich and with a crisp presence. But then you also get all this ear candy put together like Brian Wilson’s layered work for the Beach Boys. It’s a classic headphone record, with perfectly placed percussion and thoughtful overdubs.
The song stays fairly restrained for the bulk of the arrangement. But as with many songs on the album, Mr. Wonder adds an improvised vamp over a repeated chorus ad-libbing with a call-and-response gospel style. His vocal starts to climb up in octaves. The slow-burn arrangement takes on a new layer of excitement, then another. Before you know it, you are completely swept up in it. The trust you showed in Stevie Wonder when you went and plopped down $14 on the LP based on “I Wish” turned out to be well placed.
“Love’s in Need of Love Today” goes on for over seven minutes. And you don’t want it to end. It takes you by surprise. You thought the guy was just warming up. He is already out-singing anyone you have ever heard. Inspired singing. Technically brilliant singing.
Village Ghetto Land
The Beatles are as much an influence on the album as Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. And not just in scope and ambition, but musically speaking as well. Indeed, “Sir Duke” sounds like it could have been written by Paul McCartney, and the Hare Krishnas who sing on the song “Pastime Paradise” is an idea out of the George Harrison playbook. “Village Ghetto Land” is a sort of 1970s synth “Eleanor Rigby.”
Herbie Hancock, who played on the song “As,” says he admired Stevie’s “orchestral use of synthesizers … Stevie doesn’t fall into the trap that I do” in trying to duplicate the sounds of acoustic strings. “Stevie lets the synths be what they are, something that’s not acoustic.” These parts, from an ARP synthesizer, sound just enough like strings to let you know the faux minuet vibe is satirical, a tip-toe tour across the typical 1970s American urban ghetto. The lyric was written by Gary Byrd, who spent months on it only to have Wonder call him during the recording with the urgent need for a new verse, which Mr. Byrd provided in about 20 minutes. The song is directed at out-of-touch, and presumably white, fellow citizens who look the other way or even disparage the poor. “Some folks say we should be glad for what we have.’” Meanwhile, families eat dog food while “politicians laugh and drink, drunk to all demands.”
Mr. Wonder takes us off the course set by the first two songs. “Loves in Need of Love Today” contains a warning but is ultimately a hopeful message that we can turn around “the force of evil plans.” The groovy slow funk song, “Have a Talk with God,” offers one source of that hope via devotional faith. “Village Ghetto Land” has a bite, though. It is not a Dylan-esque finger-pointing personal indictment; Mr. Wonder and Mr. Byrd merely offer a realistic litany of what life is like in America’s urban ghettos during a particularly low ebb for the country’s cities. It asks simply, if not naively, “Tell me, would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?”
The track that leads into “Sir Duke,” the fusion workout “Contusion,” was about the new direction jazz was taking in the 1970s. “Sir Duke,” though, is a direct tribute to the “pioneers that time will not allow us to forget.” Mr. Wonder had started the album around the time of Duke Ellington’s 1974 death. The song was the second single off the album and a second No. 1 smash.
A blast of brass opens the song with the riff that serves as the first of three main hooks. As a pop-jazz number, it reaches back to the early days of the big band era, with a jaunty 1930s-era hot jazz rhythm, something along the lines of “Diminuendo in Blue,” rather than the sexy languid swing heard on, say, “Jeep’s Blues,” both of which can be heard on Ellington’s big comeback record, Live at Newport 1956. The throwback vibe and the soaring melody of the chorus line “you can feel it all over” (the second hook) has Paul “Your Mother Should Know” McCartney written all over it. But the third hook of the song, which comes with the breakdown and syncopated bass, brass, keyboard and guitar lines also tips to the modern influence Earth, Wind & Fire was having on Mr. Wonder. At the time of the recording, that band was reaching its zenith with effervescent horn-driven pop-flavored R&B recordings like this one. “Sir Duke” is a remarkable ensemble arrangement, which makes it even more astounding to notice how Nathan Watts stands out with a staggering bass part. If you think you’ve heard the song enough, try listening one more time with your headphones while concentrating on the bass.
We also get more than a small bit of Stevie’s color-blind philosophy. This is not some pedantic lesson in the significance of African-Americans’ contributions to American music meant to induce guilt (as maybe “Village Ghetto Land” is); it is a celebration of all—white, jewish, black, male and female—who have helped build that quintessentially American art form of jazz.
Eric Clapton said in 1974 that Stevie Wonder is “the greatest drummer of our time.” As music journalist Eric Sandler rightly points out, this was “hefty praise coming from a man who played with Ginger Baker.” A true musical prodigy, Stevie had become proficient on drums, piano and harmonica by the age of 9. By his late teens, he was not only a pop star himself, but he was writing and producing for others, including “It’s a Shame” for the Spinners, on which he plays the delicious drum groove himself. (Here is the backing track without vocals.)
“I Wish” is unmistakably a Stevie Wonder drum pattern. Aside from having an innate sense of groove, there is a musical inventiveness that might stem from being a well-rounded multi-instrumentalist, as opposed to someone who strictly defines themselves as a drummer. There is a consistent thread that runs from that Spinners track, through “Superstition,” and can be heard yet again on “I Wish”; a trademark Wonder bouncy beat. It has something to do with the way Mr. Wonder works the hi-hat cymbals. On “I Wish,” for example, notice how on the doo-wop-influenced post-chorus breakdown, he opens and closes the hi-hat in a wholly unexpected and unorthodox way, creating a rhythmic hook under the actual melodic hook. And that hi-hat gloss is there right from the top of the track. While the kick and snare drum beat asserts itself as the backbone of the track, the flossy triplets and accents he plays on the hi-hat, so prominent in the mix, is the excited heartbeat that makes our own pulses race.
Which brings us to that groove, one of the most famous in funk. As a musical colloquialism, “groove” is hard to define but we know it when we hear it. A groove is achieved when a drummer lays back in a rhythmic pocket and keeps the band from letting excitement mess with the tempo that was set at the top of the track. It provides a comfortable and predictable spot for the ensemble, knowing they can lean into the beat, or back away from it as musical choice, as in the jazz-coined term, “swing.”
On “I Wish,” as demonstrated in the Classic Albums documentary about the album, Stevie started the recording on the Fender Rhodes electric piano, which is the instrument on which he started almost all the songs on the album. His left hand played the continuous walking bass line, which was later doubled and embellished with growling slides by bass guitarist Nathan Watts. Then Mr. Wonder went in and laid down that drum track, followed shortly by what sounds like pizzicato chicken-scratching guitar parts, which are actually two competing synth parts playing countermelodies.
It’s an infectious, badass track that’s made even badder by a hard-hitting brass attack. Mr. Wonder spins a nostalgic lyric that’s at once witty and poignant. Can we still laugh at a line like “Trying your best to bring the
Mr. Wonder recorded the song the day after a Motown picnic. The label and studio served as a sort of middle school and high school for the boy genius, which might partially explain the wistful look back at his childhood.
Mr. Wonder built this track up from a prototype polyphonic (ability to play multiple keys/notes simultaneously) Yamaha synthesizer, which he dubbed “the Dream Machine.” Gary Olazabal, who was one of the main engineers on the record told SoundonSound.com that Mr. Wonder was interested in using equipment that nobody else had. “Stevie’s still trying to get the next new thing,” he says. “He’s just like a kid that way.”
It is important to understand that this was still the very early days of synthesizers. Analog synthesizer sounds, pioneered by the Moog company, were first starting to be heard on popular records around the time of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” But the technology that enabled fairly reasonable facsimiles of acoustic sounds like strings was still in its nascent stage. Digital technology would revolutionize it even further, but that was years away. With tracks like “Pastime Paradise,” Mr. Wonder was blowing our minds as we strapped on Radio Shack headphones in our parents’ living rooms in the same way the Beatles did a decade earlier for slightly older music fans.
It is easy to take a track like “Pastime Paradise” for granted now, when any kid with Garage Band can quickly dial up a wide variety of sonic textures. And yet rapper Coolio lifted the whole track as a sample to form his own variation of the song with the hit “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995, long after the digital tools were available to easily create new sounds. In 1975, to even achieve something as simple as the reverse gong sound that opens the track meant cueing up a reel of tape, turning it over, and meticulously locating just the right spot—just as Mr. Wonder starts to sing the first line—to drop the sound into what would make up the final master. A few years later, the same trick would literally be a push of a button.
In the Classic Albums documentary, Mr. Wonder points to “the whole Earth, Wind & Fire groove that was happening back then,” as an influence. He illustrates it by tapping out a rhythm that sounds like the band’s “Can’t Hide Love” from 1975, the year Mr. Wonder was in the thick of recording the album. The tension of the “Pastime Paradise,” ratcheted up by Afro-Cuban percussion and Hare Krishna bells, reaches an apotheosis when a chanting Krishna chorus, literally brought in off the streets, meshes with a gospel choir singing “We Shall Overcome.”
The title is a play on words about being trapped in false nostalgia and not facing the harsh realities of the present. While one might reasonably ask if that is not what Mr. Wonder himself does with “I Wish” and “Sir Duke” from the same album—after all, wasn’t he “living in some pastime paradise” in the amber of nostalgia, where even “whoopin’ [his] behind” was recalled wistfully?—it is a matter of application.
Sure, we all enjoy looking back. But a few years before the election of President Ronald “It’s Morning Again in America” Reagan, “Pasttime Paradise” warns of political manipulation of such sentimentality. “Glorifying days long gone behind/They’ve been wasting most their days in remembrance of ignorance…” While Southerners looking fondly back at the time of segregation are one target here, Mr. Wonder also takes a swipe at those who are so faithful that they accept living in poor conditions with some future promise of salvation.
Though the song takes on some hefty subjects in its lyric, Mr. Wonder gets a bit bogged down in the litany of “-tion” words, as Bono would a decade later. “I remember, when he was writing that song in the studio, he was struggling to come up with all of those ‘-tion’ words like ‘dissipation,’ ‘segregation,’ ‘exploitation,’ ” engineer Mr. Olazabal said. “He was trying to come up with enough of those lyrics that would actually mean something and make sense.”
The next song, “Summer Soft,” serves as a breezy antidote to “Pastime Paradise” and the light mood continues into the next song of the album, “Ordinary Pain.” But it is a short-lived respite. This Al Green-flavored song starts with the voice of Stevie-as-naif, continuing the “Songs of Innocence” thread of the album, which can be divided along the lines of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The melancholy tune that forms the first part of the two-part “Ordinary Pain” suite is not without its humor. The truly Wonderously phrased “Tell her you’re glad/It’s over in fact/Can she take with her the pain she brought back” is perhaps his most gymnastic maneuver to finish a rhyme.
What makes such musical moments so effective? If we could explain it, would we need music? It’s the music itself that goes beyond what words alone can articulate.
But this ambling hangdog “woman done me wrong” tale takes a harsh turn for its he said/she said second part. As the bittersweet loping first half peters out, listen for how Stevie adds ever-darker descending bass notes on his electric piano, ending on a dissonant note that launches into the hard funk of the second section. Leading a call-and-answer female Greek choir of sorts, Shirley Brewer lashes out with a rebuttal to the woe-is-me narrator of the first song, opening with the blunt “You’re just a masochistic fool/I thought you knew my love was cruel.” With that line, Mr. Wonder’s self-awareness is laid bare. The idealistic worldview he has presented thus far on the album comes from an imperfect narrator. Ms. Brewer slaps him out of his hazy daze.
Two can play a game of cruel love. Now that we hear her counterpoint, we think, Well, hmmm. Maybe he wasn’t such a good boy after all. Ms. Brewer’s character rails at a few offenses that the Stevie character is responsible for: “You’re crying big crocodile tears/To match the ones I cried for years/When I was home waiting for you/You were out somewhere doin’ the do.” She drives the nail in hard with the line “I knew our love would have to end/The night I made it with your friend.” I was afraid of her voice when I was 10.
Ms. Brewer’s point of view is one of empowerment, backed up by a sisterhood chorus consisting of Linda Lawrence, Terri Hendricks, Sundray Tucker, Charity McCrary and Madelaine Jones, a hard-R&B-type backing part in the tradition of the Ikettes and LaBelle. On a record with some great 1970s funk, the beefy synth-driven groove of part II of “Ordinary Pain” is a standout that hits hard, a link between later Sly Stone, Funkadelic, and—with the horn riffs over a heavy bottom—stuff that came in the next year or two, like the Commodores’ “Brick House.”
I have read or heard people who find this as a weak spot on the album. On the contrary, to me it forms a central linch pin, brilliantly encapsulating much of what makes the record so satisfying, the soft/hard/naive/bitter/innocence/experience/joy/pain themes all rolled into one song.
Isn’t She Lovely
When I was a kid, I would replay certain parts of some songs over and over, lifting the needle from my records and carefully placing it back down to listen again to a chord change, an inspired vocal, or a guitar solo. On “Isn’t She Lovely,” Stevie indulges those of us who want beloved songs to go on, comping the chord changes as he takes us to new planes of ecstasy with a chromatic harmonica (as opposed to blues harp) solo that soars past jazz harmonica virtuoso, Toots Thielemans, into Sonny Rollins territory. When the song became a popular album track for disc jockeys to spin, Mr. Wonder successfully resisted Motown’s pleas for a 45 RPM 7-inch single. But the version we most often hear on the radio is an edit that the label made. But too long? Please, son. That’s like telling Mr. Rollins, “Hey Saxophone Colossus! Rein it in a bit on ‘Tenor Madness.’ ”
Incidentally, I have just now discovered that Mr. Rollins recorded a cover of the song, something I honestly did not know before making the comparison. This makes sense. Mr. Wonder’s original recording has the sort of swinging buoyancy found in some of the more popular jazz albums that Mr. Rollins recorded. And aside from its length and some 1970s production techniques, “Isn’t She Lovely” sounds like the classic jazz-informed pop that epitomized 1960s Motown recordings, right down to the tambourine work. Stevie plays almost everything on the song, even the infectious bass parts played on a synth.
The lyric is unabashedly and literally life-affirming. Over intimate home recordings of his baby daughter, Aisha—who now appears in performances with him and whose birth the song celebrates—Mr. Wonder’s harmonica takes flight in one of the best displays in improvisation on record. It is not self-indulgent soloing; each phrase is memorable. Each round of comping reveals original new melodies. I can whistle or hum the whole thing, right on down to his flub (around 4:40) much to the dismay of my children on long car rides. But few songs can make you feel as good as this one. If you believe otherwise, you have a heart of coal, my friend.
The album proper finishes with two more Latin-tinged compositions, “As,” and the grand finale, “Another Star.” On the latter, Mr. Wonder finally acknowledges the four-on-the-floor beat and glossy sounds of the then-trendy disco music. It’s a fabulous dance workout, with a large ensemble of A-plus players such as George Benson. But for many listeners, “As” has to be counted as one of—if not the—finest song on the album and I am loath to disagree.
“As” is another one that sneaks in as if on a summer’s soft-rock breeze but ends up working us over with a hard emotional punch. A jazzy turnaround between verses yields briefly to a gospel choir, a mere foreshadowing for the vamp the ends the song. In the meantime, Mr. Wonder sings yet another summation of time’s passage, seasons and elemental forces of life: “Just as hate knows love’s the cure/You can rest your mind assured/That I’ll be loving you always.”
But it is again the outro where Stevie shines, a blend of samba and gospel that, in Stevie’s hands, is unquestionably natural. Of course you can blend all that shit! After a minute-long 24-bar respite, Mr. Wonder re-enters the song with a guttural bellow, as Sly Stone might, sounding like Big Bad Steve, not Little Stevie Wonder, with maybe the album’s greatest lyrical moment:
We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet your life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
So make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children’s grandchildren and their great-great grandchildren will tell.
It is the album’s takeaway message. In all these decades, I’ve never listened to it without feeling the same knot of inspiration, catharsis and euphoria, as close to some vague belief that I have been healed by some divinity as I come.
Mr. Wonder ends the set with the much lighter “Another Star,” but for me, this is the climax and conclusion of the album. The rest is sweet desert.
Somewhere along the line, my childhood collection of 45s vanished. Among them was the 7-inch “Something Extra” EP included in the Songs in the Key of Life album. It broke my heart that I could not find that record. For among those four songs on the EP was one of my personal eclectic favorites of the whole package, the song “Ebony Eyes.”
It seems that few people that love the album know this song. I think in the days on vinyl, the EP was presented as, and became an afterthought. Less than 10 years after I bought the album, I was in college, though, and we used to spend all night spinning discs, taking turns as dorm-room DJs. A friend of mine had a far more complete and far-less battered copy of Songs in the Key of Life and I immediately went for the EP and set the needle down on the New Orleans early piano funk throwback track, “Ebony Eyes,” which, from that point on became chief among our Saturday night rallying anthems.
Stevie channels Professor Longhair, with more than a bit of Allen Toussaint influence on the track. But with his mastery of the talkbox, which makes his synths, like Peter Frampton’s guitar, have a human-like enunciation. He trades solos with ace saxophonist Jim Horn, and there is a pedal steel part from Flying Burrito Brother, Peter “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow, each of who had played on records by the Rolling Stones, George Harrison and a huge list of others.
In Barry Levinson’s 1982 movie, Diner, the characters refer to good times, kicks, and even hot girls as “a smile.” “Ebony Eyes” is a musical smile. “She’s the sunflower of nature’s seed/A girl that some men only find in their dreams/When she smiles it seems the stars all know/‘Cause one by one they start to light up the sky.”
Knocks Me Off My Feet
I cannot imagine being one of those people who records songs at a show, never mind someone like this guy, who recorded the entire “Songs in the Key of Life” benefit performance in Los Angeles in December 2013. And I would hate to be the person seated behind him. But as someone who was unable to fly out to L.A. to witness the show in person, I am grateful that someone recorded it.
But now I am thrilled that Mr. Wonder decided to tour with the show. The last performance of his that I attended was an overwhelming experience, as he delved deep into his catalog. And I am preparing to be an emotional wreck again when I see the “Songs in the Key of Life” show. The music has been with me my whole listening life and, frankly, all it takes is one glass of wine for me to get weepy. But in the video of the L.A. performance, you will see Mr. Wonder himself welling up, seemingly unable to sing the chorus of “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” as the crowd takes over around the 49-50-minute mark.
What makes such musical moments so effective? If we could explain it, would we need music? It’s the music itself that goes beyond what words alone can articulate. There is the warm glow of nostalgia, not just the fact that everyone in the audience likely grew up with the album, but in the chords themselves. There is a familiarity to the changes that harkens back to “My Cherie Amour” and beyond, through bossa nova, jazz, and right on back to the standards of the 1940s. Over these warm piano parts—electric and acoustic—Stevie takes his melody from a simple verse, to a pre-chorus structure that contains its own step-up-and-down (literally illustrated with a staircase in the lyric booklet), to the soaring chorus. And it is taken to an even higher plane with the modulation of the key (around 2:40) for the final chorus.
Tension, release and ecstasy. It is a form he replicates throughout in the record with the same results, such as on the ultra-sensuous “Joy Inside My Tears,” which purrs with a surreal synth and brings Stevie to the most soulful vocal improvisations since “Uncle Ray” Charles. One of my great regrets in life is not going to see Ray Charles when he was still with us. You have to make every effort to go see the great ones. Stevie Wonder is one of the giants. He doesn’t perform often. I’ll be there this year.
Bill Janovitz is the author of two books on the Rolling Stones, including Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones and Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.