Stevie Wonder entered the recording studio during 1975-1976, armed with a brand new, seven-album and 37-million-dollar recording contract. The Motown label basically gave him everything he wanted, and the artistic and commercial results were immediate as he released Songs In The Key Of Life on September 28, 1976. It remains his best known album and has received a Diamond Sales Award for 10 million copies sold in The United States.
Songs In The Key Of Life is Stevie Wonder’s magnum opus. It is personal and outspoken with songs ranging from funky jams to gentle ballads. He continued to write or co-write all of the songs, produced the album, and plays many of the instruments, although he used more outside musicians than he had during the previous five years or so.
In some ways there was so much material included, it was overwhelming. It was originally issued as a double vinyl LP plus a small, four-song, seven-inch EP. Part of its allure is in its exploration of many styles of music, with the lyrics telling tales of love, God, poverty, and racism. There are times I wish it could have been shorter as I have tended to listen to Innervisions and Talking Book more often due to their brevity and controlled nature. Still, memorable songs follow one another until it becomes almost exhausting.
“I Wish” and “Sir Duke” both topped the Billboard Pop Singles Chart. The first was smooth and funky, but “Sir Duke” was an up-tempo, horn-laden dance song in the tradition of the big band music of the 1940s. It served as a fitting tribute to one of his idols, Duke Ellington.
The album’s most memorable track was probably “Isn’t She Lovely,” which was a love song written in celebration of the birth of his daughter.
The superior songs just kept coming, one after the other. “Another Star” was an up-beat song, with brass and George Benson’s guitar and background vocals. “As” was one of the more sophisticated compositions of his career. The layered vocals and instruments plus the seven-minute length added up to a lot of interesting sounds, twists, and turns. “Village Ghetto Land” was a stark story of life on the streets and “Black Man” was a musical history lesson. “Have A Talk With God” contained a soulful vocal and remains one of the better spiritual creations of his career.
I really didn’t like the extra EP, mainly because I hardly ever play the thing, although two of the songs were excellent. “Ebony Eyes” was a superb love song but the highlight was “Saturn,” which was a pop epic.
Songs In The Key Of Life is recognized as one of the better albums in American music history. It may have been overindulgent in places, but in this case, that was a necessary part of its greatness. The career of Stevie Wonder and his unique brand of music are grounded in this album. It remains an essential listening experience.