Wednesday, September 28, 2016

40 Year Itch : Songs in the Key of Life

On September 28, 1976 Stevie Wonder released the long awaited Songs in the Key of Life, a 21 song collection that would debut at #1 on the Billboard Pop Album charts and hold that position for 13 straight weeks.

 My 40-year old dad bought one of the ten million copies that were sold. He liked to savor albums. He played side three over and over again for days before he explored the rest of the album. Side three begins with "Isn't She Lovely", a song celebrating the birth of his daughter Aisha and featuring her early cries, which delighted my dad.

When I was sent off to boarding school, I joined the Columbia House Record Club and ordered myself a copy of Songs in the Key of Life. Side two has always been my favorite. It begins with the first single from the album, the funky "I Wish".

The rest of the side two appealed to my teenage idea of love. I still carry the wisdom of Wonder's words with me forty years later : "Don't fool yourself /But tell no one else /That it's more than just /An ordinary pain In your heart" and "Say you feel unnecessary pain in your heart /Tell her you're glad/ It's over in fact/ Can she take with her the pain she brought you back.

We've forgotten now how overdue Wonder's first album in 26 months was. It was originally due to hit stores in October of 1975. Motown tried to play off the delay by printing t-shirts that read "We're Almost Finished". In early '76 Rolling Stone magazine, a Stevie Wonder confidant, Ira Tucker, said "Stevie is a Taurus and we were told that '76 was going to be a great year for Tauruses. By releasing it then, maybe we can some of the magic of the stars behind us". 

As part of his record breaking $13 million contract with Motown, Wonder was guaranteed both artistic freedom and the right to determine his release schedule. He put a lot of pressure on himself, writing, producing, composing and arranging every song. He worked long hours in the studio, skipping meals and sleep, to tweak every track.
"If my flow is goin', I keep on until I peak," he said.
When the album finally did come out, Wonder had a message for his fans: "Thank you everyone for being so patient".

Who could have been disappointed ?

Certainly not the critics, most of whom, after wrestling with the 106 minutes of material, proclaimed the album a masterpiece. Stevie Wonder told Q Magazine "Of all the albums, 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."

 Michael Jackson called it his favorite Stevie Wonder album and Elton John said "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 1977, Stevie Wonder won four out of seven GRAMMY nominations, taking home Album Of The Year, Producer Of The Year, Best Male R and B Vocal Performance, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. The album also topped the Village Voice critics poll for best album of the year.

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