Released on September 28, 1976, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life was a massive feast of exemplary genius and maddening self-indulgence. It encompassed two 12-inch LPs and a 7-inch single EP (titled "A Something's Extra") totaling over 100 minutes of music, plus a 24-page booklet. It involved a Hare Krishna choir, a gospel choir and a children's classroom. And for a few years, until Michael Jackson's Thriller arrived, it was the biggest-selling album ever released by a black artist. Critics will forever argue whether it is Wonder's best album. Yet it is inarguably his magnum opus, the fifth and final chapter of his "classic era."
It began when Wonder, chafing under the constraints of his relationship with Motown Records, met engineers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff in New York in 1971. The two, also known as TONTO's Expanding Head Band (TONTO being an acronym for The Original New Timbral Orchestra), had just released Zero Time, a pioneering album that exhibited the musical qualities of computer tones and Moog synthesizers. Beginning with Wonder's 1972 album Music of My Mind, the trio would demonstrate that synthesizer music could evoke warmth and emotion as brilliantly as analog instruments. Each new title -- 1972's Talking Book, 1973's Innervisions and 1974's Fulfillingness' First Finale -- brought greater success, with the latter two earning Wonder consecutive Grammy Awards for Album of the Year. Innervisions in particular is considered a near-perfect fusion of lovely pop songs, gritty funk and haunting soul-jazz.
Wonder and TONTO's partnership fell apart when Cecil and Margouleff, who essentially co-produced those classics, felt short-changed over credit and royalties. However, several key players remained for what was initially called Fulfillingness' First Finale II. There was Wonderlove, a backing band that included bassist Nathan Watts, guitarist Michael Sembello (who later became famous for the 1980s dance-pop smash "Maniac"), keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, drummer Raymond Pounds and rhythm guitarist Ben Bridges. Syreeta Wright (who was Wonder's former wife, muse and co-songwriter), Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams had all left Wonderlove for solo careers, but they returned to contribute backing vocals.
Songs in the Key of Life would earn Wonder his third and final Grammy for Album of the Year, tying Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon for most wins in that category. It took two years and one million dollars to complete, an astronomical cost during an era when most major artists released at least an album a year. It bore the traces of past influences like Sly & the Family Stone, particularly on one of the EP's hidden gems, "All Day Sucker." Its dominant styles, however, are fusion and, on the closer "Another Star," glossy and ecstatic disco. Contemporary jazz artists like George Benson and Bobbi Humphrey (both of whom jammed on "Another Star") and jazz crossover ensembles like Roy Ayers Ubiquity and Weather Report cast a shadow, markedly on the instrumental fusion workout "Contusion," and more subtly on "As." Less pronounced was his love of pop-rock bands like the Doobie Brothers and Crosby, Stills and Nash, two of the dozens of musicians, celebrities and personal friends he shouted out in the album's liner notes. It culminated in a slick black pop sound well suited for the decade's increasing turn toward excess.
Wonder hadn't abandoned his spiritual fervor (as demonstrated on "Have a Talk with God," co-written with his brother Calvin Hardaway) or social awareness ("Village Ghetto Land," co-written with Gary Byrd, a New York DJ and poet who would reteam with Wonder for the 1983 post-disco hit "The Crown"). Personally, he had begun adopting an Afrocentric worldview, dressing in dashikis, palling around with Bob Marley (the two sang together during a legendary "Wonder Dream Concert" in Jamaica in 1975), politicking with activist Jesse Jackson and the Congressional Black Congress, and making frequent visits to Ghana. His cosmopolitanism was reflected on the beatific, life-affirming "Ngicuela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing."
All this activity solidified Songs in the Key of Life as a platform for an emerging global superstar. Its sheer size amplified his best and worst tendencies. "Black Man," a didactic recitation of great leaders of color timed for the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial, lasted nearly nine minutes. "Isn't She Lovely," a sweet but cloying tribute to Wonder's newborn daughter Aisha, takes nearly seven minutes to complete and incorporates audio from the Wonder family home. Yet its sweep and length also feels totally necessary. It's impossible to imagine "Isn't She Lovely" without that scene of Wonder talking with Aisha, or "Another Star" without Wonder chanting "la la la" as the disco beat sways on and on.
Music critics tend to be a cynical lot, and they fought mightily against what they perceived to be Wonder's transgressions. But even they were stupefied by the enormity of Wonder's brilliance. Rolling Stone critic Vince Aletti wrote, "The material itself varies so widely that even after weeks of listening it's difficult to get a critical fix on." But he couldn't help but conclude, "Even the most preposterous lyrics are salvaged by Wonder's melodies and sure, sharp production sense. ... It's Wonder's music, his spirit that dominates here and seems to fill up the room." The key word is spirit. Wonder is a modern-day shaman, and his musical powers are so keen that he makes even the most jaded of rock disciples believe in his message of universal love and world peace.
The tide was high for Wonder, and though he has continued to record strong material (including his underrated 1980 hit Hotter Than July), he would never again reach the peak set by Songs in the Key of Life That fact, too, is part of its legend. It is the ultimate Stevie Wonder album. Here are the albums that influenced it.