This is a genuine classic, in a world where that has become an overused citation. The 18th album by Stevie Wonder was released by Motown Records on September 28, 1976, and started a non-consecutive 14 weeks at No.1 on 18 October. Songs In The Key Of Life is among the greatest albums of all time: it’s ranked No.4 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums; both Michael Jackson and George Michael called it their favorite Stevie Wonder album. In recent years, numerous hip-hop artists have sampled it and Will Smith used “I Wish” as the basis for his No. 1, “Wild Wild West.”
This double album is the absolute crème de la crème of what has been dubbed Wonder’s “classic period.” It was recorded in part at the Record Plant in Hollywood, Sausalito Music Factory and the Hit Factory in New York City, but the majority was captured at Crystal Sounds Hollywood. The tracks date from 1974 through to 1976.
In addition to the double LP, the original release contained a four-song bonus EP which further shows the breadth of Stevie’s vision and his seemingly limitless creativity. All too often double albums seemed to be stretching the material, but every track here is a killer.
Somewhere around 130 people worked on Key Of Life, but it is Stevie that shines on every track, dominating every aspect as both performer and producer. His supreme craftsmanship is there in every groove. Among the people who worked on the album are Herbie Hancock, who played Fender Rhodes on “As”; George Benson, who played electric guitar on “Another Star” and Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams added backing vocals on “Ordinary Pain.” 22-year-old Michael Sembello played guitar in several tracks and also co-wrote “Saturn” with Wonder.
The album is full of socially aware songs like “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man” (co-written with Gary Byrd), “Pastime Paradise” and the beautiful “Have a Talk With God,” co-written with Calvin Hardaway. There are also some classic Stevie love songs including the opening track, “Love’s In Need Of Love Today,” the aforementioned “As,” the exquisite “If It’s Magic” and the joyous “Isn’t She Lovely.”
Key Of Life became the second-bestselling album of 1977 in the US, moving ten million copies there alone. It was the highest-selling R&B/soul album on the Billboard year-end chart, as well as making No.2 in the UK.
In February 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. In the event, he won four Grammys: Album of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Producer of the Year.