Inside Stevie Wonder's Epic Magnum Opus 'Songs in the Key of Life'

Inside Stevie Wonder's Epic Magnum Opus 'Songs in the Key of Life'


Go behind the scenes of the making of Stevie Wonder’s groundbreaking 1976 magnum opus ‘Songs in the Key of Life.’

"Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn't mean he lacks vision," Stevie Wonder once said, a warning to any who doubted the potency of his imagination. In the first half of the Seventies, he had visualized an untried musical path, one that took him far from the assembly line pop of his "Little Stevie, the Boy Genius" era during the early days of Motown. This road ultimately led to 1976's majestic Songs in the Key of Life, a multi-disc 21-song collection that would be the 26-year-old's crowning achievement. It's the sound of a creatively emancipated young artist coming into his own, surrendering himself to his ambition and harnessing his power and potential.

The high watermark of Wonder's so-called "classic period" – an unparalleled streak also encompassing Music of my Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), and Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974) – it was the culmination of all that came before. "He took his life experience and put them all into Songs in the Key of Life," Motown founder Berry Gordy reflected in a 1997 documentary. "And it worked."

Wonder had been under contract to Gordy's label since he was just 11 years old. Now a self-assured adult with a steady string of hits stretching back a decade, a "quarter life crisis" malaise began to take hold. The superstar began to openly discuss quitting the music industry altogether and moving to Ghana, where he believed his ancestral lineage could be traced. There, he planned to devote his considerable energy to assisting handicapped children and other humanitarian causes. Brightly colored dashiki tunics replaced his standard Motown-issue mod suits, an outward expression of the changes he felt within.

Wonder briefly touched on his fascination with the African nation in a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone, and soon these abstract notions began to solidify into something more concrete. During a press conference in Los Angeles the following March, he tentatively announced a final concert tour slated for the end of 1975 – when his recording contract was set to expire – with all proceeds earmarked for Ghanaian charities.

"I've heard of great needs in that part of the world, the African countries," he told the Associated Press. "I believe that you have to give unselfishly. … You can sing about things and talk about things, but if your actions don't speak louder than your words, you're nothing." The words were admirable, but some took the cynical view that this dramatic farewell tour was merely a ploy to put pressure on Motown when renegotiating his new contract.

He hardly needed the leverage. Gordy's empire had taken a beating in first half of the decade due to changing musical tastes and economic depression. Knowing that he stood to lose his most consistent seller to a life of philanthropy – or lucrative offers from rivals at Epic and Arista Records – the label chief was prepared to move mountains of cash.

Wonder sent high-powered lawyer Johanan Vigoda to discuss his lengthy list of stipulations with new Motown president Ewart Abner, and board chairman Gordy, who described the negotiations in his memoirs as "the most grueling and nerve-racking we ever had." When the dust cleared and the papers were signed, Wonder had a seven-year contract that promised him a $13 million advance (with the opportunity to net up to $37 million if he delivered more than his album-per-year minimum), 20 percent royalties, and control of his publishing. At the time, it was the biggest deal that had ever been done in the music industry. Time magazine noted that it was more than Elton John and Neil Diamond's contracts combined.

"In those days $13 million was a lot of money," Gordy wailed in the 1997 Classic Albums: Songs in the Key of Life documentary. "I'd heard that was an unprecedented deal, the most that had ever been paid. But I had to do it, because there was no way I was going to lose Stevie. … I was shaking in my boots!"

In addition to the financial windfall, the contract also offered Wonder the creative freedom to work anywhere he wanted, with any artist he desired, and veto power over any potential singles. A forthcoming triple-disc greatest hits package was canceled at the artist's insistence, with all 200,000 copies sent to the incinerator. Most remarkably, Wonder's permission was now required if Motown was ever to be sold in the future. The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra: None of them wielded that much influence on their own label. The deal was the ultimate testament to Wonder's status as Motown's supreme talent.

"He broke tradition with the deal – legally, professionally – in terms of how he could cut his records and where he could cut," Vigoda told Rolling Stone's Ben Fong-Torres. "And in breaking tradition he opened up a future for Motown. They never had an artist in 13 years. They had single records, they managed to create a name in certain areas, but they never came through with a major, major artist."

The contract did a lot for Wonder, but Motown had done a lot for him. The imprint was a shining African-American success story.

"I'm staying at Motown, because it is the only viable surviving black-owned company in the record industry," he said in a statement announcing the deal. "Motown represents hopes and opportunity for new as well as established black performers and producers. If it were not for Motown, any of us just wouldn't have had the shot we've had at success and fulfillment. It is vital that people in our business – particularly the black creative community, including artists, writers and producers – make sure that Motown stays emotionally stable, spiritually strong and economically healthy."

Three decades later in the Classic Albums documentary, Wonder remained appreciative of Gordy's trust. "He was brave enough to take the chance – to take that challenge to say, 'You know what? I believe in him enough to do this. I believe in the gamble.' And he was a smart man."

With the technicalities in place, Wonder immersed himself in a new project – his 18th album since 1962.

He had momentum from his previous record, 1974's Fulfillingness' First Finale. It was a comparatively somber assortment brimming with self-reflection and even traces of anger (see the Nixon blasting "You Haven't Done Nothin'"). The disc was originally slated to be his first double album, and when those plans failed to materialize he announced that the excess tracks would be issued on a sequel, Fulfillingness' First Finale Part II (or, naturally, Fulfillingness' Second Finale).

Wonder previewed the work-in-progress to writers from Crawdaddy and Melody Maker in late 1974, playing a track called "The Future," which included the cautionary line: "Don't look at the world like a stranger, cause you know we are living in danger." The gloomy song was "fantastically influenced" by the televised police ambush of the Symbionese Liberation Army – a far left revolutionary group then on the run with kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst – in which many members were killed. "Livin' Off the Love of the Land" is hardly any sunnier, containing lyrics like "Seems the wisdom of man hasn't got much wiser," and "Seems to me that fools are even more foolish."

Perhaps aware that such caustic songs could alienate his audience and compromise his commercial performance, they were shelved and Fulfillingness' Second Finale was abandoned. He vowed to start fresh on his next project, which was temporarily known as Let's See Life the Way It Is. The final title came to him in a dream: Songs in the Key of Life.

For Wonder, the banner was a personal dare to expand his compositional range. "I challenged myself [to write] as many different things as I could, to cover as many topics as I could, in dealing with the title and representing what it was about," he says in Classic Albums. "The title would give me a challenge, but equally as important as a challenge it would give me an opportunity to express my feelings as a songwriter and as an artist."

It was a challenge he met head on, working to the point of obsession. Nonstop sessions stretched across two-and-a-half years, two coasts, and four studios: Crystal Sound in Hollywood, New York City's Hit Factory, and the Record Plant outposts in Los Angeles and Sausalito. More often than not, he could be found in one of those spaces, sometimes for 48 hours at a time, chasing his muse with a rotating crew of engineers and support musicians. Over 130 people were involved in the recording, including Herbie Hancock, George Benson, "Sneaky Pete" Kleinow and Minnie Riperton. "If my flow is goin', I keep on until I peak" became Wonder's mantra.

"It went on for two years almost every day, many hours and huge amounts of material," recalls John Fischbach, who co-engineered the majority of the sessions with Gary Olazabal. "I guess it was really his most prolific time. He did more songs in those two years I think than he had done before."

Though the exact count is unknown, Wonder claims to have recorded several hundred tracks during the Songs in the Key of Life sessions – nearly all of which remain in the vault. The Prince-like figure is corroborated by Fischbach, who puts the number at "something like 200 songs" in various stages of completion. "Some would be sketched out, some were more finished than others and we just kept working until he had what he wanted," he says.

Olazabal describes Wonder's working methods as "frighteningly spontaneous," often resulting in late night (or early morning) calls to collaborators. Gary Byrd had a particularly harrowing experience while co-writing the lyrics to the track "Village Ghetto Land." He had labored for three months perfecting the words to what he believed to be the complete song. Then Wonder called him from the recording studio and casually informed him that he had added another verse. Could he whip up some more lyrics in the next 10 minutes? The band was waiting.

"There are 'sessions' and then there's Stevie Time," laughed keyboardist Greg Phillinganes on WBEZ's Sound Opinions podcast in 2006. "We didn't have formal sessions. We went to the studio and that was where you were."

In addition to his loyal crew, Wonder had a secret weapon: a state-of-the-art analogue synthesizer called the Yamaha GX-1. The enormous instrument boasted three keyboards, multi-octave foot pedals, ribbon controller, a galaxy of buttons to recall sounds and modulate pitches, and even a built-in bench. "It could house a family of eight," Phillinganes says with a touch of hyperbole. "It was huge."

Along with the gargantuan size came a gargantuan cost. The GX-1 retailed for a staggering $60,000 (or $320,000 adjusted for inflation). Intended as a prototype for future consumer synths, only a handful were ever made – let alone sold. Most landed in the hands of industry heavyweights like Keith Emerson of prog rock legends Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, and ABBA composer Benny Andersson. Wonder bought two.

The GX-1 had much to recommend itself to the multi-instrumentalist. Realistic (for the time) instrument samples allowed him to single-handedly layer complex orchestral beds. And unlike others synths available in that era, it was polyphonic, which allowed him to play multiple keys at once and create lush backing tracks in a fraction of the time.

Wonder dubbed the metallic behemoth "The Dream Machine," and promptly put it to use on many of the album's tracks – most notably "Village Ghetto Land" and "Pastime Paradise."

The latter opens with an insistent cartwheeling fugue that borrows its first eight notes from Johann Sebastian Bach's "Prelude No. 2 in C Minor." Intended to mimic the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," the anxious instrumental phrase is made even more disorienting by the sound of a backwards gong that anticipates the chanting of Hare Krishnas heard on the fade out. The devotees were pulled in off the street on in a spur-of-the-moment burst of creativity.

"Gary [Olazabal] rounded them up on Hollywood Boulevard," Fischbach recalled to Sound on Sound. "We had decided it would be great to have them on the song, so he went and talked to a bunch of those people and made arrangements for them to come to the studio."

Crystal Studios was located in the east side of Hollywood, not far from the local headquarters. "They walked in line all the way from the Self-Realization Fellowship," Olazabal added. "There must have been about a hundred of them, chanting and praying as they showed up to perform on the song, but Stevie never showed up. We didn't know what to do, and so we just let them go into the studio. The main room was not very live-sounding, but it was very big. Well, they were in there for hours, chanting – they didn't really interact much in any other way – and when Stevie didn't appear we knew they'd have to walk all the way back and return another day." Despite Wonder's no-show, the Hare Krishna's remained positive. "There was not a lot of hostility," Olazabal says. "Except from us. It wasn't easy to listen to that chanting for hours on end."

The West Angeles Church of God Choir was also mixed into the outro, performing a version of the civil-rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" that weaved in and out of the Krishna's incantations. The blend of higher consciousness and social consciousness, the eternal and the urgent, gave voice to the dreams swirling inside the young maestro.

But it was another vocal cameo that hit closest to home. Wonder became a father on February 5th, 1975, when partner Yolanda Simmons gave birth to Aisha Morris. "She was the one thing that I needed in my life and in my music for a long time," he told Women's Own magazine soon after. "Isn't She Lovely" – a joyous celebration of parenthood – is perhaps the most obvious beneficiary of Wonder's new inspiration. While actual birthing sounds edited onto the song's intro are from another infant, Aisha can be heard laughing splashing around the bathtub with her father on the extended fade.

Wonder's sister Renee Hardaway also makes a vocal contribution to Songs in the Key of Life, delivering the scornful "You nasty boy!" that punctuates the album's lead single, "I Wish." The final track completed for the project, its lyrics originally dealt with war and "cosmic spiritual stuff" until Wonder attended a Motown company picnic. The label had effectively served as a grammar school for the former child star, and the fun afternoon triggered a wave of nostalgia. He hastily scribed new lyrics about those early days, and at 3 a.m. called bassist Nathan Watts – who had just arrived home from a long day of recording. "Stevie called and said, 'I need you to come back," Watts told Bassplayer. "I've got this bad song!"

"Saturn," a track on the album's bonus EP, A Something's Extra, also began as a fond look backwards. The lyrical location was originally "Saginaw," Wonder's Michigan birthplace, and intended as homage to his home in the mold of the Jackson 5's "Goin' Back to Indiana." But the song was shifted into outer space when guitarist Mike Sambello (later to score a hit with the Flashdance favorite "Maniac") misheard the title as the ringed planet. Much like the past, it's described as an idealized utopia just out of reach.

Traces of Wonder's family and personal history can be found all over the album. Wonder's brother Calvin Hardaway co-wrote "Have a Talk With God," and his former wife Syreeta Wright provides backing vocals on "Ordinary Pain." Some even believe that "Ebony Eyes" – with its reference to a "Miss Beautiful Supreme" – is an ode to Wonder's childhood infatuation with elder Motown labelmate, Diana Ross. "I had a crush on her," he admitted to Vanity Fair in 2008. "When I came to Motown, she walked me around the building and showed me different things – she was wonderful."

There's also a compelling theory that the tune is actually a tribute to another Supreme, Florence Ballard, who had died in February 1976 of cardiac arrest at the age of 32. She had been fired from the trio nine years earlier for erratic behavior stemming from substance abuse and resentment over being usurped by Ross' as the band's frontwoman (it was she who came up with the group's name). Her career remained mired in a morass of lawsuits, domestic-assault incidents, poverty, and alcoholism, never to recover.

Wonder would have been well acquainted with Ballard. A subtle nod to her premature passing would be in line with his mission to write about all aspects of life – even death.

Mortality, and musical immortality, is central to a much more blatant tribute, the jubilant "Sir Duke." The song honors the jazz legend Duke Ellington, a formative influence on the young Wonder, who had died in 1974 before they were ever able to work together. "I knew the title from the beginning but [I] wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us. So soon they are forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation." He namechecks Count Basie, Glenn Miller and Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald in the pantheon of greats, perhaps suspecting that his own name would one day be among them.

If it wasn't already. Sessions for Songs on the Key of Life yielded some of the finest songs in his entire canon, including the celestial "Knocks Me off My Feet," the intricate harmonies of "Love's in Need of Love Today" and the Herbie Hancock-assisted "As."

After basic recording was complete, Wonder insisted on endlessly remixing the tracks in an unlimited series of configurations. "It was a marathon, and at times we wondered if it would ever finish," says Olazabal. "We had T-shirts with 'Are We Finished Yet?' printed on them, as well as others with 'Let's Mix 'Contusion' Again.' Without exaggeration, we must have mixed that track at least 30 times. It became part of the joke of our lives."

Wonder took to wearing these T-shirts around Motown headquarters to tease the supremely stressed-out executives who had never waited anywhere near this long for a product. "Nobody thought this project would go on as long as it did," confirms Fischbach. Deadlines came and went with little concern from the artist, as the label made do with over a million advance orders on an album that didn't technically exist.

By the fall of 1976, Wonder was ready. He had completed a double LP and bonus EP bursting at the seams with musical innovation. Songs in the Key of Life was a groundbreaking blend of funk, soul, pop and jazz, seasoned with cutting-edge technology. Amazingly, this bumper crop of forward-looking musical brilliance had its grand debut in the pastoral paradise of Long View Farm in rural North Brookfield, Massachusetts.

But that was just the final step in a long journey. The world press met in the lobby of Manhattan's elegant Essex House on September 7th, 1976, at 7:30 a.m. There they gulped down a quick complimentary breakfast before being ushered onto three buses that drove them to Kennedy International Airport – but not before passing through Times Square for a peak at the $75,000, 60-by-400-foot billboard that had trumpeted the album for the past four months. Soon they were airborne in a chartered DC-9, well stocked with champagne and appetizers. Once the plane touched down at a small airport in Worcester, Massachusetts, the journalists were loaded onto a fleet of school buses for a short ride to the listening party.

Long View Farm was a 143-acre equestrian ground that had recently been renovated to include a world-class studio (used by the Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band, among many others). Guests were treated to hearty meals of roast beef, pie and more champagne while waiting for Wonder to make his entrance. He arrived resplendent in a gaudy cowboy get-up, complete with 10-gallon hat, leather fringe and a gun holster emblazoned with the words "Number One With A Bullet." The whole gala cost Motown upwards of $30,000.

"Let's pop what's poppin'," he announced as he hit play on the reel-to-reel tape machine, unleashing the music that had been gestating in the studio – and his soul – for so long.

Wonder's opus popped immediately to the top of the charts. It became the third album in history to debut at Number One, remaining there for 14 weeks. It also earned him four Grammys, which he accepted via satellite while he was visiting Nigeria to explore his musical heritage. The experience was only slightly marred by a poor connection signal, prompting presenter Andy Williams to clumsily inquire, "Stevie, can you see us?"

Four decades have failed to dull the album's power and awe-inspiring scope. It's been cited as a favorite by figures like Prince, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey – and Wonder himself.  "Of all the albums, Songs in the Key of Life I'm most happy about," he told Q magazine in 1995. "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."