Mention Stevie Wonder and many will nod in approval publicly, even if they don’t really like or get his music. While I consider him a musical genius, his kind of genius does not always sell these days, but still commands respect. His more recent music can sometimes sound comically dated or a bit out of step with now, but there’s no denying his abilities when inspired.
As the one of the most talented of the original Motown living artists, he like Marvin Gaye matured and came of age musically during the ’70s. For much of that decade he created one masterpiece after another while scoring R&B and occasional crossover hits.
This was the time when Wonder made people forget about his childhood hits with sophisticated fusions, lyrical content and trailblazing production techniques. For me, the height of that era was always Songs In the Key of Life.
It all happened by forced circumstance. In college, I shared a dorm room with three others. Two of my roommates were into heavy metal and the other Nick was a avid Stevie Wonder fan. Somehow we all got along thanks to my AC/DC, Foreigner and one Stevie Wonder record Hotter than July bridging the gaps between us.
Nearly all of Nick’s records were from Stevie Wonder. Of the albums he played most often, Songs In the Key of Life might have been the one his turntable was most familiar with.
Gradually I would become a fan too. Before Nick I had only heard a handful of songs from the album. Being that it made a splash debut at number one when it was released. Much of it like “Sir Duke”, “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely” were considered near classics then are are still played on the radio (streaming or otherwise) today. After Nick I would hear the intricate arrangements in more detail and bridge together to albums themes of life, death and rebirth.
In addition to the inward looking subject matter, Wonder would focus on social issues with songs like “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”. Much of the album’s jazz fusion sound came from excellent session musicians and notable guests like Herbie Hancock, George Benson and Minnie Ripperton.
It took over two years to record Song In the Key of Life, Wonder’s longest and most ambitious album at the time. It was the first album after Wonder signed a then record breaking deal with Motown. The 21 song two record set came with a bonus 4 song EP. The album was released as both a double disc CD in 1992 with all 21 songs and a single disc 18 song set in 1993. It’s been issued in at least two remastered versions over the last 20 years and ranks as (one of) Wonder’s most popular musical masterpieces.
I haven’t seen Nick since my sophomore year, but I still listen to Songs in the Key of Life. It’s the Stevie Wonder that comes to mind for me when the subject of his musical genus comes up.