Songs in the Key of Life – Stevie Wonder

Released September 28, 1976 this ambitious double LP with a four-song bonus EP was Wonder’s eighteenth album. Certified 10x Multi-Platinum (Diamond) selling over 10 million copies. It is in the Library of Congress and was #57 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Prince called this “the best album ever recorded.”

Jason: Stevie Wonder was the first concert you ever saw. How did that come about?

Brad: Yes, my very first! Stevie Wonder was born in Saginaw, Michigan which is the neighboring town to Bay City where I was born. When I was in 7th grade, he decided to do a big Homecoming concert and my mom surprised me with tickets. He performed in-the-round with a stage that revolved like a lazy susan.. It was magical! I know people say this a lot but it really changed my life and started my love for live concerts.

Jason: Then I have Stevie to blame for me being a concert widow 15 days a month. Had you been familiar with this album at the time? 7th grade would have been…1986 for you. Ten years after the release of “Songs in the Key of Life” but shortly after “I Just Called To Say I Love You” which was probably his biggest hit single.

Brad: His big album at the time was “In Square Circle” which had “Part Time Lover” and “Overjoyed”. I owned that cassette at the time and loved it. I was familiar with his other big hits but hadn’t listened to “Songs In The Key of Life” yet at that point.

Jason: I am sure he played some of the songs from this album in that concert including the one that for a long time I thought I wrote the opening riff to, “Sir Duke”.

Brad: I still think it is funny that you thought you wrote that opening. 

Jason: Okay, let me explain. The opening [“Do do do do. Dootdoot doot doot doodley doo!”] was stuck in my head for years and for some dumb reason I didn’t realize it was the opening to “Sir Duke” and I honestly thought ‘Did I just invent a cool riff?’ and you were like “You are the dumbest human on Earth right now.” I think it was in my head for so long I just co-opted it. It’s like when Vanilla Ice said he didn’t copy Queen’s “Under Pressure” for “Ice, Ice Baby” because it was like one beat off.

Brad: Sure. I am afraid to ask this but do you remember when we saw Stevie perform this entire album a few years ago.

Jason: Yes…? It was in Grant Park.

Brad: No. The United Center with India.Arie as a special guest.

Jason: Actually, yes, I do remember that. “Songs in the Key of Life” is such an amazing album it was great that we got to see him perform it in its entirety plus a few other hits at the end.

Brad: I agree. I think it gets more and more impressive the more I listen. So many great songs that are entertaining and catchy. They lift me up and often make me happy. But they also provide a history lesson. 

Jason: Wonder’s lyrics across all of these songs really have a point of view. There are teaching moments in each song and every time “Pastime Paradise” comes on I forget it’s essentially “Gangsta’s Paradise” but better.

Brad: The lyrics are fantastic. “Village Ghetto Land” always stands out to me. It takes a classical composition and really paints a vivid picture with the lyrics.

Jason: This is a double-album and each side has a hit on it. I love “Summer Soft”, which I don’t think was a single. A few of the songs are a little long. I really like “Isn’t She Lovely” but I could do without the crying baby or the bath time in the middle.

Brad: It is sweet that included the audio of his daughter Aisha being born on that song but I agree. That is the only part of the album I wish wasn’t on there.

Jason: It is a love song to his child so I will allow it. Is there any song that you don’t care for? 

Brad: Not really. The mostly instrumental songs “Contusion” and “Another Star” are my least favorite but I still like them.

Jason: “Contusion” sounds like a Phish song to me. I like “Another Star” but it’s just a bunch of ‘La-la-las’.

Brad: I include the songs of “A Something Extra EP” as part of this album too. Did you listen to those? (“Saturn”, “Ebony Eyes”, “All Day Sucker” & “Easy Goin’ Evening”). Those songs are also great and are usually included on most versions of this album.

Jason: Yes. Here’s a question: “As” his version or the George Michael/Mary J Blige. Which do you prefer?

Brad: I like them both but I prefer Stevie’s version. That’s such a great song.

Jason: I also like them both. I might like the duet better. It’s a little dance-y-er. Dancier?

Brad: George Michael loved singing Stevie Wonder’s music. He did it justice.

Jason: This is an album that should be in everyone’s collection. It’s fantastic from beginning to end.

Brad: I completely agree. I also think it should be taught in schools like we do with Dickens or Shakespeare.

Jason: Because of the content and cultural impact?

Brad: Yes, both. Plus how it relates to our current world.

Jason: I agree. It really should. It’s much more entertaining and relevant than either Chuck or Bill’s boring stories. (Cue hate mail from Shakespeare fans. (There are no Dickens’ fans.))

Brad: Yes, watch your back. While I appreciate Shakespeare and think it should be taught, I could imagine this album being much more relatable to most students today.

Jason: Agreed. So what grade do you give “Songs in the Key of Life”?

Brad: I’m going to go ahead and give it an A+. This album is really incredible on so many different levels.

Jason: I agree. It’s an A+. It really knocks me off my feet and gives me a contusion. It’s just an ordinary pain, though and there is joy inside my tears.

Brad: Oh wow, you worked hard on that.

Jason: I could do this all day, sucker.

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