Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs In the Key Of Life’ Revisited

Eighty five minutes and twenty one seconds of artistic brilliance captured the minds of a generation.

September 28, 2011 marks the 35th anniversary of Songs in the Key of Life being released by Tamla Records, a subsidiary of Motown Records. This album is regarded as one of the most important recordings in the history of music.

The 21-song offering gives an introspective look into the many cycles of life from love found and love lost to hardships borne out of the inner city experience shared by people of color to hope for humankind. Wonder gave the world a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore the mind of an incomparable genius in his prime. And just to think it may have never seen the light of day without Stevie Wonder having a change of heart about his recording career.

By late 1974, Wonder was seriously considering leaving the music business altogether. He expressed his disdain with the way the United States was conducting its affairs in Ghana. As a result, he made a conscious decision to emigrate to Ghana to begin working with handicapped children in the country. A farewell concert was in the works until Wonder decided to resume his recording career by signing the most lucrative contract for an artist during that time. His record deal was reportedly worth $37 million and he received full artistic control over his work.

Coming off winning Album of the Year Awards from the Grammy’s in 1974 and 1975 for “Innervisions” and “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” the mass hysteria surrounding this album was at an all-time high. For the whole of 1975, Wonder began recording his eighteenth album while on the road performing concerts and in various studios. Meanwhile, he found new members to fill slots in his newly revised Wonderlove band.

During this juncture, he also utilized the vocal talents of a young Deniece Williams, Minnie Riperton, Susaye Green, the late great harp playing skills of Dorothy Ashby and percussionist Bobbye Hall. The album had 130 different contributors and the infusion of youth helped to keep the creative juices flowing throughout the recording process. Together, Wonder and his Wonderlove band held legendary recording sessions at Crystal Sound Studios, The Record Plant and The Hit Factory Studios. The original release date for the album was Halloween of 1975, but Wonder felt the album needed more fine tuning.

After going back to the drawing board, Wonder finally decided on a title for the album. The original title was “Let’s See Life The Way It Is,” but he settled on “Songs in the Key of Life” because he yearned for the album’s content to represent the key of life and its indefinite success. Due to the insatiable craving for new music from Wonder, Motown seized the opportunity to capitalize on the public’s fervent desire by selling “We’re Almost Finished” T-Shirts. The culmination of a two year musical journey came to fruition when the album was released in early autumn of 1976.

Between the months of March 1975-July 1976, Songs in the Key of Life was recorded at Crystal Sound Studios in Hollywood, California, The Hit Factory Studios in New York, New York and The Record Plant Studios in Sausalito, California.

SoulCulture recently sat down with the legendary Nathan Watts and Michael Sembello to discuss the history behind the album and their involvement in making it a success.

Sembello and Watts recall how they became involved with the album.

“Basically, it was an accident or you can say it was fate,” says Sembello. “I just happened to be in the right place at the time thanks to a friend of mine. He woke me up one Sunday morning and told me that this guy named Stevie Wonder was looking for a musician. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s I really didn’t know who he was, but I heard about him. I was into John Coltrane and a bunch of jazz stuff back then. I asked my friend, ‘Is it that blind guy?’ He replied, ‘Yes, that is him.’”

“My friend told me to come with him because he really wanted the gig. So I went there with no knowledge of who Stevie Wonder was or his music. Fortunately for me this is when Steve started to move into his jazz phase. When I showed up to the tryouts there were a couple of hundred different musicians waiting in line. They all had Stevie Wonder’s music and his books with them while they were sitting down. It was kind of like a game show almost. I had my big, fat jazz guitar with a broken handle on the guitar case.

“I remember one of the guys saying, ‘What song are we going to play Steve?’ Everyone started flipping through their Stevie Wonder song books. Steve replied, ‘Man, just follow me.’ And that was the beginning of him playing Coltrane stuff. All of a sudden, I said to myself, ‘This is my element.’ So I started to play and by the end of the audition I was in pretty strong standing and quite perplexed because I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. At the end of the 1960s, there was still this whole segregation thing between Whites and Blacks.

“Most Motown bands didn’t have more than one White player in their band at the time. They already had a White trumpet player and there was an argument going on in the corner of the studio. Tucker, who was the publicist, told Steve, ‘Look, you don’t realize you hired a White guy.’ So Steve motioned me to come over to him and he said, “Hey man, what’s your sign?” My answer is probably what helped me get the gig. I didn’t know what he meant so I thought he was asking me what my nationality was so I answered him, “I’m Italian.” Steve turned around and said, “Guys, he’s Italian. He’s not White. He’s in the band!” [laughing]

“When I first played with Steve I didn’t audition for him,” says Watts. “I came from Detroit where I went from playing in front of 35 people a night to playing in front of 250,000 people for a concert for Jesse Jackson. I got a call on a Tuesday saying that Steve wanted to check me out and to learn as much of his albums as I could. I was recommended by Ray Parker, Jr. because we grew up together. At the time, I had only played guitar for two years and I was young. I was playing an instrument called a national bass.

“I came in and went backstage after one of his shows. He was surprised when I started playing ‘I Was Made to Love Her.’ It was the first song I learned of his from a cousin of mine who was from the South. We proceeded to go through a few more songs and at the end they said, ‘You sounded great.’ Steve began to play the song ‘Contusion’ and I never heard of the song before. I went over by him and watched his left hand carefully. Every time he hit a certain note, I would hit the same note on my guitar. Then he made a transition in the song and from there I was lost, but when I got the gig we went back into the studio and we got it together.”

Sembello and Watts remember how much the studio atmosphere contributed to the production of the material and the overall success of the album.

“We were so excited about playing and being together that it allowed us to feed off of one another,” says Sembello. “Steve really knew how to take the energy and create something great. We used to sit around and listen to him do chants and Big Band music. We had no boundary lines and the fact we were there as a buffer system for him helped for sure. There still was that thing that the record company puts on you to hurry up and finish the album.

“Steve used to take a long time doing things because he was on his own flow. He would get to the studio and we would be there waiting for him. Steve is superhuman and he’s like a musical vampire. He can stay up for three and four days at a time. It was a long, long process of everyone trying to keep the inspiration going and that’s hard to do when there are a bunch of executives coming in every few days asking you questions.”

Sembello continues. “We would show up to the studio at one or two o’clock in the morning. And like I said before, Steve is tireless. When he gets in the zone, he stays in the zone. Steve would show up and we would have everything set up ready to play. He would literally be writing another song while we would be tracking one song. We had two engineers in the studio at all times. We would be tracking a song and Steve would yell, ‘Hold on! Wait a minute! Roll the tape!’ He would start singing something that was coming to him and due to the fact that we were musicians and had great ears we started playing alongside him.

“All of a sudden a new song started to form and this is how the song ‘Sir Duke’ came about. There are probably hundreds or even thousands of songs in the vault from Steve that have just come from the top of his head that he has never finished. He could have material playing a hundred years from now. He was the conductor of the universe. We were a musical force due to him. It was very magical. We wanted to get better as musicians. We didn’t care about getting Grammy’s. We wanted to be the best we could be.”

“Everything on the album happened organically in the studio for the simple fact that we rehearsed a lot of material with Steve while we were on the road touring,” says Watts. “Most of these songs we rehearsed with him before we recorded them in the studio. This is where his production skills came into play. He would decide if he wanted a four part band to play on the song or if he was going to play the instruments on the song. He carried copies of the songs that we rehearsed with him and he would listen and decide what direction he wanted to go in for a particular song.

“Back then the recording was done in all analog. It was a lot of fun to be around there. There would always be food and things around. We would always take breaks and go out to dinner somewhere as a group. One good thing about Steve is he is big on having a family atmosphere around him. We would have our share of arguments, but we would get over them quick. We were more like family more than anything. So we would get to the studio each day and we would get there on time. We would do our jobs then go grab something to eat then come back and work on the next song.

“We learned so much as musicians about the technology and what it took to know about engineering and the sound of a record. We used to call it ‘The Wonder School.’ We got an education on what it took to become a success in music. Many times he would be by himself in the studio working and we would be around the studio with him. You have to remember that Steve had been doing all of the work before we got there. He did everything by himself on Music of My Mind and Talking Book. When he got to Songs in the Key of Life we were his tool to allow him to make his greatest album to date in my opinion.”

Watts recollects the making of “I Wish,” which would be the lead single from the album.

Stevie Wonder – “I Wish”:

“‘I Wish’ was a song that he never rehearsed,” says Watts. “He wrote the song in one day. I was there with him the whole day and we did nothing that day. I was there until one o’clock in the morning and I told Steve that I was leaving because I was tired. He told me to go ahead and head home. He called me back at 3:30 in the morning and told me to come back to the studio. He said, ‘I got a song and it’s going to be good. You gotta hear it and you have to play on it.’ The next thing I know I was back at the studio and we came up with the song style and that was it. We came up with the bass line and he was playing on the keyboard then I embellished from what I was hearing from him. I finished up my part at five o’clock and went back home. He did the horns and the backgrounds the next two days and it took about three to four days to complete the entire song.”

“I Wish” went on to peak at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #5 on the UK Singles Chart. It helped to generate steam and set the tone for the album’s incredible success.

The next song to be released from the album would be the jazz laden tune, “Sir Duke.” Sembello and Watts discuss the making of the record inside and outside of the studio.

“We would basically sleep at the studio most of the time,” says Sembello. “I remember falling asleep in the vocal booth and I knew I had to do my guitar part in the song. I would wake up every few minutes and ask, ‘Is it time yet?’ They would tell me no. Two days go by and it’s like 6 o’clock in the morning and Steve says, ‘It’s time!’ There I was sitting in the booth next to a Marshall amplifier with headphones on and half awake waiting to play my complicated guitar part. The reason I was able to do it was due in part to everyone being so energized and fueled to do the music. It was an incredible experience and it made me realize that I could play while being half asleep.”

Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”:

“On ‘Sir Duke’ Steve was humming the melody of it one day and he didn’t have the words to the song yet,” says Watts. “By the time all of us were in the studio, the band was ready to do the song. I think we finished the song in two takes because we rehearsed the song enough to have it so Stevie didn’t have to worry about it. There was one thing he might have changed later after the recording, but what you hear on the album is what we cut in the studio. Wonderlove was an incredible band back then and incredible influence on him as well. He had some of the baddest players around in that band. I had only been playing the guitar for two years, but I had a quick ear to pick up stuff and that made the difference. I must have had a little talent, I guess that’s why he kept me,” he says laughing.

“Sir Duke” went on to peak at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #2 on the UK Singles Chart. This single exceeded the previous single in overall sales and charting longevity.

The next single to be released would be “Another Star” and it featured the talents of a young George Benson. Watts tells a funny story during the recording of the song in the studio.

“‘Another Star’ was a fun song to do,” says Watts. “It had a Latin feel to the record. We had such diversity with the music because of the musicians involved with the project. George Benson was on this record. I remember coming into the studio one day and one of the guys told me that Nat King Cole had come by and recorded ‘Stormy Weather.’ What I didn’t know was that George Benson could do such a great Nat King Cole impersonation, but once I heard what they recorded I knew they were playing a joke on me,” he laughs.

Stevie Wonder – “Another Star”:

“Another Star” went on to peak at #32 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #18 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #29 on the UK Singles Chart.

The next song to receive airplay in the US and UK would be the classic “As.” It wasn’t released as a single because Wonder preferred the song to remain as an album track. Sembello and Watts describe how the song came together and what it felt like to record with another living legend.

Herbie Hancock came into the studio to play on ‘As,'” says Sembello. “He was one of the many people that came by the studio during the recording of the album. I got to meet a lot of people that I really admired. It was just a party of musicians there and everyone wanted to be involved with the album. Greg Phillinganes had just joined the band and he was the kid of the group. He was 18 at the time and I was a little older. Herbie’s album had come out a couple of weeks prior and Greg hopped on the keyboards and started playing some songs from the album. Herbie had this look on his face and he was impressed. It was like we all died and went to music heaven during the whole process of making the album. It was young people mixed with veterans that had a mutual respect for one another. There was just a lot of joy there and Steve really attracts that.”

Stevie Wonder – “As”:

“I was just a young boy walking into the studio and there was Steve and the wizard working on ‘As,’ says Watts. “I didn’t even know how to act. There were the two greatest piano players who have ever lived. Herbie Hancock, are you kidding me? I walked in there and then we began playing and we hit it off from that point forward. Herbie was sitting down at the piano playing in the key of B. Anyone who plays an instrument knows how difficult it is to play in the key of B. Herbie walked through it like it was day and night. I was sitting there in awe. Michael Sembello was in there with us. I remember calling back to my friends in Detroit telling them I just finished playing with Herbie Hancock.”

“As” went on to peak at #36 on the Billboard Pop Chart, #36 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart.

“Isn’t She Lovely” would be last song to receive widespread airplay on various radio formats around the country. It ended up peaking at #26 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart.

Stevie Wonder – “Isn’t She Lovely”:

Sembello and Watts give a inside glimpse of how some of the rest of the songs on the album were produced.

“On ‘Village Ghetto Land’ Steve played all of the instruments,” says Watts. “Many people didn’t realize that there were no strings on the song. They were actually synthesizing the strings from a Yamaha keyboard he had in the studio. During the early ’70s, he acquired one of these keyboards when they first came out. The way they made the strings sound on that record was incredible.”

Stevie Wonder – “Village Ghetto Land”:

“On the song ‘Contusion’ we were rehearsing right across the hall from John Mclaughlin and Chick Corea,” says Sembello. “We all used to hang out as musicians back then. Stevie was influenced by everything. We would sit around and listen to different jazz artists. I think the song ‘Contusion’ came out from the type of stuff Chick Corea was doing. He wanted to express the fact that he could play and that he wasn’t just this pretty voice. Everything on that record would be an A&R guy’s nightmare today,” he laughs.

Stevie Wonder – “Contusion”:

“He was writing so prolifically and so fast that we didn’t even know what the names of the songs were going to be,” says Sembello. “Things were flying out of him and “Ordinary Pain” was one of those songs. It was like a double entendre.

Stevie Wonder – “Ordinary Pain”:

“Steve’s metaphors are really double entendres and ‘All Day Sucker’ is another one of those. A lot of times it was us playing music spontaneously and the groove from a live band will become a song. Essentially, he had the groove and the next thing we know we have a song. We didn’t have names for the songs at that time.”

Stevie Wonder – “All Day Sucker”:

“’Pastime Paradise’ was a song that had religious overtones, ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ was a song for his daughter, ‘Joy Inside My Tears’ was a soulful, emotional song,” says Watts. “Steve did ‘Joy Inside My Tears’ by himself and he brought in Hare Krishna and a choir to do the background vocals for the song. It was the West Angeles choir.

Stevie Wonder – “Joy Inside My Tears”:

“He wrote ‘Ebony Eyes’ about some woman he knew. He had the melody in his head and then he went from there to finish the song. When he played the song, I had an idea of where to go with it being that I played a brass instrument in high school.”

Stevie Wonder – “Ebony Eyes”:

“It’s funny how the song ‘Saturn’ came about,” says Sembello. “He asked me if I had any ideas for this song he was working on. He gave me this tape and he was saying something about going back to Saginaw. I asked him what he was actually saying and he told me, ‘The song is called “Going Back To Saginaw,” but that’s not going to work.’ I said to him, ‘Yea, that doesn’t sound very exciting.’ Later on that night, I told him the first thing I heard when I listened to the lyrics again was ‘Going Back To Saturn’ and he said, ‘Yep, that’s it! Go finish it!’ He told me to come back the next day so we could record the song. I thought to myself what would it be like to be a disgruntled alien that came to this planet to try and do good and help people and we ended up running him away with our guns and bibles in our hands. So he says I’m going back to Saturn. I didn’t think it would ever make it on the album because the record company hated it so much. Thank God for double albums because if it was a single album it would have never made it,” he laughs.

Stevie Wonder – “Saturn”:

“The first recording that I used an upright bass was on ‘Easy Goin’ Evening” (My Mama’s Call),'” says Watts. “It was the first time I played the upright bass guitar at all. I taught myself how to play the instrument and I had only been playing the guitar for two years when I met up with Steve to do this album. Steve gave me some grace on that record because I had a good ear and I could pick up things quickly, but I was having trouble at first, then once I felt my way through it I was good. I used a lot of open strings on the record and most upright bass players use open strings on a record.”

Fifty songs were recorded in total for the album, but only twenty one made the final cut. It makes one wonder what the other twenty nine songs contain. Wonder recorded this album during his “classic period” where he was at the apex of his creative powers. His God given talent was on full display for citizens of the world to embrace and they welcomed it with open arms. The precision of his lyricism and command of various instruments showed his versatility during a time in history where musicians were the real deal. Wonder became the standard among his musical brethren and this album became his greatest work of art.

Songs in the Key of Life landed at #1 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart in the early autumn of 1976 and it found its way to the top ten album chart listings in six countries. It has gone on to sell more than 20 million albums worldwide. Wonder became the first American recording artist to have an album debut at #1 on the Billboard Music Charts. It stayed atop the charts for eleven consecutive weeks and on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart for an unprecedented eighty weeks between 1976, 1977 and 1978. The album has achieved multi-platinum status in six countries and it’s lasting effect on popular culture remains imperishable.

To this day, it’s touted as the one of the greatest albums in this history of recorded music and it is the highest selling album of his career. This album earned a plethora of Grammy nominations and wins for Wonder. Songs in the Key of Life was the ultimate fusion record. It meshed the worlds of R&B, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Pop in a way never imagined previously. Every aspiring musician and vocalist in any genre has been influenced by the wondrous gifts of Wonder. This album’s transcendent quality was recognized by musicians and artists a generation later. A multitude of Wonder’s classics have been sampled by modern day popular acts to create hit records for their careers.

Sembello and Watts express their feelings on Wonder and the album’s legacy.

“I was this ball of energy and when I listen back to the record today I realize that I was just learning how to play and Steve was one of my greatest teachers when I worked with him,” says Sembello. “I’m just starting to comprehend the record because when you’re in the process of doing something; you don’t know the magnitude of it. When I go on the internet and I go to YouTube I type in my name and Steve’s I see young kids competing with each other by playing our song ‘Contusion.’ It’s like WOW. I begin to realize I was a part of something great here and left something for the next generation.”

“We were all young and in awe of him because he was the master,” says Watts. “We all went to the same school of learning how to write and produce songs by watching him. It was a benefit for all parties involved. He had tools that were unblemished and willing to work hard to make him happy. And we had a tool that we could learn from. A lot of the material done on the album was magical and a once and a lifetime type of thing. It sold millions of copies and is in the top ten of all-time albums in music history. It will stay that way forever. It is timeless. I was lucky to be a part of it. I was just a young man from Detroit.”

This album belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Albums. Stevland Hardaway Morris aka Stevie Wonder is our present day Mozart and a global treasure. He should be celebrated as much as humanly possible. Simply put, we owe him a debt of gratitude for Songs in the Key of Life.

Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life
Released: September 28, 1976
Label: Motown
Buy: iTunes UK / iTunes US / Amazon UK / Amazon US

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