Over a two-and-a-half year span, Stevie Wonder recorded several hundred songs during the sessions for what would later become one of the most remarkable accomplishments in musical history.
Over 130 singers, musicians and engineers participated in some of the nonstop sessions that ran for 48 hours at a time in New York City's Hit Factory, Hollywood's Crystal Sound and the Record Plant studios California. Among those whose talents were a part of the creative process were Minnie Riperton, George Benson, Deneice Williams and Herbie Hancock.
The result of what many consider to be the most prolific creative period of his musical career was the double-album, Songs in the Key of Life. 26 years old at the time, it was Stevie's 18th album. He was already one of the world's most popular and respected figures in any genre of music, riding a wave of creativity that has become known as his classical period, which encompassed Music of my Mind and Talking Book in 1972, Innervisions in 1973 and Fulfillingness' First Finale in 1974.
But for all of his previous success, nothing could quite prepare one for the majestic power that Songs in the Key of Life would bring beyond commercial success and the four Grammys it garnered for Album of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Producer of the Year.
Elton John once said, "Let me put it this way: wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of Songs in the Key of Life. For me, it's the best album ever made, and I'm always left in awe after I listen to it."
Michael Jackson once called it his favorite album, and Prince called it the greatest album ever recorded.
It was an achievement overflowing with vision, innovation and craftsmanship. Forty years after its debut, it continues to astound in scale and scope, and with the vast range of topics it touched on and the depth of this young man's heart and social consciousness.
If stranded on an island with only one song to listen to for the rest of my life, it would be, hands down, the arresting As, one of the most remarkable songs written about the beautiful potency of life's greatest force: love.
When he alludes to the fact that his love for the object of his desire will only fade away when rainbows burn the stars out in the sky, when oceans cover the tops of every mountain, when dolphins fly and parrots live at sea, when life becomes a dream, when day becomes night and night becomes the day, when trees and the seas fly away, when 8×8×8 is 4, when Mother Nature says her work is through, and "until the day that you are me and I am you," it makes my spirit levitate each and every time.
But I think it's not just about the physical love he feels for someone, but moreso about a love for humanity, and a crippling hurt that pains his soul becomes there's so much pain and evil in the world.
To get a snapshot of the genius behind the work, you have to hear some of Stevie's own words. In discussing the opening song, Love's in Need of Love Today, he told the Wall Street Journal last year:
"Love’s in Need of Love Today wasn’t the first song I wrote for the album, but there was something about it that insisted on being the album’s opener.
I wrote the song’s basic idea in late 1974 in my hotel room in New York, when Yolanda [Simmons] was pregnant with our daughter Aisha. I remember it was so cold outside that day. The concept I had in mind was that for love to be effective, it has to be fed. Love by itself is hollow. I recorded the song’s demo in my hotel room on a Fender Rhodes using a portable Nakamichi cassette recorder. I used to take that recorder with me everywhere, like a notebook.
Capturing the song’s basic feel this way was like a sketch. The cassette let me save my original thinking so I could get back into the same groove later in the recording studio. I didn’t have all the words for the song at first, only the title phrase. I started at the hotel by playing chords on the keyboard and humming along, adding just a few words where they felt right.
To this day, I never sit down and formally write songs. They emerge from the process of listening to what I’m doing on the keyboard. I just play and songs sort of happen. Like a painter, I get my inspiration from experiences that can be painful or beautiful. I always start from a feeling of profound gratitude—you know, “Only by the grace of God am I here”—and write from there. I think most songwriters are inspired by an inner voice and spirit. God gave me this gift, and this particular song was a message I was supposed to deliver.
“Love’s in Need” really began to take shape when I took the cassette demo into Crystal Sound in Hollywood, in 1975, and began recording. At Crystal Sound, I was playing chords and humming along, adding lyrics and phrases as I heard the music evolve. I wanted to feel the song and move with the music rather than try to control it. The cadence and melody came first, and then by humming harmony up high like this [illustrates], I was inspired to add lyrics. Though I had recorded the demo on a Fender Rhodes in the key of D, I decided to record the song at Crystal Sound in E-flat. The slightly higher key was better for my voice and felt better, spiritually. [Over the phone at home, Mr. Wonder illustrated how he composed “Love’s in Need” by humming and singing, accompanying himself on a harpejji—an electric stringed instrument.]
Almost immediately, the song felt significant, so I wanted to do something different with it. Rather than start with an instrumental, I developed a choral introduction to set the song’s tone, and the gospel harmony I wrote came naturally. When I overdubbed my voice singing all the choir’s vocal parts. I knew my harmonized voices had to be clear but that my lead vocal had to be heard above the rest, not tucked in the back. The song was going to be a sermon, telling people that love was in need of love.
As I worked on the introduction, it began to feel like one of those gospel radio shows I heard as a child. So after the choir introduction, I came up with [sings] “Good morn or evening friends / Here’s your friendly announcer.” I was thinking about those churches that had radio programs back in the day and how an announcer would come on and say, “Good morning or good evening everyone in radioland. I want to give you a message”—the whole deal, you know. My inspiration was the gospel quartets of the 1950s, like the one Sam Cooke was in. When I sang my final vocal on top, I imagined Sam in the studio with me—his spirit and energy.
While developing the song in the studio, I began to play and record all of the other instruments and layer them in—including the clavinet, bass synthesizer and drums. Eddie “Bongo” Brown played the congas. Eddie was an African drummer who played on many Motown songs and had recently moved to L.A.
I also added the sound of strings using a Yamaha GX-1. I used to call it the Dream Machine. I didn’t want full strings, just a light Al Green feel. I wasn’t thinking of Al’s vocal, just the single-note unison string sound on his records. After adding the strings, I decided that was enough. The rest of the process was fitting everything together like pieces of a puzzle. I always like my songs to fit right.
Finalizing “Love’s in Need” was just a matter of listening back and deciding what should stay in and what should come out. It’s about creating a marriage of all the instruments and vocals, bringing them together to make a statement. It’s similar to the way arrangers hear all the parts in their head. Whether it’s the Beatles, Sly Stone, Prince or Ed Sheeran, you start with an idea or vision and bring what you hear in your mind to reality. When I’m doing this, I become all the different musicians and approach the song from each musician’s understanding.
Fine-tuning also was key. For example, I originally sang an ad-libbed solo toward the end and then decided my ad-lib alone wasn’t enough so I added the keyboard to play the melody I was singing. In another case, on a playback, I noticed that my bass notes weren’t deep enough. I sped up the tape a little when recording, which let my voice hit the lower notes when the tape played back at the normal speed.
When I was finished, I listened to the playback and realized the song was perfect to open the album, to set the entire tone. As for the album’s title, I actually dreamed it. The point is that life is endless, so there will forever be songs about things that happen in life.
But hearing the song back in the studio also hurt, because it was so emotional. It’s still emotional for me. When I performed it in New York recently, I broke down. I’ve seen people come and go, and live and die, cry and laugh. It all came rushing back."
Whenever you pop in the entire album, even four decades since its birth, it all comes rushing back to the listener each and every time. No one album made as much of an impact on my world view, my dreams and hopes and visions. I was inspired as a child when listening to it, unaware that the inspiration would grow with each listen.
Thank you Stevie, for this wonderful gift of art and musical genius. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving, and knocks me off my feet every time.