Inside Stevie Wonder’s Epic 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.

Stevie Wonder during Songs in The Key of Life recording sessions at Crystal Sound in Hollywood.

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… read more >

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