Saturday, August 6, 2011

The #4 Album of All-Time in the Rock Era--"Songs in the Key of Life" by Stevie Wonder

We are 6/10th's of the way through the Top 10 Albums of All-Time.  Back in Black from AC/DC was #10, The Dark Side of the Moon from Pink Floyd was #9, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles was #8, Carole King's Tapestry was #7, Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette was #6 and Led Zeppelin IV came in at #5.

Masterpieces all, as is this celebrated album.  Stevie Wonder put out several albums (Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale in particular) that are solid albums which just missed the Top 100.  Wonder, angry about how the United States Government was running the country in the early 70's, nearly gave up on music in his disillusionment.  Instead, he vowed to keep putting out music with lyrics that mattered, in the hope that the country would change.  He signed a new deal with Motown Records and expectations were high for his new album, his 18th.

In this case, the 18th time was the charm, for everything went perfect.  In short, magic existed for that period of time in the way it did for these other tip-top albums.  The album's concept, or Wonder's intention, was to provide "keys to life" or what was needed for indefinite success.  He penned some of the most socially-conscious work of his career, songs about faith and love among people of the world and social justice for the poor and downtrodden.  Wonder spent long hours in the studio, not eating or sleeping, feeling that he was "in a groove". 

He was.  On October 16, 1976, Songs in the Key of Life became the third album of the Rock Era to debut at #1 (after Elton John's Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies) and back then, it meant something.  To debut ahead of albums such as Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs, Frampton Comes Alive, Fly Like an Eagle from Steve Miller, Hasten Down the Wind by Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac was impressive to say the least.  Stevie Wonder remained at #1 for 13 weeks, gave up the spot for a couple weeks, then returned to #1.  It also hung around at #3 for eight additional weeks.  

Songs in the Key of Life remained in the Top 10 for 34 weeks and on the chart for 80.  In 1977, only Fleetwood Mac's Rumours outsold it.  To date, it has sold 10 million copies and has an outstanding Track Rating* of 9.67.  At #4, it is the top double album in the Rock Era.  

Singles helped publicize this incredible album but you don't get a Track Rating* of 9.67 on singles alone, especially on a double album.  Whereas albums such as The White Album by the Beatles, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John and The Wall by Pink Floyd could not match single albums for their quality and consistency, this double album did, and it is an amazing achievement just for that.  

"I Wish", the #1 "Sir Duke"and "Isn't She Lovely" were all big hits and "Another Star" and "As" remain two of The Most Unknown/Underrated Songs of the Rock Era*.  Every song in the album is excellent; there wouldn't be any point of singling any others out because they are all outstanding.  

So incredible chart performance and airplay for both singles and hidden gems were a big part of the album's success.  The longevity and sales success throughout time up to 2011 are evidence of the album's lasting appeal.  The outstanding Track Record* shows that the songs were chosen carefully and obviously, Wonder worked on them very hard.  Those factors are going to get the album in the Top 10, but the climb is tougher the closer you get to #1, so there must be something else to get this high.

The album far overshadows the critical respect and recognition given to albums #5 and #6, even though they got their share.  Wonder was nominated for seven Grammy Awards for the album, and he won for Album of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male Rhythm and Blues Performer and Producer of the Year.  Elton John remarked that "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."  George Michael also mentioned the album as his favorite of all-time, as does Mariah Carey.  Whitney Houston cites the album as a great influence on her singing.  

Songs in the Key of Life:
1.    "Love's in Need of Love Today" (Stevie Wonder" --7:06
2.    "Have a Talk with God" (Wonder, Calvin Hardaway) --2:42
3.    "Village Ghetto Land" (Wonder, Gary Byrd) --3:25
4.    "Contusion" (Wonder) --3:46
5.    "Sir Duke" (Wonder) --3:54
6.    "I Wish" (Wonder) --4:12
7.    "Knocks Me Off My Feet" (Wonder) --3:36
8.    "Pastime Paradise" (Wonder) --3:28
9.    "Summer Soft" (Wonder) --4:14
10.  "Ordinary Pain" (Wonder) --6:23
11.  "Isn't She Lovely?" (Wonder) --6:34
12.  "Joy Inside My Tears" (Wonder) --6:30
13.  "Black Man" (Wonder, Byrd) --8:30
14.  "Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing" (Wonder) --3:49
15.  "If It's Magic" (Wonder) --3:12
16.  "As" (Wonder) --7:08
17.  "Another Star" (Wonder) --8:28

Wonder played all instruments on "Have a Talk with God" and "Village Ghetto Land".  He used an incredible number of musicians and vocalists on the other songs on the album, broken down below:

Love's in Need of Love Today" 
Eddie "Bongo" Brown--collinga
Stevie Wonder--all other instruments

Mike Sembello--lead guitar

Nathan Watts--bass
Ben Bridges--rhythm guitar
Greg Phillinganes--keyboard
Stevie Wonder--all other instruments
Vocals:  Michael Gray, Jose James, Shirley Brewer and Artece May

"Sir Duke"
Mike Sembello--lead guitar
Raymond Pounds--drums
Nathan Watts--bass
Ben Bridges--rhythm guitar
Hank Redd--alto saxophone
Raymond Maldonado--trumpet
Trevor Laurence--tenor saxophone
Steve Madaio--trumpet
Stevie Wonder--all other instruments

"I Wish"
Raymond Pounds--drums
Nathan Watts--bass
Hank Redd--alto saxophone
Raymond Maldonado--trumpet
Trevor Laurence--tenor saxophone
Steve Madaio--trumpet
Stevie Wonder--Fender Rhodes, ARP 2600 Synthesizer

"Knocks Me Off My Feet"
Stevie Wonder--acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, drums, synthesizer bass

"Pastime Paradise" 
Raymond Maldonado--percussion
Bobbye Hall--percussion
Stevie Wonder--all other instruments
Vocals:  Hare Krishna, West Angeles Church Choir

"Summer Soft"
Ben Bridges--rhythm guitar
Ronnie Foster--organ
Larry Latimer--percussion
Stevie Wonder--acoustic piano, drums, hi-hat, synthesizer bass

"Ordinary Pain"
Mike Sembello--lead guitar
Hank Redd--alto saxophone
Stevie Wonder--all other instruments
Vocals:  Minnie Riperton, Mary Lee Whitney, Deniece Williams, Syreeta Wright
Shirley Brewer--reply
Replies and background vocals:  Linda Lawrence, Terri Hendricks, Sundray Tucker, Charity McCrary, Madelaine Jones

"Isn't She Lovely?"
Greg Phillinganes--keyboard
Stevie Wonder-_Fender Rhodes, Bass Synthesizer, harmonica, drums

"Joy Inside My Tears"
Stevie Wonder:  Piano, bass synthesizer, drums
Greg Phillinganes--keyboard
Susaye Greene--background vocals

"Black Man"
Stevie Wonder--Fender Rhodes, bass synthesizer, synthesizer, talk box, drums, percussion
Hank Redd-alto and tenor saxophone
Steve Madaio--trumpet
George Bohanon--trombone
Glen Ferris-trombone

"Ngiculela - Es Una Historia"
Background Percussion:  Charles Brewer, Shirley Brewer, Renee Hardaway, Nelson Hayes, Marietta Waters, Nathan Watts, John Fischbach, Amale Mathews, Josette Valentino
Stevie Wonder--all other instruments

"If It's Magic"
Dorothy Ashby--harp

Nathan Watts--bass, handclaps
Dean Parks--guitar
Herbie Hancock--Fender Rhodes, handclaps
Greg Brown--drums
Stevie Wonder:  Fender Rhodes
Mary Lee Whitney--background vocals
Dave Hanson, Yolanda Simon, Josette Valentino--handclaps

"Another Star"
Bobbi Humphrey--flute
George Benson--guitar and background vocals
Hank Redd--alto saxophone
Raymond Maldonado--trumpet
Trevor Laurence--tenor saxophone
Steve Madaio--trumpet
Nathan Alford, Jr.--percussion
Carmello Hungria Garcia--timbales
Stevie Wonder--piano, bass guitar, drums

These musicians and vocalists also contributed to the amazing album that aren't mentioned above:

Sneaky Pete Kleinow--pedal steel guitar
W.G. Walden--guitar
Howard Feiten--guitar
Jim Horn--saxophone
Shirley Brewer--percussion
Colleen Carlton--percussion, vocals
Carol Cole--percussion
Carmelo Garcia--percussion
Raymond Maldonado--percussion
Amale Mathews--percussion, vocals
Josette Valentino--percussion, vocals
John Harris--sound effects
Don Hunter--sound effects, programming
Larry Scott--sound effects
Aisha Morris--crying on "Isn't She Lovely?"

Vocals:  Gary Byrd, Michael Wycoff, Jay Boy Adams, Henry America, Linda America, Baradras, Brenda Barnett, Khalif Bobatoon, Starshemah Bobatoon, Sudana Bobatoon, Charles Brewer, Berry Bridges, Cecilia Brown, Jean Brown, Rodney Brown, Addie Cox, Agnideva Dasa, Duryodhana Guru Dasa, Jayasacinandana Dasa, Jitamrtyi Dasa, Vedavyasa Dasa, Cinmayi Dasi, Yogamaya Dasi, Carolyn Dennis, Bhakta Eddie, Doe Rani Edwards, Jacqueline F. English, Ethel Enoix, Al Jocko Fann, Barbara Fann, Melani Fann, Shelley Fann, Tracy Fann, John Fischbach, Suzie Fuzzell, Anthony Givens, Audrey Givens, Derrick Givens, Mildred Givens, Michael Gray, Mimi Green, Bhakta Gregory, Renee Hardaway, Jeania Harris, Troy Harris, Nelson Hayes, Adrian Janes, Calvin Johnson, Carol Johnson, Patricia Johnson, Bhakta Kevin, Phillip Kimble, James Lambert, Larry Latimer, Irma Leslie, Kim Lewis, Carl Lockhart, Gail Lockhart, Carolyn Massenburg, Linda McCrary-Cambell, William Moore, Lonnie Morgan, Kim Nixon, Lisa Nixon, Larri Nuckens, Gary Olazabal, Edna Orso, Gwen Perry, Gregory Rudd, Rukmini, Yolanda Simmons, Keith Slaughter, Rosona Starks, Dennis Swindell, Gary Veney, Sheryl Walker, Marietta Waters

Songs in the Key of Life was recorded between 1975 and 1976 at Crystal Sound Studios and The Record Plant in Hollywood, California, The Record Plant in Sausalito, California and The Hit Factory in New York City, New York.  Wonder arranged and produced the album; John Fischbach was the engineer.

Stevie Wonder is positioned at #4 for the Rock Era* with Songs in the Key of Life.

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