A Wonder of an album and tour
Today, Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" is considered his best album, the apex of a burst of creativity in the 1970s that seemed as if it would never end.
Critics were divided at the time, but today most agree that "Songs" was the culmination of a breathtaking five-album musical arc for the Motown star that began with his 1972 album "Music of My Mind" and continued through "Talking Book," "Innervisions" and "Fulfillingness' First Finale."
The album's musical breadth was unprecedented, comprising jazz, classical, funk, soul and pop. In 2008, the BBC's Chris Jones wrote of the remastered CD: "Life, literally, is incomplete without it."
Now Wonder, backed by a very large band, brings his "Songs in the Key of Life Performance" show to The Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday, part of an 11-city tour.
It was his idea to re-create the whole album in concert, Wonder confirmed in a wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News in which he discussed recording the album, his philosophy of music and plans for new music next year.
"I did it last year in L.A. for this thing we do every year to benefit the (children's charity) Houseful of Toys, so I thought, why not do 'Songs in the Key of Life' Performance," said Wonder, 64, by phone from Los Angeles. "It worked out pretty well! I'd thought about the idea years and years ago, long after I did the album. To do a complete work in concert is an exciting thing, and I see an album as being a work."
The double album wasn't appreciated by all upon its release Sept. 28, 1976. Robert Christgau, writing in the Village Voice, gave the album an "A" grade, praising the "wit, pace and variety" of the music, but some of Wonder's mystical musings in the lyrics irritated others. Creem's Lester Bangs called it "a holding action masquerading as a masterpiece."
But music fans bought "Songs" in such numbers after its release that it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, only the third album in the chart's history to have done that. The singles "I Wish" and "Sir Duke" both went to No. 1, and the album sat at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B album chart for 20 weeks.
So far it's all raves on the concert tour, which premiered in New York earlier this month. It was, according to the New York Times, "a triumph," while the New York Daily News reviewer wrote that it showed why "Songs" is "an inspirational starting point for artists and listeners to this day."
What was Wonder's goal during the recording of "Songs"?
"The one thing that I wanted to bring out with 'Songs in the Key of Life' was that we all have experiences, but what are we going to do with them?" Wonder said.
'I think God uses my songs'
The 1970s were such a fertile, creative time for Motown's former "boy genius" that Paul Simon thanked him at the 1976 Grammy ceremonies for not releasing an album the previous year, giving "the rest of us" a chance. Sure enough, a year later "Songs in the Key of Life" was named "Album of the Year" at the 1977 Grammys, one of three statuettes Wonder took home that evening.
In concert, the songs are not performed in the same order as on the album.
"It's somewhat different, because basically the idea is to end with 'Another Star,' " Wonder said. "I wouldn't end (the concert) with, say, 'Easy Goin' Evening,' it's too slow."
Born Stevland Morris in Saginaw in 1950, Wonder moved to Detroit with his family soon after, and was brought to Motown at age 11 by Ronnie White of the Miracles.
In 1963, crowned the "12-year-old boy genius" by his label (he was actually 13), Wonder recorded "Fingertips, Pt. 2" a single that sold 1.6 million copies. Throughout the '60s, he was a reliable hitmaker for Motown, spinning songs into music gold, including "Uptight," "For Once in My Life" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."
It seems incredible, looking at Wonder's run of 1970s masterworks, that Motown thought of dropping him in the late '60s. But apparently, they did.
"I heard a rumor that there was a meeting, thinking about letting me go at some point, but I don't think I was worried," Wonder said. "I've been blessed to be self-contained (musically), all of whatever I am is in me. I'm thankful for that. I was writing all along ... I thought, 'OK, I don't want to stay in this Little Stevie Wonder box."
By 1975, when he was deep into recording "Songs in the Key of Life," Wonder was not only writing and performing at the highest level, but "Songs" was infused with an infectious optimism, a spirituality that seemed embedded in every chord progression. It was as if he had a direct pipeline to a higher power or muse nobody else could know.
Did it feel that way at the time?
"I don't think like that; I'm just doing it," Wonder said, laughing. "I don't think 'Well, I've got a connection with the spirit.' But he admits that he was channeling something, when he was recording the song "As."
"I was stuck on the middle part," Wonder said, humming the instrumental bridge. "That's all I had, the middle part. I didn't have any words there, I just had me doing that little sound. So much was going on in my life at the time and you know, things were kind of crazy. I was saying, 'This is nuts, how is this possible, how is that happening?' and then the words just kind of flowed out of me."
He speaks the words: "We all know sometimes life's hates and troubles can make you wish you were born in another time and space, but you can bet your life times that and twice its double, that God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed."
Did he ever want to be born in a different time? No, he was in the right place, Wonder says. He sings those middle lines in a gruff baritone, different from the usual sunny tenor, adding to the "message from another realm" feeling.
"I think God uses my songs that I write, that I get lyrics to, to tell me something," Wonder said. "To teach me a lesson, to help me. If I'm in some infantile place I need to grow from, then there's that lyric."
"As" was his late mother Lula Hardaway's favorite song, he confirms, his voice catching a bit, with emotion. "When she passed away, I did that song at the end (of her funeral), which was a challenge," Wonder said. "It just brought back how I felt when she passed away and I went to the hospital and saw her. I picked her up and held her in my arms, and I said, 'All this came from this woman, all of this came through her."
"As" includes harmony vocals that answer Wonder's repeated line "I'll be loving you" with fanciful possibilities: "until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea"; "until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky"; "until 8 times 8 times 8 is 4." On record, the harmony lines were sung by Wonder and backing singer Mary Lee Whitney.
In concert, his backing singers have to do it, and must need detailed cheat sheets to sing all those intricate lines correctly. "I don't remember it all!" Wonder admitted.
Some other highlights of "Song in the Key of Life":
■"Sir Duke," his irresistible, horn-laden tribute to Duke Ellington and big band music went to No. 1 on Billboard.
■ "Pastime Paradise." The addictive keyboard riff played by Wonder was picked up from J.S. Bach — it's the first lines of "Prelude No. 2 in C Minor." (The riff was later used by rapper Coolio in his "Gangsta's Paradise" . )
■"Isn't She Lovely" showcased his baby daughter Aisha's infant cries. Thirty-nine years later , his daughter Aisha Morris is one of his backup singers. During the New York concert, she held his youngest child, her half-sister, as she sang.
■"I Wish" with its joyful syncopation and engaging opening lyric — "Looking back on when I was a little nappy-headed boy"— also went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
■"Village Ghetto Land" also draws on classical music. The lyrics — written by Bobby Byrd — describe a rough, tattered neighborhood ("see the people lock their doors while robbers laugh and steal"), but a beautiful fugue-like synthesizer line subverts the ghetto narrative. There's a reason for that.
"When I worked on 'Songs in The Key of Life,' all those different experiences have a lot to do with the way it sounds, the influence of jazz and classical music," Wonder said.
"There was a woman who lived in our neighborhood, and every time there was a concert she'd dress up and go, she would sing opera …we were laughing at her. But she had consistently a very sweet spirit. That was her joy, she appreciated that music and she could play it all day. Just because some people could not relate to it, that didn't make it bad ... it didn't make her 'bourgie,' it just was something that she appreciated.
"So when I did 'Village Ghetto Land,' I thought of her, living in an upper lower-class or lower middle-class situation, whatever you want to call that. But she was a woman who took care of her son, she was a single parent, she did the best that she could. Her son was always dressed properly, and she dressed up."
Plans for new music next year
After this run of "Songs in the Key of Life Performance" dates is done, Wonder is looking forward to finishing several new recordings in 2015, including an album titled "Through the Eyes of Wonder."
"It's not like 'Songs in The Key of Life,' but it's like, right now," Wonder said. "Obviously, there will be influences of me in it because I'm doing it, but also the influences of where we are in society, in the world, what's going on, what I'm experiencing and what I'm seeing."
He'll finish a "Gospel Inspired by Lula" recording with his mother before she passed.
"Then I want to do a children's album," Wonder said. (The father of eight confirmed that he and girlfriend Tomeeka Bracy will welcome their second child early in December.
There's also the album he's working on with producer David Foster, interpreting his songs with a symphony orchestra. "That album will be called 'When the World Begins,' which is a song I wrote."
Stevie Wonder: "Songs in the Key of Life Performance"
8 p.m. Thursday
The Palace of Auburn Hills
Tickets: $29-$149.50 at Livenation.com, Palacenet.com, The Palace Ticket Stores and all Ticketmaster locations. Box office: call (248) 377-8601.
A few things about "Songs in the Key of Life"
■Michael Jackson, 17, watched Wonder in the studio in 1975 recording "Songs." "Stevie Wonder used to literally let me sit like a fly on the wall," Jackson told Ebony in 2007. "I got to see 'Songs in the Key of Life' get made, some of the most golden things."
■After two years of work, the album was officially released Sept. 28, 1976, and consisted of two discs, with a bonus EP and a sizable booklet. On Sept. 7, Wonder and Motown feted the album at a lavish press party at a Brookfield, Massachusetts, farm. Wonder made his entrance dressed in a cowboy outfit, on his belt buckle "No. 1 with a bullet." Instead of guns, the holster held two copies of the new album.
■Music fans loved the album, but it drew mixed reviews from critics. Robert Christgau, writing in the Village Voice, gave the album an "A" grade, praising the "wit, pace and variety" of the music, but some of Wonder's mystical musings in the lyrics irritated others. Rolling Stone's review was lukewarm, and Creem's Lester Bangs called it "a holding action masquerading as a masterpiece."
■ At the 1977 Grammys, there was a kerfuffle when there was technical trouble with a live remote of Wonder from Africa, where he was performing. At one point emcee Andy Williams cried out, "Can you see me, Stevie?" which led to universal hilarity the next day. It was Williams' last stint hosting the awards.
■ Along with his daughter Aisha Morris, Wonder's backup singers include Keith John, the son of R&B legend Little Willie John. For the new tour they are joined by six additional backup singers, and India.Arie is a guest singer as well.
■Elton John takes a copy of "Songs in the Key of Life" wherever he goes in the world, he told Rolling Stone. "For me, it's the best album ever made, and I'm always left in awe after I listen to it," John said. For Aretha Franklin, it's one of Wonder's best two albums, the other being "Music of My Mind."
Set list for "Songs in the Key of Life: Performance" Nov. 6 at Madison Square Garden, New York
"Love's in Need of Love Today"
"Have a Talk With God"
"Village Ghetto Land"
"Knocks Me Off My Feet"
"Isn't She Lovely"
"Joy Inside My Tears"
"All Day Sucker"
"Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)"
"Ngiculela — Es Una Historia (I Am Singing)"
"If It's Magic"
Encore: "Superstition" (from the 1972 album "Talking Book")
"Isn't She Lovely" from "Songs in the Key of Life" features quite a bit of Wonder's harmonica playing, which it's easy to overlook in praising his songwriting, keyboard and vocal gifts. What influenced his playing, at such a young age?
"I listened to saxophone players, really," Wonder said. "I had the pleasure of meeting Toots Thielemans, who I think is one of the greatest harmonica players in the world. But it's not that I listened to him when I was growing up; I didn't know about him. When I heard his songs like 'Bluesette' and the various things he's written, I thought, 'Wow, this guy's incredible.' "
Some of the saxophone players he emulated included Hank Crawford from Ray Charles' band.
"For me, the harmonica is an instrument that's small enough you can take it anywhere." And as much as Wonder loves the blues, like Thielemans, he prefers the chromatic harmonica (used in jazz and pop) to the diatonic harmonica that's more common for blues players. "That's from being influenced by saxophone players and wanting to do the notes like they do them."
How does he keep his harmonica chops up?
"You have to kiss a lot," Wonder said, laughing. "I play harmonica almost every day. I'm a music lover so I like playing music, listening to music, creating music, I like all that stuff."