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Stevie Wonder’s journey to ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

In 1974, when Stevie Wonder began making Songs in the Key of Life, he was only 24 years old, and yet, remarkably, it would become his 18th studio album. Taken from this retrospective vantage, what was considered by many to be the zenith of his golden run, is more akin to a mark of maturity. Not so much a coming of age, but certainly a coming of independence. The album would eventually be completed and ready for release 45 years ago today. It was undoubtedly a masterpiece, but for all of its melodious butter cutting ease, it was a pinnacle that took a lot of legwork.

The first steps on this journey began in earnest when he was only 11-years-old and found himself signed as a child prodigy to Motown’s Tamla label. He had been blind since shortly after his birth and, as such, sought salvation in music. It created a space that he relished in, and his unbridled joy wrestled loose by sonic creation was readily shared in by others. By the time he was 13, he was landing a number one hit with his 1963 single ‘Fingertips’ and soon found himself as the beloved son of Motown in an almost literal sense. 

However, the legendary musical highway of Motown is actually a tricky one to navigate. What looks on the surface as one of modern music’s most inviting spring meadows masks a lot of nettlesome vines that have to be judiciously dissected in order to picnic amidst the beauty of a bounty of solid-gold hits. On the one hand, its founder, Berry Gordy, gave an army of struggling black artists a start and supporting foothold from which to flourish. Stevie Wonder, for instance, came from a background of bleak prospects only worsened by his circumstances that he later elucidated with ‘Living for the City’ and other tracks. Gordy delivered Wonder and other artists from this foregone fate, and in the process, he imparted the world with an array of superb soul-pop anthems on a list as long as a road to Rome, and yet his legacy is far from straightforward. 

Gordy ruled Motown with an iron fist, and all of those gilded pieces of musical perfection often came at the expense of progress and politics. Ultimately, his hit crafting method proved a little too constricting by the time the ’60s really got swinging and slipped into the conscious glare of the ’70s. Stevie Wonder’s classic album Where I’m Coming From foreshadowed the end of Motown and heralded in a new age that Marvin Gaye would also crystalise with What’s Going On, released only months apart in what is arguably the greatest year in music, 1971.

Where I’m Coming From would prove to be a pivotal moment in setting up the golden run ahead. While it is a magnificent album in its own right, it’s most noteworthy in his back catalogue as marking the sound of severance from his days as a child prodigy. To pull up the mind-bending age to albums ration once more, when it was released 50 years ago, Wonder was 21, and it was his 13th studio record. For context, Daft Punk recently split after 28 years together, during which time they released four studio records. Wonder’s prolific childhood output is symptomatic of the way that Motown worked. Gordy recognised that the key to his label’s success was dominating the radio waves, and as such, he instilled in his artists a need to churn out a constant stream of radio-friendly singles. The result of this practice was so prolific and precise in the gold-plated output that it spawned a genre title of its own.

This single churning method is characterised by the fact that up until Wonder and Gaye made a stand in the ‘70s, very few Motown albums can be said to be classics. They were a label that traded in singles, and, in many ways, the world was thankful for that. The issue, of course, is that a hit single has to appeal to the masses, it has to be succinct, and it most certainly has to be radio-friendly. In the process, the Motown juggernaut squashed creative individualism by making artists seem like they were part of some corporate machine.

However, the 1960s was an overwhelming force of its own. It hurtled towards the future in a cacophonous mass of accelerated liberalism, movements and mayhem. It was travelling so fast that certain creatively stagnating Motown artists felt it was leaving them behind. They saw their contemporaries making musical waves, kicking up a commotion that called for change and prophesied a brighter future through prescient illuminating art. All the while, Wonder and Co. were stuck making the same songs about lovers and dancefloors and essentially ‘working for the man’. The issue was that those lovesongs were usually unquestionably brilliant. Thus, it can’t be ignored how truly bold and brave a stance it was when Wonder defiantly barnstormed the independent artistic milieu of the ’70s and dared to begin making masterpieces. 

Stevie Wonder felt the need to get away from friendly singles and dive headfirst into an album that allowed him to fully explore social consciousness, join the civil rights movement and feel the balm of creative freedom. Three years earlier, the album For Once in My Life had heralded a transition, but it was in 1971 that the removal of the gloves finally came to fruition. Owing to a clause in Wonder’s contract, he was able to void the condition of Motown’s creative control when he became a legal adult on his 21st birthday. He seized upon this opportunity and never looked back.

In the years that followed, Wonder took to the studio along with his first wife Syreeta Wright, knowing full well that Motown would have to accept anything that he submitted. What followed was a sequestering of the apolitical pleasantry that he had been reared on, and in its place was songs about war, racialism, and a slew of jives at Gordy for his tight-fisted control. Wonder was determined to have his say and “take [his] share!” and when he did, it proclaimed a forthcoming purple patch that went down in history as “Stevie Wonder’s perfect run”. 

However, as history is written by the winners, what now goes down as the heralding of a seismic sequence of soul-pop superlatives, is a narrative that hides the fact that a lot of these early steps resulted in stubbed toes. Wonder might have been out of the doghouse, but it took further perseverance till he was able to bask upon the bounty of a hard-earner porch. For instance, Where I’m Coming From peaked at 62 in the US Billboard Charts and, despite a lukewarm reception, on the whole, certain prominent critics of the time referred to it as “pretentious”, “undistinguished” and “untidy”.

Music of my Mind followed his disavowal of Motown, and with it, Wonder sought to couple his newfound introspection with a fitting fresh sound. Taking inspiration from Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Wonder hired the experimental duo behind the new electronic music to help turn his muse into something truly revolutionary in every sense. Once more, he was too far out to be met halfway, and the record found itself commercially and critically middling. 

That same year, Wonder reached a levelling out point and his climb to the top got a lot easier from there. He may have cut his ties with the past on Where I’m Coming From, but it was until Talking Book that he truly emerged from its shadow. Feeling the figurative sun of freedom on his back, now, he embarked on his artistic splurge. As he would recall in 2000: “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to say anything except where I wanted to just express various many things that I felt—the political point of view that I have, the social point of view that I have, the passions, emotion and love that I felt, compassion, the fun of love that I felt, the whole thing in the beginning with a joyful love and then the pain of love.”

Sometimes an artist’s own summation of their work can come out as hot air caught up in circumstance, but every word of Wonder’s assessment rings true in the sound of the albums that followed. He felt unshackled, and the liberated music, profuse with joy, experimentation and tempered with the simplicity of having fun colours the records with unbridled creativity. After this whirlwind of windfall whisked him through to four albums in under four years, Songs in the Key of Life was the first time Wonder took a step back.

At the height of his success in that prolific four-year period, Wonder had considered leaving it all behind and venturing off on another journey to Ghana to help with disabled and disadvantaged children. Songs in the Key of Life was the record that came from his unshackling creative control, his unflinching look at the world, the highs and lows of creative experimentation, finding his unbridled stride and subsequently the pause that allowed it to culminate in a cacophony that looked to encapsulate the entirety of life on a golden double album. The studio credits from Herbie Hancock to Minne Ripperton earmarked it as a classic from the get-go, but for life to sit in the pocket so perfectly was a feat that took a lifetime to achieve. 

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