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Songs in the Key of Life

Songs in the Key of Life
Studio album by Stevie Wonder
Released September 28, 1976 (1976-09-28)
Recorded 1974–76: Crystal Sound, Hollywood; 1975–76; Record Plant Los Angeles; Record Plant Sausalito; The Hit Factory, New York City
Genre Soul, funk, R&B, jazz
Length 85:21
Label Motown
Producer Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder chronology
Fulfillingness' First Finale
Songs in the Key of Life
Looking Back – Anthology
Singles from Songs in the Key of Life
  1. "I Wish"
    Released: December 1976
  2. "Sir Duke"
    Released: March 1977
  3. "Another Star"
    Released: August 1977
  4. "As"
    Released: October 1977

Songs in the Key of Life is the eighteenth album by American recording artist Stevie Wonder, released on September 28, 1976, by Motown Records. It was the culmination of his "classic period" albums.[1] The album was recorded primarily at Crystal Sound studio in Hollywood, with some sessions recorded at the Record Plant in Hollywood, the Record Plant in Sausalito, and The Hit Factory in New York City. Final mixing was performed at Crystal Sound.[2]

An ambitious double LP with a four-song bonus EP,[3] Songs in the Key of Life became among the best-selling and most critically acclaimed albums of his career. In 2005, it was ranked number 57 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In the same year it was preserved into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, which called it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."


  • Background 1
  • Recording 2
  • Commercial performance 3
  • Critical reception 4
  • Legacy and influence 5
  • Track listing 6
    • Original vinyl release 6.1
      • A Something's Extra 6.1.1
    • CD release 6.2
  • Personnel 7
  • Singles 8
  • Charts 9
    • Peak positions 9.1
    • Year-end charts 9.2
  • Certifications 10
  • See also 11
  • Notes 12
  • References 13
  • External links 14


By 1976, Stevie Wonder had become one of the most popular figures in R&B and pop music, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. Within a short space of time, the albums Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale were all back-to-back top five successes, with the latter two winning Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1974 and 1975, respectively. By the end of 1975, Wonder became serious about quitting the music industry and emigrating to Ghana to work with handicapped children. He had expressed his anger with the way that the U.S. government was running the country.[4][5] A farewell concert was being considered as the best way to bring down the curtain on his career. Wonder changed his decision, when he signed a new contract with Motown on August 5, 1975, thinking he was better off making the most of his career. At the time, rivals such as Arista and Epic were also interested in him. The contract was laid out as a seven-year, seven LP, $37 million deal and gave him full artistic control, making this the largest deal made with a recording star up to that point.[4] Almost at the beginning Wonder took a year off from the music market, with a project for a double album to be released in 1976.[6]

There was huge anticipation for the new album which was initially scheduled for release around October 1975. It was delayed on short notice when Wonder felt that further remixing was essential. According to Wonder, the marketing campaign at Motown decided to take advantage of the delay by producing "We're almost finished" T-shirts.[7] Work on the new album continued into early 1976. A name was finally chosen for the album: Songs in the Key of Life. The title would represent the formula of a complex "key of life" and the proposals for indefinite success.[8] The album was released on September 28, 1976 after a two-year wait as a double LP album with a four track seven-inch EP titled A Something's Extra ("Saturn", "Ebony Eyes", "All Day Sucker" and "Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)") and a 24-page lyric and credit booklet.[7][9]


Wonder used an Electro-Voice RE20 microphone (pictured) to record his voice for upbeat songs such as "I Wish". A variety of microphones were used for other songs.[2]

The working title was Let's See Life the Way It Is.[10] Wonder recorded the great majority of the album at Crystal Sounds in Hollywood, with Gary Olazabal as engineer, and studio owner John Fischbach as engineer.[2] Some material was recorded at the Record Plant in Hollywood and the Record Plant in Sausalito. During a period when Crystal Sounds had a prior obligation to record another artist, Wonder and Fischbach traveled to the Hit Factory in New York City to work for about six weeks but only used one basic track.[2][11] As a perfectionist, Wonder spent long hours in the studio for almost every track he recorded. He was "not eating or sleeping, while everyone around him struggled to keep up."[6] According to himself, "If my flow is goin', I keep on until I peak."

A total of 130 people worked on the album, but Wonder's preeminence during the album was evident. Among the people present during the sessions, there were legendary figures of R&B, soul and jazz music – Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams added backing vocals on "Ordinary Pain". Mike Sembello was a prominent personality throughout the album, playing guitar in several tracks and also co-writing "Saturn" with Wonder. Some of the most socially conscious songs of the album were actually written by Wonder with other people – these included "Village Ghetto Land" and "Black Man" (co-written with Gary Byrd) and "Have a Talk with God" (co-written by Calvin Hardaway).

Commercial performance

Highly anticipated, the album surpassed all commercial expectations. It debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart on October 8, 1976, becoming only the third album in history to achieve that feat and the first by an American artist (after British singer/composer Elton John's albums Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies, both in 1975). In Canada, the album achieved the same feat, entering at number one on the RPM national albums chart on October 16.[12] Songs in the Key of Life spent thirteen consecutive weeks at number one in the U.S., and 11 during 1976. It was the album with the most weeks at number one during the year. In those eleven weeks, Songs in the Key of Life managed to block four other albums from reaching the top – in order, Boz Scaggs’s Silk Degrees, Earth, Wind & Fire's Spirit, Led Zeppelin's soundtrack for The Song Remains the Same and Rod Stewart's A Night on the Town.[13] On January 15, 1977, the album finally dropped to number two behind Eagles' Hotel California and the following week it fell to number four. On January 29 it returned to the top for a fourteenth and final week. The album then began its final fall. It spent a total of 35 weeks inside the top ten and 80 weeks on the Billboard albums chart. Songs in the Key of Life also saw longevity at number one on the Billboard R&B/Black Albums chart, spending 20 non-consecutive weeks there.

In all, Songs in the Key of Life became the second best-selling album of 1977 in the U.S., only behind Fleetwood Mac's blockbuster Rumours, and was certified as a diamond album by the RIAA, for sales of 10 million copies in the U.S. alone.[14] It was the highest selling R&B/Soul album on the Billboard Year-End chart that same year.[15]

Songs in the Key of Life was also the most successful Wonder project in terms of singles. The lead-off, the upbeat "I Wish" was released in November 1976, over a month after the album was released. On January 15, 1977, it reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart, where it spent five weeks at the top. Seven days after, it also reached the summit of the Billboard Hot 100, although it spent only one week at number one. The track became an international top-10 single, and also reached number five in the UK. "I Wish" became one of Wonder's standards and remained one of his most sampled songs. The follow-up, the jazzy "Sir Duke", surpassed the commercial success of "I Wish". It was released on March 1977 and also reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (spending three weeks at the top starting on May 21) and the R&B Charts (for one week, starting on May 28). It also reached number two in the UK, where it was kept off the top spot by the song "Free" by Deniece Williams, who had provided backing vocals on the album.

As sales for the album began to decline during the second half of 1977, the two other singles from Songs in the Key of Life failed to achieve the commercial success of "I Wish" and "Sir Duke". "Another Star" was released in August and reached only number 32 on the Hot 100 (number 18: R&B, and number 29: UK) and "As" came out two months later, peaking at number 36 on both the Pop and R&B Charts. Though not released as a single, "Isn't She Lovely" received wide airplay and became one of Wonder's most popular songs. It was soon released by David Parton as a single in 1977 and became a top-10 hit in the UK.

Critical reception

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic [16]
Christgau's Record Guide A[17]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music [18]
The Great Rock Discography 8/10[18]
MusicHound 5/5[18]
Rolling Stone [19]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide [20]
Sputnikmusic 4.5/5[21]

At the time of release, reporters and music critics, and everyone who had worked on the album, traveled to [22]

On February 19, 1977, Wonder was nominated for seven [22] In all, Wonder won four out of seven nominations at the Grammys: Album of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Producer of the Year.

Legacy and influence

Over time, the album became a standard, and it is considered Wonder's signature album. "Of all the albums," he told Q magazine (April 1995 issue), "Songs in the Key of Life I'm most happy about. Just the time, being alive then. To be a father and then… letting go and letting God give me the energy and strength I needed." Songs in the Key of Life is often cited as one of the greatest albums in popular music history.[24] It was voted as the best album of the year in The Village Voice‍ '​s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll; in 2001 the TV network VH1 named it the seventh greatest album of all time; in 2003, the album was ranked number 56 on Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Many musicians have also remarked on the quality of the album and its influence on their own work. For example, Elton John said, in his notes for Wonder on the 2003 Rolling Stone‍ '​s list of "The Immortals – The Greatest Artists of All Time" (in which Wonder was ranked number 15): "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."[25] In an interview with Faith tour in 1988, and released it as a B-side to "Father Figure". He also performed "Village Ghetto Land" at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988. He later covered "Pastime Paradise" and "Knocks Me Off My Feet" in his 1991 Cover to Cover tour.

R&B singers in particular have praised the album – Prince called it the best album ever recorded, Mariah Carey generally names the album as one of her favourites, and Whitney Houston also remarked on the influence of Songs in the Key of Life on her singing. (During the photoshoot for her Whitney: The Greatest Hits, as seen on its respective home video, the album was played throughout the photo sessions, at Houston’s request.) The album’s tracks have provided numerous samples for rap and hip-hop artists; for example, "Pastime Paradise", which itself drew on the first eight notes and four chords of J.S. Bach's Prelude No. 2 in C minor (BWV 847), was reworked by Coolio as "Gangsta's Paradise". In 1995, smooth jazz artist Najee recorded a cover album titled Najee Plays Songs from the Key of Life, which is based entirely on Wonder's album. In 1999, Will Smith used "I Wish" as the base for his US number-one single "Wild Wild West". The song repeated the main melody of "I Wish" as a riff and some lyrics re-formed.

In April 2008, the album was voted the "Top Album of All Time" by the Yahoo! Music Playlist Blog, using a formula that combined four parameters – "Album Staying Power Value + Sales Value + Critical Rating Value + Grammy Award Value".[27]

In December 2013, Wonder did a live concert performance of the entire Songs in the Key of Life album at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. The event was his 18th annual House Full of Toys Benefit Concert, and featured some of the original singers and musicians from the 1976 double-album as well as several from the contemporary scene.[28]

In November 2014, Wonder began performing the entire album in a series of concert dates in the U.S. and Canada. The start of the tour coincided with the 38th anniversary of the release of Songs in the Key of Life.[29][30]

Track listing

Original vinyl release

A Something's Extra

The "A Something's Extra" 7" EP was included with the special-edition version of the original LP. These tracks are also on most CD versions of the album, as well as the Blu-ray Audio,[31] either split between both discs or appended to the end of the second disc.

CD release

No. Title Writer(s) Length
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



Year Single Chart Position
1976 "Another Star" Club Play Singles 2
1977 Pop Singles 32
Black Singles 18
Adult Contemporary 29
"I Wish" Pop Singles 1
Black Singles 1
Adult Contemporary 23
"Sir Duke" Pop Singles 1
Black Singles 1
Adult Contemporary 3
"Isn't She Lovely" Adult Contemporary 23
"As" Adult Contemporary 24
Black Singles 36
1978 Pop Singles 36



Region Certification
Canada (Music Canada)[52] 2× Platinum
France (SNEP)[53] Gold
United Kingdom (BPI)[54] Platinum
United States (RIAA)[55] Diamond

See also


  1. ^ Some observers count six classic albums, some count five, and others count four.
    Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Erlewine, Stephen Thomas (2001). All music guide: the definitive guide to popular music (4 ed.). Hal Leonard Corporation. pp. 447–448.  

    Cramer, Alfred William (2009). Musicians and composers of the 20th century 5. Salem Press. p. 1645. Brown, Jeremy K. (2010). Stevie Wonder: Musician. Black Americans of Achievement. Infobase Publishing. p. 57.  
  2. ^ a b c d Buskin, Richard (December 2007). "'"Classic Tracks: Stevie Wonder 'Pastime Paradise. Sound on Sound. 
  3. ^ Lundy, Zeth. Songs in the Key of LifePlaying God: . Stylus Magazine. Retrieved on 2009-08-01.
  4. ^ a b Lundy, Zeth 3313 Songs in the key of life, pp. 14/15.
  5. ^ Lundy, Zeth 3313 Songs in the key of life, p. 119.
  6. ^ a b "Songs in the Key of Life". Rolling Stone Magazine. 
  7. ^ a b Davis, Sharon Stevie Wonder: Rhythms of Wonder p. 112.
  8. ^ Lundy, Zeth 3313 Songs in the key of life, pp. 8/9.
  9. ^ a b Lundy, Zeth 3313 Songs in the key of life, p. 16.
  10. ^ Lundy, Zeth 3313 Songs in the key of life, p. 8.
  11. ^ Kirby, Terry (7 February 2005). "Manhattan's Hit Factory ends production after three decades of legendary music making - News, Music - The Independent". Archived from the original on 6 Dec 2010. Retrieved 25 December 2013. 
  12. ^ Library and Archives Canada.
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Welcome Back, Wonder".  
  15. ^ "Internet Archive Wayback Machine". 2007-11-17. Archived from the original on 2007-11-17. Retrieved 2011-11-11. 
  16. ^ Bush, John. Songs in the Key of LifeReview: . AllMusic. Retrieved on 2009-08-01.
  17. ^  
  18. ^ a b c "Songs in the Key of Life".  
  19. ^ Walters, Barry (June 2, 2005).  
  20. ^  
  21. ^ Arp, Louis. Songs in the Key of LifeReview: . Sputnikmusic. Retrieved on 2009-08-01.
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Acclaimed Music – Songs in the Key of Life".  
  25. ^ "News". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2011-11-11. 
  26. ^ "BBC music reviews". Retrieved 2011-11-11. 
  27. ^ "The Top 20 Albums of All Time (For Real)". Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  28. ^ Mitchell, Gail (October 29, 2013). "Stevie Wonder to Perform Entire 'Songs In The Key Of Life' at Holiday Benefit".  
  29. ^ Grow, Kory (September 10, 2014). "Stevie Wonder to Take 'Songs in the Key of Life' on the Road".  
  30. ^ Grow, Kory (January 15, 2015). "Stevie Wonder Adds More 'Songs in the Key of Life' Tour Dates".  
  31. ^ Sinclair, Paul. "Stevie Wonder Songs In The Key Of Life blu-ray audio". Retrieved February 20, 2015. 
  32. ^ a b c  
  33. ^ "Songs in the Key of Life" Stevie Wonder – (ASP). Hung Medien (in German). Retrieved 2014-04-27. 
  34. ^ "Top Albums/CDs - Volume 26, No. 20" (PHP). RPM. 1976-02-12. Retrieved 2014-04-29. 
  35. ^ "Songs in the Key of Life" Stevie Wonder – (ASP). Hung Medien. Retrieved 2014-04-27. 
  36. ^ "InfoDisc : Tous les Albums classés par Artiste > Choisir Un Artiste Dans la Liste" (in French). Retrieved 2014-04-27. 
  37. ^ a b "Hit Parade Italia - Gli album più venduti del 1985" (in Italian). Retrieved 2014-04-27. 
  38. ^ Oricon Album Chart Book: Complete Edition 1970-2005. Roppongi, Tokyo: Oricon Entertainment. 2006.  
  39. ^ "Songs in the Key of Life" Stevie Wonder – (ASP). Hung Medien.  
  40. ^ "Songs in the Key of Life" Stevie Wonder – (ASP). Hung Medien. VG-lista. Retrieved 2014-04-27. 
  41. ^ "Songs in the Key of Life" Stevie Wonder – (ASP) (in Swedish). Retrieved 2014-04-27. 
  42. ^ "Stevie Wonder > Artists > Official Charts".  
  43. ^ : Charts & Awards > Billboard Albums"Songs in the Key of Life"Allmusic: . Retrieved 2014-04-27. 
  44. ^ "Songs in the Key of Life"Album Search: Stevie Wonder – (in German). Media Control. Retrieved 2014-04-27. 
  45. ^ "RPM Top 100 Albums of 1976".  
  46. ^ "Dutch charts jaaroverzichten 1976". Retrieved 2014-04-29. 
  47. ^ "Les Albums (CD) de 1976 par InfoDisc" (PHP) (in French). Retrieved 2014-04-23. 
  48. ^ a b "Complete UK Year-End Album Charts". Archived from the original on 2012-01-12. Retrieved 2014-04-29. 
  49. ^ "RPM Top 100 Albums of 1977". RPM. 1977-12-31. Retrieved 2014-04-29. 
  50. ^ "Dutch charts jaaroverzichten 1977". Retrieved 2014-04-29. 
  51. ^ "Top Pop Albums of 1977". Archived from the original on 2013-01-15. Retrieved 2014-04-29. 
  52. ^ "Canadian album certifications – Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life".  
  53. ^ "Les Albums Or". (in French).  
  54. ^ "British album certifications – Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life".   Enter Songs in the Key of Life in the field Keywords. Select Title in the field Search by. Select album in the field By Format. Select Platinum in the field By Award. Click Search
  55. ^ "American album certifications – Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life".   If necessary, click Advanced, then click Format, then select Album, then click SEARCH


  • Davis, Sharon. Stevie Wonder:Rhythms of Wonder. 
  • Lundy, Zeth. Songs in the key of life. 
  • Nathan Brackett; Christian Hoard (2004).  
  • Colin Larkin (2002).  

External links

  • Songs in the Key of Life at Discogs (list of releases)
  • Jumping Jamboree at Time
  • Album Review at BBC Music
  • Reviews at SuperSeventies
  • Songs in the Keys of LifeAccolades: at Acclaimed Music
  • Audio streams: WBEZ program 'Extensions' broadcast a 3 hour special commemorating the album's 30th anniversary
Preceded by
Frampton Comes Alive! by Peter Frampton
Wings over America by Wings
Billboard 200 number-one album
October 16, 1976 – January 14, 1977
January 29 – February 4, 1977
Succeeded by
Hotel California by Eagles
Hotel California by Eagles
Preceded by
Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) by Eagles
A Night on the Town by Rod Stewart
Frampton Comes Alive! by Peter Frampton
Canadian RPM 100 number-one album
October 16, 1976 – November 20, 1976
December 25, 1976 – January 15, 1977
February 12, 1977
Succeeded by
Frampton Comes Alive! by Peter Frampton
Frampton Comes Alive! by Peter Frampton
Wings over America by Wings
Preceded by
Let's Stick Together by Bryan Ferry
Dutch Mega Chart number-one album
November 6, 1976 – November 13, 1976
Succeeded by
Arrival by ABBA
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