The Soulful Genius of Stevie Wonder: How ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ Changed Music Forever
Without Stevie Wonder, artists like Pharrell and Kanye West wouldn’t be who they are today.
I never “discovered” Stevie Wonder, exactly. But I did rediscover Stevie Wonder.
As a young kid in the 1980s, I was exposed to all of Stevie’s hits from that period. Though ’80s Stevie is generally regarded with derision these days, those songs were very, very popular. In the black community, in particular, his ’80s songs were as ubiquitous as anything Michael Jackson and Prince were doing at the time—even if Stevie’s stuff wasn’t anywhere near as good. I know songs like “That Girl” and “Ribbon In the Sky” and “Overjoyed” like the back of my hand. But because I grew up with these songs, I sort of took Stevie Wonder for granted until I was a lot older.
In my teens, I went on a classic soul binge. I was heavily into hip-hop and eager to explore the original songs that had formed the foundations for so many of my favorite rap records. I dove head-first into Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, fell in love with the music of Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers. I had records from Earth Wind & Fire, Al Green, and the Temptations. I eventually bought a Stevie Wonder “Greatest Hits” compilation and loved the vast majority of it (I do wish “I Just Called To Say I Love You” could be erased from existence, however). But I didn’t feel compelled to go deeper until many years later. As a twentysomething, I became more of an album-centric music fan. No more “best of” compilations—I wanted to hear the classics.
And one of the first classic albums I bought was Songs In the Key of Life.
I may have been aware of Stevie Wonder and even enjoyed his music, but I didn’t know Stevie Wonder until I heard Songs… It was like discovering a new language. I’d never heard music so alive, so varied, so timeless. It’s an album that’s ambitious and sprawling, but somehow still manages to feel very intimate and very much the vision of a singular artistic voice. There are lots of widely hailed double albums, from the Rolling Stones’s Exile On Main St. to Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, but I don’t think any of them successfully realize their artistic ambitions the way that Songs In the Key of Life does.
Within weeks of hearing that masterpiece, I bought every album that Stevie Wonder released in the 1970s. I was drawn to the energy of Where I’m Comin’ From, mesmerized by the insular focus of Music Of My Mind, captivated by the warmth of Talking Book, floored by the social commentary on Innervisions and dumbfounded by the craftsmanship of Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Even Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants has moments of expert tunefulness and outside-the-box innovation. A lot of people give the ’60s to the Beatles and it’s hard to argue against the massive juggernaut that Michael Jackson was in the ’80s, but there is some debate over who musically “owned” the 1970s.
Let’s end that debate: the ’70s belonged to Stevie Wonder.
Never mind the fact that Stevie won the Grammy for Album of the Year three albums in a row between 1974 and 1977. Never mind his tour with the Rolling Stones or his work with the Jackson 5 and Jeff Beck. No one fused soul, pop, rock, and funk better than the former boy genius from Motown. No one better personified that iconic label’s transition out of its “Hitsville” era into more ambitious and less restrictive sonic territory. And while it could be argued that David Bowie, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, and Bruce Springsteen also had tremendous album runs in the 1970s, the near-flawlessness of Stevie Wonder’s discography from Music Of My Mind to Songs In the Key of Life is staggering. He was a prolific songwriter who tossed off hits to the Spinners (“It’s A Shame”), Aretha Franklin (“Til You Come Back To Me”), Rufus (“Tell Me Something Good”), Jeff Beck (“Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” which was originally written for and recorded by Wonder’s then-wife and collaborator, Syreeta Wright) and Michael Jackson (“I Can’t Help It”).
He brilliantly embraced synthesizers at a time when they were used mostly by acts like The Beatles and The Who to accentuate guitar-and-piano driven pieces. Stevie didn’t use synths as window dressing; they drove much of his greatest music. And with live instrumentation accenting his funky synths, he pointed to the future while retaining an organic warmth—this was music that felt very much alive even with its electronic flourishes. His rubbery basslines and distinctive drumming (you can always tell when it’s Stevie behind the kit himself, listen for the hi-hat) made his music distinguishable—and his innate knack for melody and lyrics made those songs universal.
You can hear Stevie’s legacy throughout music today. Pharrell’s Stevie-isms come through all the time, from his approach to drumming to his melodies. Kanye’s early soul-driven productions owe a lot to Stevie (the bass on the intro to Common’s Be album) and ‘Ye himself admitted in 2005 that Stevie was his barometer for greatness: “I'm not trying to compete with what’s out there now. I’m really trying to compete with Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life.” Even Paul McCartney hailed Stevie’s “genius” after enlisting him for a song on his 2012 album Kisses on the Bottom, 30 years after the pair created No. 1 hit “Ebony and Ivory”: “Stevie came along to the studio in L.A. and he listened to the track for about 10 minutes and he totally got it. He just went to the mic and within 20 minutes had nailed this dynamite solo. When you listen you just think, ‘How do you come up with that?’ But it’s because he is a genius, that’s why.”
Funk and soul acts ranging from Jamiroquai to Mint Condition wouldn’t exist were it not for the music of Stevland Morris. Stevie’s been on the road all year with his Songs In the Key of Life Tour; a chance to commemorate his most acclaimed album as it nears its 40-year anniversary. The tour has been a major success for the artist, earning raves from fans, and he appears to truly enjoy performing his landmark double album in its entirety. We all should enjoy it; after all, the chance to hear a classic project performed in its entirety by the legend who created it is a joy for any music fan. I know that it is for me. Stevie Wonder re-shaped how I feel about music; I know that I’ll take that with me for the rest of my life.
And I know that I will never take Stevie Wonder for granted ever again.