The 40th Anniversary Of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ – Was It His Greatest Ever Album?

Stevie Wonder in the 70s.

This week marks 40 years since the release of the most famous of all of Stevie Wonder’s albums, Songs In The Key Of Life. For something so significant I’ve decided to dedicate four of the week’s 12 featured songs on my iHeartRadio station Coast Soul to the album – create a free iHeartRadio account and click here to listen.

The four I’ve chosen are the twin US #1 hits I Wish and Sir Duke, the radio staple (though inexplicably never-released) Isn’t She Lovely and the top 40 hit As. Listen throughout the week as I go behind the scenes with each of these four songs.

There are fun facts like how I Wish was musically inspired by Earth, Wind & Fire’s Shining Star, how As later became a UK top 10 hit for George Michael and Mary J Blige and that the album version of Isn’t She Lovely included audio of Stevie’s baby Aisha crying.

Just mentioning “album version” of a song that was never officially released seems an oxymoron, but Isn’t She Lovely has long been a radio staple even though Stevie himself didn’t want it to be a physical single – something he battled Motown over. Apparently Stevie was dead against the song being edited from its more than six-minute length into something more radio friendly. As such, he refused the release of the song as a single, but a much shorter radio edit was made anyway and the song became one of his best loved works. Often record companies are wrong, but this was not one of those occasions.

Throughout the week you’ll hear other stories about Songs In The Key Of Life. Like the fact the original release wasn’t just a double album across four sides of vinyl, but that it also included a bonus EP with a further four tracks. Far from being cast-offs, three of those four I’d put amongst my favourite Stevie songs of the 70s: the funky All Day Sucker, the melodic Saturn and the cross between the two of Ebony Eyes.

Commercially, Songs In The Key Of Life was a staggering success. In debuting at US#1, Stevie became the first US artist to do so after Brit Elton John had made history doing it twice, first with Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy and then mere months later with Rock Of The Westies – both in 1975.

Songs In The Key Of Life spent 14 weeks at US#1, 13 of those in a row. In 1977 only one album sold more copies in the States and that was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. With more than 10 million in domestic sales, internationally the album will have sold somewhere in the vicinity of 20 million copies.

As to whether it’s Stevie’s greatest ever album, it’s hard to overlook a sprawling work that so perfectly incapsulates everything that he could be as an artist: funky, melodic, spiritual, political, angry, romantic, nostalgic, optimistic and joyous. There might not be a social or political statement as striking as Innervision’s (1973) Living For The City, nor a funk/rock classic in the calibre of Talking Book’s (1972) Superstition. And when it comes to a Stevie spiritual, nothing will ever rival Fulfillingness First Finale’s (1974) Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years for me.

But taken as a whole, the scope and realised ambition of Songs In The Key Of Life is as remarkable now as when it first hit shelves exactly 40 years ago. Once again, create a free iHeartRadio account and click here to listen to my soul and R&B station Coast Soul. And in the meantime, here’s another classic from Songs In The Key Of Life that was never a single, though is known the world over, Pastime Paradise. This is a work that would one day provide the foundation for a hip-hop song arguably as important as any in history, the genre-defining/bashing/expanding Gangsta’s Paradise* by Coolio.

*Hip-hop was more than 15 years old by the time of Gangsta’s Paradise, but few songs in the genre had received anything like this track’s mainstream success when it dominated the charts in 1995. The song also quite literally changed radio, forcing top 40 stations that otherwise excluded hip-hop into embracing the genre for the first time.

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