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Songs in the Key of Life, by Stevie Wonder – Album #131

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Songs in the Key of Life (Spotify Link)
1976, Tamla Records. Producer: Stevie Wonder.
In My Collection: CD, 1997.

(Five Minute Read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Songs in the Key of Life, by Stevie Wonder, is a record that is one of my favorites of all time, perhaps the best of all time. (Which long time readers will know I’m loathe to pronounce.) But I didn’t realize its greatness until just recently. I needed to live 55 years to understand the brilliance of what this 26-year-old kid was saying. His melodies, grooves, and inventiveness are unparalleled. He plays most of the instruments on most songs, or assembles amazing musicians to back him up. It’s hard to believe he can remain consistent over 21 songs, but Wonder truly does.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10

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It kind of makes sense to me that London Calling, by The Clash, is my all-time, Number 1 favorite album. It’s got a variety of styles of songs, and all of them are memorable and catchy. It’s got songs with pointed messages, but also songs of fun, anger, laughter, sadness … it’s an album about being a human. Plus the songs just kick ass. An album like that has to be my favorite.

I got into The Clash in my 20s, when I still didn’t know much, but sure felt a lot. The visceral connection I made with London Calling was built largely on that young person’s sense of wanting to break free, to be an individual, to carve a new path in that 50- or 60-year (we hope) forest of uncertainty that lay ahead. The songs inspired because they tapped into what I was feeling at the time, and those feelings have remained with me all the way into my mid-50s.

Songs in the Key of Life is similarly a collection of memorable songs of varied styles, all about being a human (as the title clearly indicates!), but I realize now that even if I’d listened to Songs in the Key of Life as much as I did London Calling in my young adulthood, it might not have been a contender for Number 1. I didn’t dive deeply into this classic until recently, during the pandemic, and now I know that I needed to hear it as a middle-aged man, on the downward slope of a career, with kids about fully-grown, and visualizing grandparenthood with my wife (not soon … eventually!) to recognize it as a Favorite Album Contender. Clearly Top 5. It’s a masterpiece of music that, frankly, I worry I won’t be able to do justice writing about.

Stevie Wonder is one of those titanic cultural figures in America who seems unreal, magical – like a classic fictional character who has somehow come to life. He’s like Babe Ruth or Marilyn Monroe, a familiar name and image that kids probably recognize long before realizing who he is or what he’s done. His popular songs are legion, and he’s cranked them out since he was a pre-teen!

As a kid in the 70s I heard his songs all over the radio, even the tiny AM station in my town. I was shocked by his long braids and bobbling head, but I loved the songs. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “For Once In My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” … And I definitely remember him winning all of those Grammy awards (including 3 in 4 years for Album of the Year) because his picture was featured prominently in my copy of The Guiness Book of Records. But in all my life, I’d never bought a Stevie Wonder album!

I was late to Songs in the Key of Life. Of course I knew it was a vaunted work of art, and heard the hits innumerable times, but I didn’t purchase it until I was around 30. A guy in a car with me on the way to a picnic, a brother of a friend of my wife, was extolling the virtues of the record. He was much younger than me, a professional musician, and he went on and on about the genius of the record. Based on this, I bought the CD soon after. But I didn’t listen to it very much. I liked the songs, but they didn’t really connect.

But at some point during the pandemic I decided I needed to check out some albums I had that were widely respected but that hadn’t made my Top 100 list. Songs in the Key of Life was the first one I dove into. I’m still in it. I may be forever – possibly because there are 21 (!) songs on the album! (Including the bonus EP Something Extra, which was packaged along with the original album.) There’s no way I can discuss all 21 songs without this post being 100,000 words long (or 1000 words longer than my usual post), so I’ll pick a few. I hope I hit your favorites!

As I’ve grown to middle age I’ve become much more of a softie. (Not to say I was ever particularly hard.) Random experiences and memories nearly (or more than nearly) cause a few joyful, loving tears to flow almost daily now that I’ve passed a certain age. Everything about life seems special these days, and “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the album opener, is a song that probably wouldn’t have registered too deeply 20 years ago. But it does now.

Of all Wonder’s genius-level musical gifts (he’s listed as “musician” on the credits, and plays every instrument on many of the songs, including this one) his strongest, yet most overlooked, may be his ability to write melodies. After the beautiful gospel-choir opening (sung entirely by Wonder), the song’s ranging melody immediately hooks itself into your brain. Layers of organ and synth have little curlicues of notes, filigree that rewards repeated listens, and the synth bass tumbles beneath it all. Then there are the words – a gentle admonishment to the world to extend some love and kindness to each other. It’s a simple yet profound message, and his incredible voice sells it and removes any hint of sentimental staleness. And he allows the song to linger for a full 7 minutes, improvising amazing vocals throughout. It’s a great album kickoff.

Next he gets groovy on another message of love for those going through tough times, “Have a Talk With God.” Look, it’s not advice I’ll take to heart, but I appreciate his empathy. His harmonica could be enough to convert me, though, especially how it sits atop the sounds he generates on all those synths. It’s a terrific headphone song. He gets even funkier on the awesome instrumental “Contusion,” with a full band featuring lead guitar from future “Maniac” Michael Sambello.

Rounding out perhaps the best 6 songs to ever open an album are the all-time numbers “Village Ghetto Land,” “Sir Duke,” and “I Wish.” “Village Ghetto Land” is a picture of life among America’s forgotten neighborhoods. It’s brilliantly set against a synthetic string quartet, giving it a regal tone that belies its downtrodden characters. “I Wish” is probably my favorite song on the album.

That unforgettable, bubbling bass line by Nathan Watts opens the song (and I swear there’s a synth doubling it), and an organ joins in before Raymond Pounds’ swinging drums tie it all together. That bass groove carries the song, but steering everything is Stevie’s brilliant melody and lyrics full of childhood memories that connect with anyone who ever was a kid. The horn section is masterful, the song infectious. No wonder it hit #1 on the singles chart!

But maybe my favorite song on Songs in the Key of Life is one I devoted an entire post to very early on in this site’s existence, then wrote about some more recently. The amazing “Sir Duke,” one of my favorites as a fourth-grader, one of my favorites now. Just listen, I can’t say more about it. I’ll just move onto the next song.

So we’re six songs in and Wonder still hasn’t graced us with a love song? He finally does with “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and it doesn’t disappoint. The piano and drums (that hi-hat!), both played by Wonder, are excellent. Once again, the melody and lyrics are perfect. (It’s so charming that he doesn’t want to bore his love by telling her he loves her!) This should be an American Standard, if it isn’t already. “Pastime Paradise” is an American Standard thanks, in part, to goofball Coolio’s global smash hit from 1995, “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

A synth-string section, similar to “Village Ghetto Land,” predominates. But set against African drums, percussion, Hare Krishna bells and voices, and a gospel choir, it takes on a different feel. It’s a song with a groove that has no drum kit. It builds brilliantly toward a final gong. The message is love and a higher power. “Summer Soft” and “Ordinary Pain” are a lovely pair of songs. “Summer Soft” has great chord changes, a cool groove and memorable lyrics. “Ordinary Pain” starts out as a rather pedestrian number, but at 2:42 it transforms into a nasty funk workout!

Okay, I already called out two others as my favorite song on Songs in the Key of Life, but “Isn’t She Lovely” makes me want to reconsider those picks.

I made the mistake of associating this song with the birth of my now-18-year-old daughter, which means that when events happen in her life – like, say, getting accepted to her top college choice – and then I randomly hear this song a day later, I burst into uncontrollable tears. Somehow, Stevie Wonder, playing all the instruments, weaves into the song the immeasurable, indescribable joy and love that are a part of parenthood. I don’t know how he does it! From the baby sounds at the opening, to the recording of his baby daughter, Aisha, at bath time during the extended harmonica solo, to the lyrics about the wonder of parenthood, the song just exudes joy.

And that extended, 4 minute harmonica solo!! It’s amazing – perhaps a bit too long, but it’s like hearing a new parent gush about their infant. You understand and let them go on as much as they want. Oh, and did I mention that the organ and synth bass throughout are brilliant?

There is just so much joy in this record, joy that I couldn’t have appreciated as a boneheaded 24-year-old. I had no idea about childbirth, of course, but also couldn’t comprehend long-lasting love. So a slow jam like “Joy Inside My Tears” just fits naturally next to the upbeat numbers. What connects it are lyrics that are thoughtful and wise. A slow jam, with a cool synth bass, it’s not a song about sex. It’s about the deep love and the emotions that come with making a life together with another human, and it’s gorgeous. He also sings of the simple joy of singing on “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” sung in English, Spanish, and Zulu! Once again, Wonder’s synth-bass is outstanding, and his vocals are simply outstanding.

Then there’s my other favorite song on the record – I think it’s the fourth one I’ve called my favorite? – “Black Man.” It’s a joyful celebration of America’s greatest strength – it’s diversity – with lyrics that might get it banned by whiney-baby white people who are so embarrassed by their history they’re trying to prevent it being told.

If it was simply a list of accomplishments it would be a pretty boring song. But it’s also a masterclass in drumming and keyboards, and as usual Wonder nails the vocals. Then – coolest of all – at about 5:25, a breakdown section and ridiculous synth solo serves as an introduction to a call/response that brings chills. Teachers call out questions, and students respond with the names and racial identity of each. It may make the bigoted parents of little white kids uncomfortable, but it’s brilliant.

“As” is another favorite.

It starts out sounding like an 80s light Adult Contempt number – not really my style. But it picks up quickly, and hits one of the best choruses ever at 0:48. The backing chorus is terrific, and Herbie Hancock helps out on keys, playing a killer solo. The lyrics are kind of a summary of the entire album, an expression of what life is all about. I’m struck by how similar this record is to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, not in its sounds, but with its many styles and guest artists. Stevie lets the song run on, and the band is having a blast to the very end. I also have to mention the vocals at 3:45! Excellent!

If It’s Magic,” is a lovely, spare, timeless love song featuring jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. And the record seems to close with “Another Star” another full band effort, this time with a Latin feel. George Benson is featured on guitar, and Stevie plays some great drums, as usual. There are horns, timbales, a flute solo, a backing chorus, all in support of a song of loss that sounds like a celebration.

So that’s a pretty good effort, no? Song after song, hit after hit, and nary a dud in the bunch. So what did Mr. Wonder do? He included an EP along with the record, called A Something’s Extra, with four more great songs!

Saturn, a sad song about getting away as humans destroy the planet really hits close to home, as I consider the world current generations are leaving our grandkids. So much for paying it forward.

“We can’t trust you when you take a stand\ With a gun and bible in your hand/ And the cold expression on your face/ Saying give us what we want or we’ll destroy.” It does end hopefully with the sounds of a jumprope game – presumably played on a planet far away. “Ebony Eyes” is a fun, rolling almost music hall number about a beautiful woman. It’s kind of a toss away number, but his piano and vocals make it fun, as do the cool sounds and vocal manipulations throughout.

All Day Sucker” is one more great funk groove featuring both Snuffy Walden & Michael Sambello on lead guitar. “Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call)” is a chill instrumental with a lengthy display of Wonder’s harmonica virtuosity. It’s a perfect ending number, simple and reflective.

Holy cow, I can’t believe I wrote about that entire record. It’s an incredible work of art (the album, not my writing!!). It makes me look back at my life in wonder (no pun intended) and appreciation, and look ahead with anticipation. These songs truly are in the key of life, and they make you realize that while some tunes in that key are better than others, there are no wrong notes. Excellent work, Mr. Wonder! I wonder what amazing music of yours I may learn to love in my 70s?

TRACK LISTING:
Love’s in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Contusion
Sir Duke
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Pastime Paradise
Summer Soft
Ordinary Pain
Isn’t She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
Black Man
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
If It’s Magic
As
Another Star
Bonus EP Something Extra
Saturn
Ebony Eyes
All Day Sucker
Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call)

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Song #1004*: “The Tears of a Clown,” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

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The Tears of a Clown,” from the 1967 Smokey Robinson and The Miracles album Make it Happen. Released as a single in 1970.
Sad lyrics in a happy melody create a perfect pop song.

(4 minute read)

*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.

Clowns got a bum rap in American culture over the past 50 years. When I was a kid, in the 70s, they were happy icons of childhood mirth and wholesome good times. In addition to being the best part of any circus, they sold fast food, breakfast cereal, and household cleaners (!?), and had TV shows. A friendly clown even came to my elementary school to teach us kids about being safe around strangers. He told us if we were ever kidnapped we should make ourselves vomit by sticking a finger down our throat so the kidnapper would toss us, barf-covered, out of the car.

By the early 90s, clowns were viewed in a different light. Maybe it was Stephen King, maybe it was Bob Goldthwait, maybe it was The Simpsons. Maybe ICP? Or maybe it was the fact that folks finally spoke out to say they were pretty creepy all along. Suddenly, clowns were not so cheery. But despite its previous history as an icon of fun, the clown had never been positively portrayed in popular music. In songs, clowns were almost always contemptible or malevolent or pitiable.

The Everly Brothers’ “Kathy’s Clown” was an object of ridicule. Roy Orbison’s candy-colored clown “In Dreams” tricked the lovelorn into believing a lie. The dying performer in The Kinks’ “Death of a Clown” is so pathetic he encourages the audience to drink along with him to his own abject end. It’s pretty brutal stuff. “The Tears of a Clown” actually lands on the uplifting end of the Spectrum of Misery of Musical Clowns.

The song is special because of the sad lyrical content set against the fun, calliope-style music. It’s in a long line of songs about putting on a brave face, including Robinson’s earlier “The Tracks of My Tears,” through Adele’s “Someone Like You.” (And let’s not forget the McCartney-esque directness of McCartney’s “My Brave Face.”)

Motown’s famed “Funk Brothers” played the backing music. They were a rotating cast of musicians who played on thousands of songs, so it’s unclear who played on this one. The upbeat melody starts with flutes and a brilliant counter-melody on bassoon. It gives way to the main bass line in a few seconds. The pumping, uplifting sound, with driving drums, is accompanied by a blurting trombone that keeps it sounding circusy. The music was written by Stevie Wonder and his producer, Hank Crosby. Wonder couldn’t think of lyrics, so he gave the song to Robinson. Smokey had the genius idea to write lyrics that go against the song’s happy sound, but retain a circus theme.

Smokey’s voice is smooth as ever, and The Miracles’ harmonies are brilliant. At 0:37, and throughout the song, when Robinson sings “I’m sad,” and The Miracles repeat it while drum fills ricochet around them, it’s about the best 15 seconds of sound ever put to record. Then a brief rising scale (“there’s some sad things known to man …”) resolves in the title line, which somehow sounds even better! When he softly sings “the tears of a clown/ when there’s no one around,” and that flute/bassoon riff enters, the juxtaposition of words and sounds always gets me right in the feels. I could listen to this song every day.

The lyrics are terrific, and the bridge cleverly refers to the tragic Italian opera Pagliacci (“Clowns”), about a clown who discovers his wife is having an affair. (“Just like Pagliacci did/ I try to keep my feelings hid.”) I’ve always been impressed that a pop song referenced an opera, or any stage production other than Romeo & Juliet. Then again, the first million-selling recording ever was Enrico Caruso’s 1903 recording of “Vest la Giubba,” from Pagliacci, so Robinson probably heard it a lot growing up.

As a fan of 70s/80s music, I must point out the great cover of the song by The English Beat, who nicely folded the song into their ska-based musical approach. But as good as that version is, nothing comes close to Smokey’s original. It’s got the sound, the lyrics, the style … it’s got everything.

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