Stevie Wonder – ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’

Stevie Wonder. Where do you start? I think I remember my first vinyl purchase was The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. At 12 years-old Little Stevie Wonder was an absolute dude, shining like a star on drums, bongos, keyboard and harmonica. Having binged on soul and Motown for a few years, I was totally aware of Stevie’s genius, and had worn out the grooves on Looking Back, his triple LP anthology that was a thorough compilation of ‘60s Stevie. Next was another comp, Original Musiquarium I, which upped the ante, showcasing his golden era during the ‘70s. But still the best was yet to come.

Songs In The Key Of Life was Stevie’s masterpiece. Preceded in the ‘70s by four absolute classic albums, it was an almost impossible ask to go one better, but Songs In The Key Of Life is more than an album, it’s a work of art, a visceral musical discovery, a perfect illumination into melody and musicality. Two years in the making, Stevie was still just 26 years old when it was released, and whilst the likes of George Benson, Herbie Hancock and dozens of jazz and soul musicians contributed, this was totally Stevie, having written, arranged and composed everything and performed more than one man should ever be capable.

Songs In The Key Of Life covers the same kaleidoscopic range of musical styles and it does human emotions, but you’re never in doubt as to Stevie’s sentiment; an appeal for love and humanity in a world of growing inequality and injustice. Stevie is at his absolute best in all senses. I Wish, Sir Duke and As show Stevie at his funkiest and most soulful, but whatever the song or style here it’s sense of joy and grace are completely overwhelming. Love is ever present, and whilst the whole double-album is an uplifting euphonic rollercoaster, I remember the LP one, side two just blew me away, and hey, Stevie’s drums are the highlight, oozing effortless soul.

Now, I Wish is a stone cold classic, and Summer Soft is an absolute beauty but I just couldn’t get enough of Knocks Me Off My Feet. There are three tracks on the album on which Stevie plays everything, and this is one.

“I see us in the park
Strolling the summer days of imaginings in my head
And words from our hearts
Told only to the wind felt even without being said
I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s sumptin’ about your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet”

I love everything about this song, but what killed me was Stevie’s drumming; it feels like he’s making love to the hi-hat, caressing it with such perfect subtlety… “I don’t wanna bore you with it oh but I love you, I love you, I love you”. Oh Stevie, you got me.

Songs In The Key Of Life was, and still is one of my all-time favourite albums. There are artists who inspire you to become a better person simply through their music. Stevie Wonder does that more than any other.

‘Motown Chartbusters Vol.3’

On Valentine’s Day in 1970 this album was the first ever compilation to reach No.1 in the UK album chart. Eleven years later it was my vinyl introduction to the Detroit hit factory, Motown. From my ever-decreasing memory I vaguely remember purchasing it for two reasons – firstly the track listing (bearing in mind my junior knowledge of Motown) looked fantastic, and secondly the sleeve, in all its shining glory looked even better. Yes, I was an early sucker for an eye-catching cover.

Having subsequently purchased all twelve volumes I believe I managed to choose the best first. Having visited the original Motown recording studio in Detroit some ten years later it would be accurate to say black American music from around ’62-’72 became a fixation throughout my late teens and twenties. Much of what I was enjoying from UK bands at the time was influenced by many of the artists on this album, but more importantly it was the names behind the artists who created the inspirational sound and production that was so unique and uplifting. I didn’t yet know these names (most notably the songwriting genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland and producer Norman Whitfield), but I knew how this music affected me. Motown made me smile and it made me want to dance.

Smokey Robinson – The Tracks Of My Tears Live (1965) from Im Daebum on Vimeo.

Featuring tracks from the mid to late 60s, I had my favourites. The cool and passionate calling of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Smokey Robinson’s timeless tear-jerker The Tracks Of My Tears. The relentlessly joyous Stevie Wonder and my album favourite (I’m A) Road Runner by Jr. Walker & The All Stars were and still all remain musical gems; masterpieces of songwriting and production. Berry Gordy’s Motown record label is possibly the most notorious success story in the history of the popular music industry. Why? Because of where the music came from, its sheer belligerent sparkle and ultimately how far it reached.

Smokey Robinson summed it up perfectly – “Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.”