Tag Archives: ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’

Songs In the Key Of Life@40: Stevie Wonder Living In A Future Paradise

songs-in-the-key-of-life

An artists musical focus isn’t required to match up to their lyrical concepts. And vice versa. Yet when those two creative aspects come together,especially in the hands of a great musical talent,the results can often defy description. One such case is Stevie Wonder. He had matched musical and lyrical concepts beautifully through singles during the 60’s. In the early 70’s,he crossed this ethic into the age of the album. His 1976 release Songs In The Key of Life is the finest example of how Stevie Wonder was innovating AOF-a term I’m coining for album oriented funk.

Songs In The Key of Life was his most long winded productions up to this point. It took him 2 1/2 years to complete this album. With a list of musicians that would take up several paragraphs and his fascination with Yamaha’s polyphonic duel keyboards instrument the GX-1,Stevie Wonder and the group of musicians who recorded this put a lot of blood,sweat and joyful tears into the album. It was likely intended as a triple album set. But was whittled down to a double album plus an EP 45 packed into it. Until this time,the only genre of music  that was really give this lavish presentation was progressive rock.

It was actually the first Stevie Wonder album (not counting radio hits) I’d ever heard. Though only part of it at first. On a dark,balmy night sometime in 1989-90 my mom was at our summer camp washing dishes. We had an old silver Emerson turntable/ cassette/ radio/8-Track player to listen to music on out there. My mom had ordered SITKOL on 8-Track from Columbia House Music Club. It was a double tape set,but she’d given one half of it to her friend Billy Ray while still living in NYC.  It was several years later that I finally heard the entire album on vinyl from my mom and dads record collection.

Songs In The Key Of Life is one of a handful of albums that provided the blueprint to how I listen to music up to this very day. It had some amazing and funky hits such as “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”. On the other hand,being conceived as a powerful album statement with zero filler material,its an album that contains some songs that are just very special to millions the world over. If asked to mull it over,each of them probably can make a list of those special songs from this album to them. Today,I offer you my own journey through the songs of Wonder’s keys of life that had a profound effect on my own life.


“Have A Talk With God”-I am not a religious man. But the way Stevie Wonder talks about the positive effects prayer and faith have on him makes a deep impact. With its space funk synthesizers,bluesy melody and slow dragging vocals it offers up god as “the only free psychiatrist”-contrasting with the 12 bar blues form’s typical association with secular humanism.

“Pastime Paradise”-This might very well be the most expansive song instrumentally and lyrically to come out of the mid 70’s. The Arabic style melody,Afro Latin percussion,synthesized orchestration and Hare Krishna bells/chants make for an early example of what would one day become world/pop fusion. Which makes sense since the song talks about people with a progressive emotional understanding versus those with a more conservative one. And its place in post hip-hop history is assured  through Coolio’s 1994 remake “Gangsta Paradise”

“Summer Soft”-Stevie Wonder is an artist who is defined by melodic modulation. This song provides a beautiful tone poem in that regard. He discusses the advantages of the season with a wistful mid tempo ballad sung in falsetto. Then he talks about the seasons being gone in his powerful low voice over a powerful,uptempo gospel/funk revelry.

“Ordinary Pain”-Another fine example of modulation. It starts out with a slow ballad about dealing with the ordinary and apparently “necessary pain” coming from the end of a romance. This is a common thread in Wonder’s romantic songs. This song comes to an end,then returns as a hard core,Moog bass driven funk song from a female perspective sung by Wonderlove’s Shirley Brewer.

“I Wish”-With its bouncing Fender Rhodes piano,ARP synthesizer,bass line along with the hot horn charts,this nostalgia based piece of funk is one of Stevie Wonder’s most enduring hit songs.

“Black Man”-Seeing before my eyes the way this song was layered in recording studio on the relatively rare Classic Albums Series DVD documentary on the making of this album only enhanced my appreciation of this brilliant funk opus. The mix of brittle space funk synthesizer layers with equally brittle,electric horns make this history lesson on the many races of people who built America (with a strong black focus) one of Wonder’s finest pieces of funky music.

” Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing”-On this song,Wonder presents an Afro Latin type of tango done in his electronically orchestrated style. In the languages of Zulu,Spanish and English he sings of true love coming from the heart. Likely relating to individual romance and love of humanity as well.

“As”-This song is one of Stevie Wonder’s masterpieces on the Fender Rhodes electric piano alone. Essentially a mid tempo jazz-funk ballad,it was interpreted by many key figures in that genre during the late 70’s. One can see why as its among Wonder’s most melodically challenging songs ever. Even though I’ve later read commentary that the lyrics of this song were lazily written,its clear that few can have the same high level of emotional expression in their love songs than Stevie Wonder does on such occasions as this.

“All Day Sucker”-This is a hardcore funk jam taken from the EP that came with this album. Using brittle synthesizer accents to accompany the scaling vocal modulations of the song itself,this is one of a handful of fine slices of the funky pie that Stevie Wonder serves up throughout the double album in general.


One thing about Stevie Wonder and this album is that,along with the Motown Monday radio marathons the local oldies radio stations used to have,is that it kind of gave the preteen Andre the impression of Motown as being almost like a fairy tale kingdom. One that omitted sounds and melodies unlike any other. After learning the reality of the hard work and talents that really went into all of it,I did hear of Richard Pryor’s comedy monologue on 1983’s Motown 25 that indeed viewed the label and its artists as being like Detroit’s knights of the sound table.

Songs In The Key Of Life has a sound that could seem magical to the musically unknowing. And even with knowledge,the magic created ON it never truly goes away. The writer John Hamilton is currently tracing the racial double standard of 20th century pop musically. Namely how veteran (generally white) rock artists are seen as aging with grace while black soul/funk artists are generally placed mainly in the context of the past. On Songs In The Key Of Life,Stevie is not only looking towards the future conceptually. But successfully paved the way for it on a musical level as well.

 

 

 

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Filed under 'Songs In The Key Of Life', 1976, Afro-Futurism, ARP synthesizer, classic albums, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Gospel, message songs, Motown, progressive music, Stevie Wonder, synthesizers, Yamaha GX-1

Andre’s First Finale With Stevie Wonder: Celebrating 40 Years Of ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’

Fulfillingness' First Finale

Sometimes in life,its vital to celebrate a particular work of art that’s relevant to your own creative talents. And one such even seems to have come upon us. I speak of myself and my blog partner Henrique. That work of art I am celebrating is the really of Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale-forty years ago today in fact on July 22nd,1974. Inspiration for this actually came via YouTube,a tribute video to this album posted there by my friend Brandon Ousley. One of the most interesting things he mentioned was that,in the grand outlook of popular music history Fulfillingness’ First Finale a somewhat overlooked album in comparison to his previous two recordings Talking Book and Innervisions. From that verbal launching pad,I am now going to launch into my own personal outlook on this album which…is,for me anyway the part of the very root of the musical viewpoints I present in this blog.

Since myself and Brandon have both done our own musical rundowns on the album? I am going to focus attention on the history,both for Wonder and on a personal level,with this album and discuss the music within that context. Around the time I bought my first CD copy (the original if I recall) in a 2 for $20 sale (along with Innervisions interestingly enough)  at a now defunct record store chain called Strawberries in the summer of 1996? I had just learned from author John Swenson’s paperback book on Stevie Wonder that Stevie had intended Fulfillingness’ First Finale to be a double album. But elected to release it in two parts. Later on I came to learn that Stevie had intended for the second part,alternately referred to as both FFF2 and Second Finale,in 1975 while he was working on his magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life. Only one song from this second album of the set has been discussed to any degree. Its apparently called “The Future”,one of Stevie’s more fatalistic lyrical statements. Since I’ve never heard it along with most everyone else? Cannot comment beyond finding that history telling.

Of course Fulfillingness’ First Finale came along while Stevie was recovering from the near fatal 1973 car collision that nearly took his own life. As far as how this album effected my life lyrically and musically? It made it clear to me that different styles of making music could,in the hands of a talented composer and master of instrumentation,could coexist with enormous success and clarity. That also effected my personal appreciation of the album. Lyrics such as “It’s okay/don’t delay in smiling/there’ll be brighter days ahead” were greatly consoling during times when Stevie’s consoling,forward thinking optimism was definitely needed. One thing about this album that I do notice is Stevie showcasing the righteousness of his inner preacher. From the “god lives within” theme of “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Years Away” to the psychologically weighty musing on death in “They Won’t Go When I Go”? Stevie blends together the celebratory spirits of black spiritual-based gospel with European classical’s “sacred music” and its melodic lyricism.

One of my personal favorite songs is the heavily Brazilian oriented uptempo song “Bird Of Beauty”. It really encompasses why I’ve never needed illicit drugs,same as with Stevie,to enhance my understanding of life and emotions-that you don’t need white,red or yellow pills to have a mind excursion.  In 2002,after years of nightmares induced by her fear of flying as well as surviving,my mother decided to go skydiving. The agency that provided this made a video of the event and my mom picked “Bird Of Beauty” for the soundtrack. As much in approval as my father,who himself first heard Fulfillingness’ First Finale on the high end stereo of a friend of his youth’s in the mid 70’s,the song “Bird Of Beauty” and the albums tone of objectifying life and death-both through vocal lyricism and Stevie’s trademark invention of instrumental sounds,took on yet another level of meaning in my life.

During the time that this album would’ve been celebrating its 20th anniversary? The concept of sentimentality was viewed by many of the adolescent generation of that era with a strange mixture of suspicion,irritation and awe. Stevie Wonder’s overt expressions of this emotional sensibility was part of this condemnation for some. On the other hand? What is sentimentality anyway but an authoritative statement of emotionalism? If that is the case? Sentimentality is part of the very foundation of everything Stevie Wonder stands for. When he is in love with a woman or the world? He exhibits the most profound sense of joy. When lacking in romantic love such as in a song like “Creepin'”? He is questioning his own sense of reality. Or how the cynicism of Watergate bought out Stevie’s political preacher man on “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”-both of which feature some of his most elaborate uses of synthesizers and live rhythm in his amazing use of that form of soulful funkiness.

When it comes right down to it? My love of this album not only stems for the fact that its very therapeutic. But that it is so as much because of Stevie’s instrumental approach on this album. Throughout this album,his use of synthesizers and his own backup harmony vocals create the sense not only of an inner vision but an inner conversation. And one that he fully intends the listener to feel with him. One thing Stevie does,perhaps more so here than on any album of his classic early 70’s period is understand very fully why his vocals function with his musical approach. He sings on every song on this album with such an enormous amount of emotional investment,wringing every last ounce of soul that he can from the always expansive musical blanket he’s creating. Stevie Wonder was able to take his near death experience and transform it into a complete celebration of life itself. That may be way the unsentimental struggle to fully understand this albums virtues. And why it would help evolve ones interests in funk,soul and jazz. So for the next 40 years of music lovers who will be celebrating this album long after Stevie Wonder has left this Earth? I live in hope it continues to inspire more musical works of art representative of the phoenix rising from the ashes of cynicism into the friendly skies of life’s great joys.

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Filed under 1970's, Fulfillingness' First Finale, Funk, Jazz, Motown, Music Reviewing, Neo Soul, Stevie Wonder

Anatomy of THE Groove 5/16/2014 Andre’s Pick “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” by Stevie Wonder

Ever since he unleashed his magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life in 1976, Stevie Wonder’s musical output has been extremely erratic. During the 1980’s his admirers were now waiting several years between his new album releases. This culminated in the decade long absence after his 1995 album Conversation Peace. As the 1990’s dragged on with no new Stevie Wonder albums,I personally assumed by the turn of the century that he was basically retired from recording. At the time it seemed that some of the implicit edicts of rock writers of the 90’s declared that Wonder would not be allowed to do anything contemporary unless it fit with the hip-hop based soul/funk sub-genres popular at the time.

Stevie Wonder was always an artist who grew musically within the context of his own established compositional and rhythmic framework. And when that rhythm stiffened during the hip-hop era? I sadly assumed Stevie’s “place in the sun” had been co-opted. While I found much to enjoy in this modern sound as well? Stevie’s approach was starting to seem more and more important to popular music’s stalled progression at the time. After many false starts,his new studio album A Time 2 Love finally arrived in September 2005. And the song on the album that made the most immediate impact on me was “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby”.

Starting out with a tumbling rhythm,Stevie sings about “such a happy couple” whose relationship begins to disintegrate due to the fires of suspicion that begins to build up. Lyrically the rest of the song plays out the declaration of trust issues,and the fact that both parties should tell each other about their other suitors who are “just using them like a toy”. The refrains of the songs all feature that tumbling drum sound of the intro-making a very creative use of sampling as the Hannah Barbara cartoon-style percussive effect (used when a character would start running) shows up as a rhythmic element before the chorus comes in.

This chorus showcases Stevie’s trademark,grinding bass synthesizer playing very bluesy “Superstition”-style parts accentuated by bouncy,dancing horn charts and a choir of multi tracked Wonder vocals chanting “whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa” repeatedly-as if somewhat in shock of the affairs occurring out of the lyrics. The second refrain of the song,which also closes out the song,is the part where Wonder provides the solution to the lyrics dilemma, features Stevie’s well known slogging drum style punctuated only by demanding horn blasts and ending with a rather boastful chant of “WHO-HA,WHO WHO-HA!”.

Some online articles I’ve seen in passing seem to have suggested this song was based on a leftover jam from Stevie’s massive 1972 production that resulted in the albums Music Of My Mind and Talking Book. Indeed it is filled to the brim with instrumental and melodic references to both “Superstition” and “Sweet Little Girl”. So on that level? This song marks a full on return to strong live band type horn funk of Stevie’s early/mid 70’s heyday and a break from feeling as if he had to be musically “new” on any particular level. Lyrically this song could not be more on time. While romantic discord and betrayal had been a big part of Stevie’s lyricism through his salad days,it was on a more individual level.

The early 2000’s represented an American pop culture built around what many refer to as “trash TV”. So called reality shows that seemed to function only for the purpose of breaking up romantic relationships for the purpose of winning a contest had become convention. So had lie detector based talk shows regarding paternity tests. Stevie was setting the couple in this song within a modern sociological framework that seemed to be nothing but cynical and suspicious about romance. And through the happily yet trepidatiously   melodic funk of this song,advises honesty between people over any romantic types of conspiracy theories. It is romantically inclined funk with a modern message-with its “heard it through the grapevine” blues style lyrics and melody firmly updated for that contemporary ethic. And from where I stand? Just what Stevie’s inner Doctor Funkestein ordered!

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