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Songs are still key in the life of Stevie Wonder

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" was a legend even before it was released in September of 1976.

It came two years after its predecessor, "Fulfillingness' First Finale" -- an eternity to wait for an album at that time. Motown, which was in the throes of financial difficulties, was chomping at the bit for it, especially since Wonder's three previous albums all went Top 5 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the R&B Albums chart and the previous two ('Fulfillingness'...' and 'Innervisions') had won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year.

"Motown The Musical" even notes the anxiousness company founder and CEO Berry Gordy, Jr., felt for "Songs in the Key of Life," but Wonder -- who's in the midst of a 10-city tour performing the album live in its entirety -- wasn't budging.

"They didn't understand why I was taking so long," the Saginaw-born Wonder, 64, recalls by telephone from Los Angeles, where he's resided since the early 70s. "I think at the last minute I said, 'Well, Berry, this is a double album. It's not just 10 songs. We went back and forth and argued about the EP, but ultimately we agreed to agree.

"My engineer who worked with me heard me say 'We're almost finished' so many times that he did some T-shirts that said 'We're almost finished, and a few people had those, which was pretty funny."

Once completed, of course, "Songs in the Key of Life" proved worth the wait. The ebullient song cycle, with 17 tracks on its two discs plus four more on an accompanying EP, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts during October of 1976 and has been certified Diamond for sales of more than 10 million copies in the U.S.. It spawned a pair of No. 1 hits -- "I Wish" and "Sir Duke" -- topped the Village Voice's prestigious Pazz & Jop critics poll and won four Grammys, including Album of the Year, making Wonder the first artist to win that prize for three consecutive releases.

It's also been preserved in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry and ranks No. 56 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Gordy, who had signed Steveland Hardaway Judkins as an 11-year-old upstart in 1961 and re-signed him to a $17 million deal during he spring of 1976, wrote in his memoir "To Be Loved" that he "knew it was a double-album masterpiece" as soon as he heard it. And Earth, Wind & Fire frontman Philip Bailey recalls that "everyone remember when that record came out and how mind-blowing it was to just hang on every melody, every chord, every word. It's just a magical piece of music."

The album, Wonder notes now, "took a spirit of its own. It became an energy, and that energy ultimately is what brought me to the (album) title and ultimately the whole work."

Nevertheless, Wonder maintains that he "didn't have a form or a concept when he started work on "Songs in the Key of Life." "I was just writing songs, like I usually do," he says. "I think when I was close to the end I came up with the title 'Songs in the Key of Life,' and that was because there's so many different things we talk about in the album -- relationships, growing up, the planets, Saturn, the young little girl playing in the community, just those experiences."

There were direct sources for many of the songs, according to Wonder. "Village Ghetto Land" was inspired by a woman in Wonder's Detroit neighborhood whose classical and operatic music wafted onto the streets from her open window. "Black Man" was a rumination on African-American contributions to American society in light of the then-approaching bicentennial. And "Isn't She Lovely," of course, found Wonder reveling in the joys of fatherhood, even sampling noises of baby daughter Aisha in the bathtub, playing with Wonder and her mother, Yolanda Simmons.

"Something like 'Songs in the Key of Life,' it's a work," Wonder says. "It's an actual concept or project that you do, and the music, thank God, has stood the test of time and all that.

"And for me it speaks of a kind of place that I was in when I did it; it speaks of a place that I was growing up in Detroit and things that I experienced. The songs are culminations of different experience that I had or different things that happened that influenced those ideas."

He first presented the album in its entirety at his annual House Full of Toys Benefit Concert last December at Los Angeles' Nokia Theater, after which the idea of taking it on tour was broached. "I wanted to do 'Songs in the Key of Life' and really make the musical statement, because we had never toured 'Songs in the Key of Life' like this," says Wonder, who's been filling out the shows with other hits such as "Do I Do," "Master Blaster" and "Superstition." "We did shows but never the whole thing all the way through, so I felt it would be great to do that."

Wonder says there are plans to film and record the Songs in the Key of Life Performance shows for a possible release, but he also has two other projects in motion. He's "75 percent" finished with "Through the Eyes of Wonder," a new studio album that will be his first since 2005's "A Time To Love." "I've been kind of messing with that for awhile, and I'm excited about that," Wonder says. "There's so much that has gone on between, say, 'Songs in the Key of Life' and now -- in my life, in lives, just in the world. I've been able to witness all that, (the album) is kind of from the perspective as I see it. That's where I write from."

Wonder is also "about eight songs" into "When the World Began," a set of orchestral remakes of his tunes with producer David Foster, some of which the duo are enveloping in new arrangements -- including a revised "Isn't She Lovely" with opera singer Andrea Bocelli. But as is Wonder's wont, as demonstrated by "Songs in the Key of Life," nobody should hold their breath waiting for these to come out.

"It's got to feel right," Wonder explains. "No different than I did with 'Songs in the Key of Life' or any other projects I've worked on, it's got to feel right before I give it to the people. It's got to feel like, 'Yeah, that feels good to me.'

"I think I've been able to be objective about stuff that I've done to say that and to feel that way."

Stevie Wonder: Songs In the Key of Life Performance

8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20

The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills.

Tickets are $29.25-$149.50

Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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