In all the nuclear meltdowns in the last weeks of Election ’16 and in the asteroid impact of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States, I almost completely forgot about one of the modern era’s greatest milestones. At the end of September, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life double-album turned forty years old!
My wife swears that this was Stevie Wonder’s last great production of genius, that virtually all the music he’s done since has either been merely “that’s nice” or complete schlock. But compared to Songs In The Key Of Life, at least 75 percent of the music produced since 1500 CE would be schlock! I mean, between “I Wish,” “Sir Duke,” “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Have a Talk with God,” “Village Ghetto Land,” and my all-time favorite, “As,” who could ask for anything more out of an album or an artist?
My fandom for Songs in the Key of Life has occurred over several stages since its release on September 28, 1976. I was nearly seven when the double-album dropped, and my life couldn’t have been messier. Between my Mom and my father Jimme’s rocky and violent divorce process, my own coping with sexual assault, and my Mom getting kidney sick and ending up at Mount Vernon Hospital as a patient for three months. Add to this having babysitters as primary caregivers during that time, and a second-grade teacher who wasn’t exactly sympathetic to Black kids who couldn’t settle down. It was a rough time, maybe even rougher than my Hebrew-Israelite years.
But songs from the double-LP were there, either thanks to WBLS-107.5 FM, or to people blasting songs off 8-tracks and cassette decks out of their cars in South Side Mount Vernon. Or, in the case of hanging out with my dad, because of his drinking buddies playing Stevie Wonder’s songs over and over again. For those first few years, “I Wish” and “Sir Duke” were my favorite songs from Songs in the Key of Life. That was probably because they were the only songs from the set I’d heard in full prior to 1982.
Then, with the Wendy crush/puppy love/mini-love of the spring and summer of ’82, one of the songs my mind conjured up was “As.” The song’s more than seven minutes long, and I barely knew the words “until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky,” much less the entirety of the poetry of that song, much less its full meaning. But my heart knew how that song made me feel, and for matter, how Wendy made me feel, at least for a time. Once my stepfather Maurice began beating on me, my Mom lost her job, and we slipped into welfare poverty, though, Stevie Wonder’s greatest works slipped from my mind.
Nine years later, and it was my friend Elaine who reintroduced me to Songs in the Key of Life. It was during the spring and summer of ’91, when I both liked and loathed Elaine at the same time. It was also the summer before graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, and it was like my mind and heart knew I needed to feed myself more than Phil Collins, Anita Baker, PE, and Salt ‘n Pepa. I borrowed Elaine’s set of cassette recordings from the genius’ 2-LP set, and spent parts of April, May, and June walking the 3.4 miles between my place in S’Liberty and my job at Western Psychiatric in Oakland listening to Stevie Wonder. I played Songs in the Key of Life straight through a half-dozen times. But of all the songs, “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Have a Talk with God” became two of my favorites. After the potential for a more serious relationship with Elaine faded, I gave her back her cassettes in August.
It would be another fifteen years before I finally got Songs in the Key of Life on CD. It was 2006, and I’d finally gotten me and my wife into the iPod era. Between that and my work on my memoir Boy @ The Window, I wanted to explore what made me me musically over the years. In remembering my Wendy-love days, I literally had to go through every song on Songs in the Key of Life again before I remembered “As” in full. I was shocked that after thirty years and so many other Stevie Wonder songs, that it had remained a melody in my heart and mind. It was in the summer of ’06 that “As” became my favorite song off this all-time great album(s).
Given what had occurred in the US over the past decade, and what has been happening to people of color in the US for as long as I’ve been alive, Stevie Wonder’s music from Songs in the Key of Life is always relevant, always uplifting, always life-affirming. Trust me, with Trump’s ascendancy to the White House, “the force of evil plans” will try “to make you its possession.” And yes, I did think “that love would be in need of love today,” because it wasn’t as if “hate” wasn’t going around “breaking hearts” and bodies during the Obama years.
But I’ll close with this, perhaps the most important stanza from “As.” This, to remind myself and all of you America’s may be in more trouble than ever before, but know that trouble has been with America longer than we’ve had the privilege of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life as genius. Thanks to Wendy, Elaine, my former Mount Vernon neighbors, and unknown New Yorkers, for playing these songs for me over the years, whether they meant to or not.
We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet you life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
So make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children’s grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell
I’ll be loving you