/ 28 September 2022

Songs in the Key of Life turns 46

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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 14: Stevie Wonder attends the Los Angeles premiere of Apple's "They Call Me Magic" at Regency Village Theatre on April 14, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by JC Olivera/WireImage)

To any South African, 1976 is the year the black students of Soweto took to the streets to boycott the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. 

To the rest of the world, 1976 is the year that American singer and composer Stevie Wonder released his eighteenth studio album, a double album that would give life a befitting soundtrack – Songs in the Key of Life. Many music lovers feel it is possibly the best album ever to be recorded. 

His two previous albums, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, had both been major successes, both reaching gold statuses and winning Grammy Album of the Year awards. Stevie felt like he had nothing else to contribute musically. He decided to retire from music, frustrated with how his country was being run, and planned to emigrate to Ghana to work with disabled children. 

As a farewell concert was being planned for him, he changed his mind and signed with Motown again for a seventh album deal worth $37-million, which at the time was the biggest recording deal for any artist. 

View of the cover of the album ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ by Stevie Wonder, 1976. Published by Motown Records (T13-34062), the album’s jacket features a drawing of Wonder’s face set inside a series of nested, ragged circles. (Photo by Blank Archives/Getty Images)

Most importantly, the deal gave him full artistic control. He wrote almost the entire album himself and had great session artists such as Herbie Hancock and George Benson on some of the songs. It debuted at number one on the Billboard Album Charts and won four Grammys including Album of the Year.

To celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime piece of work, we look back at some memorable songs that were sampled or covered from Songs in the Key of Life.

Hip-hop was birthed on samples – this is finding interesting parts of an existing song, cutting up that part of the song, to create a whole new song with it. 

Another way to pay homage to a beautiful song, is by covering it, recreating the whole song as it is, perhaps changing a few things on it to give it a modern feel, but generally keeping the heart of it as it is. 

Songs In The Key of Life has had its fair share of incredible samples and covers. Stevie has always welcomed the idea of sampling, whether this be young artists sampling his songs or him sampling or covering other artists he admires. 

His 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants may have been the first album to be extensively sampled. In 2006, when Snoop Dogg recorded Conversations, which sampled Stevie’s Have a Talk with God, Stevie himself agreed to be a guest artist on the new song. 

At the 1995 Billboards Awards Stevie Wonder made a guest appearance at Coolio and L.V’s performance of Gangster’s Paradise, which was sampled from his Pastime Paradise. Even though Gangster’s Paradise is probably the most memorable sample use of Pastime Paradise, mainly because it kept the chord progression, the groove and the melody of the chorus, it is not the only song that sampled Pastime Paradise. In fact, it has been sampled a whooping 25 times, making it the most sampled song on Songs in the Key of Life. Erykah Badu sampled it for her song Drama on her debut album Baduism that she recorded with the legendary Philly’s Roots Crew, and rap group Three 6 Mafia sampled it to make 3-6 in the Morning on their third studio album Chapter 2: World Domination

One of the saddest Hollywood stories involving Will Smith – worse than the slap of the decade – is how he declined the lead Neo on the Matrix series and chose rather to do the movie Wild Wild West, which is his worst-performing movie in his career. The movie was accompanied by a Will Smith cover of Kool Moe Dee’s Wild Wild West featuring Dru Hill and Kool Moe Dee himself re-performing the chorus. Producers Rob Fusari and Mark Wilson‎ sampled Stevie Wonder’s I Wish. Dru Hill’s Sisqo actually sings the same melody of I Wish with new lyrics. Again, to show love for his songs being sampled, Stevie Wonder makes a cameo on the music video. 

Gangster’s Paradise – Coolio featuring L.V

Gangster’s Paradise samples Stevie’s Pastime Paradise. It was originally recorded for the feature film Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer in 1995. Coolio then put it into his own album in the same year. Interestingly, Coolio was not familiar with Stevie’s Pastime Paradise when he first heard what producer Doug Rasheed had done with the sample. The song went on to win a Grammy for Best Rap Solo performance. 

Summer Rain – Carl Thomas

Signed to Diddy aka Puffy Combs aka P Diddy label Bad Boy Records, Carl Thomas released his debut album Emotional in April 2000. The lead single from that album was a soulful track called Summer Rain. The song was produced by the late rapper/producer Heavy D. He sampled Stevie Wonder’s Summer Soft. It’s great that Carl kept the Summer theme in his song. Summer Rain reached number 80 on Billboard Hot 100.

Rock Wit U – Alicia Keys

“The album is a fusion of my classical training, meshed with what I grew up listening to, things I’ve been exposed to and drawn from and my life experiences.” That’s how Alicia Keys described her debut album Songs in A Minor. Signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis, Alicia was lucky enough to work with top producers such as Jermaine Dupree and Brian McKnight. On the song Rock Wit U, co-produced with Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, they sampled Stevie Wonder’s Ordinary Pain.

Footprints – A Tribe Called Quest

Made up of main producer/rapper Q-Tip, the late rapper Phife Dawg, co-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White, the New York hip-hop group were known for their love of sampling old jazz and soul records. The sampled Rotary Connection’s Memory Band to make Bonita Applebum, Ronnie Foster’s Mystic Brew to make Electric Relaxation, Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side to make Can I Kick It?, and Minnie Riperton’s Baby, This Love I Have to make Check The Rhime, among many classic joints they’re known for. In 1990, they released their debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and they sampled Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke to make Footprints

Knocks Me Off My Feet – Donell Jones / Kevin Campbell / Luther Vandross

Even though Knocks Me Off My Feet was not released on the original Songs in the Key of Life release in 1976, but on the B-side release in 1980, it is the most popular song to be covered by other artists. Donell Jones recorded it on his debut album My Heart and released it as his second single. In the same year, Tevin Campbell recorded it for the feature film A Thin Line Between Love and Hate soundtrack starring Martin Lawrence. Luther Vandross, also in 1996, covered it on his album Your Secret Love. 

As – George Michael and Mary J Blige 

Probably the biggest Stevie cover is As recorded for George Michael’s Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael album in 1998 featuring Mary J Blige. The song did extremely well in Europe but Mary J Blige’s label did not want to have it released in the US because of some controversies surrounding George Michael at the time. 

Stevie is a real wonder. As long as hip-hop is alive, his genius will be celebrated by finding new ways to cut up and recreate some of his most brilliant work, but especially these songs, sung perfectly in the key of life.