Happy 40th Anniversary to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life originally released September 28, 1976 and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Spirit originally released in September 1976.
“Change your words into truths, and then change that truth into love…” – Stevie Wonder (“As”)
By 1976, America was in a tumultuous state of discontent. In the midst of the country celebrating its Bicentennial year, the economic, political, and cultural crises that rocked the national fore reached a fever pitch. The societal distrust in the established order that fueled the American fabric had worsened, as the liberal opposition toward right-wing conservatism reflected the grimace and broken commitments of the late Sixties and early-to-mid Seventies.
Richard Nixon resigned from office two years prior, in utter shame. The scathing disillusionment of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal remained the taxing topics of the day, while a series of inconceivable blows to the urban industrial economy caused the nation to collapse into a stagflation nightmare. Racial tension continued to erupt, as the long-fought battle for school desegregation through integrated busing sparked unjustifiable hostility and violence toward Blacks. White flight was unsettlingly on the rise, leaving devastated cities to fall into further decline and governmental neglect.
The unshakable reality of the era’s jaded “Have a Nice Day” hedonism and cynical individualism embodied the disintegrated hopes and aspirations of the counterculture movement. The “tune on, tune in, and drop out” expansiveness of the 1960s revolution descended into a stream of insouciant decadence, where disco ruled the feet and motives of the weary. If nothing else, 1970s in America had lived up to what author and journalist Tom Wolfe once labeled as the “Me Decade” and it couldn’t have been all the more fitting by 1976.
Stevie Wonder and the late Maurice White, who passed away at the age of 74 this past February, already saw the writing on the wall: times were changing fast and growing desolate. From the very beginning, they rose as the guiding lights of the young, gifted, and Black generation, speaking directly to their souls, while uplifting their minds and spirits from the existential toxicity that was upon them. Both witnessed the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement and developed their artistry in light of its dutiful promise.
However, as the flower child utopia of the 1960s withered and the Black Power movement struggled to strengthen its impact in the Black community, Wonder and White strived to push their artistry to higher levels, both musically and socially. Reflecting on the prevailing forces that dwelled across the national landscape as well as the systemic troubles that were closing in on Black America since its inception, Wonder solidified his mark as one of the most prominent and insightful visionaries of the Seventies era.
By utilizing his sociopolitical outlook, spirited aspiration, and musical virtuosity, he tapped into a sound that unhinged the limitations of rock, pop, reggae, jazz, and soul boundaries, while directing his primary focus toward the concerning conditions that affected Black America. During the golden era in which he transitioned from Motown’s teen prodigy to a full-blown musical genius, he exerted full control of his artistic and business integrity right at the brink of his 21st birthday, unveiling a series of canonical album suites that helped push the technological and musical envelope of Black popular music in ways unimaginable before.
As the founding visionary of Earth, Wind & Fire, Memphis-born Maurice White assembled an ensemble that embraced strong African mysticism, while utilizing a brand of spiritual invocations and wisdom to help free humanity from the pain of their conditions. Earth, Wind & Fire’s explorative sound was deeply connected to the Black gospel vision as well as the jazz tradition. White’s musical roots derived from his background in the Baptist church and jazz sphere, where he was a budding session drummer and producer. He understood the significance of his band upholding those elements in their art in an effort to not only bring inspiration to the People, but to also offer knowledge about where they came from.
In Wonder’s world, the quest for his spiritual salvation after a near-fatal automobile accident in August 1973 heavily impacted his life and art. If his criminally-overlooked 1974 opus Fulfillingness’ First Finale hadn’t informed anything profound already, Wonder’s philosophies on life had grown nuanced and spiritually-based. Above his concerns for humanity and the ordeals of romance was a deep focus on the embrace and power of God. He also stalled working with his key collaborators, Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil—the influential electronic music duo that engineered and helped produce Wonder’s seminal work from 1972 to 1974—after a rumored squabble during the Fulfillingness sessions over musical direction.
Additionally, Wonder’s frustration with the American government and its treatment toward his fellow citizens soured in 1975, causing him to consider leaving the music business to work with handicapped children in Ghana. In the end, the long-standing responsibility of using his art and pop stardom as platforms to bring awareness to the state of world, particularly Black America, had to be the definitive reason for him to reconsider his decision. Only this time, he would do things on his terms.
Wonder was determined to make demands in negotiating a new deal with Motown, after his 1971 contract with the company was up for renewal. At the time, Arista Records and Epic Records were strongly invested in him. After all, the newly-reinstated contract with Motown awarded Wonder an unprecedented seven-year $13 million deal over a seven album spread, culminating in the biggest deal for any artist in the recording business at the time.
It was during this period that Wonder tirelessly crafted and polished his monumental epic, Songs in the Key of Life at various studios for two years, resulting in its release succumbing to several delays. With over 130 core musicians contributing to the project and two engineers—Gary Olazabal and John Fischbach—helming its sound production, editing and mixing, it was a risky proposition that the public, press, and his loyalists alike were eagerly awaiting to be unveiled.
Some questioned if Wonder’s diligent work and inevitable perfectionism on the album could live up to its frenzied hype. Others predicted that his decision to release a double album would be a total disaster, given the format’s reputation to overreach. As Motown executives grew impatient with Wonder’s consummate perfectionism, their promotional department took advantage of the gamble by producing memorabilia and adverts with the infamous “We’re Almost Finished” tagline.
1975 marked a rewarding year for Earth, Wind & Fire. After releasing the mega-selling classic soundtrack to the obscure film of the same name That’s the Way of the World and touring extensively for the album, White realized that the long-fought battle for his band to crossover had finally paid off. With their distinctive brand of clean, tightly-accorded funk and freeform jazz charm, White enlisted Charles Stepney, a remarkable producer and arranger that he had worked closely with during his days as a session drummer at Chess Records and its subsidiary Cadet label, to co-produce and arrange the band’s core 1974-76 work. Stepney’s immeasurable orchestrations and guidance helped push the band’s all-encompassing sound to a wider pop audience that they struggled to win over years prior.
The band capped off their breakaway success with the release of Gratitude during the winter of 1975, a double-record document that celebrated their achievements as an extravagant live outfit on their acclaimed 1975 tour and cooking collective in the studio. When they entered Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood, California during the spring of 1976 to record what would be their eighth overall release Spirit, tragedy struck. Charles Stepney passed away from a heart attack at the young age of 45. An obvious shock to White and his band, they grew even more steadfastly determined to complete the rest of the album, utilizing the groundwork Stepney laid for their approach as inspiration.
It is no mere coincidence that Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Spirit were released simultaneously forty years ago, in the autumn of 1976. In fact, it was divinely ordered. Given all of the conflicts that unfolded behind the scenes of their creations, the painstaking journey to bring these life-affirming gifts to fruition was all the more inspiring. Black popular music came a long way by the time these two masterstrokes were released.
A swarm of diverse sounds and artists from the soul, jazz, funk, and rock realm were gaining recognition in the marketplace and on the radio airwaves. As Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire illustrated in their respective trajectories during the 1970s, the LP rose as a medium that maximized total artistic expression into song cycles and conceptual statements. It wasn’t that the single format and its dominance died out at any point, but albums that held a coherent focus or conceptual thread were being pushed to the forefront of the Black music landscape, just as they had been populated in rock and pop. They completely abandoned the “hits with padded filler” approach that record labels would utilize during the 1950s and 1960s to push the momentum for singles. They were now experiences with full vision.
With one listen to both Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Spirit in one sitting, it’s hard to ignore the breadth and depth of their artistic visions and how they singularly communicate the possibilities and aspirations of the Black experience, while examining the burdens that plagued the nation, in bringing about solutions for overcoming them. The fact that both albums fearlessly weaved disparate threads of jazz, gospel, soul, African music, and blues into a purposeful musical narrative that is synonymous with the Black musical tradition proves how extraordinarily committed Wonder and Maurice White were in spreading their philosophical messages and spiritual visions to the world.
A sprawling, two-record-plus-four song EP set, Songs in the Key of Life was an engrossing opus that found Wonder expounding on the frank realism that defined his sociopolitical outlook and the humanistic qualities that constituted his perspectives on spirituality, romance and, as its ambiguous title indicated, life. Its grand eclecticism and impressive topical reach represented the summation of creativity and expression that Wonder had achieved by that point. The communal aspect of its magnificent size and scope more than reassured the worldly exuberance and gospel vision of Fulfillingness’ First Finale, where Wonder worked with a galaxy of guest musicians and employed a more polished style to his approach.
The album’s twenty-eight page booklet featured a long passage dedicated to Wonder’s spiritual revelations that mixed psychological love with cosmic mysticism. While Fulfillingness and its preceding milestones retained revelatory focus and tighter structure, Songs functioned as an encyclopedic chronicle that celebrated the rich cultural legacy of the Black experience, in all of its beauty and glory. Wonder dramatically began this epic with stirring spiritual sentiments that called for love for humanity (“Love’s in Need of Love Today”) and the fulfillment of God’s salvation (“Have a Talk with God”). His outlook on the brutal realities of the world grew sharper, as he mused on the plight of urban decay (“Village Ghetto Land”) and the hypocrisy of those who spend time wallowing in their past and in the imaginations of their future to escape their societal reality (“Pastime Paradise”).
Emotionality and romance took on several colorful roles, like where Wonder expresses his exalted desire for his partner on “Knocks Me off My Feet,” while “Ordinary Pain” frames a one-two punch shift of gender perspectives on a failed relationship. The sizzling Latin-dance influenced showdown “Another Star” focuses on recommencing lost love, while the soft-rock jazz of “Summer Soft” boasts seasonal propositions on falling in and out of love.
Perhaps the most transcendent impulses on Songs derive when Wonder improvises his own vision of a world that lives up to the Civil Rights Movement promise. On “Saturn,” he imagines a world where people can live in total harmony from the hell that permeates the Earth. The seven-minute gospel-jazz epic “As” conjures up visions of a day when love amongst humanity would outlast time and phenomena unknown.
In paying homage to the jazz mavericks that have reflected our changing times, he shouts out Sir Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Glenn Miller during the album’s number-one hit “Sir Duke.” He goes further in flipping the melody of the “Star Spangled Banner” to celebrate the achievements of Native American, Asian American, and Latino brothers, alongside their Black and White peers on “Black Man.”
In measuring up to the objective that is drawn in the album’s title, he rejoices the birth of life, including his own daughter Aisha Morris on “Isn’t She Lovely.” The album’s other number-one hit “I Wish” was written by Wonder alone during a Motown picnic and finds him in a nostalgic space, where family, childhood mischief, and hustling with his “hoodlum friends” unified the Black community beyond the ills of poverty and corruption.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s Spirit reinforced the emotional and spiritual currents Wonder clarified throughout Songs in the Key of Life, but fellow visionary Maurice White strived to further empower the minds of the weary, whose hope and faith were being tested by the burdens of the times.
Sandwiched between their twin breakthroughs, 1975’s That’s the Way of the World and Gratitude as well as the varied escapist modes of 1977’s All ‘n All, Spirit is commonly neglected in the band’s core 1974-79 oeuvre. Their celestial version of the Black gospel vision reached its highest plateau here, but there’s a somber undertone which punctuates that vision on this nine-song masterpiece.
Given the traumatic circumstances that arose during its creation, it was clear that the Elements were mourning not only the passing of their dear mentor, Charles Stepney, but the current state of human affairs. The mood is clearly evident on its reflective album cover, where the band, dressed in white garb, is shown in an African-styled meditative state. In the distance of the bright sunned-yellow background are three white pyramids, which referenced their strong ties with Egyptology. The spiritual energy was in full levitation and showed no sign of coming down. The production’s fluid slickness was anchored by the band’s sophisticated funk personality that White had been developing since their inception.
On the first side of the album alone, White’s Baptist fervor blended eloquently with the Phoenix Horn’s spontaneous stabs, Larry Dunn’s atmospheric melodies, the gutsy bottom of Verdine White’s elastic bass lines, and the soft nuances of Philip Bailey’s expressive falsetto. In its thundering opener “Getaway,” White’s spunky lead suggested that self-perseverance from the world’s evils could lead people in the right direction in their lives. This sentiment is echoed in its follow-up inspirational track “On Your Face,” which advises people to reach into the depths of their souls to bring optimism to their lives and others.
The majestic ballad “Imagination” finds Philip Bailey’s enchanting lead exuding the miracles of romantic love and its glory. If the first two songs respond directly to the desolate times of the nation in its connection to the People, the album’s serene title track “Spirit” calls on God’s illuminating guidance to help heal a broken nation and its people.
The album picks up the funk with the jiving “Saturday Nite,” where White contemplates the plight of people allowing worldly pursuits to distract them from their true selves. The evocative ballad “Earth, Wind & Fire” retells the Old Testament provocations on God’s Creation of heaven, Earth, and man, while juxtaposing them with a sermon pointed to the People on their existence on Earth. White professes near the end of the song that God’s love will guide His people to utter fulfillment and promise. The two brief instrumental segues, the Larry Dunn-arranged tribute to Charles Stepney, “Departure,” and “Biyo” are emblematic primarily of the band’s musical versatility and improvisational jazz impulse.
Then, the spiritual journey concludes with the sweeping “Burnin’ Bush.” Following in the gospel tradition of its predecessors, “Earth, Wind & Fire” and “Spirit,” White manifests a transcendent meditation on the burdens of humanity, in the light of God’s love for the world. Similar to what Stevie Wonder laments in “Pastime Paradise” and “As,” White wonders why the “hurt and pain of this Nation” can’t be remedied by people just sharing “a little love to improve our situation.” Near its dramatic orchestral finish, he sings calmingly to us: “There’s gonna come a time / Things that are on your mind / Trust and you will find / Everything in your mind / True love is here to find / Simple as number nine / Multiply you will find / Peace and love all the time.”
It’s in that powerful lyrical stanza that we are brought back to the core reason of why the Black pop liberation of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire mattered then and now, 40 years later, after Songs in the Key of Life and Spirit were released in the fall of 1976. With the lasting commercial impact and artistic influence of these masterpieces, it’s more than clear that
Wonder and Maurice White strived to challenge America to live up to its promise and for a lifetime, it would strike a profound chord with millions who would open their minds to experience them. Even those who professed to have never been exposed to the Black gospel vision, which the two albums strongly evoked musically and symbolically, took heed as well. Above all, Black America more than understood their immeasurable cultural, spiritual and musical links to the culture. Their messages challenged the community to grow beyond what was expected of them. They helped unify us. They clearly cemented that Black lives, spirits, culture, love, and history mattered then as much as they do now.
Four decades later, right at the brink of a country that still burns with intense hate and utter disarray, it’s a blessing we’ve always had them to inspire us.