In April of 1974, Stevie Wonder stunned the music world by announcing that he was moving to Ghana at a press conference in Los Angeles. Wonder, who had developed a growing interest in charity work, also pledged to donate the profits from an upcoming nationwide tour to the Minisink Townhouse non-profit and their work with children in Africa. It seems he was embarking on a period of deep self-reflection and questioning what he could offer the world beyond his music. “I believe that you have to give unselfishly. You can sing about things and talk about things, but if your actions don’t speak louder than your words, you’re nothing,” Wonder told Jet magazine in a 1974 interview.
Motown president Ewart Abner and famed board chairman Berry Gordy realized immediate action was needed to keep Wonder — who had been signed to Motown since age 11 — with the record label. Keeping Wonder on board was imperative to the famous label’s survival, as changing music preferences and a financial recession had hurt their bottom line.
Determined to keep Wonder’s inimitable talents under the Motown umbrella, Abner and Gordy embarked on what Gordy would later describe as “the most grueling and nerve-racking” negotiations he ever participated in. The end result was a seven album, seven-year deal coupled with a $13 million advance payment, publishing control, and a royalty rate of 20%. Several stipulations in the contract also gave Wonder unheard of control over his career and catalog. Even industry giants like Elton John couldn’t hold a candle to the lucrative deal.
“You can sing about things and talk about things, but if your actions don’t speak louder than your words, you’re nothing.”- Stevie Wonder
With his financial future more than secure and his plans to relocate on hold, Wonder set out to make his 18th album — a remarkable feat when you consider he started making albums in 1962. According to a 2016 article in Rolling Stone, he adopted the motto, “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak,” during the making of Songs in the Key of Life.
The flow was always going, as Wonder entered a two-and-a-half year period of endless recording sessions in multiple studios on both coasts. Working with a legendary crew of engineers and musicians like Herbie Hancock and Minnie Riperton, Wonder’s output reached manic levels as he sometimes practiced and recorded for 48 hours straight. “It was really his most prolific time. He did more songs in those two years I think than he had done before,” engineer John Fischbach told Rolling Stone. According to Fischbach and Wonder, Wonder recorded over 200 songs during this time, many of which have yet to see the light of day.
Gary Olazabal, another one of Wonder’s favorite engineers, would describe his work mode to Rolling Stone as “frighteningly spontaneous,” with Wonder calling on his creative team at all hours of the day. And much like other artists of Wonder’s stature, he wasn’t afraid to place incredible and sometimes unrealistic demands on the people he worked with. According to Rolling Stone, Gary Byrd spent three months agonizing over the lyrics for “Village Ghetto Land.” While Wonder was recording the song, he added another verse of music and expected Byrd to come up with additional lyrics in 10 minutes.
“If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak.”- Stevie Wonder
As people struggled to keep up with Wonder’s relentless work ethic, collaborators also started to worry that perfect would eventually become the enemy of done. “It was a marathon, and at times we wondered if it would ever finish. We had T-shirts with ‘Are We Finished Yet?’ printed on them, as well as others with ‘Let’s Mix ‘Contusion’ Again.’ Without exaggeration, we must have mixed that track at least 30 times. It became part of the joke of our lives,” Olazabal told Rolling Stone.
Reaching the finish line may have felt impossible at times, but the final version of Songs In The Key of Life proved it was worth the often brutal work schedule and uncertain date of completion. Wonder and his team of collaborators distilled their energy into a seamless and beautiful album that many critics and peers consider one of the greatest LPs of all time. With the 40th anniversary of the album passing in 2016, Wonder’s magnum opus continues to be an enduring testament to the power of music.