Saturday, August 27, 2011

Rock Albums Post VII: Brothers of Vibe

This post includes black male musicians who have contributed to the landscape of popular music in the genres of blues, jazz, R&B, soul, pop, rock and funk.

Louis Armstrong - Louis and the Angels (1957)
Born in New Orleans Louis Armstrong is known as one of the premiere innovators of New Orleans styled jazz trumpet. Armstrong is instantly recognized for his deep and distinctive gravelly voice, Armstrong was also an influential singer, demonstrating great dexterity as an improviser, bending the lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes. He was also greatly skilled at scat singing, vocalizing using sounds and syllables instead of actual lyrics. Armstrong's career in music began in 1918 and continued until his death in 1971.

"Louis and the Angels" was released in 1957 and is one of many many studio albums released by Armstrong. His musical output is so vast that it is hard to say how many albums he actually recorded.

Scott Yarrow wrote the following review for AllMusic:
This obscure set by Louis Armstrong has its strange appeal. The great trumpeter/vocalist performs a dozen songs, all of which have "heaven" or "angel" in their title or lyrics, while backed by the Sy Oliver Orchestra plus a heavenly female choir. Satch gets off a few good trumpet solos and is quite cheerful throughout, even joking during "The Prisoner's Song" when the word "angel" finally shows up. Among the highlights are "When Did You Leave Heaven," "I Married An Angel" and "I'll String Along With You." Although more commercial than Armstrong's usual recordings of the era, this set is more memorable than one would expect and is worth searching for.

James Brown - I Got You (I Feel Good) (1966)
Known as the Godfather of Soul James Brown has influenced many musicians from all genres of music. His legend stands as one of the most durable in popular music history. Brown put the shake, rattle, roll and scream into soul music. After James Brown soul music was never the same. He paved the way for artists such as George Clinton, Afrika Bambaataa and many others.

His hit songs such as ''Papa's Got a Brand New Bag'' and ''Cold Sweat'' helped make him one of the most influential singers of the second half of the 20th century and an icon of African-American pride. Ninety-four of his recordings reached the Top 100, and he had more Top 20 singles than any other recording artist. Even though he had his last chart single in 1985, his popularity endured. The churning polyrhythms of such songs as "Cold Sweat" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" imbue them with a freshness that has kept them a mainstay of classic hits radio formats and even commercials.

"I Got You (I Feel Good)" was Brown's 15th album and was released on January 1, 1966. At the start of 1966, James Brown was at his peak as a crossover star, having hit the pop Top Ten twice in a row in the last six months, first with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and then with his biggest-ever pop success, "I Got You (I Feel Good)." But Brown was a singles artist almost exclusively; for him, LPs simply constituted a different configuration in which to re-sell his singles. So, his '60s LPs consisted of his current hit plus previously released singles tracks. The I Got You (I Feel Good) LP was no exception: Leading off with the title track, it included songs that dated back to 1959's "Good, Good Loving." Of course, some of these tracks, such as "Lost Someone," "Night Train," and "Think," were among Brown's classics, so the collection on the whole is appealing, even if arbitrary.

The album was a reasonable success reaching #36 on the U.S. Billboard album chart. It was the title track that really fueled the album sales. The song "I Got You (I Feel Good)" ended up becoming Brown's all-time biggest hit reching U.S. #3 and UK #29.

The song, with almost identical tune and words, had first been recorded and released in 1962 by Yvonne Fair, as "I Found You" (King 5594). Fair was one of Brown's back-up singers, and released several singles in her own right produced by him, none of which were hits. Brown then reworked the song three years later as "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and recorded at Criteria Recording Studios in Miami, which was their first Billboard hit.

Fats Domino - Carry On Rockin' (Rock and Rollin' with Fats Domino) (1955/1956)

Fats Domino had seven years' worth of recordings behind him when Imperial Records released his first LP, which was made up of songs dating back as far as 1950 -- "Ain't It a Shame" was the current hit, and his 1950 hit "The Fat Man" is also here, but there was a lot more to recommend this album. Fats' singing on "Poor Me" is some of the most expressive R&B of its era, and the worth of this LP is defined by his performance as well as the songs themselves. The latter also include the pounding ballad "Rose Mary," the bouncy "Please Don't Leave Me" with its infectious vamping by the singer and his rippling piano arpeggios, and the bluesy lament "You Said You Love Me."

The album reached #17 on the U.S. album charts under it's 1956 alternate title.

The album contains Domino's first U.S. pop hit "Goin' Home", the song hit #30 on the charts and was his first #1 hit on the U.S. R&B charts.

Domino first attracted national attention with "The Fat Man" in 1949 on Imperial Records. This song is an early rock and roll record, featuring a rolling piano and Domino doing "wah-wah" vocalizing over a strong back beat. It sold over a million copies and is widely regarded as the first rock and roll record to do so.

"Ain't That A Shame" burned up the charts to reach #10 in the U.S. and #23 in the UK. this song gave Domino his big break and made him a household name.  The song was recorded in New Orleans and eventually sold more than a million copies. Pat Boone recorded the song in 1955 and went all the way to #1 on the U.S. charts and #7 in the UK. Boone had originally wanted to change the song title to "Isn't That A Shame" to appeal to a broader audience, but was dissuaded by his producers. Pat Boone and Fats Domino both had the song on the charts are the same time during July and August of 1956.

The legacy of "Ain't That A Shame" continued to live on throughout the decades with artists such as Cheap Trick covering the song in 1979, John Lennon in 1975, the Four Seasons in 1963 and several others. The song is ranked #431 on the Rolling Stone magazine's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

 Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced (1967)
Jimi Hendrix is perhaps the greatest guitarist to ever live. Certainly he is the most innovative having used his guitar not only as an instrument but also as tool to convey his emotions. for Jimi Hendrix the guitar was a lifestyle for him, almost a body part. Influenced by blues artists such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Albert King and Elmore James, Hendrix has stated, that wants to do with his guitar what Little Richard does with his voice. It's easy to say that Hendrix succeeded in that goal.

Released in the UK on May 12, 1967 and in the U.S. on August 23, 1967, Hendrix's debut "Are You Experienced" reached #5 on the U.S. album chart, #2 in the UK and #3 in Norway. In the UK it was the Beatles' "Sgt Pepper's" album that kept Hendrix's "Are You Experienced" from reaching the top of the charts.

The sessions for "Are You Experienced" began in 1966 with the recording of three singles, "Hey Joe"/"Stone Free", "Purple Haze"/"51st Anniversary" and "The Wind Cries Mary"/"Highway Chile". All three singles (released between December 1966 and May 1967 reached the top 10 on the UK singles chart. In the original UK and international release non of these singles were included on the album although while these singles were being recorded Hendrix and his group recorded the tracks which ended up becoming the album comprised the album "Are You Experienced". When the album was released in the U.S. the A-sides of each of these singles were all included, which resulted in the removal of "Red House", "Can You See Me" and "Remember" which were all on the original UK release. In 1993 the album was reissued with all the original songs from the UK release and the 3 singles plus their b-sides.

This classic album has retained it's popularity through the decades and has received many accolades including being ranked at #15 on the 2003, Rolling Stone magazine 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. VH1 named it the fifth greatest album of all time in 2001. Guitarist magazine named the album number one on their list of "the most influential guitar albums of all time" in 1994 and Mojo magazine similarly listed it as the greatest guitar album of all time in 2003. Creem magazine named the album number six on the Top Ten Metal Albums Of The 60s. Vibe (12/99, p. 156) included it in its list of 100 Essential Albums of the 20th Century. NME (10/2/93, p. 29) ranked it #29 in its list of the "Greatest Albums Of All Time". In March 2000 a poll from Guitar World Magazine named Are You Experienced the greatest album of the Millennium.

"Hey Joe" was Hendrix's debut single released in December 1966. The song was written by Billy Roberts a California based folk singer/guitarist/ harmonica player. The song reached #6 on the UK charts in January 1967 and #10 in Norway and #34 in Australia.  This was the last song Hendrix performed during Woodstock in 1969.

"Purple Haze" was Hendrix's second single release and was a hit worldwide reaching #3 in the UK, #7 in Austria, #17 in Norway, #53 in Australia and 365 in the U.S. This was Hendrix's debut on the U.S. charts. Written by Hendrix, the song came into being after the band's producer Chas Chandler heard him playing the riff backstage and suggested that he write lyrics to go with it. There is some dispute about the lyrics: supposedly written in the dressing room of the Upper Cut Club on Boxing Day, 1966, Chandler claims that the lyrics were never cut in any way (though he admits that this was done on general principle with Hendrix's lyrics), while Hendrix stated that the original song contained much more text. Hendrix originally wrote the chorus as "Purple Haze, Jesus Saves," but decided against it. Hendrix himself denied the drug relation of the song claiming it to be merely another love song. He said that the line "What ever it is, that girl put a spell on me" is the key line to the lyrics.

In reference to "Purple Haze" Hendrix has said in a 1969 interview with the new Musical Express, "I dream a lot and I put a lot of my dreams down as songs. I wrote one called 'First Around the Corner' and another called 'The Purple Haze', which was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea."  The term "purple haze" has been used to refer to LSD, due to the form sold by Sandoz, called Delysid, which came in purple capsules. The phrase itself appears in print as early as 1861, in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, chapter 54: "There was the red sun, on the low level of the shore, in a purple haze, fast deepening into black..." Although, Hendrix himself stated that the song was partially in reference to a sci-fi story.

The third single (still before the album was released) was "The Wind Cries Mary". with this release Hendrix change up his style a bit to showcase a his mellower side. this beautiful song reached #6 in the UK and #18 in both Austria and Australia. The song was recorded at the end of the "Fire" sessions. It is said to have been inspired when Hendrix and his then girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, had an argument over her cooking; after she stormed out of their apartment, Hendrix wrote "The Wind Cries Mary", as Mary was Etchingham's middle name. Billy Cox, who was the bassist for the Band of Gypsys and long-time friend of Hendrix has stated Curtis Mayfields' influence on the song.

Written by Hendrix, he was quoted as saying "Foxy Lady" was the only happy song he had ever written. He said that he usually just doesn't feel happy when writing songs. The song was his 5th single release. This song, although regarded a Hendrix classic did not do to well on the charts reaching #27 in Australia and #67 in the U.S.

Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings (1990)
Born in 1911 Robert Johnson was a blues musician who recorded from 1960-1937. He didn't release any official albums during this time but recorded about 29 songs which were released on 78 rpm records (there are also 12 alternate takes which were released on The Complete Recordings compilation). Legend has it that there are several lost songs which would bring Johnson's total number of songs recorded to 59. Johnson died in 1938 at the young age of 27. He was in a juke joint one night and was offered an open bottle of whiskey which he drank. The bottle was laced with strychnine. After drinking the whiskey Johnson began feeling ill. Over the next three days his condition worsened and he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. His records sold poorly during his lifetime, and it was only after the first reissue of his recordings on LP in 1961 that his work reached a wider audience. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Mississippi Delta blues style. He is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence; Eric Clapton has called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived." Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an "Early Influence" in their first induction ceremony in 1986. He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone 's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

The compilation album "The Complete Recordings" won a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Historical Album and also won a Blues Foundation Award in 1991 for Vintage or Reissue album. The album which was released on August 28, 1990 reached #80 on the U.S. album chart and has sold more than a million copies.

 The following four songs have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These are part of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.

 "Sweet Home Chicago" is a popular blues standard in the twelve bar form. It was first recorded and is credited to have been written by Robert Johnson. Over the years the song has become one of the most popular anthems for the city of Chicago despite ambiguity in Johnson's original lyrics. Both California and Iowa are mentioned in the song. Chicago is only mentioned once. California Avenue is a thoroughfare which runs from the far south to the far north side of Chicago. The original road predates Johnson's recording and may have been the subject of the "land of California" references.

"Cross Road Blues" was released on a 78 rpm record in 1936 by Vocalion Records, catalogue 3519. The original version remained out of print after its initial release until the appearance of The Complete Recordings in 1990. In 1961, producer Frank Driggs substituted the previously unreleased alternative take on the first reissue of Johnson's work, the long-playing album King of the Delta Blues Singers. The lyrics tell of the narrator's failed attempts to hitch a ride from an intersection as night approaches. Historian Leon Litwack and others state that the song refers to the common fear felt by blacks who were discovered out alone after dark; that Johnson was likely singing about the desperation of finding his way home from an unfamiliar place as quickly as possible because of a fear of lynching. In addition, the lyrics could be allusion to the curfews that were then imposed on blacks in the South. The imagery of the singer falling to his knees and the mention of his failure to find a "sweet woman" suggests that the song is also about a deeper and more personal loneliness.

"Hellhound On My Trail" was recorded in Texas on Sunday, June 20, 1937, one of ten songs recorded in his second and last recording session for RCA. Although this is a twelve bar blues song in structure, it is unique in melody and verse form. The first and last verses may be the finest found in the blues, according to music historian Samuel Charters. The poetic imagery is brilliant and intense with a feeling of personal frenzy. The song's lyrics reflect an agonized spirit for whom there is no escape. The vision of the hounds of hell coming to catch sinners was prevalent in southern churches at that time, and this may have been the image in Johnson's mind.

"Love In Vain" is noted for its sad lyrics, tone, and style. In the 1991 documentary film The Search for Robert Johnson, John P. Hammond plays Robert's recording of "Love in Vain" for the elderly Willie Mae Powell, the woman for whom it was supposedly written. Johnson moans "Oh, Willie Mae" in his last verse. Johnson was an admirer of blues singer/pianist Leroy Carr. "Love in Vain" takes its musical structure from Carr's classic "In the Evenin' When the Sun Goes Down". Both songs express a yearning and sorrow for the loss of a lover. In 2011 the song was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame of the Blues Foundation.

 B.B. King - Indianola Mississippi Seeds (1970)
B.B. King is a blues singer/songwriter and guitarist whose career spans from 1949 to 2011 and will cotninue as long as he is alive. King is known for his expressive singing and fluid, complex guitar playing. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at No.3 on its list of the "100 greatest guitarists of all time". As of 2009, he has won an impressive total of 15 Grammy Awards.

"Indianola Mississippi Seeds" was released in 1970 and is his 18th studio album. The album reached #6 on the U.S. billboard album chart and is his highest charting album to date. It also made it to #8 on the U.S. Billboard Black Albums chart and #7 on the U.S. Billboard Jazz Albums chart. The album won one Grammy Award for Best Album Package.

B.B. King views the album as one of his greatest achievements. When asked about his best work, King has said, "I know the critics always mention Live & Well or Live at the Regal, but I think that Indianola Mississippi Seeds was the best album that I've done artistically."

The album title is a tribute to King's upbringing near Indianola, Mississippi. Although King was born on a plantation between two smaller towns, Itta Bena and Berclair, which are actually closer to Greenwood, King has always considered Indianola his hometown. The album package includes what appears to be a copy of B. B. King's birth certificate with official registration in Indianola. The liner notes also contain a note that reads, "Congratulations Albert and Nora on your son Riley, September 16, 1925." Over time, King's hometown has paid respects back to him. In 2008, the B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center will open in Indianola, with the mission to "preserve and share the legacy and values of B. B. King, to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the Mississippi Delta, and to promote pride, hope, and understanding through exhibitions and educated programs.

The album reads like a who's who in popular music including Joe Walsh (James Gang, Eagles) on guitar, Carole King on piano, Leon Russell also on piano and Russ Kunkel (James Taylor and Jackson Browne) on drums.

"Indianola Mississippi Seeds" features King's only recorded turn on the piano in the 1 minute and 26 second long (or shall we say short) song "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother".

Three hit singles were produced from this album including "Hummingbird" a classic Leon Russell penned tune which King added his musical charm and made it sound like a composition all of his own. The single reached #48 on the U.S. Billboard Singles chart and #25 on the U.S. Billboard Black singles chart. The album's 2nd single was "Ask Me No Questions", written by B.B. King the song made into the U.S. Top 40 at #40 and also reached #18 on the Black Singles chart. His 3rd and final single from the album "Chains and Things" written by B.B. King and Dave Clark (not to be confused with Dave Clark from the Dave Clark Five) reached #45 on the U.S. singles chart and #6 on the Black Singles chart.

Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Charless Mingus is one of America's most respected jazz musicians of all-time. His influence has spread far and wide through the musical spectrum of the world. Mingus's compositions retained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music while sometimes drawing on elements of Third stream, free jazz, and classical music. Yet Mingus avoided categorization, forging his own brand of music that fused tradition with unique and unexplored realms of jazz.

His album "Mingus ah Um" was released in 1959 and was his 16th studio album. Mingus' compositions and arrangements were always extremely focused, assimilating individual spontaneity into a firm consistency of mood, and that approach reaches an ultra-tight zenith on Mingus Ah Um.

There are very few albums in the history of music that open with two such strong and utterly distinctive tracks as "Better Git It In Your Soul" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and it is no surprise that they are known to a wider audience than just to Mingus freaks. These two songs as well as the rest on this album more than suitably showcase Mingus' emotional and musical complexity. 

"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is a slow, graceful elegy for Lester Young, who died two months before the recording sessions. It is one of Mingus' best-known compositions and has been recorded by many jazz and jazz fusion artists. Joni Mitchell added lyrics to the song for her album Mingus, recorded in collaboration with Mingus during the months before his death.

 Keb' Mo' - The Reflection (2011)
His full name is Kevin Moore, Keb' Mo' is a blues singer, guitarist and songwriter. From a very young age Mo' has had an appreciation for blues and gospel music. By his early teens he was already an accomplished guitarist. Early on Keb' Mo' was heavily fheavily influenced by the old styled country-blues of Robert Johnson. He started his career playing steel drums and upright bass in a calypso band and spent the 70's and 80's playing in a variety of blues bands. In the 1970's Mo' played in an R&B group with Papa John Creach (Jefferson Airplane). He also appeared on 4 of Creach's albums. In 1980 Mo' released his debut album called "Rainmaker" under his full name Kevin Moore. It took 14 years until he released his second album which was his debut as Keb' Mo'.

"The Reflection" is Mo's 9th studio album and his 13th if you include the 2 live albums and 2 compilations he's released. "The Reflection" was releasedon August 2, 2011. "The Reflection" showcases the many genres of music Mo' enjoys including rock guitar lines, jazz riffs and hints of R&B and funk all tops with Mo's soulful crooning. The sound on this release is crisp and warm, smooth as honey, and never jarring, as Mo' muses on love and its difficulties in different settings, his vocals full of sincerity and good will. The Reflection was written and recorded over a period of three years, that included his relocation from Los Angeles to Nashville. Self-produced, the 12-song set features duets with India.Arie and Vince Gill, as well as performances by Dave Koz, Marcus Miller, Mindi Abair and world-renowned studio musician David T. Walker.

The opening tune “The Whole Enchilada” is an enjoyably smooth, mid-tempo soul tune that features some fluid guitar work and Keb Mo’s smooth-as-syrup vocals. There’s plenty going on: between the guitars and percussion, the noodling bassline and vocals both upfront and backgrounded, there is a lot of sonic meat for your ears to dig into.

“Inside Outside” (which is my personal favorite) benefits from a quietly urgent bassline and sophisticated percussion. Written by Mo', "Inside Out" contains a smooth rock/jazz urgency that should be explored a bit more deeply by Mo' in his future releases. With it's infectious guitar chords one might almost think they are listening to a Steely Dan produced tune.

“My Shadow” ramps up the funky bass a notch or two and is much the better for it. Mo' sings the mysterious lyrics with a deep bluesy soul feel that let's you know he's more than just a flash in the pan and bring us some solid tunes that will resonate for years to come.

 Usher - Confessions (2004)
Born in 1978 he released his debut album at the young age of 16 and by the age of 19 he hit worldwide multi-platinum status with his 2nd album "My Way". Usher is considered to be the reigning "King of R&B". To date he has sold more than 65 million albums worldwide.

Released on March 23, 2004, "Confessions" is Usher's 4th studio album. Currently this is his biggest selling album having sold more than 20 million units worldwide (in the U.S. alone the album has sold near 10 million copies). The album hit #1 U.S, UK. Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. It also reached #2 in Australia and Germany and #3 in The Netherlands and Switzerland. It also reached the Top 20 in Denmark, Belgium, Finland and Sweden as well as reaching the Top 40 in Austria and Poland.

The album ranked at #2 in Billboard's decade end chart of best selling albums between 2000-2009. Only Nsync's "No Strings Attached" sold better in the first decade of the 2000's.

Confessions showcases Usher as a crooner and incorporates musical elements of hip hop and crunk. The album's themes generated controversy about Usher's personal relationship; however, the album's primary producer Jermaine Dupri claimed the record reflects his personal story. Confessions earned Usher numerous awards, including four American Music Awards, two MTV Europe Music Awards, two MTV Video Music Awards, and three World Music Awards. At the 47th annual Grammy Awards ceremony in 2005, Usher won three awards, including: R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals for "My Boo", which he shared with Keys; Rap/Sung Collaboration for "Yeah!"; and Contemporary R&B Album for Confessions. At the 2004 Billboard Music Awards, Usher was recognized Artist of the Year, in addition to receiving 10 other accolades.

The album contains five hit singles with the first being "Yeah!" featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris. The song was a #1 worldwide smash hit reaching the top spot in the U.S., UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Hnugary and Norway. It also made the Top 5 in Italy and Sweden. Like it's parent album "Yeah!" ranks as the #2 best selling song on Billboard's decade-end chart for 2000-2009. The song won Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 47th Grammy Awards. After Lil Jon leaked "Yeah!" to street DJs across the United States, Usher opted "Burn" as the lead single of the album and was already planning for its music video. The song was not intended to be a proper single and only a teaser for Usher's fans after waiting for years. However, the responses of "Yeah!" were overwhelmingly favorable, and "Yeah!" was released as the first single instead of "Burn", which became the second single from the album.

'Burn" is about a guy who breaks his girlfriend's heart by breaking up with her and then later regrets it. He feels like he is burning without her but she isn't coming back.The 2nd single from "Confessions". This was the first instance of a four-letter title to succeed another four-letter title (Usher's "Yeah!") atop the Billboard Hot 100. With this transatlantic #1, Usher broke the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100. When "Burn" reached its seventh week in pole position, following directly on the heels of the 12-week chart-topper "Yeah!," Usher had spent 19 consecutive weeks on top. Prior to Usher's feat, the record was 16 weeks by Boyz II Men.
Usher's record was overtaken by The Black Eyed Peas 26 week chart-topping run in 2009 with "Boom Boom Pow" and "I Gotta Feelin'.""Burn" reached #1 in the U.S., UK and new Zealand as well as reaching #2 in Australia and Ireland.

"My Boo" with Alicia Keys was the 4th single from "Confessions". Usher and Alicia Keys had previously collaborated with the remix of Keys' 2004 single "If I Ain't Got You", which was released in the United Kingdom. During the production of Usher's fourth studio album, Confessions, they thought of various female singers to pair him with on the song, including Beyonce Knowles. Usher and Beyonce's rare demo version can be found floating on the internet. However, Jermaine Dupri, who co-wrote the song including, felt that he had established a good relationship with Keys and decided to release this version instead of the recording with Beyonce.

Stevie Wonder - Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)
Stevie Wonder's "Songs In The Key of Life" is one of the most revered albums of all-time. In it's time it was a trendsetting album. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts. This was only the third album to complete this feat. Elton John's "captain Fantastic" and "Rock of the Westies" were the first and second albums in U.S. history to enter the billboard chart at #1. "Songs In The Key Of Life" surpassed all expectations by remaining #1 for 14 weeks (and 80 weeks total on the album chart) as well as being a worldwide hit. This was a big accomplishment as in 1976 it was still uncommon for a black artist to sell well anywhere other than the U.S. Stevie Wonder was one of the first black artists to achieve worldwide success. The album managed to block four albums from reaching the #1 spot including "Silk Degrees" by Boz Scaggs, "Spirit" by Earth Wind and Fire, "The Song remains The Same" by Led Zeppelin and "A Night On The town" by Rod Stewart.

"Songs In The Key Of Life" (Wonder's 18th studio album) was #1 in the U.S., #2 in the UK, #6 in Norway, #9 in Sweden, #9 in the Netherlands and #15 in Austria. To date the album has sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S.

On February 19, 1977, Wonder was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, an award that he had already won twice, in 1974 and 1975, for Innervisions and Fulfilligness' First Finale. Since 1973, Stevie's presence at the Grammy ceremonies had been consistent – he attended most of the ceremonies and also used to perform on stage. But in 1976, he did not attend as he wasn't nominated for any awards (as he hadn't released any new material during the past year). Paul Simon, who received the Grammy for Album of the Year in that occasion (for Still Crazy After All These Years) jokingly thanked Stevie "for not releasing an album" that year. A year after, Wonder was nominated for Songs in the Key of Life in that same category, and was widely favored by many critics to take the award. The other nominees were Breezin' by George Benson, Chicago X by Chicago, Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs, and the other favorite, Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive!, which was also a huge critical and commercial success. Wonder was again absent from the ceremony, as he had developed an interest in visiting Africa. In February he traveled to Nigeria for two weeks, primarily to explore his musical heritage, as he put it. A satellite hook-up was arranged so that Stevie could be awarded his Grammys from across the sea. Bette Midler announced the results during the ceremony, and the audience was only able to see Stevie at a phone smiling and giving thanks. The video signal was poor and the audio inaudible. Andy Williams went on to make a public blunder when he asked, "Stevie, can you see us?" In all, Wonder won four out of seven nominations at the Grammys: Album of the Year, Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male Rhythm and Blues Performer, and Producer of the Year. This was the third and last time he won the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Wonder, who was blind since shortly after his birth, was ready to retire from the music business in 1975 to move to Ghana and work with handicapped children. He was very distraught and angered with the way that the United States Government was running the country. At that point in time Gerald Ford was president after Richard Nixon had resigned before being impeached for his part in the watergate scandal. Fortunately, Wonder changed his mind and continued his career in music as it was at this time he went in to the studio to record the classic "Songs In The Key Of Life". The album reflects his heritage, his religious feelings and his general love of music and life. The title, "Songs In The Key Of Life", represent the formula of a complex "key of life" and the proposals for indefinite success.

The album contained four hit singles and one song that charted although it was not an actual single release. "Isn't She Lovely" written by Wonder celebrates the birth of his daughter, Aisha. The song opens with the audio of a baby being born, and a lengthy outro featuring samples of Aisha playing with Wonder. In the end of the song, Stevie says, "Come on, Aisha. Get out of the water, Baby," which is a memorable moment with Stevie and his daughter. Wonder had Aisha with Yolanda Simmons, who he mentions near the end of the song: "Londi it could have not been done, without you who conceived the one."Although the song was very popular and has received much radio airplay, it did not chart on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 because Stevie Wonder would not allow it to be released as a 45 RPM single even though requested to do so by Motown. The song did, however, make it to #23 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart.

The first single released from the album "I Wish" reached #1 on the U.S. singles chart as well as #5 in the UK. Written and produced by Wonder, the song focuses on his childhood.
Lookin back on when I, was a little nappy headed boy,
Then my only worry, was for Christmas what would be my toy,
Even though we sometimes, would not get a thing,
We were happy with the, joy that they would bring

 The album's most popular song and a classic of all-time is the smash hit "Sir Duke". The song was a #1 hit in the U.S. and #2 in the UK.  Wonder wrote the song (which opens with that classic and highly recognizable trumpet and saxophone line) as a tribute to Duke Ellington, a jazz pianist who had an influence on him as a musician. Wonder had already experienced the passing of two of his idols (Dinah Washington and Wes Montgomery) after attempting to collaborate with them. After Ellington died in 1974, Wonder wanted to write a song acknowledging musicians he felt were important. He later said, "I knew the title from the beginning but wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us. So soon they are forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation." Also mentioned in this song are "Satchmo" Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Sodarisa Miller. Later tributes included "Master Blaster" in 1980 (dedicated to Bob Marley) and "Happy Birthday", which pleaded for commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.
Music knows it is and always will
Be one of the things that life just won't quit
But here are some of music's pioneers
That time will not allow us to forget
For there's Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella's ringing out
There's no way the band can lose

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