On September 28, 1976, Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece songs in the key of Life to be released. We spoke v members of Wonderlove and legendary technician Gary Adante (Olazabal) around how this timeless album to be made.

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One hundred and also four minutes and twenty-nine seconds of artistic brilliance caught the mental of a generation. 

Coming off winning back-to-back Grammy awards for Album of the Year in 1974 and 1975 for Innervisions and also Fulfillingness’ very first Finale, the fixed hysteria surrounding Stevie Wonder’s next studio initiative was in ~ an all-time high. For many of 1974 and also the totality of 1975, Wonder began recording his eighteenth album when on the road, performing concerts and also in assorted studios. Around the very same time, the found brand-new members: drummer Raymond Pounds, bassist Nathan Watts, trumpeter Raymond Maldonado, saxophonist Hank Redd, guitarist Ben Bridges, and also keyboardist Greg Phillinganes to fill vacant slots in his freshly revised Wonderlove band. The just holdovers native previous versions of Wonderlove were guitarist Michael Sembello and vocalists Deniece Williams and also Shirley Brewer. 

By late 1975, Wonder was seriously considering leaving the music company altogether. He expressed his disdain v the means the United states was conducting its work in Ghana. As a result, he made a aware decision to emigrate come Ghana to begin working through handicapped children and other humanitarian efforts. A farewell concert tour was in the works till he made decision to resume his recording career by signing the most rewarding contract because that an artist throughout that time. His record deal was apparently worth approximately $37 million while preserving full artistic control over his music. 

Despite these sets of necessary changes, the decision to abandon the fruitful four-year partnership he arisen with producing and also engineering tandem Robert Margouleff and also Malcolm Cecil confirmed to be impactful. He elevated the assistant engineer function of Gary Olazabal to come to be his key engineer and also paired him through veteran engineer and owner of decision Sound Studios, john Fischbach. The album had 130 various contributors and the infusion the youth helped to keep the an imaginative juices flowing throughout the recording process. Together, Wonder and also his Wonderlove band hosted legendary record sessions at decision Sound Studios, The record Plant and also The Hit manufacturing facility Studios. The initial release day for the album was on Halloween the 1975, however Wonder felt the album needed much more fine tuning. 

After going earlier to the drawing board, Wonder finally made decision on a title because that the twin album. The initial title to be Let’s watch Life the means It Is, however he worked out on songs in the crucial of Life due to the fact that he yearned because that the album’s content to stand for the key of life and also its indefinite success. Because of the insatiable desire for brand-new music native Wonder, Motown seized the opportunity to capitalize on the public’s enthusiasm desire by selling “We’re practically Finished” T-Shirts. The culmination of an almost three-year musical journey concerned fruition once the album was released in at an early stage autumn that 1976. 

On September 28, 1976, song in the crucial of Life was released by Tamla Records, a subsidiary of Motown Records. The twenty-one-song offering ended up being Wonder’s magnum opus as a recording artist. At 26-years-old, he to be at the optimal of his an innovative powers. The album spawned two chart-topping singles, “I Wish” and “Sir Duke” and also two various other singles, “Another Star” and also “As.” upon its release, it landing atop the the Billboard Charts, came to be the 2nd highest-selling album through 1977, and also sold more than 10 million copies. In an effort to storage the album’s 45th anniversary, we spoke with 3 legendary members the Wonderlove: Raymond Pounds, Nathan Watts, and Michael Sembello, and also legendary engineer Gary Adante (Olazabal), who detailed an epic account right into the make of this timeless album.

When did you an initial meet Stevie Wonder and start working with him?

Michael Sembello: I just happened to it is in in the right place at the time many thanks to a girlfriend of mine. He wake up me up one Sunday morning and also told me the this guy named Stevie Wonder was looking for a musician. Back in the late 1960s and also early 1970s, ns really didn’t know who the was, yet I heard around him. I was right into John Coltrane and a bunch that jazz stuff ago then. I asked mine friend, “Is it that remote guy?” that replied, “Yes, that is him.” My friend told me come come through him because he really want the gig. So, ns went there v no knowledge of that Stevie Wonder was or his music. Fortunately, for me, this was as soon as Stevie started to move right into his jazz phase. Once I verified up come the tryouts, there to be a pair of hundred different musicians waiting in line. Lock all had actually Stevie Wonder’s music and his books with them while they were sitting down. It was kind of choose a game show. 

I remember among the men saying, “What tune are us going come play Steve?” Everyone began flipping v their Stevie Wonder track books. Stevie replied, “Man, simply follow me.” and that was the beginning of him playing Coltrane stuff. I started to play and by the end of the audition, I remained in pretty solid standing and also quite perplexed since I really didn’t recognize what i was acquiring myself into. In ~ the end of the 1960s, there to be still this entirety segregation thing between the whites and Blacks. Most Motown bands didn’t have an ext than one white player in your band. currently had a white trumpet player and also there to be an argument going ~ above in the edge of the studio. Ira Tucker, that was the publicist, said Stevie, “Look, you nothing realize you rental a White guy.” So, Stevie motioned me come come end to him, and also he said, “Hey, man. What’s your sign?” i didn’t know what that meant, so I thought he was questioning me what mine nationality was so i answered him, “I’m Italian.” Stevie rotate around and said, “Guys, he’s Italian. He’s no white. He is in the band.”

Nathan Watts: once I very first played with Steve, i didn’t audition. I come from Detroit, where I went from playing in front of 35 world a night to playing in former of 250,000 human being for a concert for Jesse Jackson. I acquired a call on a Tuesday saying that Steve wanted to check me out and to learn as much of his albums as I could. I had only been playing 2 years, and also I was young. I was play something called a national bass. A nationwide bass is a short-scaled bass guitar the you might get indigenous a store called Montgomery Ward. It to be a yes, really cheap bass. I come in and also went backstage after among his shows. He was surprised once I began playing “I to be Made come Love Her.” It was the first song ns learned from a cousin that mine who was from the South. Us proceeded come go through a couple of more songs, and at the finish they said, “You sound great.” Stevie started to play the tune “Contusion,” and I never ever heard of the song before. I went over by him and also watched his left hand carefully. Every time the hit a particular note, I would hit the same keep in mind on my guitar. Then, he made a transition in the song and also from there i was lost. However when I obtained the gig, us went earlier into the studio and also we acquired it together. 

Gary Adante: I remember setting up mics, chairs, and everything because that the horns top top “Superstition.” the was simply one of the last things for talk Book, however I was no really working through him yet. The was component of a session the the studio to be having, so i was assigned come that. Ns think i was 19 or 20. I was an assistant engineer at record Plant for a couple of years in Los Angeles. I helped on a number of big albums. We had actually three main studios, and also they were pretty packed with real big stars of the moment recording what came to be a many of classic rock-type music. I was assisting Stevie’s engineers ~ above his sessions that were pretty lot working about the clock in the Innervisions days. 

Raymond Pounds: Stevie was trying to find a new young drummer. Hugh Masekela asked Stix Hooper, the drummer indigenous the Crusaders, and he recommended me. I discussed to Stevie’s house to audition. Someone had actually to pick me up and then drive me up to the house because it to be up in the hills and you’d never find it. His base player, Reggie McBride, take it me up there. Stevie came out and also unlocked the gate. I said to myself, “I don’t understand if this man is yes, really blind.” So, we got out of the car, and he said, “If you nothing play good, we’re going come kick your ass.” 

We walk in and also started playing some of his songs. I knew a the majority of them. Ns was a large fan. As soon as I gained there, he to be crazy around the means I played, and I to be crazy about him. He started to call me every job to involved his house to play v him all day. It to be the 3 of us, me, the bass player, and Stevie. We spent three mainly rehearsing in ~ his house. Then, we checked out a rehearsal studio to proceed playing together. After ~ a pair of days, Reggie McBride quit. Stevie just had that car accident, and he hadn’t been doing any kind of music due to the fact that he was recuperating from the automobile accident that practically took his life. Anyone in the tape was gone. That was putting his band back together. I started coming as much as his house every day, and also we would rehearse all day. He would certainly write songs. Ns didn’t realize what a genius was until I watched him create three, four, or five new songs every day. 


View the the cover of the album ‘Songs in the vital of Life’ by Stevie Wonder, 1976. Released by Motown documents (T13-34062), the album’s jacket functions a illustration of Wonder’s face set inside a collection of nested, ragged circles. Picture Credit: empty Archives/Getty Images

Gary, during the three-year period of do this album, girlfriend all taped in four different studios. What were several of the distinctions in size and sound quality?

Well, document Plant rooms at that allude were pretty lot designed by Tom Hidley. They had actually horn speakers, and they do the efforts to have actually their rooms be rather compatible. As far as decision Sound to be concerned, we didn’t sit in between the 2 large, key monitors on the console. It wasn’t asymmetrical, so we were off to one side. That was odd and also interesting to gain used to, but whatever the did, it worked. Crystal had a large control room. A many of human being could and also did sit all around while we were working. There to be a pretty large record room, however it wasn’t really live sounding. We can get it to sound an ext live, but all the record from the ‘70s to be pretty dead. That was just the layout of the time. In stimulate to tempt clients, they were just searching for that. One, the was easier to contain all of the leakage. The various other thing to be the sound. It was a style. At Hit Factory, we tape-recorded at night. Steely Dan to be in throughout the day, so us did the exact same thing. Us were simply passing the agree area through them. It to be a tiny control room that we offered mostly. 

Gary, how crucial was it arising synergy v John Fischbach and Stevie Wonder?

It was important since we had actually to favor each other. I remember we checked out Jamaica to Bob Marley’s studio to record backgrounds top top a song that was never ever released off of song in the an essential of Life. Physically and also technically it no great. Stevie wasn’t happy through the background singers, and we also went there because that this one session, but ended up spending two or three weeks in Jamaica, just due to the fact that it to be Stevie. It to be a far-reaching experience in mine life that taught me a lot, especially about patience. 

When Wonderlove were in the studio, did you all document them together a complete band or one person at a time?

It just depended on the tune or the situation. Sometimes, when Stevie assumed that a string base sound suited a song better, he would have actually Nate play it. Sometimes, it was him and also Nate playing with it. Then, one of two people Stevie would certainly play the drums, or he’d carry in somebody that was play drums at that time or a studio drummer. Stevie’s drumming style was therefore distinctive, and he to be really great at it. That heard what he wanted done, so he didn’t have to describe to somebody the components or noþeles or style. That was, i guess, an ext efficient to carry out it himself.

Gary, to be the drum set up in a way that make it simpler for Stevie come play them?

Not really. The was collection up conventionally. That’s how he learned once he was a kid. That knew simple distances. The did damage microphones from hitting them through the sticks. He likewise played a lot of times, just to obtain the sound v the butt end of the stick making use of that finish instead of the tip. It is why there was a lot of hi-hat top top a many songs due to the fact that he hit the crap out of the hi-hat cymbals and also played castle as tough as he would certainly hit the snare. Unequal a an elderly musician who is schooled in the delicacy the going from hitting a hi-hat come whacking a snare. Stevie hit everything just as tough which sound great. It’s his style and it’s really distinctive. Everyone can hear a record and tell it is him playing drums.

Raymond, who were some of the other noteworthy people who quit by the studio if the album was being made?

Raymond Pounds: He remained in Crystal Sound every night. Very rarely would certainly he occupational in the day, however sometimes he would. The studio was clogged out and also everybody heard the Stevie Wonder was working on his album, for this reason everybody came there. Berry Gordy dropped by to see what was going on, Diana Ross, Carole King, Andy Williams, Alex Haley, Donna Summer, and also Rick James offered to come by before he acquired hits. Rick was a established guy that acted like a star before he was a star. He offered to come by the studio in a limousine, since at the time, in Los Angeles, somebody can rent a limousine because that $25 an hour through a five-hour minimum. He did that 3 or 4 times and then later Rick James got a hit.

At that time, did friend all obtain any type of pressure from the record label come hurry up and finish the album?

Michael Sembello: the was basically under the pressure of the corporate device at the time. The record company was speak they needed an additional song prefer “Superstition.” that made us begin to wonder that were we making these documents for, and also we began to concern our entirety existence. He had actually reached this allude before the start of this album. I think the fact that he rental a band through me, Nathan Watts, Raymond Pounds, and Greg Phillinganes aided him. He hired a band that had actually this unquestionable enthusiasm for music. V everyone feeding turn off of each other, it assisted to produce this record. That made a big difference with him moving on with the music. That still had the chance to be creative, however he was additionally surrounded by the power from a team of young guys. We were all new kids top top the block. Ns honestly didn’t understand who Stevie Wonder to be then. All ns knew was the he to be great, and I wanted to play v him. Ns think v us, he was able to obtain out of that questioning phase and ago into make music. Ns guess the universe placed the appropriate musicians in former of the to accumulate him.

Steve supplied to take a long-time law things since he to be on his very own flow. That would gain to the studio, and also we would be there wait for him. The was favor a musical vampire. He might stay up because that three and also four days at a time. It was a long, long procedure of anyone trying to save the incentive going and also that’s tough to do as soon as there were a bunch the executives coming in every few days asking you questions. The world who had actually the money to pay for the process were horrendous back then. They to be saying, “We don’t hear a Superstition type of record in that bunch.” They practically made him seem like he to be some form of a jingle writer. Human being don’t realize it is what’s behind every good artist is placing up through the incompetent human being who room paying for everything. Essentially, the was great that we were altogether because it was intended to be.

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Gary Adante: Of course, there to be a many visits native the Motown brass in ~ the time. Stevie’s lawyer would edge John and I and try to hurry things along. My solution was constantly like, “I can not sing. I can only put up the microphone, and also when he gets here, I’ll record it, yet I can’t hurry this procedure because I’m not the artist. I have the right to only do it together easy, basic and expedient together I can.” Motown take it the credit, yet I made the t-shirts the said, “We’re almost Finished.” Then, ns made ones later that said, “Let’s Mix Contusion Again.” ns was just doing it because I believed it’d be funny. I would certainly make them for me, john , and the assistant engineer. Motown assumed it would certainly be a great marketing tool. Ns think they make a couple of thousand “We’re nearly Finished” t-shirts come get civilization interested in it. We acquired a lot of pressure, but that went in addition to my entirety career through Stevie.