Not only did the legendary Stevie Wonder wrap up this year’s ASCAP Expo with a keynote appearance discussing his remarkable life and career, he also received the Key of Life Award.
As the first time recipient of this award which was named in honor of his landmark album, Songs in the Key of Life, he spoke both about that album and the honor bestowed: “That title came to me in a dream,” he said, “and I worried maybe it doesn’t make sense. Because we can never, never, write all the songs in the key of life. No one can. It will continue to happen because life continues to happen. When I think back on the last twelve years, so much has happened in the world. And so much is happening today. And we are left with a challenge of getting the world back to the right place. And consistently, what has been so important in doing that, is music.”
“I cannot thank any of you enough,” he continued. “So I’ll just spend the rest of my life doing that, whether you like it or not. Because if you write songs – whether you write lyrics or melodies or both – it’s truly a blessing because it means to me that God is allowing music to be a vehicle for which things can be expressed that will help to move humanity forward.”
Janelle Monae hosted the event, and respectfully guided Stevie through different chapters of his career, from discovering music and his ability to master it as a young age, to getting signed to Motown at 11, and to writing countless classic songs. The first discussed was one he wrote with and for Smokey Robinson, “Tears of a Clown.” Always humble and gracious, Stevie first gave credit to Smokey for the brilliant lyrics and concept of the song before playing the famous organ-grinder-like keyboard riff, which anchors the song before the groove kicks in.
He even detailed the origins of his chromatic harmonica prowess, saying his uncle gave him his first harp. “Immediately, he said, “I thought of that particular harmonica as a small saxophone. I wanted to kind of get that sound from it like on ‘Isn’t She Lovely.’ I just wanted to imitate that sound so I’d go in the attic, walking around in a circle all day playing the harmonica.”
He also showed us the lifelong dedication to songwriting which led to so much greatness over the years. When asked by Janelle if he was motivated by deadlines to complete his work, he laughed, and said, “I wish I could do that. Everyone at Motown would love if I could have done that. The bill collectors would love if I did that … I try to do that but I don’t lock myself into it. If it’s doesn’t feel right, it’s just not done.”
It was a truism he repeated several times, that songwriting “can’t be rushed.” As evidence of that wisdom, he performed a new song, “Where’s Our Love Song,” which he said he started with music only and no lyrics back in 1971. First he played the chord progression only, on a little keyboard, using an acoustic guitar sound to essentially finger-pick this beautifully chromatic chord progression, even bending and sliding certain notes as if on a guitar neck. He then sang the words, which reflected our current state of affairs and led him, he said, to “a heartbreak … all the negativity, the people that felt they wanted to make America great again when America already is great.”
He then thrilled the audience by sharing the origins of many of his classic songs, starting with the first single he wrote for himself, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” through standards such as “You Are The Sunshine (Of My Life),” “Superstition” and beyond.
Unlike so many contemporary songwriters who begin a song with a drum loop, Stevie, as he explained, would often create his own rhythm track prior to any other components by playing solo drums. The melody for “Superstition,” he said, emerged while laying down the drums. The lyrics – as was almost always the case with his songs – came later. “The drums came first,” he said. “I was singing the melody to the song as I was playing the drums.”
Other songs, like “Golden Lady,” emerged almost intact, but with some changes necessary. The original title, which he sang for a long time, he said, was “Olden Lady.” When he switched it to ‘golden,’ he knew it was right.
Although Janelle tried on several occasions to get Stevie to discuss the hardships and challenges that led to his success, he always returned to joy. It was the pure joy of music, more than any need to succeed, which led him through the years. Asked if it took him endless hours of rehearsal to get to where he got musically, he said for him it was simply passion, more than any imposed discipline, which drove him.
“It was just exciting to go to the studio and play the instruments,” he said. “And it was a wonderful thing because I had a chance to grow up in music with the great musicians and singers there. I was just taking it all in. I loved music so I did it all the time. There was no [formal rehearsal] schedule. I’d beat on the walls in front of the house until someone would come out and say get that boy in the house, he’s making too much noise.”
When asked if he felt songs still could impact our culture even in these modern times, he said yes, but emphasized we cannot be passive. “Citizens have to be accountable,” he said. “Artists have to be accountable. Leaders have to be accountable as well. Stop saying, ‘Can you believe what he said?’ ‘Can you believe what she said?’ Believe it! And say it’s unacceptable.”
Many times he returned to the powerful impact of songs to inspire and give hope, something needed now more than ever: “This isn’t the first time that people have protested and marched,” he said. “But I would say don’t be afraid to express your truth but do it with love. So those of us who have been blessed with the gift of expression, don’t be afraid to express your truth. But do it with love. When you think about it, music is probably the most integrated thing that we have. We’re all influenced by each other.”
ASCAP President and fellow songwriting legend Paul Williams bestowed the new honor onto Wonder, admitting his pride at having his own name and Stevie’s in the same place. This brand new Key of Life award, he said, was created to celebrate Wonder’s “incomparable contributions to the world through his music… Stevie has deservedly been given every award imaginable, yet he continues to innovate and elevate the art of songwriting to the point where no honor can truly capture what he means.”
In the future, he said, this award will be presented to songwriters who exemplify Wonder’s legacy “through their commitment to the art form he elevated through his talent, dedication, and unparalleled heart.”