Stevie Wonder was at a life crossroads before he recorded the Songs in the Key of Life album. After chasing his personal lineage back to the African country of Ghana, the artist even considered walking away from the music business altogether and moving there to provide humanitarian help. This lined up with Wonder publicly expressing his dismay with the American government. He even went so far as to plan a farewell concert tour for 1975, which would coincide with the end of his recording contract. All money generated for the tour was earmarked for Ghana relief efforts.
“I’ve heard of great needs in that part of the world, the African countries,” Wonder said to the Associated Press at the time. “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.”
While all of this was swirling in the press, Wonder's legal team wrangled with Berry Gordy and the Motown label over a new contract. When it was all said and done, the artist walked away with a plum seven-year deal worth that gave him upward of $37 million and more importantly, control over his publishing and complete creative freedom.
Songs in the Key of Life was released on September 28, 1976. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 for the week of October 16, 1976, snatching the top spot from the massive Frampton Comes Alive! Stevie Wonder held the #1 position for the rest of 1976, and the first two weeks of 1977. It wasn't until the week of January 15, 1977, when America would see a different album at #1: the Eagles' Hotel California. Songs in the Key of Life shot back to #1 again for the week of January 29, 1977.
The album was a huge hit at the Grammys, where it was nominated for a slew of awards, including Album of the Year, which it won. The record also claimed the prize for Best Male Pop Performance.
FUN FACT: Original vinyl pressings of Songs in the Key of Life came with a bonus four-song seven-inch EP. The songs included are "Saturn" (co-written by Michael Sembello of "Maniac" fame), "Ebony Eyes," "All Day Sucker" and "Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)."