It’s undoubtedly dangerous ground when an artist of any era decides to take on music already deemed untouchable. So while countless artists have attempted to cover songs from Stevie Wonder’s momentous 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life, few have truly succeeded at capturing the essence and beauty of the original recordings. On the contrary, it’s worth celebrating when someone is able to breathe new life into one of the album’s magical tunes. To that end, on the occasion of Stevie performing the album in its entirety on April 12 at the Barclays Center, we conducted a deep dive in order to uncover the best Songs in the Key of Life covers. Check out our selections below, with contributions from Lauryn Hill, Usher, Patti Smith, and more.
Lauryn Hill, “Sir Duke”
Good Lord! Lauryn Hill, in 1999, at the height of her skills, performing this funky, reggae-tinged version of “Sir Duke” for a lucky Japanese crowd — it really doesn’t get much better. Will you ever see her bust this out again? Chances are slim. To date, this is the only time Ms. Hill has taken a stab at performing the Stevie classic. For all those Lauryn Hill haters out there who say she can’t sing: Take a look at this video, the way she glides across the stage, those dreads swinging ever so gently, and perhaps you’ll reconsider. This cover, my friends, is a work of art. (Skip forward to the 1:04:22 mark.)
Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Wonder, “I Wish”
OK, so technically this is a duet and not a cover, but in this case we’ll let that slide. Bonnie Raitt’s bluesy, soulful stylings and Stevie’s spirited funk serve as a match made in rock n’ roll heaven. Raitt’s slide-guitar licks mid-song spice up the original version and perfectly counterbalance Stevie’s scatting. When she hops in on vocals for the second verse? Get out of here. That rasp, all sexy grit and teenage fantasy, could burn the edges off a steel building.
Sonny Rollins, “Isn’t She Lovely”
If it’s possible to achieve something greater than Stevie Wonder’s original version of this classic love song to his daughter, jazz legend Sonny Rollins gives it the best run for its money. The acclaimed tenor saxophonist is regarded as one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, and his version of “Isn’t She Lovely,” tender and taut yet loose enough at times to elicit a head-bob from even the stiffest of listeners, shows why. If learning of the existence of this cover does nothing else, it’s a success if it compels one to dig further into Rollins’s incredible catalog.
Luther Vandross, “Knocks Me off My Feet”
Whether or not you dig gospel music, it’s nearly impossible not to appreciate Luther Vandross’s pipes. A little bit Barry White, a lot Marvin Gaye, and more than his fair share of Teddy Pendergrass, the late singer was the king of unspooling raw, unfettered emotion on the mic. As such, his decision to cover Stevie’s wondrous ballad “Knocks Me off My Feet” is no surprise: Not only does Vandross owe a major musical debt to Wonder, his musical inclinations are perfectly suited for one of Stevie’s more gentle gems. And please, cue this one up next time you’re about to get romantic. Vandross would be proud.
Patti Smith, “Pastime Paradise”
Yes, in case you were wondering, this is in fact the song Coolio sampled for his classic “Gangsta’s Paradise.” And while, sure, it’s hard to compete with Stevie’s original, with his sweet voice translating the ills of the world onto wax, Patti Smith does her damnedest to compete. The punk poet laureate utilizes her grizzled howl and keen eye on this cover of “Pastime Paradise,” adding a yearning and urgency to the track. Hell, if you didn’t know better you’d be forgiven for thinking the ever-subversive Smith wrote this timeless screed.
George Michael feat. Mary J. Blige, “As”
Say what you will about George Michael: The man sure does have him some soul. His voice, smooth and sugary, paired up perfectly with r&b queen Mary J. Blige when the two linked up to cover Stevie’s slow-rolling “As” for Michael’s 1999 greatest-hits album. Blige does her best to emulate Stevie’s signature guttural growl, and while she may not quite reach his sublime skills in this department, it’s super-impressive when she even scratches the surface.
Susan Tedeschi, “Love’s in Need of Love Today”
It’s quite the challenge to compete with the beautiful opening number to Stevie’s classic LP. But Susan Tedeschi accomplishes what every cover should strive to: take an already stunning song and inject into it a new vibe or a new personality. Stevie’s version thrives on its galloping grace. Tedeschi instead opts for a tender twang and bluesy strut. And extra kudos to her for adding a dash of keyboard flair. Well done, Susan!
Usher, “If It’s Magic”
The Grammy Awards can tout those “Grammy Moments” all they want, but it’s a rarity when the annual show actually produces a timeless moment. And so it must be noted when such a performance actually occurs. Such was the case a few months back when Usher unleashed a touching, pristine rendition of Stevie’s “If It’s Magic,” both for the millions of viewers watching as well as Mr. Wonder himself, who stepped in at the very end for a beautiful harmonica outro. No matter how many middling pop hits Usher cranks out, the fact remains that the man has an enchanting voice. It’s about time he started putting it to better use.
Stevie Wonder will perform Songs in the Key of Life at the Barclays Center on April 12. The concert is sold out, but tickets can be found on the secondary market.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 10, 2015