WHY I LOVE STEVIE WONDER
Stevie Wonder is one of the most influential, important and powerful artists of the last hundred years. This should not be in doubt. He was the first major African American artist to write, produce and perform his music, laying the groundwork for Prince, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Drake, The Weeknd and countless other artists who exercised control over their art. Stevie Wonder's career has spanned six decades, and while he hasn't released anything new since 2005's A Time To Love, he has been active in performing live and cementing his legacy further as perhaps the greatest musical force of the 20th/21st Century.
Stevie Wonder's first album came in 1962, when Wonder was just 12 years old, titled The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. The album is little more than a curiosity when one considers the music that Wonder would go on to record, but it unarguably displayed his early talent. It took a while for Motown/Tamla, to define a sound for the young prodigy, throwing out tribute albums to Ray Charles and an album trying to capitalize on the Surf Music craze. Wonder's first co-written hit came four years later with the single, "Uptight (Everything's Alright)". Like sticking a fork in an electric socket, Stevie Wonder electrified the listener and stopped being an artist with potential to realizing that and putting everyone on notice that he would soon reshape the musical landscape. "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" remains an incredible recording, with such passion and soul that one is knocked over. Comparisons to the Isley Brothers' 1959 classic "Shout!" and Little Richard's "Lucille", for the intoxicating fever that comes from listening to the song, are dead on accurate.
It is a fairly common misconception to say that Stevie Wonder only achieved a significant input starting with 1972's Music of My Mind. In truth, Wonder co-wrote songs on many albums before hitting his "classic era" peak in the early to mid 1970s, many of which have become R&B/Soul staples. These include, "I Was Made To Love Her," "My Cherie Amour," and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)". Further, the true start of the period that would see Wonder win three Album of the Year Grammys (in a row!) is not that great album from 1972, but Where I'm Coming From, a year earlier. It is true that the album isn't as solid or as confident as the LP that followed it, but there is more than enough good here to give it an enthusiastic recommendation. The song "Do Yourself a Favor" is particularly good, foreshadowing the overpowering funky urge to dance that would define much of the music that would come on the five albums that followed, utilizing the Hohner clavinet to full effect.
Where I'm Coming From laid the groundwork, but it was on Music Of My Mind that Stevie Wonder would truly signal the start of a most astonishing run of albums. From the opening track, "Love Having You Around," it is clear that this music is on another level to his earlier work. Of the five albums from Stevie Wonder's classic period, Music Of My Mind is probably on the bottom of the list, but that is not at all to say that it is in anyway lacking; quite the opposite. If this album was produced by anyone else except Stevie Wonder, it would very likely be considered an all time career high. In come the 7+ minute epic songs, and an individual vision, finally free from the (well intentioned) meddling from Motown Records. "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)", the second track on the LP, was also its first single, heavily cut down from 8+ minutes to 3:30. This is an important song in the changing style and sound of Stevie Wonder, breaking away from the classic Motown sound that had defined his career up until the 1970s.
Talking Book followed, an album that is a contender for Stevie's all time best. Where to start with this album? How about with "Superstition," a song as legendary as any of the last hundred years, with a bass line that could stop wars. This song could still fill a dance floor, and still encourage many young, healthy people to engage in loving behaviour. "Maybe Your Baby" has a power to it, that knocks one over with pure funk. 6 minutes and 51 seconds and it flies by. Pitch shifted vocals, that Hohner clavinet, Moog bass, and drums - all performed by Stevie Wonder. This ability to play almost every instrument on an album, as well as writing and producing, singing lead and backing parts, was clearly a major influence on the late, great Prince, who was also a ridiculously gifted renaissance man. Without Stevie, there would have been no Prince; at least not a Prince who controlled every aspect of his musical output. Stevie's influence on other artists, especially Black artists, is something that is hard to quantify, so far reaching and all encompassing as it was. It is fairly safe to say however that if you were a musician who could write, produce and perform, you owed a large debt to Stevie Wonder. Not only for proving it could be done, but proving it could be done with supreme artistry and style.
"I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" closes the album, an incredibly beautiful love song, that speaks of a lonely soul who trusts that some day he will meet his true love. The last thirty seconds turn a love song into a funky making love song. The lyrics are a shot through the heart of anyone who fears they will die alone, and never get that perfect love.
Here I am encased inside a hollow shell.
Then was done.
Now I stare into a cold and empty well.
Innervisions, released in 1973, was the first of three Grammy wins for Album of the Year. It was most deserving of that recognition. From the opening of "Too High," with its intoxicating backing vocals, tight as all hell production, and a beat that requires immediate dancing. From there, the album flows into "Visions," an hypnotic, meditative song that alters every listener's mood in a strange and compelling fashion. "Living For the City," is my pick for Stevie's all time greatest song, and one of the great songs of the last 100 years.
A boy is born in hard time Mississippi.
Surrounded by four walls that ain't so pretty.
His parents give him love and affection.
To keep him strong moving in the right direction.
Living just enough, just enough for the city.
It is a song that explores a life spent in poverty, hard won basic human dignity, and crooked scales of justice. This was the song that Stevie Wonder wanted to write on Where I'm Coming From, a piercing, devastating, socially conscious story that hit at issues that we are still working on today, especially those of racial equality. "Living For the City" never seems like a purely political screed, or a simple message song; it is so much more powerful than that. This song gets into your bones, into your heart and soul. Stevie played every single instrument on this song, bringing an astonishing cohesion and vision to life. Stevie finally got them to understand where he really was coming from.
Fulfillingness' First Finale, an oddball title, but an elite tier work of art. Released in 1974, winning the Grammy for Album of the Year, for a second consecutive time, this album is one that took me longer to get into than the other four albums of the classic era, but was just as rewarding when it finally clicked. "You Haven't Done Nothing," for want of a better term, is a protest song about the corruption of Richard Nixon, and was a #1 hit. When one hears the power and passion from Stevie here, it makes one sad that he is not currently putting out new music of a similar spirit for the utter depravity of the Trump era. Even if for some reason you feel the need to defend a creature like Nixon, the song still manages to knock the listener down for the count, with the sheer power of its musical artistry. "Creepin'" has a gentle flow to it; a dreamy mood. The verses knock me out. The melody and performance on "Your love is so amazing..." is just sublime. "They Won't Go When I Go," is a sad, upsetting and angry song, that also happens to be otherworldly beautiful. Written in reaction to a car accident that left Wonder in a coma for three days, the song has a power to it that is hard to comprehend. I suspect only those who have brushed so closely with death can really relate to this song, and the pain that went into making it.
And then comes Songs in the Key of Life, a double LP that would mark the end of Stevie Wonder's classic period, and receive his third consecutive Grammy for Album of the Year. "Love's In Need of Love Today" opens the album, a song that perfectly balances real feeling and love, without a hint of sentimentality. Some people like to mock some of Stevie's later work as being saccharine - especially songs like the Paul McCartney collaboration "Ebony and Ivory" and "I Just Called To Say I Love You" - but Stevie is so open hearted and truthful here that there isn't a sense of schmaltz. "Sir Duke," a song written for the great Duke Ellington, who had passed in 1974, is one of the highlights on the album. This is a song that expresses so well the joys of music.
Music is a world within itself.
With a language we all understand.
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands
But just because a record has a groove
Don't make it in the groove
But you can tell right away at letter A
When the people start to move.
If there is such a thing as a pure injection of joy in music form, then this song is one. It is impossible to hear this song and feel down or cynical. This is a celebration of our commonality, of those things that bring us together, even at our lowest moments. For many years I have been trying to define what it is in R&B, Soul and Funk that makes us feel our most human; that brings us together when so many try and keep us apart. I think that definition is to be found in "Sir Duke". "Pastime Paradise" is a song that many of my generation know primarily as the song that was sampled on Coolio's Gangster's Paradise, which is a terrible thing, to be fair. No offence to that song by Coolio, which has its moments, but the beauty and perfection of Stevie Wonder's songs is leagues and leagues above. As well as being a double LP, Songs in the Key of Life also came with a bonus EP, called A Something's Extra, which happens to feature a ridiculously addictive song, "All Day Sucker", with that inimitable flair that is to be found on Stevie Wonder's best songs.
Stevie Wonder's next project was Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants, a soundtrack to the documentary of the same name. A few pleasing bits and pieces aside, it a considerable drop down from the highs of the classic period. Not that it is bad, necessarily, but that after being at the height of the previous five albums, it is merely a curiosity. Hotter Than July followed that in 1980, an album that is almost good enough to be considered alongside the classic era LPs. My favourite on there is "Rocket Love," with a chorus that heals the mind and soul.
You took me riding in your rocket, gave me a star.
But at a half a mile from heaven you dropped me back
Down to this cold, cold world.
You took me riding in your rocket, gave me a star.
But at a half a mile from heaven you dropped me back
Down to this cold, cold world.
Hotter Than July is a strong album, with a definite flavour all of its own. It is not trying to imitate the earlier successes, but is instead finding its own way. Other great tracks include, "Master Blaster (Jammin')" and the closing "Happy Birthday", which has no doubt been the soundtrack to countless birthday parties through the years. While Stevie Wonder's output from 1980 onwards has not been as perfect as that run of five albums in the 1970s, it is unfair and untrue to say that he was not doing quality work in the years that followed. The 1987 album Characters and 2005's A Time To Love are very good, with many standout tracks to recommend playing alongside the classics.
"Skeletons" from Characters is in my all time Top 5 Stevie songs, an absolutely stunning production and performance. The song is a warning. Mind what you say and how you say it. Somethings you cannot take back after the fact. This song was featured on the soundtrack to Rockstar Game's Grand Theft Auto V, where I first heard it.
What did your Mama tell you about lies
She said it wasn't polite to tell a white one
What did your Daddy tell you about lies
He said one white one turns into a black one
So it's getting ready to blow
It's getting ready to show
Somebody shot off at the mouth and
We're getting ready to know.
As of August, 2020, A Time To Love is Stevie Wonder's last album. If it does happen to be the last of his career - which I hope that it is not - then it is a good one to go out on. The song "So What the Fuss", featuring En Vogue on backing vocals and Prince on guitar, is just as electric as any song in Stevie Wonder's catalogue. The rhythm and flow of the vocal delivery is unreal, packing more words into a line than is reasonable or seemingly possible. The classy, almost swearing but not nature of the title, is the cherry on top of a delicious cake.
Stevie Wonder is the most important and influential musician of his generation. His music is of astonishing quality and depth, and I hope that I have shown that he made great music in every era, not just in the 1970s. And that, that run in the 1970s was as powerful and good and important as that of any musician in any genre in the world. I include below a carefully curated playlist featuring songs from his entire career.