Stevie Wonder, Curated

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Category: Curator Curator

May 2021

When Stevie Wonder joined the Motortown Revue, the package tour of Motown artists who played theaters on the Chitlin’ Circuit, he had been with Motown’s Tamla Records label for about a year. Wonder had signed to the label in 1961, when he was 11, and had released two LPs—as “Little Stevie Wonder”—the following year. The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, and Tribute to Uncle Ray, a collection of songs made famous by Ray Charles, hadn’t made a dent on the charts. Motown had also released three singles by Wonder, but only “I Call It Pretty Music but the Old People Call It the Blues” charted, and it only reached 101.

Wonder closed his 20-minute slot in the Motortown Revue with “Fingertips,” a song from The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. On the original track, Wonder played bongos and the featured instrument is the flute, played by Thomas “Beans” Bowles, a key musician and executive in Motown’s early years. When Wonder performed the song live with the Revue, he played the bongos during the opening, then switched to the chromatic harmonica to take over the role the flute had played on the studio version.

The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie

One evening in June, Motown recorded a show the Revue played at Chicago’s Regal Theater. On bongos, Wonder introduces “Fingertips,” encouraging the members of the audience to “stomp your feet, jump up and down, do anything that you want to do.” Hearing his voice at the age of 12 is jarring now—he sounds so young! When he starts playing the harmonica, the band soon kicks in behind him, the horn section swinging and filling out the sound. Wonder’s distinctive harmonica style is already in evidence, and he shows hints of the mastery of the instrument he would soon reach.

At that show, Stevie Wonder performed a version of “Fingertips” nearly seven minutes long. About three and a half minutes in, he engages the audience in a call-and-response, and then picks up the song again. For the next two minutes, he sings and plays, the band stopping at points as he solos with the audience clapping in time. At the 5:40 mark he wraps up the song and his band starts a vamp to give the next group of musicians time to take the stage.

At that point, Wonder unexpectedly returns to the microphone to begin playing a brief coda to the song. Singer Mary Wells’s band was starting to set up for her performance, and on the recording you can hear her bass player calling out “What key? What key?” Wonder plays for another minute before bringing the song to its final close.

On May 21, 1963, Motown released Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius (LP, Tamla Records TM 240). The label wanted to use “Fingertips” as the single from the album, but the track was too long for radio play. They faded out the track at 3:18 and cut that as “Fingertips – Part 1” for side 1 of the single. “Fingertips – Part 2” was the flip side of the record and picks up with the call-and-response section, continuing to the end of the performance.

The 12 Year Old Genius

Deejays jumped right to side 2, and the song was Wonder’s first to top both the pop and R&B charts. The single also propelled Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius to the number 1 album spot. It was the last recording to list him as “Little Stevie Wonder.” The drummer on the live recording, by the way, was Marvin Gaye, who was a session player and songwriter for Motown while waiting to have a hit with one of his own singles. In time, both Gaye and Wonder would record albums that revolutionized pop music and transformed Motown.

Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born six weeks prematurely in Saginaw, Michigan, in May 1950, and the conditions of his neonatal care led to his permanent blindness. When he was four, his mother moved to Detroit with him and his siblings and changed his last name to Morris. Stevland Hardaway Morris remains his legal name. He sang in his church choir, and started playing harmonica, piano, and drums when he was seven.

One of Stevland’s schoolmates was the brother of Ronnie White, a founder member of the Miracles—a popular and best-selling Motown group fronted by Smokey Robinson. Ronnie White heard Stevland sing and play and brought him to Motown, and company president Berry Gordy Jr. signed Stevland to the Tamla label. Songwriter and producer Clarence Paul took the young singer under his wing and gave him the name “Little Stevie Wonder,” because people at Motown were referring to the prodigy as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Clarence Paul cowrote “Fingertips” with another Motown songwriter, Henry Cosby.

It would be a while before Stevie Wonder had another hit. His voice was changing and Motown had a hard time figuring out how to market him. He appeared in two musical beach films with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, but those appearances didn’t advance his career. Wonder released several singles, but while they placed in the top 100, the strongest showing was for “Hey Harmonica Man” in May 1964, and it stalled at number 29. Motown followed Wonder’s chart-topping album with two others, With a Song in My Heart (1963) and Stevie at the Beach (1964), neither of which got any attention.

With a Song in My Heart

By the summer of 1964, Gordy and other executives at Motown wanted to drop Wonder from the label, but Sylvia Moy, one of Motown’s songwriters and producers, encouraged them to stay with the young singer. Motown released the single “Kiss Me Baby” on Tamla in March 1965, and it stiffed. Later that year, “High Heel Sneakers,” Wonder’s cover of a Tommy Tucker song, reached number 59 on the pop chart and 30 on the R&B chart.

Moy and Henry Cosby were trying to craft a song that would help put Stevie Wonder on the top again when they heard him playing a riff on piano and singing “everything is alright, uptight.” He had in mind something that would have the driving rhythm of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Moy and Cosby built on Wonder’s ideas, and Moy completed the lyrics on the day they were set to record the session. She didn’t have a copy of the lyrics in Braille, so she sang them to Wonder into the headphones he wore while recording.

“He would be listening on his headset to one line ahead,” she later told an interviewer, “and singing the previous line, without missing a beat or a note.” Motown released the resulting single, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” in November 1965. It had a brash horn arrangement, an irresistible beat, a sterling, enthusiastic vocal performance by Wonder, and an unforgettable chorus. It hit number 3 on the pop chart and was Wonder’s first big single since “Fingertips – Part 2.” It was also his first cowriting credit and the song that established his mature voice as a potential moneymaker for the label.

Over the next few years, Wonder continued to release successful singles, and his best work during that period showed his growing confidence as a performer and songwriter. He cowrote “The Tears of a Clown,” which Smokey Robinson & the Miracles recorded in 1967. Three years later it was a hit. His own run of singles, including “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Cherie Amour,” and “For Once in My Life,” helped form the artist Wonder would soon become.

Signed, Sealed & Delivered

Motown released ten Stevie Wonder albums between 1966 and 1970, putting a new Wonder LP on the market roughly every six months. Some, including Up-Tight: Everything’s Alright (1966), For Once in My Life (1968), and Signed, Sealed and Delivered (1970) were remarkably consistent presentations of Wonder’s abilities as a singer, songwriter, and musician. Others, such as Eivets Rednow (1968)—an easy-listening instrumental album that got its title from spelling its creator’s name backward—misfired. Wonder had a hand in the production of his albums, beginning with For Once in My Life, but Motown still maintained tight control. The albums were typical of Motown LPs of that period—two or three singles and some fillers that, with luck, would hang together.

In early 1971, Wonder was approaching his 21st birthday, when his original contract with Motown would end. He was eager to take creative control of his music, and told Gordy he might not renew his contract. Gordy allowed Wonder to be the sole producer on his latest LP, released in April 1971 as Where I’m Coming From. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On hit the market a month later. Wonder had encouraged and supported Gaye’s work on that album—one that Gordy had initially opposed.

Where I'm Coming From

Wonder, like Gaye, wanted to address contemporary issues, and the songs he and Syreeta Wright cowrote for Where I’m Coming From tackled racism, inner-city life, and the war in Vietnam while leaving room for expressions of love and romance. Wright was one of the cowriters of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” and she and Wonder married while they were working on Where I’m Coming From. The album yielded a hit with “If You Really Love Me.” Another track, “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” remains a popular and often-covered Stevie Wonder ballad.

The album contains so many styles that it sometimes feels unfocused. Wonder got some help from Motown’s session players, the Funk Brothers, and in-house arrangers, but it was still a strong statement of independence from the label’s defined production style. Wonder’s ballading side takes precedence, but there are hints of the direction Wonder would take over the next few years—most clearly on “If You Really Love Me,” with its sprightly horn arrangement, and “Do Yourself a Favor,” a Hohner clavinet–driven track that was the strongest slice of funk Wonder had produced up to that point.

Where I’m Coming From received mixed notices, in contrast to Gaye’s What’s Going On, but more recent reappraisals have raised its stock. The album is Wonder’s initial step toward greatness, and the first time he was given full control in the studio. He played most of the instruments, and determined how the album would sound. When his Motown contract lapsed in May 1971, Wonder and his attorney, Johanon Vigoda, negotiated a new contract that gave Wonder complete control of his recordings and a higher royalty rate.

When Wonder started recording again, he used studios in New York City and Los Angeles instead of Motown’s Detroit studios. He had heard Zero Time, a 1971 album by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, the work of pioneering electronic musicians Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. The duo, who had expanded the sonic possibilities of music synthesizers, played a key role in his next few albums. They would share production credits with Wonder, beginning with Music of My Mind, released in March 1972 under his new contract.

Music of My Mind

“This album is virtually the work of one man,” the liner notes to Music of My Mind tell us. The jump in skill and daring over Wonder’s previous albums is apparent as soon as the first track starts. “Love Having You Around” is over seven minutes of funk, driven by the clavinet and Wonder’s relaxed but tightly centered drumming. His vocals are multitracked and cross-channeled, and he uses a talk box to alter the sound of some of the comments sung in counterpoint in the background. The songs on the album are more focused and developed than Wonder’s earlier work, and they cross and transcend genres.

“Superwoman” is one of Wonder’s best love songs, with beautifully appointed vocal harmonies, a great hook, and an ambitious but accessible song structure in two sections with an instrumental break. “I Love Everything About You” is a relaxed-tempo song, but Wonder’s drums and synth bass keep things grooving in a way that is just as compelling as Motown’s Funk Brothers rhythm tracks. “Sweet Little Girl” contains echoes of some of Wonder’s earlier work, but then takes a structural left turn that Berry Gordy would probably not have sanctioned. Nor would Gordy have liked the fact that Music of My Mind contained three tracks that ran much longer than the average single.

One of the many impressive things about Music of My Mind is that its three lengthy tracks—“Love Having You Around,” “Superwoman,” and “Keep on Running”—clock in at nearly seven minutes to over eight minutes but never bog down. Wonder’s musical imagination and creativity ensure that new surprises invigorate the songs and keep them moving. Critics praised the album, and sales were solid but not exceptional.

Seven months later, in October 1972, Wonder’s 15th album, Talking Book (LP, Tamla Records T7-319R1), began a run of success that continued through the rest of the decade. Wonder once again played most of the instruments, but brought guest musicians in for some tracks. Guitarist Jeff Beck was among these guests, and a jam session with him led to the song “Superstition.” Beck doesn’t appear on the track on Talking Book, but Wonder promised Beck that he could record and release the song himself. Gordy heard Wonder’s version of “Superstition” and encouraged him to release it as a single immediately.

Talking Book

“Superstition” became a monster hit and so did Talking Book. The song is built on Wonder’s drumming and two distinct lines played on the clavinet and placed in the far left and right channels. The killer horn lines that help propel the song are played by Trevor Lawrence (last name spelled “Laurence” on the gatefold) on tenor sax and Steve Madaio on trumpet, and Wonder provides the simple-but-phat low register for the song on Moog bass. Another track from the album, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” was released as a single with horns added and reached the top of the charts, earning Wonder a Grammy in 1973 for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male.

“You and I,” “Blame It on the Sun,” and “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” showed off Wonder’s command of ballad singing without slowing the album down, and his pop craftsmanship continued on “Tuesday Heartbreak” and the closing ballad, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).” Talking Book demonstrated Wonder’s increasing sophistication as a songwriter and studio wizard. Songs grew out of complex, harmonically rich chord changes, melodies were ear-catching but took unexpected directions, and songs shifted in structure and feel.

Beginning with Music of My Mind, Wonder’s records also sounded good. For all their power and intensity, Motown’s recordings never leaned in the direction of high fidelity. According to legend, one step in mastering a Motown single was to listen to it through a transistor radio speaker, since that was how the average teen would hear it. Marvin Gaye changed how Motown’s albums sounded with What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder continued that trend with his recordings in the ’70s. They’re exquisitely detailed, with an exciting use of space that allows all the voices and instruments in the songs to bloom.

Wonder’s lyrics were also becoming increasingly thoughtful and poetic. Songs about romance, such as “Blame It on the Sun,” were about love’s difficulties and unpredictability. With Innervisions (1973), Wonder made more explicit some of the issues he looked at on Talking Book with “Big Brother,” where he sang, “I live in the ghetto / You just come to visit me ’round election time.” Innervisions begins with “Too High,” a cautionary tale about drug use. The descending chord changes, played against the harmonies of the wordless vocals in the song’s intro, illustrate just how far Wonder’s ideas about songwriting had come.

Innervisions

“Living for the City” tells the story of an African American growing up in Mississippi who moves to New York and encounters the brutality of systemic racism. Wonder’s observations are, sadly, still relevant today. “Higher Ground” acknowledges the world’s problems but looks forward with hope. These two tracks, along with “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” gave Innervisions three hit singles. All three are worldly, smart songs aimed at an adult audience, yet all are danceable and melodic.

“Vision” and “All in Love Is Fair” continued Wonder’s streak of memorable ballads, and the medium-tempo “Golden Lady” carries its vision of romance on a terrific rhythm track and a battery of keyboards that add color and excitement to the tune. The gospel-flavored “Jesus Children of America” calls Wonder’s fellow countrymen to account for failing to truly follow their beliefs.

“He’s Misstra Know-It-All” takes direct aim at President Nixon—at that time, embroiled in the Watergate scandal—but while Innervisions is filled with pointed criticisms of racism and other societal ills, Wonder expresses his dismay with both passion and reason. Sales of his albums reflect how they increasingly defied category or genre, his messages reaching rock fans as much as they reached lovers of soul music.

Wonder’s next album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), continued to look at social issues, especially on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” another direct hit at the president. The song was Wonder’s fourth-straight number 1 single—no surprise, given the infectious, clavinet-driven rhythm, memorable synthesizer horn arrangement, and the irresistible “doo da wop” refrain, which Wonder sang with assistance from the Jackson 5. Richard Nixon resigned from office a month after the album was released. The album’s other hit, “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” is defined by Wonder’s synth-bass riff, which electrifies the tune, as does Wonder’s chromatic harmonica solo.

Fullfillingness

“Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” and “They Won’t Go When I Go” continued Wonder’s spiritual quest, which became especially acute after a near-fatal 1973 car accident. The emphasis on Fulfillingness’ First Finale, however, was on love. “Smile Please” is romantic without being sappy, and grabs your ear with a memorable, wordless chorus and a terrific rhythm track. “Too Shy to Say” risks being too sweet, but the other ballads intelligently place love at the center of life, and the gospel chorus of “Please Don’t Go” helps tie the album’s romantic and spiritual themes together.

By 1975, Stevie Wonder’s second Motown contract was ending and he signed a lucrative new one. He’d had four straight top-five albums, and two Grammys for Best Album (Innervisions in 1974 and Fulfillingness’ First Finale in 1975). Other labels were interested, but Motown offered him full artistic control for seven LPs at a cost to them of $37 million, roughly $181 million in today’s dollars.

Motown’s faith in Wonder was rewarded when he released Songs in the Key of Life in September 1976. The two-LP set (original pressings included a bonus 7″ EP) debuted at number 1, where it remained for 13 weeks, and gained Wonder yet another Album of the Year Grammy. It was a massive seller, but it has also come to be considered Wonder’s finest achievement. Elton John, Prince, Michael Jackson, and many others have hailed it as a masterpiece. In an interview for The Guardian, Elton John said, “This is probably one of the greatest albums ever made.”

Songs in the Key of Life

The album’s first three tracks encompass the themes Wonder had tackled in his four previous LPs. “Love’s in Need of Love Today” was a plea for world peace, the brief, synth-driven “Have a Talk with God” is Wonder’s suggestion for achieving inner peace, and “Village Ghetto Land” describes the depredations of inner-city life. The first track shows a strong gospel influence, while “Have a Talk with God” leans firmly in the direction of funk. Wonder’s synthesizer string arrangement on “Village Ghetto Land” has a baroque feel that provides an ironic counterpoint to the squalor described in the lyrics.

The stylistic breadth of Songs in the Key of Life is stunning. “Sir Duke,” Wonder’s tribute to Duke Ellington and other jazz masters, sounds up-to-the-minute while simultaneously evoking the swing era. The tune that follows is “I Wish”—1970s soul, but the horn arrangement reaches back to the musicians Wonder celebrated in the previous song and places him in the continuum of American music. “Black Man” sings the praises of America’s multicultural history with music that effortlessly creates a stew of jazz and funk, and “Ngiculela – es una Historia – I Am Singing” defies categorization in melody and execution.

Wonder embraces all genres of music over the album’s 21 songs. The instrumental “Contusion” nods in the direction of Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever,” while “Knocks Me off My Feet” demonstrates how much Wonder picked up from the Broadway tunes Motown occasionally foisted on him. “Isn’t She Lovely” proved the value of his songwriting apprenticeship with Motown, a master class in crafting memorable pop songs. Songs in the Key of Life is filled with unforgettable melodies, unusually complex chord changes, challenging and endlessly rewarding song arrangements, and exceptional playing and singing by Wonder, with some help on a few tracks as needed.

It was three years before Wonder delivered another album, Stevie Wonder's Journey through the Secret Life of Plants, the soundtrack for a documentary. The album has its admirers, but Robert Christgau had it right in his Consumer Guide when he wrote, “Like most great popular composers, Wonder is an appalling ‘serious’ one.” An overstatement, perhaps, since even Christgau found a few tunes he liked on the album. It sold briskly, on account of Wonder’s popularity, but he felt Motown could have promoted the album more aggressively.

Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants

Stevie Wonder returned in 1980 with Hotter than July, which brought him back to the singles charts with “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” a reggae-influenced tribute to Bob Marley. “All I Do” dated back to 1966, when he, Clarence Paul, and Morris Broadnax collaborated on the tune for Tammi Terrell. Wonder’s fresh approach to the song was highlighted by a strong synthesizer bass line and spirited backing vocals during the chorus. It connected him to his past while bringing it up to date. “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” rocked as hard as any new wave record of that year, and “Rocket Love” was lushly romantic on its surface, but more conflicted in its description of love’s difficulties.

Members of the Gap Band helped out on vocals on “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” a mash-up of soul and country music. “Do Like You,” has a Latin beat, but in the end can’t be easily pegged. “Cash in Your Face” looks with disgust and frustration at housing discrimination, and “Happy Birthday,” Wonder’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., became useful in his campaign to have the civil rights leader’s birthday established as a national holiday. Wonder was successful, and Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing the holiday in 1983.

Hotter than July

Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium I, a 1982 compilation, cherry-picked the most popular tracks from his ’70s recordings and added four new songs. It was an intelligent, well-paced overview that was worth having even if you owned the original albums. Wonder returned two years later with another soundtrack album, The Woman in Red, from the 1984 film starring Gene Wilder. One of its songs, “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” is Wonder’s best-selling single of all time. Many of his admirers wish he’d never recorded it.

Wonder continued to release albums in the ’80s, including In Square Circle in 1985 and Characters in 1987. In the decade that followed, he produced two albums of new material, Music from the Movie “Jungle Fever” (1991), the soundtrack to a Spike Lee film, and Conversation Piece (1995). Natural Wonder, a 1995 live album soon followed, but it was another ten years before Stevie Wonder produced a studio album of new songs: A Time to Love (2005). This album followed the then-popular trend of bringing in big-name guests, including Prince and Paul McCartney.

In Square Circle

Wonder has produced a few singles in the years since, of which the strongest is “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate,” released in 2020 in response to the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police and the criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. That recording is enough to raise hopes of a new album that shows Wonder returning to the power of his creative peak. The albums that followed his brilliant ’70s streak were solid and well crafted, but something indefinable is missing from them.

The key might lie in the words displayed on the cover of the CD version of In Square Circle (CD, Tamla TCD06134TD): “Full digital recording.” In 1985, that was a selling point. Digital technology made recording more advanced and manageable, and it had the same effect on electronic keyboards. The synthesizers and other electronic keyboards Wonder used in the ’70s were experimental technology at that time. With help from Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, he wrestled the sounds they produced into shape and they have, with rare exceptions, aged well. The electronic effects on his later albums, recorded in pristine digital sound, were well developed by then and easier to use. As a result they often sounded too perfect and quickly became dated.

It’s hard to imagine a career like Wonder’s occurring in today’s music industry. He achieved early success from a recording of a live performance that hinged on a spontaneous, unplanned moment. He had supporters at his record label who encouraged their bosses to stick with him, and their faith in him was rewarded as he developed into a great songwriter and performer, even while still young. He achieved unparalleled success, but on artistic terms he was able to set for himself.

Stevie Wonder’s ’70s albums invited his listeners to rise to his demands. He learned how to write songs that caught your ear and wouldn’t let go, but he took that skill and bent it to his will. His melodies went in unexpected directions, and they were carried by chord progressions that were unusually sophisticated. Wonder sang about the difficulties of his people, about the highs and lows of romance, and about his own struggles to find meaning and a spiritual core to life. He was—and is—a singer and instrumentalist of exceptional skill. It’s possible some of Stevie Wonder’s peers in popular music had a sustained run of inspiration comparable to the one he had during the ’70s. None come to mind.

. . . Joseph Taylor
josepht@soundstagenetwork.com