|Stevie Wonder in 1973, at the start of his classic period.|
(Work in progress. Needs tidying up and links updating to Spotify.)
Stevie Wonder was part of the musical background of my childhood. His Motown singles are threads in the tapestry - no, they are notes in the nostalgic and evocative songs of my youth. I grew up with the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Motown, so Stevie Wonder is a significant part of my history, and when I became a teenager and was exploring further, and looking for something more me and more meaningful than the pop of my youth, so was Stevie Wonder. He was making his early classic period albums just as I was getting serious about life, music, and the universe. Talking Book was a revelation to me. It was mature, ambitious, accomplished, and very soulful. I lost touch with his later classic period work as I was exploring more radical and more underground music, and when he entered his 80s commercial streak, I lost faith in him as an artist I was interested in. But he has always interested me.....
Life and Career
Stevie Wonder is both popular and critically acclaimed. Born a blind black man in the racially intolerant southern state of Mississippi in the Fifties his future wouldn't have seemed promising, but with a confident personality, and a gift for harmony, he went on to become one of the top 60 best selling music artists of all time, and the recipient of the most Grammy Awards for a solo male artist.
His work is largely seen as in three sections - the singles of the Sixties, the albums of the Seventies, and the commercial work of the Eighties. The albums he made during the Seventies are seen as his classic period, and are an interesting body of work, blending soul and funk in an harmonious way. The work he produced during the Sixties belongs more to the Motown Sound than to Wonder himself, and if it were not for the Seventies albums, he would be viewed as just another part of Motown; the Eighties albums are very popular, but not interesting enough to sustain critical or academic interest, so if his reputation were to rest just on those, his name would gradually fade from history. Antonio Salieri was a highly successful, influential and popular composer during his lifetime, but if it where not for the film Amadeus, in which he is shown in contrast to the boy genius Mozart, his name would not now be known. Popularity in their own lifetime does not guarantee any artist lasting fame. Robustness of the work produced is what ensures enduring interest - and for Stevie Wonder, that is the classic albums of the Seventies.
Wonder has a tendency toward what Robert Christgau calls "mush" - that is, he can be twee and over sentimental both in music and in lyrics. His lyrics are acceptable, rather than engaging. But his grasp and handling of melody and rhythm is very fine indeed. The music is great, the voice is awesome, but the lyrics suck lemons dry. Superficial and awkward - they are best not listened to closely, but just appreciated as sounds. We listen to and appreciate Wonder for his music - for his instinctive ability to get our toes tapping, and our mood happy; and for how, at his very best, his music can engage our intellect as well as our emotions, to create a satisfying and rewarding sound that feels composed rather than put together. During the Sixties he made a series of albums and singles under the influence of those around him in Tamla Motown, and his Sixties work, while pleasant and at times very decent, does not quite show his individuality - the extraordinary bravado of Fingertips apart. It is when he has grown up, and is shrugging off Motown in the Seventies, that we get the Stevie Wonder that will stand the test of time. His Sixties work belongs to the Motown Story, his Eighties work - popular but ephemeral - earned him money, but his Seventies work is what earned him respect, and that is what will endure.
His sound is influenced by the Motown Sound, Ray Charles, James Brown, The Isley Brothers, Sly Stone, and other soul and funk acts of the Sixties. Where it is distinctly and recognisably Stevie Wonder is in the combination of a compulsive beat and attractive harmony, a blend of schmaltz and funk, simplistic but effective romantic lyrics juxtaposed with leaden social consciousness lyrics, well composed rhythmic layers, orchestral synthesisers, and Wonder's rich, warm and varied voice. There's a commanding professional confidence and gloss about all his work, even the failures, and when it all comes together successfully, that confidence inspires joy and admiration - the feeling of being secure in the playful hands of a master.
His first single, "I Call It Pretty Music, but the Old People Call It the Blues", released August 1962, almost went into the Billboard 100, but stopped at 101. After the big hit, "Fingertips" from Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, which hit No 1 on Billboard and the R&B charts, there followed a quiet period during which Wonder's voice was changing as he grew up. Motown were not sure what to do with him, and were considering dropping him from the label. Indeed, they would have done, if it were not for Sylvia Moy persuading label owner Berry Gordy to give Wonder another chance, and then helping him create "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" which was a bit hit, followed by other successful Sixties singles. The albums during the Sixties were collections of songs, usually by a range of writers, sometimes on a theme - beach, Christmas, etc, but none of them are significant. Motown controlled Wonder, and Motown were not an album orientated label - the focus was always on songs, and songs that would make good singles.
When Wonder came of age, his contract with Motown was over, and he came into the money they had held in trust for him. Wonder was now independent, and used the money to record the albums he wanted. He struck a deal with Berry Gordy so Motown retained him as a recording artist, but on Wonder's terms. So began Wonder's classic Seventies period in which freed from restraint he was able to explore as he wanted. Exactly which of the albums recorded and released in the Seventies are part of the "classic" canon is open to debate; however, all are agreed that at the core are Talking Book and Innervisions - interestingly, the only two albums in which Wonder is shown not wearing black glasses.The classic period ends with Songs In The Key Of Life, and that simultaneously marks the start of the commercial period - the album containing elements of both periods - though for me it's more commercial than classic.
Once we enter the 80s critical interest in his music declines markedly; though critics keep paying attention in the hope he'll return to making music as good as his early 70s period. The 2005 album, A Time To Love, indicates that he might just now be doing that.
|The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie (1962)|
|Tribute to Uncle Ray (1962)|
|Recorded Live: |
The 12 Year Old Genius (1963)
|With a Song in My Heart (1963)|
|Stevie at the Beach (1964)|
Wonder has co-writing credit on five of the 12 tracks on Up-Tight, but that's about as far as interest goes. The album sounds like Motown songs that failed Berry Gordy's audition. It's all a bit second-rate. Harmless, but not pleasurable or interesting. The title track is, of course, awesome, but it does throw the other songs into relief.
|Down to Earth (1966)|
|I Was Made to Love Her (1967)|
I Was Made to Love Her consists of three Wonder songs, some covers, and other songs by Motown staff. It's as listenable as his Eighties work - competent songs, delivery and production. A professional job. Nice enough but meaningless.
|Someday at Christmas (1967)|
|Eivets Rednow (1968)|
|For Once in My Life (1968)|
|My Cherie Amour (1969)|
|Stevie Wonder Live (1970)|
|Live at the Talk of the Town (1970)|
|Signed, Sealed & Delivered (1970)|
With Signed, Sealed & Delivered there's a sense of Wonder getting back to the mature promise shown on For Once in My Life, though this, while attractive in places, is more of a Motown album than a Stevie Wonder album. There are hints at the transition that is about to occur, but we're not there yet - the music is fairly simple, the singing mostly breathy and/or shouted, but with little of the warmth and subtly that is about to emerge.
Rating 3 or 4
|Where I'm Coming From (1971)|
|Music of My Mind (1972)|
Rating: 6 or 7
|Talking Book (1972)|
For me, this is the best Wonder album. His most intimate, most warm, and most emotional (though that emotion tends to be melodic rather than human). It's an album that I considered to be grown up music - it does belong with other middle-of-the-road, easy-listening albums: non-demanding, quiet, refined, pleasant music. The opening bars of the opening track, "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life", create a relaxed, cosy, evening feel. Music to play late at night, or on lazy Sunday afternoons. Mood music. Not an album I ever get excited about, but I like to wrap it around me like a warm, familiar blanket. It's my favourite Wonder album. It was my introduction to him, and it has remained a constant friend. I love the melodic weaving and polyrhythmic layers of "Maybe Your Baby"; the liquid beauty of "You and I (We Can Conquer the World)", with its shimmering synthesisers; the melodic and toe-tapping funk of "Superstition" - almost impossible to listen to without some part of the body moving in response; the gentle cool jazz of "Lookin' For Another Pure Love"; and the transcendental hymn like qualities of the closing track, "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)". It's a very attractive album, and even the filler tracks are pleasant moments. The lyrics are poor, and let it down, and that mushy, schmaltzy, easy-listening feel means that it's hard to engage with it on a meaningful level - this is not genuine emotion, it's manufactured romance, Tin Pan Alley feelings; glib, clever, at times very sophisticated, but never hard and real. Wonder's use of synths rather than genuine, played instruments, and his production method of mainly playing all the instruments solo and multi-tracking, takes away the emotion, the groove, and genuine feel. It's like the difference between listening to a recording, or experiencing the concert in person. However, the end result is a warm, comfy album one can sink into.
|Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974)|
|Songs in the Key of Life (1976)|
mostly instrumental electronic music. Quirky, odd, overambitious, experimental, and largely considered a failure. It is the soundtrack to a film about plants. It brought an end to Wonder's "classic period". Avoid.
|Hotter than July (1980)|
|The Woman in Red (1984)|
|In Square Circle (1985)|
|Jungle Fever (1991)|
|Conversation Peace (1995)|
|Natural Wonder (1995)|
|A Time to Love (2005)|
Rating is at least a 5, and maybe a 6.
Being a great tunesmith, multi-instrumentalist, superficial lyric writer, and hugely commercial successful, invites comparison with Paul McCartney. His commercial appeal and song-writing ability also invites comparison with Elton John. He's also been compared with Marvin Gaye and with Michael Jackson.
He picked up on musical ideas developed by Curtis Mayfield - and was part of the development of funk and soul into something quite melodic and therefore more commercially appealing. I don't think his work broke new ground, but like The Beatles, he took strands from what was was bubbling around him, and wrapped it all together in one large and commercially attractive ball, so making those musical ideas more accessible to more people. While he wasn't the first black artist to gain artistic control over his music (James Brown, for example, had achieved that much earlier, and he was following close on the heels of Marvin Gaye), he did so in a public and overt manner, and with a lasting commercial success. While he dealt with social commentary and politics in his lyrics, he wasn't saying anything significant or anything different to the mood of the time. That's not to diminish what he was saying, but to put it into context.
Very warm, competent and soulful - his voice is unique and recognisable. His phrasing is assured and playful, and has had an influence on other singers.
He emerged from the Motown period where he was seen as a talented youngster to blossom as a hip, cool, slightly rebellious, right on, and very musical individual. Liked by music critics, the general public, and soul and rock audiences. His image has been slightly tarnished by his superficial commercial work in the Eighties, but he seen as a very likeable and fairly cool person.
His weakness is his lyrics, but they are competent enough.
Awesome. Harmonic brilliance.
For the Seventies albums, of course.
Artistic importance: 6/10
Social importance: 6/10
Musical appeal: 7/10
Musical competence: 8/10
Lyrical competence: 4/10
Sly and the Family Stone
Earl Van Dyke
- Smokey Robinson
- The Isley Brothers: Freedom from 1970 album Get into Something
|Top Ten Stevie Wonder |
|All Time Best |
Stevie Wonder Singles
*Encyclopaedia Britannica (never ceases to amaze me how wrong the EB can be - gets the spelling of his real name wrong, and says he was blind from birth, rather than becoming blind due to being born premature)
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