|Stevie Wonder in 1973, at the start of his classic period.|
(Work in progress. Needs tidying up.)
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)|
Stevie Wonder's first released album - the instrumental The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, is, as it says on the tin, a rather cool and snazzy jazz soul album. Easy listening, it's a pleasant enough album, and though not written or sung by Wonder, and not in what would be later recognised as the Motown Sound, it is very much in the easy, melodic, middle-of-the-road sound that is Wonder's bag. It would be an enjoyable album recorded by anyone, but knowing that the performer is only 12 years old, you are impressed, and suspect that the kid will do well. Knowing that this is the début album of Stevie Wonder makes it a somewhat more interesting listen, as you pick up musical phrasing that will be heard 10, 20 and 30 years later on records known and loved around the world. The track "Wondering" was co-written by Wonder, and though not his first recorded composition (that is "Sunset" from the Tribute to Uncle Ray album), it is the first to be released. The album opens with the studio version of Fingertips that would be later recorded live and released as his first number one single. This album is livelier and of more interest and energy than any of the big selling Eighties albums; but, it has to be admitted, is essentially a rather light piece.
|Tribute to Uncle Ray (1962)|
Though released as Wonder's second album, Tribute to Uncle Ray was recorded first. Mainly covers of Ray Charles songs, the album is interesting merely because it shows the strength of Wonder's voice when still only 11 years old. Also for "Sunset", the earliest known performance of one of his own songs.
|Recorded Live: |
The 12 Year Old Genius (1963)
Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius open with the blistering live Fingertips, and then continues to impress with the energy (if not the music) of Soul Bongo, before descending into a mishmash of songs that while are impressively performed by a 12 year old, and also rather obviously performed by a 12 year old. Did I mention that he is 12? That seems the main point of this. Other than Fingertips, this isn't a great album, but you can listen to it.
|With a Song in My Heart (1963)|
With a Song in My Heart is an album of standards that stretches the young Wonder's voice. The lush, sophisticated production painfully exposes the inappropriateness of the songs for Wonder's young, straining voice. Ouch. This is not nice, and all copies should be destroyed.
|Stevie at the Beach (1964)|
Stevie at the Beach is a collection of songs on a beach theme in an attempt to catch the surfing music fad. Mostly instrumentals with Stevie on harmonica - the tracks that include Wonder singing show his voice in flux. Some tracks, such as "Hey Harmonica Man", he still sounds young; on some other tracks, such as "Castles in the Sand", his voice is starting to mature but is not quite there. After this album Gordy and the team were seriously considering dropping Wonder. They had tried a few styles with insufficient success, and what they knew worked - his youthfulness - was leaving him. It would be two years during which his voice matured, and Sylvia Moy intervened to save his career, before his next album.
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)|
Down to Earth contains the single "A Place in the Sun", some songs by Wonder, some covers, some staff songs. The usual Sixties Motown album. Pleasant enough, but meaningless. You can listen to this and enjoy it, but then instantly forget it. "A Place in the Sun" apart, the Wonder written songs are the best.
|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)|
Someday at Christmas is pure schmaltz and mush and trite nonsense. Wonder has a warm, pleasant and versatile voice, and does what he can with this mix of standards and new songs by a Motown staff writer all on the theme of Christmas.
|Eivets Rednow (1968)|
Eivets Rednow (Stevie Wonder backwards) is an easy-listening harmonica based instrumental album which was created to cash in on the success of the easy-listening harmonica based instrumental single "Alfie". It's a cheap and nasty album. One of Wonder's worse.
|For Once in My Life (1968)|
Wonder wrote eight of the twelve songs on For Once in My Life, and was involved in the production. The title track is so typically Wonder, and suggestive of his classic period, though was not written by Wonder. "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day", though a minor song in the Wonder canon, was a modest hit, and does point firmly to the classic period with the range and expressiveness of Wonder's voice, and the melodic use of a clavinet - an electronic keyboard. The rest of the songs are funky and relatively sophisticated, and while there's nothing really great here, this is a much more mature album than what has gone before - it shows Wonder growing as an artist, and is worth checking out.
|My Cherie Amour (1969)|
Other than the title track, and "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday", My Cherie Amour consists of trivial songs, only four written by Wonder.
|Stevie Wonder Live (1970)|
Stevie Wonder Live is a filler album. The opening tracks "Pretty World" and "Theme from Romeo and Juliet" give a flavour of the album. Unlikely to appear on anyone's best album list.
|Live at the Talk of the Town (1970)|
Live at the Talk of the Town was a UK only release. It has a better song selection than Stevie Wonder Live, but is otherwise equally unremarkable.
|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)|
Where I'm Coming From is sometimes considered Wonder's first independent album, though still recorded while under contract to Motown. Released around the same time as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, with similar social awareness ambitions, the two albums were compared, with Wonder's being seen as the weaker. Few people seriously consider this as being part of Wonder's classic period.
|Music of My Mind (1972)|
Music of My Mind is a mature album for a 21 year old. It was made independently by Wonder, and then sold back to Motown under a new contract. Rich with synthesisers and a bold and bright funk music, this is a sharp and sophisticated album that puts Wonder firmly on the road that will deliver Talking Book and the other classic period albums. For some observers the classic period starts here, and one can certainly see the relevance of that argument. The opener, "Love Having You Around", is a strong piece of studied and sophisticated funk, bold and fresh and confident, it balances well the lighter, frothier, slightly twee "Happier Than the Morning Sun". A little of the twee works well as contrast now and again; unfortunately it is a style of music that Wonder would later too consistently cling to. "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)" is widely acknowledged as the most accomplished of the songs on the album - it could easily have appeared on Talking Book as it has the same perfect touch, and a very similar sound and feel. A really good album. If you like Talking Book you'll like this.
Rating: 6 or 7
|Talking Book (1972)|
Talking Book is my Stevie Wonder album. I had a copy of the gate-fold vinyl album, acquired at around the time of the original release, though I don't remember exactly how I obtained it: gift, purchase, theft.... Anyway, I somehow had it. Why I had it, I don't know. Stevie Wonder wasn't a big name then. Yes, he'd had some Motown hits, but he wasn't a rock artist. He'd supported the Rolling Stones on their 1972 American tour, and after seeing stuff like this, thousands of rock fans went home and bought Wonder's album when it came out later in the year. But I hadn't seen that tour. And nor had anybody in the UK, as it was a North America only tour. I do recall the sense I had that the album was highly respected by critics, so there may have been some high profile positive coverage of the album in the UK music papers - highly likely to be the NME, which was my music bible.
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.
Innervisions was my second Stevie Wonder album. It's a more complex, expansive and politic album than Talking Book. It's a return to the more ambitious lyrical and musical ideas of Where I'm Coming From, though this time more successfully. I find the album's tones too high, too sharp, and the music blends are a little too limited and repetitive for this to be an entirely comfortable and engaging listen. I suspect for some critics, the very musical edges I find uncomfortable, they feel act as an interesting counter-balance to Wonder's tendency toward sugary sweet schmaltz, and that the musical edginess is matched by the lyrical edginess, with social commentary on drug use, organised religion, city life, and racism. The most appealing and attention grabbing track is "Living for the City", a strong rhythm, Wonder's earnest delivery, social conscious lyrics, a funky vamp, and a spoken drama of a naive black boy getting arrested, all combine to create a memorable event that is greater than its parts. The other stand-out track is "He's Misstra Know-It-All", with some of Wonder's best lyrics - a subtle song that cynically defines and describes man's flaws as effectively as Bob Dylan or Lennon & McCartney. But, for me, despite the earnest attempt to write social commentary, the album doesn't quite work - the lyrics, mostly, are too flat, and state rather than evoke or describe. There's nothing sharp or significant in Wonder's observations and commentary, same as there's nothing moving about Wonder's love songs. It's an OK album - but most of the songs are so-so: I can take them or leave them. There's nothing essential here.
|Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974)|
Of the four albums that are most often considered as being Wonder's "classic period", Fulfillingness' First Finale is usually placed fourth. The songs are competent rather than essential, and the album is quite patchy with more filler than brilliance. Best tracks are "Boogie On Reggae Woman", "You Haven't Done Nothin'", and "Bird of Beauty", the three liveliest tracks - the first two were singles. Not an album that will often find itself on my turntable, but listenable enough when it is.
|Songs in the Key of Life (1976)|
For a number of critics Songs in the Key of Life is Wonder's best album. It was included in the Classic Albums documentary series. After making music constantly since he was 12, Wonder took a little break after Fulfillingness' First Finale. He seriously considered giving up music to help children in Africa; but the council of friends and family, and the awareness of how much record companies wanted to pay him to keep recording, made him change his mind. After a break of a year, Wonder spent a year making the double album. It was an immediate commercial and critical success, and for some is not just Wonder's greatest album, but one of the greatest albums of all time. It certainly bridges well Wonder's classic 70s period and his commercial 80s period marking the end of one and the start of the other, and containing elements of both. For me, it edges just a bit too much into the commercial fluff. There's little genuine feel here, little excitement, little sense of the energy that drove him on to make the early 70s albums. This is carefully made and well crafted stuff, and a lot of emotion, energy, and excitement is lost in the careful crafting. Best tracks are the funky and fun (but rather empty) "Sir Duke", the very groovy "I Wish", the successfully twee "Isn't She Lovely", and "Pastime Paradise", the base for Coolio's (excellent) "Gangsta's Paradise". The rest of the album ranges from listenable, to rather boring. It's not an album for me.
Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants" is a double album of 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)|
A commercially successful album, but while some of the songs are pleasant and have decent harmony hooks, the album doesn't have the harmonic feel or unity of his best from the Seventies. Contains the chart hits, "Master Blaster", "Happy Birthday", and "Lately". Those are the best songs, and none are original or interesting, treading familiar and well worn Wonder musical and lyrical ideas.
|The Woman in Red (1984)|
The Woman in Red is a soundtrack album to the film of the same name. Only eight tracks, it contains his biggest hit, the slightly irritating and twee "I Just Called to Say I Love You", and was a global hit. Overall slightly more melodic than Hotter than July, but equally lacking in interest.
|In Square Circle (1985)|
Characters also sold well, but did not achieve what the other Eighties albums achieved, and remained out of the top ten of the charts. All these Eighties albums are pretty much the same.
|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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