July 8th, 2000

Stevie Wonder

“There’s never been a time when Stevie Wonder hasn’t been relevant,” said an associate of Wonder’s on Channel 4’s recent Top 10 Seventies Soul. True enough, Though he’s only 50, he’s been a feature of mainstream pop and soul since 1963’s “Fingertips”, as long as Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones. Between 1972 and 1976 he was arguably the world’s greatest recording artist, a judgment echoed commercially, critically and by his peers. At the 1975 Grammy Awards, winner Paul Simon sheepishly thanked Wonder for not releasing a record that year. Yet by 1979, the release of disastrous The Secret Life Of The Plants had rendered him a laughing stock.

He was the first popular artist, black or white, to make extensive use of the synthesizers on his records, weaving them so naturally into his songs that his revolutionary role in the electrification of modern music is often overlooked. Kraftwerk’s synthpop is more remarked upon because it was central to their modernist manifesto. With Wonder, synths were just a means to give added colour, inflection and realisation to his inner emotional world. Yet by 1981, the onset of disco left the Wondersound feeling as technically obsolete as a Sinclair computer.

1976’s Songs In The Key Of Life was said to have been edited down from an eligible pile of over 200 songs. It’s often regarded as Wonder’s finest achievement, though in hindsight, it shows the first signs of his decline. Only slavishly uncritical Wonderfans would argue that he ever made a great album again. Yet he was just 26. Since then he’s mainly dished out saccharine ballads for Sharons and Darrens. What went wrong? How could an artist make such a sheer descent from the ridiculously sublime to the stupendously bland?

Before we consider that, let’s look at the far more important, gratifying question of what went right. Born Stevland Judkins Morriss in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, little Stevie went blind at birth due to a mishap in the level of oxygen in his incubator. He could have felt aggrieved but as he later explained, he felt blessed – a little girl in a neighbouring incubator had died as a result of the same hospital error. Stevie Wonder’s blindness, however, was always a help rather than a hindrance to his musical career. Despite his life’s mediocre prospects, he was essentially a joyous, fun-loving soul who created his own world of sound. He would nestle under the bedcovers illicitly listening to the r&b channels by nighttime and by daytime drive his family to distraction, tapping out rhythms on pots, pans and whatever utensils came to hand before someone had the sense to buy him a harmonica and drumkit.

Like many black artists, he made a name for himself at his local church. Unlike most, however, he’d landed a record contract by the age of 12, with the fledging Motown label, discovered, according to legend, by Ronnie White of the Miracles. Stevie was dubbed a “wonder” by Berry Gordy – the moniker stuck. His debut single was as clumsily unprepossessing as the title suggests; “I Call It Pretty Music, But The Old People Call It The Blues” and a couple of follow ups would bomb before Motown experimented with capturing Stevie’s exuberance on disc, recording “Fingertips Parts 1 & 2” live. It worked spectacularly, with Little Stevie backed by the brassy high kicking sounds of an in-house band, working a teenybopper audience into the sort of frenzy James Brown had recently achieved on the Live At The Apollo album. With his call-and-response style and harmonica pyrotechnics, “Fingertips” sounds as giddily energetic today as it did then.


However, a parallel pop history could have had Stevie going the way of so many other child prodigies – one big, gimmicky single followed by a run of failure and the eventual, traumatic drop back into oblivion. The Lena Zavaroni of his day, maybe. For months, years, it looked that way as singles like “Hey Harmonica Man”, intended to replicate the success and style of “Fingertips”, failed to do so. Fortunately, Motown stuck with him and were rewarded in 1965 when “Uptight” reached no. 3. Relentlessly uptempo, it’s a feelgood tale of love across the railroad tracks. It established Wonder as a major Motown player.

A rush of hits ensued – “I Was Made To Love Her”, “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” and “You Met Your Match”. All were quality, if generic Motown fare, characterised by Wonder’s urgently impassioned vocals in which he seemed constantly to be gasping for air on the mic. By the late Sixties, however, he was emerging as one of Motown’s principal writers as well as performers, with songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland having quit the label. As well as co-penning his own hits like “My Cherie Amour” and “For Once In My Life”, he was writing for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Martha and The Vandellas. It was now Motown who were becoming dependent on the no-longer little Stevie.

Come the Seventies, Wonder began to baulk. He’d turned 21 and was piqued to discover that he was entitled to only $1 million of his $30 million earnings. He wanted more control over his business affairs. Moreover, like many other black artists such as Curtis Mayfield and Motown stablemate Marvin Gaye, he felt he’d been forced to “sit out” the Sixties’ civil rights movement, constrained by the pragmatic dictates of a pop/showbiz career from speaking out more explicitly on black issues. He’d had hits with a cover of Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind” and Ron Miller’s “Heaven Help Us All” and Motown Supremo Berry Gordy had allowed Wonder to attend a couple of civil rights benefits when he felt it was expedient for Motown’s PR purposes but generally Gordy was a conservative businessman, who didn’t want sales compromised by any agitpop from his artists.

Wonder re-negotiated his contract, demanding complete artistic freedom. That bit Gordy didn’t mind – by 1971 he realised the days of the Motown hitmaking machine were numbered and there were dollars to be made out of more progressive attitudes. What Gordy objected to rather more was Wonder’s setting up his own publishing company, Taurus Productions, to lease his songs back to Motown.

Still, he gave in and in 1972, Wonder produced Music Of My Mind, the first of five deathlessly magnificent albums. Thematically, Music Of My Mind doesn’t see Wonder yet articulating his political views – he had other matters to preoccupy him. The album is one of bittersweet love songs, reflecting the highs and lows of his brief marriage to, and bust-up with, Syreeta Wright. The real revolutionary stuff occurs on the musical side. Wonder had first been attracted to the work of engineers Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil when he heard their all-synthesizer album project Tonto’s Expanding Headband. They’d taken to working at night at New York’s Media Sound studios, when the studio hours were affordable and they were left to their own devices. These working hours suited Wonder, in whose mind there was no distinction between day and night in any case. What’s more, whereas most musicians found the new-fangled, cumbersome and tricky-to-programme prototype synths too much like hard work to master, Wonder, with his hyper-developed affinity to the world of sound was happy to persist with them.

The trio struck up a working relationship that involved Margouleff and Cecil enabling Stevie to work in his new medium of clavichords, arps and moogs. The resultant sound veers between the supersonic euphoria of “Love Having You Around”, with its bubblebath of vocoders and squelchy keyboards and the darker strains of “Seems So Long” and “Superwoman”. The synthesizer arrangements on these songs, far from rendering them plastic, cold or gimmicky, only intensified their limpid beauty. On “Superwoman”, whose guarded optimism is followed by a sequel of romantic disappointment, every electronic keyboard note falls like a teardrop into a limpid pool of melancholy, while the arp synth peals like a sad siren. The album ends with “Evil”, whose funeral parlour tones, (“Why have you engulfed so many hearts . . .destroyed many minds?”) reflect Wonder’s fundamental pessimism about the world. A deeply religious man he believed, in the Seventies at any rate, that mankind was in its final days.

Though ‘Music . .’ has its sassy moments, it’s a seductively sombre sound – even its more sanguine love songs, like “I Love Everything About You”, somehow sound sad and conditional. While the album didn’t sell massively, it did attract him to the prog-rock community. Whistle Test’s “Whispering” Bob Harris later included Music . . . in a Ten Best Ever list, The Rolling Stones invited Wonder to tour with them and he struck up a working relationship with guitarist Jeff Beck. Though Beck would work with Wonder on his next album, 1972’s Talking Book, the pair would fall out acrimoniously when Wonder released “Superstition” as a single in his own right, having promised it to the guitarist.

Whatever breach of promise took place here was surely worth it – it’s hard to imagine Beck having done anything like justice to the track. For Wonder, it was his first great Seventies smash, with its bustling, rapid-fire synth riff, illegally funky brass and Wonder in fine admonishing form. “If you believe in things you don’t understand then you suffer/Superstition ain’t the way.” This was, literally, the electrification of soul music.

Talking Book, featuring Wonder on the sleeve in braids and the full African garb that would later become his permanent sartorial trademark, sees Wonder embracing the prog notion of The Album. “A single is like a page in a book,” he said, “The album is like the whole book.” It provided a second hit in the form of “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, a song which typifies Wonder for many as a purveyor of superior Radio Two MOR blandishments. No one, however, is more aware than Wonder of how the song has been well-meaningly abused over the years by second-rate ocean liner cabaret crooners and no one does a more hilariously wicked parody of these people than Wonder himself. Listen again to the original and you’ll hear it for what it is, a musical equivalent of the first breath of Spring. Elsewhere, the album charts a richly evocative valley between sadness and redemption, with Wonder still evidently not yet over the split with Syreeta Wright.

Though they continued to work together, Wonder was deeply affected by the break-up, his music taking on the darker hues of his emotional bruises. From an artistic viewpoint, it was an incredibly fortuitous divorce, enabling him to give sincere vent to his full, dramatic range. “You And I”, a seemingly inoffensively pious ballad with an Arp buzzing about like Cupid in the background is elevated by Wonder’s deeply felt treatment, in his thunderous piano chords and the high, mighty and sustained vibrato on which he climaxes the song. “Looking For Another Pure Love” has an Audenesque poignancy about it, while “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” is drenched with a sense of its own salvation, in the font of true love.

Another standout track is “Big Brother”, Wonder’s first broadsides against incumbent President Nixon, who always brought out his bitterest lyrical bile. Tracked by a harmonica line caught somewhere between laughter and tears, Wonder sings, “You’ve killed all our leaders/I don’t even have to do nothing to you/You’ll cause your own country to fall.”

This mood of almost apocalyptic disdain for the political establishment was given fuller vent on 1973’s superb “Innervisions”, one of the very greatest albums ever made and far superior to Marvin Gaye’s hand-wringing one-trick pony of an album What’s Going On. “Living For The City” has the righteous, quality of a quickstep Freedom March, erect with dignity, disgust and determination to make it in hardtime urban America. “Her clothes are old/But never are they dirty.” You can forgive lines like “To find a job/Is like the haystack needle/’Cos where he lives/They don’t use coloured people”, given Wonder’s rivetingly impassioned delivery. Even the mini-play in the middle of the song works, caught up in the mood of urgent rage. Innervisions was Stevie Wonder’s most explicitly socially conscious album. “Too High”, couched in an ironically uptempo, bebop tones takes a pitying look at victims of drugs culture, “Jesus Children Of America” is an ambivalent elegy to the hippy generation, “Visions” is a Martin Luther King-style mirage of what might be, perceived through a halcyon haze of strings while “He’s Misstra Know It All” is another attack on Nixon, shuffling simply but irresistibly along with a chaingang gospel chorus humming reproachfully in the background, with Wonder rapping and raging against the lengthy fadeout.

Yet Innervisions is also a supreme reminder of Wonder’s astonishing versatility and range. He’s no longer so immersed in synths but master of a wide palate of acoustic and electric colours, an alchemist at the height of his powers. There’s “All In Love Is Fair”, a ballad which finally puts a full stop behind his break-up with Syreeta, the glittering, glorious, underrated “Golden Lady”, the unbridled Latino optimism of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” and, of course, “Higher Ground”, a vivacious riot of clavier synth. The latter song was strangely prophetic, with its relief at being somehow given a second chance (“‘Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin.”) For barely weeks after the release of Innervisions, Wonder suffered a near-fatal road crash which left him in a coma for several days and permanently robbed him of his sense of smell.

Hereafter, there’s a sea-change in his writing, as if his previous forebodings of doom had been worked through in his own, private catastrophe. On 1974’s “Fulfillingness’ First Finale”, it’s discernible on more affirmative songs like “Smile Please” and the positive note chimed in the Arcadian synth-soaked “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away”. FFF does die away over the last few tracks but much of it is top drawer – the racey “Boogie On, Reggae Woman”, all roving keyboard fingers and probing moog, “Creepin'”, a song which vividly evokes the shadows of fear and loneliness in which love dwells and one last broadside at the hapless Nixon, “You Haven’t Done Nothing”, with its snowplough bass riff and brass section literally scoffing the disgraced President off the stage. The Jackson 5 provided backing vocals here, the nearest Michael ever come to outright political protest.

A two year delay followed before Songs In The Key Of Life, with Wonder no longer working with Margouleff and Cecil. Speculation and expectation were feverish, with Wonder rumoured to be sitting on a pile of songs, waiting to see which way the musical trend barometer was pointing before deciding on which to release. The resultant album retailed at a massive £7.99, with aghast punters contemplating applying for mortgages to purchase it. It was worth it. Though “Pastime Paradise” is a slow-moving piece of old-style evangelism and the stately “Village Ghetto Land” mournfully depicts the privations of inner city life, “Songs . . .” is at its best when it’s at its most uproariously upbeat. On “Sir Duke”, for instance, a delicious pop encapsulation of the late Ellington’s genius, or “I Wish”, a heartbursting, joyous reminiscence on life as a little kid, or the endless, rolling Salsa rhythms of “Another Star”, or “As”‘s chorus upon chorus of love declarations.

Songs . . however, also shows the first signs of curdling in Wonder’s career. The album seems padded with semi-memorable and overlong ballads. He strikes a clunkingly pious note on “Have A Talk With God”, struggling to honey over trite lyrics with his characteristic vocal mannerisms. “Black Man”‘s synth programming is excitingly state-of-the-art but its lyrical celebration of black achievement sits more awkwardly, while the call-and-response sequence involving schoolchildren simply makes the listener want to smother themselves with a pillow. Then there’s the pleasant but ominous “Isn’t She Lovely”, a paean to his baby daughter, whereon Wonder seems stricken with that ickiness common among first-time parents.

The less said about 1979’s The Secret Life Of The Plants, a concept album concerning our herbaceous friends, the better. 1980’s Hotter Than July was a partial recovery, featuring “Masterblaster”, a tribute to his friend Bob Marley, whose infectious optimism (“Third World’s right one the one”) would ring unfortunately hollow given Marley’s death in 1981 and the grim decade facing Africa. Since then, there’s been a plethora of grisly ballads (“Lately”, “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, “Ebony And Ivory”), the odd, bland soundtrack appearance and a procession of mushy AOR.

Wonder nowadays is a still-charismatic figure, still well worth catching live but musically peripheral. He’s been active in a variety of social causes, many of which have manifested themselves with embarrassing didacticism in his songwriting (“Don’t Drive Drunk” and “Apartheid (It’s Wrong)”). Part of Wonder’s decline can be ascribed to musical context. For starters, in spite of the electronic nature of his music, there was never much going on in Wonder’s beatbox. On the Seventies albums he’d play the drums himself, keeping time rather than establishing a big-ass rhythm. When disco and the bpm-driven Eighties came along, Wonder never bothered to keep techno pace with the times.

What’s more, when synths became part of digitalised studio orthodoxy, Wonder’s music lacked the eerily evocative experimentalism he achieved through Margouleff and Cecil’s prototype analogue engineering. Compare, say, Talking Book’s “You’ve Got It Bad, Girl” with a later effort like “If Ever” and you’ll see what I mean. Wonder’s classic sequence of albums found him at the forefront of a musical innovation in soul music, but they also caught him at a time when his own soul was in spiritual torment, with his sadness at his divorce and his long pent-up anger at social injustice further colouring and nourishing the already abundant creativity of this uniquely sensitive individual.

Today he’s no less alive to social issues but he’s found a level of satisfaction in his life, if nothing else the satisfaction in all that he’s said and done. Maybe Wonder has a musical miracle left in him, probably not. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t owe us a thing. If you don’t own every album he made between 1972 and 1976 there’s a vast hole in your record collection, folks. He’s a deservedly revered figure, held in an awe and affection equivalent to Muhammad Ali in sports. Like Ali, he need feel no guilt about basking in previous glories. Happy birthday, Wonderman.

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