Usually my daughters and I “dance” (if you want to call it that) to music from our Sirius music channels before they go to bed. We normally stick to the classic R&B and hip hop stations; however, a few days ago, I decided to check out the classic jazz station. The station was playing Ella Fitzgerald’s cover of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”. “Great,” I thought as I turned the volume up. “My kids are going to love this!”
Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts of Stevie Wonder.
Songs In The Key Of Life is the final album in Stevie’s “Classic Period”1. The album, released as a double LP in 1976, was an instant classic. It debuted at the top spot on the Billboard charts and stayed then for a then-record 14 weeks. Songs is Wonder’s best selling and most acclaimed album, winning four Grammys and selling over 10 million copies.
Songs was originally scheduled for a 1975 release; however, Stevie (always the perfectionist) was not fully satisfied with the end result. He delayed the release to the spring of 1976. When spring rolled around, Stevie was still unsatisfied, and delayed the album for another 6 months.
The album was worth the wait, as it contained a murderers row of hits (“Sir Duke”, “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, “Isn’t She Lovely”, “I Wish”, “As”). The album also had a plethora of guest artists; Herbie Hancock, Bobbi Humphrey, Minnie Riperton, Denise Williams, George Benson, Michael Sembello, Syreeta Wright and Ronnie Foster were just a few of the greats recruited to participate in Stevie’s masterpiece.
Songs stands as one of the greatest records ever made and I strongly encourage everyone to have a copy in their music collection. I’ve included five lesser-known tracks from the album. My hope is that the variety of tracks selected accurately represents the flavor of the album. The first track, “Contusion“, is a jazz-rock instrumental that captures Stevie’s funk sensibilities.
The second highlighted track from the first disc is “Summer Soft“. The imagery in the song is amazing; Stevie uses seasons as metaphors to love lost. The end result is a beautifully written mid-tempo ballad that escalates into a deeper frenzy as Stevie’s chord progressions go higher and higher.
The first track from the second disc is “Black Man”. This is a personal favorite of mine; it’s not often that you get a history lesson wrapped into good music. Obama needs to use this on the campaign trail.
“Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” is the next highlighted track. The song, sung in Zulu, Spanish, and English, is about why Stevie sings; at its simplest, it’s a song about songs. In fact, I’d submit that this song could easily be about the Songs album.
“Another Star” is the final highlighted track from the album. I think of this track as more jazz than pop (as you’d expect with guitar by George Benson and flute by Bobbi Humphrey). It’s another song about a broken heart; however, unlike “Summer Soft” it’s more upbeat. It’s my personal favorite from the album.
I’d be the first to admit that my blogging has been sporadic at best. I guess other things – like work, family, golf, the NBA playoffs (where amazing happens), Top Chef – have been a higher priority.
Still, every once in a while, I get the urge to blog. Usually, I ignore said urge, but this time, I decided to scratch the itch – partially because of the blogosphere’s hubbub on new Stevie music. The songs, supposedly recorded 1974 (between the Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale albums), sound like vintage Stevie – soulful, complex, and innovative. In short, not the crapola that passes for music on today’s radio stations.
Anyway, the snippets reminded me that I was supposed to be writing a series of posts about Stevie’s music. In just so happens that the next posts were supposed to be on the Innervisions and FFF albums, so the unearthing of new music makes this post even more meaningful.
But enough of my excuses…. on to the music!!!
Innervisions covers a many different issues – drug use (“Too High”), racism and social inequity (“Visions”, “Living For The City”), politics (“He’s Misstra Know-It-All”), spirituality (“Jesus Children of America”) and love. Of the nine wonderful tracks, I’ve decided to include two – the before mentioned “Too High” and one of my personal favorites, “Golden Lady”.
(Note: There’s a rumor that “Golden Lady” was written about another Life & Times favorite – Minnie Riperton, and originally planed for recording by the Temptations. No offense to Temps fans, but I’m glad this is one that Stevie decided to keep!)
The Innervisions album is my personal favorite, and while not as grand as Songs In the Key of Life, could be considered Stevie Wonder’s magnum opus. This album netted Stevie three Grammys (including Album of the Year).
Fulfillingness’ First Finale was recorded after Steve’s tragic car accident (where he was in a coma for 4 days). My personal opinion is that the tone of this album (more sparse and somber) may be due to that life and death episode. Once again, Stevie touches on familiar themes of love, politics, and spirituality – though this time with some twists. “Too Shy To Say” almost sounds like a country recording; “Bird if Beauty” has a Brazilian theme; and “Boogie On Reggae Woman” has it’s own indescribable mix of sounds. Still, it works for Stevie, as his consecutive Grammy for Album of the Year award would indicate.
Stevie Wonder’s contract with Motown expired on his 21st birthday. Desiring more artistic freedom, Wonder delayed re-signing with Motown. During his time away from the label, Wonder self-recorded and produced two albums, which he then used as leverage to obtain a more advantageous contract. Though Motown initially balked, they ultimately relented, giving Wonder complete artistic control of his music. Wonder would also own the publishing rights to all his work.
Wonder’s deal marked the beginning of his classic period (generally agreed as his recordings between 1971 and 1976). During this time, Wonder released 5 albums; this post covers the albums Wonder recorded in 1971 and used as bargaining chips – Music Of My Mind and Talking Book (both released in 1972).
On the surface, Music of the Mind sounds more similar to Where I’m Coming From than Talking Book. However, there is one key difference between MOMY and WICF – namely the introduction of the synthesizer. Though he’d yet to obtain a strong mastery of the instrument, Wonder still manages to make an enjoyable album. When I first started the post, I wanted to highlight six (of the nine) songs on the album. After a second, third, and fourth listen – I’ve decided to focus on these three.
- “Love Having You Around” – Stevie’s denied any drug use, but this song makes me question that. Here are the opening lyrics – “Every day I want to fly my kite. And every day I want to fly my kite. And every day I want to get on my camel and ride.” I don’t know if the lyrics are that insensible because he’s trying to depict the craziness of love, or if he just was dreaming of camels and kites. Regardless, despite the lyrics, it’s a nice song (and a great opening for the album).
- “Superwoman (Where Where You When I Needed You)” – I’ve blogged about this one before; hands down it is the most moving Stevie Wonder recording I’ve ever heard. I like it for three reasons. First off, (my belief) is that he’s singing about his true-life breakup with wife Syreeta Wright (they were only married for 18 months). Syreeta was trying to become a successful recording artist; her passions and Stevie’s paths just didn’t line up. Secondly, while this song reminds me of no one particular woman, it was the first Stevie Wonder song where I connected it’s meaning to my life. I was listening to it one day and realized that some relationships just weren’t meant to work out; maybe it’s why I became so nonchalant about breakups. Finally, Wonder’s synthesizer playing makes me feel like I’m flying. Check out the transition between the two songs and tell me you don’t feel like you’re soaring through the air. Genius. Pure Genius.
- “Seems So Long” – This is another one that I have sentimental attachment to. Again, no specific woman – I guess I always though of it of the “happy ending” from “Superwoman”. I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not Stevie’s greatest work… but it’s better than 95% of the crappy love songs out there today.
On Talking Book, Wonder seemed to have struck the right balance between lyricism and his avant-guard use of the synthesizer, clavinet, and fender that was missing on MOMY. You can tell this is a different album right from the jump – its cover depicts Stevie in an afghan, cornrows, and a Native American necklace. This album, despite funky tracks such as “Superstition” and “Big Brother”, is ultimately a love story. As such, the songs included reflect that theme.
- “You and I (We Can Conquer the World)” – This song was remade by O’Bryan in the late 80’s. Don’t be fooled; the original is 100 times better. The crazy synth sound of O’Bryan’s hack job doesn’t even come close the piano and synthesizers played by Wonder in the original. I wonder how many people have been married to this song.
- “Tuesday Heartbreak” – Another great mid-tempo ballad. Plus backing vocals by another Wonderlove member (Denise Williams).
- “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” – Damn, I love the beginning of this song. And again, all the crazy instruments that Wonder plays mesh perfectly. Similar to “Superwoman”, I hear it and I imagine myself flying. And again, the lyrics reflect my courtship of my wife (don’t front Mrs. Jenkins). By the way, Quincy Jones has a pretty sweet version of this song (with Jones on vocal and electric piano solo by George Duke).
- “Looking For Another Pure Love” – Hands down, the best ballad on the album (yes, better that “You and I” or “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”). Like “Superwoman”, my hypothesis is that this song is about Stevie’s break with Syreeta Wright (since she shares co-writing credits with Wonder).
Up Next – Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale
[Note: Updated on Feb, 18 2016 with updated notes and references to downloadable songs removed]
As promised, here’s part one of my Stevie Wonder “Best Music You’ve Never Heard” posts…
Stevie Wonder had been at Motown since he was twelve years old. Though he had a number of hits, Wonder didn’t start to show his true potential until the For Once In My Life album. The single “I Don’t Know Why” (co-written and produced by Wonder) gives a glimpse into things to come. Any thoughts of “Little” Stevie Wonder are erased as he pleads to understand why he continues to love a cheating woman.
Up next was My Cherie Amour. While not his strongest pre-classic-period album, Cherie has some bright spots. In addition the title track and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”, the album includes some decent covers, namely “Hello Young Lovers” and “Light My Fire”. “Hello Young Lovers” sounds nothing like the mellow lounge version; “Light My Fire” starts with a driving guitar riff before diving into a funky bass line.
Continue reading “The Best Music You’ve Never Heard: Vol 15 – Stevie Wonder’s Early Years”