As we close out Black Music Month I’d like to take a look back at the music of Stevie Wonder. In the 70’s Stevie Wonder released some of the most important and arguably the best music of his illustrious career. Most notably his “Songs In The Key of Life” album from 1976 has been one of the most talked about and celebrated 2 album releases of all time. “Songs” was and still is to this day, one of the greatest collections of, (what was then newly), recorded music today. But it’s not “Songs In The Key of Life” I want to talk about. I want to talk about the three albums that came before that classic, iconic album. The three albums that set up "Songs In The Key Of Life"...
In the early 70’s, Stevie released 3 poignantly different, but equally impressive albums. “Innervisions”, “Talking Book” and “Fullingfulness First Finale”. These 3 albums marked the beginning of Stevie’s foray as producer, writer, etc. This was the beginning of Stevie taking control of his destiny and career. Pretty much the same way label mate Marvin Gaye did when he released the classic “Let’s Get It On”.
What was so important about these releases was the direction Stevie’s music had taken when these albums were released. The subject matter touched on the political to the problems of the world, (at that time). “Living For The City” is a classic example of one of Stevie’s many thought provoking songs. I’ll never forget when I first heard many of the songs on these three albums. I had to play them again because I had one of those, “did you hear what he said” feelings come over me.
Talking Book from 1972 is probably my favorite of the three here. What I remember most from this album was the braille cover which opened up to reveal Stevie in a desert area. "Talking Book" introduced Stevie's foray into funk with songs like "Maybe Your Baby" and "Superstition". Who could forget that drum intro to "Superstition"? The wedding anthem "You and I" is found on this album and the classic "You Are The Sunshine of My Life" as well. Two of my favorite tunes on this collection are "Lookin' For Another Pure Love" and "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)".
This album really ushered an era of Stevie Wonder that has stood the test of time. It is what many would call a timeless classic. If you have this in your collection, dust it off and give it a spin.
Innervisions from 1973-Perhaps Stevie's most politically conscience effort at the time, if "Talking Book" ushered a new era for Stevie; "Innervisions" cemented his stronghold. From the opening song “Too High” a cautionary tale about drugs driven by a dizzying chorus of scat vocals and a springing bassline and what might have been called the vamp when Stevie sings “doo doo doo doo doo..” and so on. I remember when I first heard this song, all I could do was sing the refrain over and over and over. The whole collection could be considered a highlight, but there are tunes here that stand out a little bit more than others.
"Higher Ground" no doubt takes up where "Superstition" left off from the previous album. "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" is as beautiful as it is funky in it's refrain. Oh the memories this song evokes!
Wonder also made no secret of the fact that the song "He's Misstra Know-It-All" was directed at president Richard Nixon, who made headlines (and destroying America's faith in the highest office) with the biggest political scandal of the century. All one could say is wow.
My favorite song on here is, believe it or not, "Jesus Children of America". The haunting refrain in which Stevie instructs the listener to "tell your story fast. If you lie it will come to past." I still listen to this song to this day and get chills. It's better than most gospel songs in my opinion because of its direct approach to the content.
On 1974's Fulfillingness First Finale, Stevie returned with a relationship record. And who doesn't like Stevie Wonder doing relationship songs? Even if they are breaking up tunes ala "It Ain't No Use", (by the way I've dedicated this song to many females through the years). "It Ain't No Use" stands out as one of the best breakup tunes ever that was never released as a single...If quiet storm radio ever played this song for someone dedicating it to someone else, it would send ripples through the airwaves..
The songs and arrangements on Fulfillingness First Finale are the warmest since Talking Book, and Stevie positively caresses his vocals on this set, encompassing the complexities of love, from dreaming of it (“Creepin”) to being bashful of it ("Too Shy to Say") to knowing when it's over ("It Ain't No Use").
The two big singles are the funky "Boogie on Reggae Woman", with a deep electronic groove balancing organic congas and gospel piano, (when I hear this tune I can't help but smile and think about my mother who used to play the single all the time)!
On "You Haven't Done Nothin',” another dismissal of President Nixon and the Watergate controversy (he'd already written "He's Misstra Know-It-All" on the same topic), the Jackson 5, (including Michael), provide some righteous amens to Stevie's preaching on "You Haven't Done Nothin'".On Fulfillingness' First Finale, Stevie invited few musicians, and most of those were background vocalists (though of the finest caliber: Minnie Riperton, Paul Anka, Deniece Williams, and the Jackson 5).
The closing track on this album "Please Don't Go" is in my opinion one of Stevie's best ever non singles in his entire career. "Please Don't Go" has all the makings of a perfectly written, beautifully executed produced single. From the lyrics to the haunting background oohs supplied by Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer and the Persuasions to the grooving, sometimes hypnotic haunting chord progressions with guitar supplied by Michael "Maniac" Sembello. Just listen to the change over towards the end of the song.
The everlasting wonderful thing about Stevie Wonder and his many great songs is one could pull just about any song from any Stevie Wonder release and make it a single. Especially his work between 1972-1976. Stevie's songs have always spoken to the masses.
I hope as we celebrate Black Music Month that you, the reader will sit down with someone of the younger set and educate them on the wonders of Stevie Wonder. Stevie is a national treasure loved around the world. We should all embrace the music of Stevie Wonder and thank GOD we have been blessed with such a talented individual.