When I was a kid, on an occasion when my mother took me shopping at Bradlee’s, I wandered into the electronics department and heard a stereo system blasting “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. A young, slender African American man (I remember thinking he resembled Raj from “What’s Happening”) was dancing in front of the stereo, clapping his hands and shouting out “yeah” at intervals. And really what greater testament to the music of Stevie Wonder than to say it is the type of music that will make you dance, clap, and shout in Bradlee’s.
For this Music Discovery, I did not listen to every recording Stevie Wonder ever made, but focused on a dozen years or so during which he had his greatest artistic output and critical success. To warm up for this, I first listened to Wonder’s hit songs from the 1960s.
1 Fingertips Pts. 1 & 2
2 Hey Harmonica Man
3 Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
4 A Place In The Sun
5 I Was Made To Love Her
6 I’m Wondering
9 For Once In My Life
10 I Don’t Know Why
11 Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday
12 My Cherie Amour
Of these songs, “Fingertips” never fails to wow me with its combination of raw talent and exuberance in performance. “My Cherie Amour” is kind of cheezy ballad but its always been a sentimental favorite of mine.
And now on to the 1970s.
Album: Signed, Sealed & Delivered
Release Date: August 1970
Favorite Tracks: “Signed, Sealed & Delivered,” “Heaven Help Us All”, & “Never Had a Dream Come True”
Thoughts: 20-year-old Stevie Wonder is beginning to make his own artistic choices and statements musically and lyrically while still in the standard Motown mold. A consistent album with “Heaven Help Us All” offering gospel styles and socially conscious lyrics as the stand out track.
Album: Where I’m Coming From
Release Date: April 1971
Favorite Tracks:”Do Yourself A Favor,” “If You Really Love Me,” & “I Wanna Talk To You”
Thoughts: Wonder’s first fully-independent recording is compared to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On due to the focus on war and social issues but I’m also hearing similarities in musical experimentation to what Funkadelic was doing in the same period. “Do Yourself A Favor” and “If You Really Love Me” are the standout tracks with “I Wanna Talk To You” and entertainingly weird dialogue between Wonder and a racist white person (also voiced by Wonder). There’s a lot of inconsistency over the course of the album with ballads getting the “soft rock” treatment, and the finale “Sunshine in Their Eyes” gets an A-for-effort for experimentation but comes out sounding a bit of a mess.
Album: Music of My Mind
Release Date: March 1972
Favorite Tracks: “Love Having You Around,” “Happier than the Morning Sun,” and “Keep On Running”
Thoughts: Alternately funky and silky-smooth soulful, the first of the classic period albums displays Wonder’s versatile vocal abilities and experiments with keyboards. For such a notable album I was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with any of these tracks but there’s a remarkable consistency through the album.
Album: Talking Book
Release Date: October 1972
Favorite Tracks: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “Big Brother,” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”
Thoughts: This album has a timeless quality, it sounds like it could’ve been released this year. It must’ve been revelatory when people first heard it in 1972. Wonder experiments with numerous keyboards, synthesizers, and drums, continuing as a one-man band on many tracks, but also has numerous guest artists including Jim Gilstrap, Lani Groves, David Sandborn, Deniece Williams, Ray Parker, Jr., and Jeff Beck. Also, “Superstition” is one of the all-time great songs. It never fails to amaze me.
Release Date: August 1973
Favorite Tracks: “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”
Thoughts: Overall a more jazzy disc with some funk overtones. Not at as consistent as previous albums with some valleys and peaks, but when the peaks are “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” they are some mighty fine peaks! Also, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is all too relevant for our times.
Album: Fulfillingness’ First Finale
Release Date: July 1974
Favorite Tracks: “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” and “They Won’t Go When I Go”
Thoughts: A somber and less-optimistic album, both musically and lyrically, compared with its predecessors. A strong gospel influence runs through the album alongside funk, soul, and jazz improvisation.
Album: Songs in the Key of Life
Release Date: September 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)”
Thoughts: A sprawling album of 21 tracks, many of them over 5 minutes long, that originally was released as a two LPs with a bonus EP. It’s reminiscent of the Beatles’ “white album” both in the exploration of musical styles and the thought that maybe this could be trimmed down to a solid single album, but which tracks would you cut? Nevermind, splendor in the surplus of sound.
Album: Hotter than July
Release Date: September 1980
Favorite Tracks: “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for it” and “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”
Thoughts: After averaging more than 1 studio album per year from 1962 to 1976, Stevie Wonder took a long break after Songs in the Key of Life (itself a double album). He recorded a soundtrack Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” in 1979, and finally returned to a traditional studio album with this recording in 1980. He shows of his musical versatility with the contemporary country sound of “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” and the reggae homage to Bob Marley of “Master Blaster (Jammin’).” All in all, a solid album with a mix of funk, disco, and jazz-inspired improvisation.
To finish things up, I listened to the compilation album Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, which includes 16 of the great songs from the 1970s and four new tracks: “Front Line”, “Ribbon in the Sky”, “That Girl”, and “Do I Do.” Of these “Front Line” is a great funk number telling a still relevant story about a man sent to war, disabled, and returns to the poverty and desperation of his family and neighborhood. The middle two songs are forgetable ballads, but I do remember “Do I Do” getting a ton of airplay as a kid, albeit lacking the Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo, and Stevie Wonder’s rap that turns into scatting on the fadeout. They must’ve played a radio edit, which is a shame.
If you wish to enjoy all the favorite tracks cited above, I’ve put them together in a Tidal playlist. You can’t go to Bradlee’s anymore, but wherever you are you can crank up the music, dance, clap, and shout “yeah!”