Stevie Wonder

TrackAlbum
I Call It Pretty Music, But The
Old People Call It The Blues
Live At The Motortown Revue Vol 2
UptightUp-Tight
I'm WonderingTamla Motown TMG 626 (UK)
I Was Made To Love HerI Was Made To Love Her
SuperstitionTalking Book
Living For The CityInnervisions
He's Misstra Know-It-AllInnervisions
Sir DukeSongs In The Key Of Life
Pastime ParadiseSongs In The Key Of Life
Isn't She LovelySongs In The Key Of Life

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Contributor: Peter Viney

There are two ways of selecting the Toppermost Ten: slowly over a week, or making instant decisions first, then checking them out more slowly afterwards. My problem is do you balance across the whole career? Or do you just admit that the early and mid-70s when he was singing, playing everything, writing everything and producing everything were a career peak eclipsing everything before and after?

The monster in the corner is I Just Called To Say I Love You from The Woman In Red, a huge hit, but also a hugely played, covered and karaoke favourite which crosses the line from “catchy” to “intrusively and annoyingly catchy”. I suspect if the song had a lower public profile, I’d say “well, few write stuff that memorable” and put it in, to show how much I care. Like most people, I have heard it too often, and heard it sung badly too often. Not Stevie Wonder’s fault, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Though in the original, repeating the chorus three times (it seemed more) at the end contributed to the overkill. So no song to sing in this list. Incidentally, though a number one hit in nearly twenty countries, it sold nearly twice as many copies in the UK as in the USA, which given the population difference is staggering. It may not seem so ubiquitous to Americans.

Fingertips Parts I and II was the breakthrough live single in 1963 showcasing harmonica a few years before they discovered he could play any and every instrument on his records and did so.

Little Stevie Wonder’s early career had the heavy hand of manipulation over it. Hey! We’ll do a Ray Charles tribute! They’re both blind! He was still only eleven. Then The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie just happened to contain mainly songs written by the producer, Clarence Paul. Then some of those early albums pulled him through showbiz standards. With A Song In My Heart forces him through Smile and Put On A Happy Face. You almost expect someone to shout “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” and Stevie to launch into Sonny Boy. And there’s Someday At Christmas and Stevie At The Beach if you want to hear Ebb Tide or Beyond The Sea. Eivets Rednow has him doing instrumental versions of MoR hits in 1968. There’s a dozen albums in this early phase. During it all, he managed to cover Blowin’ In The Wind and Mr Tambourine Man, the first to very good effect too.

There are some good things in his early R&B vein like Fingertips, Workout Stevie, Workout and I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues, from Live At The Motortown Revue Vol 2. The latter is the one I select to show off the young and frantic style, fantastic. I originally had it on a French import EP.

Uptight was the first song I wrote down. It stands with Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and Reach Out I’ll Be There in a triumvirate the great Motown floorfillers. It was also his first major hit since Fingertips, a long gap. He was fifteen, his voice had changed, and Motown were about to drop him. No one wanted to produce him, according to co-writer Sylvia Moy. Just two chords, one of Motown’s most cutting horn lines and irresistible drumming and bass. It came out in late 1965.

I Was Made To Love Her. 1967. Among it all I Was Made To Love Her LP stands out as Stevie being allowed to get his teeth into soul standards like Baby Don’t Do, Respect, Please, Please, Please, My Girl. And the title track stands with them as a classic.

I’m Wondering came hard on its heels, and there’s a crispness to the drums, a roll to the bass and a soaring vocal with a listenable lyric. The song was another Cosby-Moy-Wonder number. Listen for the way the string section echoes Stevie’s harmonica.

The hits followed: For Once In My Life, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours, Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday. I wanted something from 1972’s Music Of My Mind as it’s his first coherent mature album, with a thematic connection between songs. Happier Than The Morning Sun is Beatlesque in the nicest possible way, but the demands of Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale are too great.

Superstition was the hit track from Talking Book, an album with You Are The Sunshine Of My Life and I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever) also claiming wide attention. We’re reaching the end of “classic Motown”. Marvin Gaye had changed the game forever with What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder was close at his heels with albums where he played virtually everything. The song had been worked up with Jeff Beck and Stevie Wonder had promised it to him, but Motown insisted on releasing the original. Jeff Beck then covered it as so many have … it was a Rick Danko live staple. Touring as support for The Rolling Stones, Stevie had two number ones from the record.

Living For The City from Innervisions is even more heavily influenced by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and it’s 7 minutes 25 seconds long, with a street talking section with traffic noises and sirens. It also connects to the next track. You must have the LP version (as also on Original Musiquarium if you want a compilation). The single edit (three and a half minutes) is only half the song. It may be soul, but in folk terms it’s a ballad, i.e. it has a clear narrative about a kid from Hard Times, Mississippi in New York, who gets caught dealing dope and thrown in prison (“Get in that cell, nigger!”). Lyrically it predates mainstream rap in putting the N-word right up front. The synthesized bass is huge. Innervisions sits with Talking Book. No loss of quality or focus.

He’s Misstra Know-It-All closes Innervisions. It’s the album I’d choose first as an album too. All In Love Is Fair is achingly melodic. Too High combines funk with a heavenly scatting chorus. Jesus Children Of America is psych-soul. Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing starts with a lurching Latin beat straight out of Puerto Rico and is tempting. Higher Ground is first-rate but maybe too similar to Superstition and Living For The City. In the end, it’s the relaxed totally-in-control vocal and piano that gives the second slot to He’s Misstra Know-It-All. I bought the single.

Boogie On Reggae Woman is a contender from 1974, from Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Stevie has complex Moog bass lines off to a tee. It isn’t actually “reggae”. It was recorded just as Bob Marley was taking off and reggae was a hot word, but it’s funk with a capital F. I had this in, because it’s an important album, but it was either this or He’s Misstra Know-It-All.

Sir Duke comes from Songs In The Key Of Life and starts with those big Ellington horns, but then you get the bass and drums churning in, then the vocals get punctuated by the horns again. Magnificent big band meets soul rhythm section. I Wish from the same album is crying to get in.

Pastime Paradise is the second from Songs In The Key Of Life and the one I wrote down second, after Uptight. Strings pluck the melody. It’s sublime.

Isn’t She Lovely was originally in the lower list. A third from Songs In The Key Of Life? I found myself falling over backwards to avoid three from one record. It deserves it. It’s such a great feeling. I’ve sung it to myself with personal application too many times. Totally sentimental. But it nudged out I Wish in the final draft. It’s my ten favourites, and sorry, three are from one album.

Pastime Paradise pointed a direction which leads to The Secret Life Of Plants, a brilliant and odd album, but unfortunately one that turns up in massive quantities in used vinyl shops in mint condition. They must have pressed vastly more than they sold.

It was by no means the end of the hits. They rolled on. I bought The Woman In Red, Hotter Than July, Characters, In Square Circle. Happy Birthday was aimed to promote Martin Luther King’s birthday. An influential single from 1980

Part Time Lover (1985) was considered from In Square Circle but basically it sounds like Toto … not a bad thing. But incredibly like Toto, and Toto three years earlier.

Masterblaster (Jammin’) is my favourite later one before my attention drifted. It picks up on Bob Marley’s Jammin’ (not that it gets credited) and extends the concept.

BUT … because those big catchy hits are many people’s Stevie Wonder, here’s an alternative “ridiculously catchy” ten romantic songs, “Sentimental Stevie.” If there were eleven, we’d had to have Ebony And Ivory with Paul McCartney, but fortunately ten’s the magic number.

All In Love Is Fair Innervisions
For Once In My Life For Once In My Life
Happier Than The Morning Sun Music Of My Mind
I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever) Talking Book
I Just Called To Say I Love You The Woman In Red
I Wish Songs In The Key Of Life
My Cherie Amour My Cherie Amour
Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours Signed, Sealed & Delivered
Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday My Cherie Amour
You Are The Sunshine Of My Life Talking Book

 

Stevie Wonder official site

The Complete Stevie Wonder Experience

Stevie Wonder biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #327

5 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Jul 27, 2014

    A mighty list on a mighty topic. For me, Innervisions is his best album: I’d have tried to slip in ‘Jesus Children of America’ which subverts the gospel idiom both lyrically and structurally. But where I’d put it…

  2. Colin Duncan
    Jul 27, 2014

    A well written, informative article. Great stuff. Stevie Wonder’s career reflected my buying of records history – in the earlier days buying singles then albums. I don’t know the first track on the list and there’ll be other earlier stuff I won’t know. Talking Book is my favourite album and I would include Looking For Another Pure Love on the list. I love the interplay between Stevie’s voice and Jeff Beck’s guitar. Although, until recently playing many tracks stimulated by this article, I didn’t realise that there is another lead guitarist on this track, Buzz Feiten, who I knew nothing about. However, the track’s use of guitars illustrates a clear development in the music of Stevie Wonder. Really enjoyed the article. Thanks, Peter.

  3. Keith Shackleton
    Jul 30, 2014

    So many memorable songs. I’d have to find room for something from Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Either Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away or You Haven’t Done Nothin’.. or both.. but what to take out? Too tough.

  4. Alex Lifson
    Jul 30, 2014

    Can’t argue with any on the list. Is 10 enough for any list about Stevie Wonder? definitely not. Nor would 20 cover things for that matter. This being said, I’d like to simply volunteer one song that hasn’t been mentioned: If You Really love Me. There are better, I know. However, I always smile as soon as I hear the intro. Can’t ask for more than that.

  5. Colin Duncan
    Oct 11, 2014

    I think it’s a great song too, Alex.

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