As I attempt to encapsulate the breadth of all things Stevie Wonder, I recognize that I am fighting a losing battle. My mother introduced me to “Fingertips.” My father sang “Too High.” And somewhere in between all of this, I fell in love with the Jungle Fever soundtrack. Each of these could be attributed to another artist, and yet they serve to justify the complexity of one of music’s greatest gifts. An exhaustive exploration of Stevie is nearly impossible. So while the beginning may seem like the logical point of entry for this narrative, I am more inclined to take a look somewhere in the middle. It is here that we see the music serving as a greater function for the man, himself.
At 18, Stevie Wonder was still deeply invested in the hit machine known as Motown. It was, however, just that—a machine. There was an understanding that the process of music making was a mechanical endeavor—ostensibly manufactured. Under this theory of production, artists vanquished much, if not all of their creative freedoms for the sake of well-tested, radio friendly records. For Stevie, this changed in 1970 when he, at the markedly young age of 20, leveraged his own potential, gaining the first Motown contract proving complete artistic autonomy. The result of this, the world first saw in 1972 with the release of Music of My Mind. For longtime fans, the album was an obvious departure from the precocious revelries of “Little” Stevie Wonder. Thematically, Stevie had created something with a genuine flow. This was not a collection of singles, but instead a purposefully crafted collage of sound. Despite the radical shift in conception, this album’s greatest achievement is musical. It was here that Stevie began his affair with the synthesizer. This relationship provided a sound that was nothing short of revolutionary. Showcasing this progression perfectly is “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).” A personal favorite, this two-part composition finds Stevie taking a carefree, upbeat approach and transitioning it into the ethereal, synth-driven pleas of a broken man. This wasn’t the Motown sound, but it was arguably Stevie’s best work in years. This was the rebirth of an already stellar career.
Music of My Mind was followed by the release of Talking Book. It was obvious that Stevie had reached a certain level of comfort with this newfound independence taking his work on the synthesizer to an entirely new level. Coupling this with extensive work on the Fender Rhodes and Hohner Clavinet, this album had an incredibly funky feel. Many will remember “Superstition,” a longstanding piece from the Stevie Wonder songbook. This record, I would argue, is one of the great instrumental moments of his storied career. The song’s opening drum sequence, laid down by Stevie himself, is discernible to practically anyone familiar with the artist. Amidst a prevalent horn section, Stevie provides one of the most virtuosic displays ever found on a clavinet. For me, however, the standout track on this album has to be “You’ve Got It Bad Girl.” It was obvious that Stevie could make us get up and dance, but on this one, Stevie knew how to mellow out the mood without missing a beat. Once again, the music is enhanced by his usage of the synthesizer, giving the album that same wistful feel found on Music of My Mind. It was difficult to imagine, but Stevie was getting better.
By 1973, Stevie had released Innervisions. This is, perhaps, the centerpiece of his “classic period.” Innervisions is one of those rare albums that manage to reach people both sonically and socially. Seemingly every aspect of the musical stratosphere was touched by Stevie. Intertwined in these sounds was a lyricism so prophetic, it could be argued that the artist had a type of clarity beyond the physical. This was best captured on the sprawling seven minute, musical journey “Living For The City.” On this record, Stevie played the role of lead and backing vocals, Fender Rhodes, drums, bass, synthesizer, and even threw in some of his own handclaps just because he could. The song follows the life of a boy from “hard time Mississippi” as he journeys to New York City. Political commentary at its finest, the audience is forced into captivity as his engaging story unfolds marking the tragic reality of America in the 1970s. This is all set to a dominant bass line captured by the unparalleled synthesizer work of Stevie Wonder. Even with such heavy subject matter, Stevie never missed an opportunity to make the people move. “Higher Ground,” the album’s biggest hit, is an exuberant push for transcendence amidst the daunting certainties of everyday life. It displays the sort of optimism and hope pushed for throughout his career. With such a diverse repertoire, many would consider this to be Stevie’s finest hour.
He followed up this classic with the 1974 release of Fulfillingness’ First Finale, easily his most divergent album to date. The album is a pensive collection of melancholic brilliance. Early on, the mood is set with the thinly orchestrated “Too Shy to Say.” The song is dominated by the percussive piano playing of Wonder, flavored with a sharp vocal performance. Like much of the album, the mood is heavy and very much subdued. The album reaches a stirring climax on the emotionally-driven “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Over the stripped down instrumentation of a piano and accompanying synthesizer, Stevie preaches a sardonic testimony, with a redemptive reprise. The upbeat buoyancy of older Stevie was a limited commodity on this album, but that doesn’t take away from its abstract significance. This was yet another well-received album for Stevie.
Concluding this period was Stevie’s 1976 double LP, Songs in the Key of Life. Perhaps his most ambitious project, the album was meant to capture the essence of life in all its forms. Exploring myriad topics and sounds, both dark and light, it was well-deserving of its voluminous construction. For those seeking the uplifting side of Stevie Wonder, they found their record of choice early on with the pop styling of “Love’s In Need Of Love Today.” Stevie displayed the energy that made him famous on the horn-driven music history lesson “Sir Duke” and synth-crazy production of “I Wish.” Some had fallen in love with Stevie the balladeer and were most certainly appeased by the lushly orchestrated love song “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” The socially-conscious would greatly appreciate the message of racial inclusion on the funk-inspired track “Black Man. But even with all of this, an album packed with seemingly every aspect of human possibility, Stevie provided more. Songs in the Key of Life concludes with two tracks coming in at a startling 15 minutes of run time. In an unorthodox practice, Stevie allows a bevy of other artists to showcase their talent including icons Herbie Hancock and George Benson. For this generosity, we, the listener, are given the opportunity to hear the greatest gift the album has to offer—the voice of Stevie Wonder. On “As” and Another Star,” Stevie manages to steal the show from what I believe is two of the most aggressive and astounding instrumentation displays of all-time. This may be Stevie Wonder at his finest.
From this point, Stevie Wonder went on to have some of his greatest success commercially. From soundtracks to experimental solo work, Stevie has continually pushed the envelope and I don’t expect him to stop any time soon. My intent in focusing on this particular period is to highlight not only the music, but its revolutionary approach. Whether it was a dynamic mode of production or how the business of music production plays out, Stevie always maintained a spot in the forefront. This was most reflected during the practically unfathomable run of music he made throughout the 1970s. But even in that, I do not hesitate to say that his career has been so much more. Stevie Wonder is a humanitarian, a philanthropist, and if you’ve ever seen him in concert, you too know that he is even a motivational speaker. He is so many things and then some. But when it comes down to it, Stevie Wonder is, above all, the soundtrack to life.
Words by Paul Pennington