music: wondering at Stevie Wonder

Play Stevie Wonder’s immortal run of albums – Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Songs in the Key of Life – and you will be repeatedly floored by his artistry and talent. What brings tears of joy are the elements I’d forgotten amongst the greats: the perfect rainy-day funk of “Tuesday Breakup”, the burning vocals in “It Ain’t No Use,” the zOMG what did he just do chord changes in the B melody of “Please Don’t Go,” the Nokia ringtone teleported into “All Day Sucker,” …

This Slate article is emphatic: “arguably the greatest sustained run of creativity in the history of popular music.” Is it “greater” than Joni Mitchell’s run, or Elvis Costello’s first five albums, or the Beatles’ lighting the rocket engines around the release of Rubber Soul? The obvious answer is they’re incomparable in both senses of the word.

But I’ll give it a go. Stevie Wonder’s lyrics can’t compete with Joni or Elvis, they’re at best direct expressions of emotions but often convoluted without strong wordplay. Co-producers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil on the first four are deservedly famous for advancing synthesizers with their T.O.N.T.O. system and use of synthesizers for bass, strings, harmonies – everything but drums.

Rhythm, not drums

Stevie Wonder is obviously outrageously talented on keyboards, harmonica, and singing. It’s easy to overlook his drumming; he’s not deeply in the pocket, or super-heavy, or flashy. He can ride the hi-hat like a disco drummer, but his drumming doesn’t propel the song, it’s another rhythmic element subservient to musical ideas. Stevie gets to play drums and Moog bass and percussive keyboards, so no one instrument has to drive.

Songs in the Key of money

I bought Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale when they came out. Re-listening, I forgot how bleak Innervisions is; Stevie Wonder moved away from love songs and heartache songs to look around, and he was distressed by what he saw under the presidency of Richard Nixon.

When Songs in the Key of Life came out as a double-album with at first an additional bonus 7-inch EP, I balked. $13.98 was a lot of money! Also some low-talent British singer re-made “Isn’t She Lovely” as his own mawkish single when Stevie Wonder was unwilling to shorten the song, and BBC Radio 1 stupidly played this over and over instead of the far superior original album track. Over time I grew familiar with the towering songs, including “As” and “If it’s Magic” because friends had the double album. Listening to it on a streaming service, the additional tracks from the bonus single is a revelation. “All Day Sucker” is unlike anything Stevie Wonder did, and “Saturn” is trippy. And the amount of time and care lavished on the record is incredible:

Nonstop sessions stretched across two-and-a-half years, two coasts, and four studios: Crystal Sound in Hollywood, New York City’s Hit Factory, and the Record Plant outposts in Los Angeles and Sausalito. More often than not, he could be found in one of those spaces, sometimes for 48 hours at a time, chasing his muse with a rotating crew of engineers and support musicians. Over 130 people were involved in the recording, including Herbie Hancock, George Benson, “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow and Minnie Riperton. “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak” became Wonder’s mantra.

Inside Stevie Wonder’s Epic ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

We shall never see its like again.

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