Here I am, signed, sealed, delivered

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the man who evolved from a Motown prodigy to one of the most respected musical geniuses of all time:  Stevie Wonder.

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On May 13, 1950, a boy was born prematurely in Saginaw, Michigan, and put on oxygen treatment in an incubator.  Evidently, an excess of oxygen aggravated a rare visual condition known as “retinopathy of prematurity,” which caused total, irreparable blindness.

images-21The lack of sight seemed to turn to an advantage, as the boy realized his heightened sense of hearing allowed him to acutely absorb music of all kinds.  He sang in the church youth choir at age four.  In rapid succession, he learned piano, drums and harmonica, all by age nine.

No one could have possibly predicted the dizzying heights this prodigy would attain by his mid-20s.  Stevland Hardaway Judkins — later Stevland Morris when his mother remarried — became, by 1962, “Little Stevie Wonder,” a true phenomenon who evolved into Stevie Wonder, one of the two or three most important musical artist of our time, in the 1970s especially.

No less a musical giant than Paul Simon had this to say at Wonder’s 1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame introduction:  “Can anyone imagine what the last 25 years of American popular music would have been without Stevie Wonder?  He is the composer of his generation.”  At that same event, the normally cryptic Bob Dylan couldn’t have been clearer in his praise for the man:  “He’s a great mimic, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and is a true roadhouse musician at heart, but somehow with classical overtones, and he does it all with drama and style.  If anyone can be called a musical genius, Stevie Wonder can be.”

Unknown-21Even Marvin Gaye, who came closest to rivaling Wonder as Motown Records’ best vocalist, said, “I always hated it when he came out on stage before I did, because he had twice the energy of all of us combined.  He drained the fans dry.”

Hard to believe now, but Wonder’s career began in fits and starts.  While performing for some of his friends at the tender age of 11, he was discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles, who helped arrange an audition with kingpin Berry Gordy at Motown.  Gordy chose to sign the young man, not so much for his voice but for his spectacular harmonica playing.  “He sang pretty well, but his harmonica…man, I’d never heard anything like it,” Gordy said.

Even then, he could handle a chromatic harmonica in a way like none other, coaxing sounds that were alternately inspiring and heartbreaking.  Gordy put him to work on instrumental versions of jazz and blues standards, a full album of random Ray Charles tracks, and other more questionable material, only occasionally with vocals, keeping a tight rein on him, as was customary with new artists in the early ’60s, particularly at Motown.  Some of it was good stuff…but no one much noticed.

An appearance at the Regal Theatre in Chicago in the summer of 1962, recorded and released as a live album in 1963 called “The 12-Year-Old Genius,” changed things in a big hurry.  Suddenly the album was a chart-topper, thanks to the track “Fingertips,” an eight-1963-little-stevie-wonder-crop90minute tour-de-force edited down to a single (“Fingertips, Part 2”), which also rocketed to #1 that summer.

Wonder had modest success with a few more singles over the next year, but none even close to the level of “Fingertips, Pt. 2.”  His voice was going through the awkward changes every boy experiences in puberty, so he put his recording career on hold, studying classical piano for a spell.  When he re-emerged the following year, he returned to the Top Five with the infectious, typically Motown-sounding dance tune “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” which was all the rage at #3 during Christmastime 1965.  Now he was without question an integral part of the famed stable of successful Motown artists (Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and more).

By 1967-1968, Wonder was writing and producing tracks as well, putting his mark on such important classics as “I Was Made to Love Her” (check out that harmonica!) and the 161121_MUSIC_WonderWeek_Series_Harmonica.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2modern standard, “For Once in My Life,” both widely imitated but never bettered.  He continued to remain a vocal presence on the charts through 1969 and 1970 with either light ballads or proud soul such as “My Cherie Amour,” “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” and the effervescent “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.”

(Fascinating aside:  “I Was Made to Love Her” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” were both co-written by his mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, who came up with the idea and the lyrics, which her son then put to music.  Talk about a mother and child reunion…!)

(Fascinating aside #2:  Stevie wrote the music to one of Smokey Robinson’s biggest hits, “Tears of a Clown,” back in 1966, which didn’t become a hit single until 1970.  And as it turns out, The Spinners’ huge hit, “It’s a Shame,” was also a Stevie Wonder composition.  Should I also mention that “Tell Me Something Good,” the mid-’70s hit by Rufus with Chaka Khan, was also written by Stevie?  OK, I will.)

(Fascinating aside #3:  There have been some remarkable cover versions of Stevie Wonder tunes through the years which shouldn’t go unmentioned:  Peter Frampton, Art Garfunkel and others have had success with the 1972 track “I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)”; Stevie Ray Vaughan had a big hit with his rendition of “Superstition” in 1986; even the Jackson 5 had a minor hit with their cover of “I Was Made to Love Her” in 1973.)

By 1971, Wonder was turning 21, and he not only had access to the trust funds held in reserve for him since his debut, he was no longer under the thumb of Gordy’s often dictatorial control.  Stevie demanded, and won, total control over his creative output, and established his own publishing company and a negotiated royalty rate that rewrote the book for artists in the decades to come.

His first efforts within his new freedom were, admittedly, a bit tentative and erratic.  “Where I’m Coming From” (1971) and “Music Of My Mind” (1972) were well intentioned but rather self-indulgent song cycles, as Wonder made clumsy attempts to address social issues in his lyrics as he broadened his horizons musically.  But he was showing a remarkable melodic sensibility, with sophisticated arrangements and exceptional performances, occasionally nailing it with tracks like “Superwoman,” one of his most joyous and wistful songs all wrapped up in one impressive track.

Ah, but as it turned out, he was just getting started.

talking-book-steve-wonderI don’t know who was responsible, but the decision for Wonder to tour as warm-up act for The Rolling Stones 1972 US tour was a stroke of genius, for it opened him up to a previously ambivalent white audience in a huge way.  At precisely that moment, Wonder released the LP “Talking Book,” a peerless collection of incredible R&B tunes that zoomed to #1 at the same time its first single, the irresistible “Superstition,” did the same thing. Gushed the Chicago Tribune, “A man whose only colors are in the spectrum of sounds has opened new eyes for all of us.”  Rolling Stone called it “the work of a now quite matured genius.”

While his lyrics still sometimes felt amateurish, he nevertheless struck resounding chords about governmental overreach (“Big Brother”) and paranoia and conspiracy (“Superstition”).  Wonder’s clavinet, the electric clavichord instrument made by Hohner that Wonder had been fiddling with since the late 1960s, was his favorite musical vehicle to bring forth the marvelous chord progressions and melodies dancing around in his ever-creative head.

For me, Wonder’s crowning achievement is the nearly perfect 1973 album “Innervisions,”  on which he wrote, produced, sang and played virtually every instrument.  “Too High,” stevie-wonder_innervisions“Living For The City,” “Golden Lady,” “Higher Ground,” “All in Love is Fair,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” — are you kidding me??  This is a greatest hits record all by itself.  The Grammys, which has so often gotten it wrong regarding what the year’s best music was, for once hit a home run by awarding “Innervisions” the Album of the Year honor.

He was now writing widely accessible songs that straddled the pop/R&B spectrum, songs that sounded like some wondrous combination of George Gershwin and Smokey Robinson.  Let’s not forget its closer, “He’s Misstra-Know-It-All,” a scathing indictment of Richard Nixon which, 45 years later, presages the same problems with indignant narcissism we face from the current White House occupant:  “Makes a deal with a smile, knowing all the time his lie’s a mile… Must be seen, there’s no doubt, he’s the coolest one with the biggest mouth…  If he shakes on a bet, he’s the kind of dude who won’t pay his debt, he’s Misstra Know-It-All…”

The next release, 1974’s “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” was perhaps the most intellectually reaching and spiritually immersed work of his career.  He had been in a close-call auto accident in the fall of ’73, putting him in a coma for several days, from which he emerged with a heightened purpose and a focused spirituality that showed up in the songs on that album:  “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” another anti-Nixon diatribe and another #1; the funky and somewhat raunchy “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” which also went Top Five; and great album tracks like “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” a thought-provoking piece of inspirational, melodic humility.

Oh, by the way, it earned another Album of the Year Grammy.

flat,800x800,075,f.u1To many, Stevie Wonder’s apex was his ineffable double LP from 1976, “Songs in the Key of Life,” by all counts a monumental work, one of the most seismic releases in the history of American popular culture. It has inspired books, documentaries, cover albums, samples, even entire bands and their catalogs.  It has been called “the most ambitious work ever made by a pop star at the height of his or her powers… a ‘concept album’ whose concept is nothing less than life itself.”  The songs are all over the map, lyrically and musically, and yet they flow and coalesce beautifully, and the singles pulled from it stand out magnificently on their own.

Besides the hits “I Wish” and “Sir Duke,” there’s the hymn-like “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the jazz-fusion of “Contusion,” the gorgeous “Summer Soft,” the minor classic “Isn’t She Lovely,” the stunning ballad “Isn’t It Magic” and the rollicking album closers “As” and “Another Star.”  Go ahead, I dare you to play the whole album.  You will be completely exhausted, and thoroughly satisfied.  It became his third Album of the Year Grammy winner in four years.

And at this point, he was still only 26 years old.

Wonder perhaps coasted on the high of this achievement for nearly three years before releasing the curiously uncommercial Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants,” ostensibly a collection of soundtrack material for a documentary film about botany (??) that has still never been released.  Was it an experimental departure?  Most assuredly.  Did it work?  Well… there were some pretty songs on there, especially the #4 hit “Send One Your Love” and the more conventional “Black Orchid,” but most of the LP was way out of his comfort zone, I’d say.  And yet, it reached #10, probably on the strength of his reputation more than what was found within.

stevie_wonder_hotter_than_julyHe no doubt saw the need to bounce back with something that came much closer to meeting his fans’ expectations, and 1980’s “Hotter Than July” certainly did that.  He had been touring with Jamaica reggae sensation Bob Marley, and his tribute, “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” reached #5, which put the LP at #3, thanks as well to the galloping “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” and the contagious “Rocket Love.”  The LP also contained “Happy Birthday,” a key part of Wonder’s blatant appeal to America to turn Martin Luther King’s birthday into a national holiday.  And it worked.

It was too long a time before we heard from Stevie again, and maybe it’s not fair to have expected him to keep up that frenetic pace for long.  He did come up with the marvelous “That Girl” as a new single from his first major career retrospective “The Original Musiquarium” in 1982, but the next Stevie sighting was the incredibly lame “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” from the “The Woman in Red” soundtrack.  It went through the roof commercially, but true fans and critics loathed it.  Some say he never truly recovered artistically.

images-20In 1985, Wonder finally completed “In Square Circle,” the album he’d been working on for nearly five years, and thanks to the hit “Part Time Lover,” his last solo hit, the album sold plenty of copies.  But even he knew his days as the chart-topping wizard were now behind him.  He seemed to accept his new role as an elder statesman of sorts, willing to collaborate on major charity projects like “We Are the World” and with newer figures like Babyface and Coolio as the ’80s became the ’90s, and beyond.

Stevie Wonder is still out there, touring to adoring masses, maybe even tonight.  He hasn’t released anything new in a long time, but I certainly don’t care, and neither should you.  Just consider the weight and impact of his recorded output, and you’ll soon realize:  What he has already accomplished is truly an inhuman achievement.  A wonder, you might say.

 

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It goes on and on, watching the river run

There are so many fascinating stories from the ’60s and ’70s about how and why bands were formed and broke up, who wrote which songs, who appeared on which albums, who paired off with whom, who produced the albums, which acts became famous and which didn’t.

And it’s such a gas to be lucky enough to hear these stories from someone who was there, right in the thick of it.

In the burgeoning Los Angeles music scene at the time, folk artists and rock musicians were combining forces to create the genre that became known as folk rock.  Soon thereafter, those who appreciated elements of country music added their talents to the mix, and the result was (what else?) country rock.

gtr_plyr_1977_smIn the middle of all of this creative mixing of styles and influences, one name kept popping up:  Jim Messina.

Most rock music aficionados recognize his name as one half of the popular ’70s duo Loggins and Messina.  Although, truth be told, most folks are probably more aware of Kenny Loggins, but are only marginally familiar with Messina and his accomplishments.  And that’s a shame.

In my opinion, and in the view of many knowledgeable observers, Messina is the greater talent.  In fact, without him, it’s likely no one would have ever heard of Loggins, as we shall see.  Messina’s contributions, meanwhile, have sometimes been behind the scenes and therefore less in the limelight.

unnamed-2As Messina and his current band came through town last week on the California leg of their concert tour, he graciously agreed to sit down with Hack’s Back Pages for a chat.  Let’s start this story at the beginning, which would be in 1965 when Messina, who grew up in the Riverside/San Bernardino area east of L.A., relocated to Hollywood at age 17 to pursue a career in music.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize I wasn’t going to find much work as a musician because everybody I came across was so damn good, so I started apprenticing as a recording engineer,” he recalled.  “I learned how to build studios, and had the chance to work on a home studio for Joe Osborn, one of the all-time great session bass players.  I loved the way he played, so I agreed to work for free if he would give me a few bass lessons.”

Messina’s ever-growing knowledge in engineering and recording soon brought him to Sunset Sound Recorders in 1967, a hotbed of rock music activity.  One of his first assignments as an engineer there was to set up mics for a simple guitar-and-voice session for a new artist.  He was awed by the gentle beauty of her voice and the delicate melodies she sang.  “What’s her name?” he asked, and was told, “Joni Mitchell.”

His next project, thanks to Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, was as an engineer on the second album by Buffalo Springfield, the seminal rock/folk/country band that featured the formidable talents of Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay.  “I had heard Stills’ song ‘Bluebird’ on the radio, not knowing who it was, so I was pleased to learn that was their song, and looked forward to working with them based on that,” Messina said.

In early 1968, when the band was set to record its third album, Messina was asked to be its producer, unaware of the inner turmoil that was threatening the group’s future.  “They’d seen what I was doing and trusted me, I guess, so I quickly accepted.  I had no

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Buffalo Springfield in 1968:  Dewey Martin, Jim Messina, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

idea of the issues that were going on.  I soon saw I could never get these guys to come work in the studio at the same time.  Stephen would show up but Neil wouldn’t, and vice versa.  Or (drummer) Dewey (Martin) would be so stoned he couldn’t sit on his stool.

“Then (bassist) Bruce Palmer got arrested and deported back to Canada, so they were without a bass player.  I could play guitar, and I’d been practicing on bass, and I was very familiar with their sound, of course.  So I raised my hand and offered to play the bass parts.  Stephen was blown away with how it sounded, so just like that, I was in the band.  There were some live dates coming up, so I joined them for those too.”

Messina contributed his song “Carefree Country Day” and played bass on tracks like Furay’s classic “Kind Woman,” all the while serving as producer of what turned out to be the Springfield’s final product (the 1968 LP “Last Time Around”), trying to give continuity to what would have otherwise been a fragmented mess, as the group was disintegrating.  Many observers feel the album never would have been released if not for Messina’s efforts.

So as Young embarked on a solo career, and Stills headed off to collaborate with David Crosby and Graham Nash, Messina considered his options.  “Richie and I had become friends,” he said.  “He and I were both pretty straight, not really into the party lifestyle, and I loved his songs.  So we agreed we ought to team up.”

Furay and Messina were impressed with the pedal steel playing of Rusty Young, who was brought in on the final Springfield sessions, and he was pleased to join the new band.  They held auditions for a bass player, taking a look at both Gram Parsons (??) and a young Gregg Allman (??!!) before eventually bringing Randy Meisner into the fold.  With drummer George Grantham completing the quintet, they chose to call themselves Pogo, named after the Walt Kelly cartoon character.  “Kelly didn’t like that and threatened to sue,” Messina recalled.  “We were doing our first set of shows at The Troubadour, so our road manager had the idea of just changing the G to a C on the marquis, and we became Poco that night.”

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Poco in 1970:  Rusty Young, George Grantham, Timothy B. Schmidt, Richie Furay, Jim Messina

Their 1969 debut LP, entitled “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” (the pieces of Buffalo Springfield — get it?), is now widely regarded as one of the first important country rock albums.  Messina again produced, and played guitar and sang, and most of the songs were written by Furay.  Meisner recorded his parts but then had a falling out with Furay and soon left, eventually joining The Eagles and riding that rocket to stardom.  Poco replaced him with bassist/singer Timothy B. Schmidt, and this lineup released the fine “Poco” album in 1970,   included Messina’s minor hit “You Better Think Twice” and the fabulous 18-minute jam, “Nobody’s Fool/El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa.”  It should’ve been a huge hit, in most critics’ opinion, but the general public was still apparently not enthused, and even the FM album-oriented rock radio stations weren’t playing it.

Poco had a loyal following, and the band toured relentlessly, but the albums just didn’t sell, which Messina said was a source of great frustration to Furay, who watched with envy while his former bandmates Stills and Young became superstars.  “He was angry,” Messina noted, “in ways that started affecting our friendship, and it reached the point when I decided I needed to leave.”  He agreed to help groom his successor, guitarist Paul Cotton (who remained with the group for decades), and finished producing the Poco live album “Deliverin'” in early 1971 before signing a six-record deal with Columbia as an independent producer.

Curiously, the first artist Columbia paired him with was easy listening crooner Andy Williams.  “I turned them down,” Messina said.  “He was a very sophisticated singer who typically worked with orchestras, and I told them there were other people better suited to the job.”

The next attempted pairing was with newcomer Dan Fogelberg.  “I loved his voice, and he had some pretty good songs, but when I asked him why he came to me out of all the choices he had, he said, ‘I’m a big Poco fan, and I want to make a Poco record.’  I had to tell him, ‘Well, I just spent two years making Poco records, and we were told by radio programmers that we were too country for rock stations, and too rock for country stations.’  I didn’t want any more of that frustration, so I passed.”

Then along came Kenny Loggins.  Said Messina, “I liked him, and I liked his songs, especially ‘Danny’s Song” and “House at Pooh Corner.’  I agreed to produce him, but I knew we had a lot of work to do.  He was basically a folk singer, and some of the stuff he brought wasn’t really what we needed.  We had to make the kind of album that a solo artist would need to be successful in that arena.  People like Dave Mason, Delaney and Bonnie, and Crosby, Stills & Nash were out already, doing sophisticated types of songs, and I needed to bring Kenny up to that level.  He’d never had a band, didn’t even own a guitar, had no manager, no agent.”

51NVG15ASRLMessina worked with him to assemble a talented band of players — drummer Merle Bregante, bassist Larry Sims, multi-instrumentalists Al Garth and Jon Clarke, and keyboardist Michael Omartian — with whom they rehearsed and recorded Loggins’ songs, plus several more Messina contributed (“Peace of Mind,” “Listen to a Country Song,” “Rock and Roll Mood” and “Trilogy”).  “My mindset was we needed to get Kenny out on the road quickly, right after the album was released, to help promote the album and get his name out there, and it needed to be with this same group of musicians.”

Messina had made such a significant contribution to the finished product (and because Messina had more name recognition than Loggins at that point) that Columbia chose to title the album “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In.”  The marketing strategy seemed to work; while it peaked at only #70 on the Top 200 album charts, “Sittin’ In” spent 113 weeks there (more than two years), and they sold a lot of concert tickets because of it.

660af44b8b8ad4110597e12963625557Loggins the solo artist had now morphed into Loggins and Messina the duo, and the eponymous follow-up LP, which reached #16, included the tour-de-force “Angry Eyes,” Messina’s catchy “Thinkin’ of You” and the Top Five single “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” which became their signature song (although neither Loggins nor Messina thought much of it).

They remained a formidable recording and live act for another five years and six albums.  “Full Sail” (1973), “On Stage” (1974) and “Mother Lode” (1974) all reached the Top 10, followed by “So Fine” (1975), “Native Sons” (1976) and another live album, “Finale” (1977).   Loggins then finally began the solo career he’d been seeking, while Messina, meanwhile, continued producing, also recording a few solo albums of quality material.

When asked about the craft of songwriting, he said, “Remember, I’d been engineering and producing for some damn good songwriters from early on.  Intuitively, even then I knew what I needed to do, which was to grow and become a better musician, and a better singer.  I saw what was necessary for a song to be successful, and learned a lot from that period.”

LogginsMessina-MotherLodeAlbumCover

“Mother Lode” (1974)

Indeed.  If you aren’t familiar with specific songs in Messina’s composing portfolio, let me introduce you to his best.  In addition to the tunes already mentioned, check out these:  “Watching the River Run,” “Traveling Blues” and “Pathway to Glory” from “Full Sail”;  “Be Free,” “Changes,” “Lately My Love,” “Move On” and “Keep Me in Mind” from the superb “Mother Lode”;  “Sweet Marie,” “Pretty Princess” and “When I Was a Child” from “Native Sons”;  “A New and Different Way” and “Seeing You For the First Time” from his first solo LP, “Oasis” (1979); and “Whispering Waters” and “Child of My Dreams” from 1981’s “Messina.”

Poco, meanwhile, had soldiered on with and without Furay, with nothing resembling a hit single or album until 1979, when “Legend” became a Top 20 LP on the strength of Rusty Young’s “Crazy Love” and Cotton’s “Heart of the Night,” both Top 20 singles.  Ten years later, in 1989, Poco’s original lineup of Furay-Messina-Young-Meisner-Grantham reunited for the “Legacy” LP, which included two Messina-penned tracks, “Follow Your Dreams” and “Lovin’ You Every Minute,” and a Top 20 single, “Call It Love,” co-written by Messina.  The fivesome toured behind labelmate rocker Richard Marx before disbanding again.

LogginsMessinaNewPubcA much-discussed Loggins and Messina reunion finally occurred in 2005 with a lucrative tour and a live CD, “Live:  Sittin’ In Again at the Santa Barbara Bowl,” and then another tour in 2009.  On his own, Messina released “Under a Mojito Moon,” which features Cuban and Spanish-inflected melodies and Messina’s flamenco guitar work.  More recently, he and his band released “Jim Messina Live at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts,” a venue near San Luis Obispo, in 2012.

At 70, Messina is still plenty busy.  He runs The Songwriters’ Performance Workshop, a six-day program for aspiring artists he conducts at resorts and hotels around the country, and he stays active producing and engineering as a recording studio owner.

a1274309676_10He is currently on the road promoting “In the Groove,” recorded live in 2015 with Rusty Young making a guest appearance.  This release is available on vinyl and, in a new innovation, as a USB card, which includes not only mp3 files of the songs but also files of lyrics, video footage and more.

IMG_2489“It’s pretty cool,” Messina said,  “You can pop it into your laptop and play or download whatever you want.  I’m told this is the wave of the future as far as physical music delivery systems are concerned.”