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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When I was 17, it was a very good year

Last weekend, I returned to my home town of Cleveland and participated in my 45th high school reunion.  It was so great to see old (in both senses of the word!) classmates and wander the grounds and the halls of my alma mater, which brought back fond memories of my formative years.

I was particularly pleased to hear a lot of great music playing in the background — songs from 1972 and 1973, when we were in our senior year.  My friend Chris, a former DJ and music lover like me, played a pivotal role in compiling the tunes we would be hearing, then activating the “shuffle” mode and letting the music wash over us.

It was an incredibly fertile year.  At that time, the 45-rpm single was no longer the 1973-featureddominant form of recorded music, although there was still a vibrant Top 40 Billboard chart that offered everything from romantic soul and glam rock to straight pop and syrupy ballads.  More people were buying albums by then instead, and the list of albums released that year is truly mind-boggling.

Let’s look at the hit singles first.

As the 1972-1973 school year started in September 1972, the singles charts were still dominated by some of the songs from the summer months:  “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass; “Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)” by The Hollies; “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers; “Alone Again (Naturally)” by maxresdefault-16Gilbert O’Sullivan; “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent; “Where Is The Love” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway; “Goodbye to Love” by The Carpenters; “I’m Still in Love With You” by Al Green; “The Guitar Man” by Bread; “Saturday in the Park,” Chicago;  “Black and White” by Thee Dog Night.

A new batch of singles began their rise in October and November:  “Backstabbers” by The O’Jays; “Go All the Way” by The Raspberries; “Everybody Plays the Fool” by The 117397274Main Ingredient; “Garden Party” by Rick Nelson; “Listen to the Music” by The Doobie Brothers; “Tight Rope” by Leon Russell; “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts; “Burning Love” by Elvis Presley; “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull; “Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues; “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash; “Elected” by Alice Cooper; “Ventura Highway” by America; “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by The Temptations; “Operator” by Jim Croce; “My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry.

As the holidays rolled in, these were the songs Top 40 radio was playing:  “Me and Mrs. Jcover-large_file-1ones” by Billy Paul; “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon; “It Never Rains in Southern California” by Albert Hammond; “Your Mama Don’t Dance” by Loggins and Messina; “Do It Again” by Steely Dan; “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy; “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest; “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John; “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder; “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” by James Taylor; “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Johnny Rivers.

During the first three months of 1973, the airwaves were filled with tunes like:  “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver; “Oh Babe What Would You Say” by Hurricane Smith; “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” by Dr. Hook; “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend” by Lobo; “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack; “Could It Be 131hook32973I’m Falling in Love” by The Spinners; “Danny’s Song” by Anne Murray; “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” by Tony Orlando and Dawn; “Right Place Wrong Time” by Dr. John; “Sing” by The Carpenters; “Witchy Woman” by The Eagles; “Duelin’ Banjos” by Eric Weisberg; “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)” by The Four Tops.

My senior year concluded with the radio playing hits like these in April, May and June:  “Cisco Kid” by War; “Space Oddity” by David Bowie; “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray; “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter Group; “Peaceful” by Helen Reddy; “Hocus Pocus” by Focus; “Will It Go Round in Circles” by Billy Preston; “My Love” by Paul McCartney lou-reed-walk-on-the-wild-side-rca-5and Wings; “Kodachrome” by Paul Simon; “Love Train” by The O’Jays; “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple; “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealer’s Wheel; “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed; “Give Me Love” by George Harrison; “Long Train Runnin’” by The Doobie Brothers; “Reelin’ in the Years” by Steely Dan.

Talk about a mixed bag!  Like every year, there was garbage in there (I think my readers can identify which tunes I’m talking about) along with the stellar tracks that still hold up very well many decades later.

Meanwhile, over on the album charts, my senior year offered an almost unbelievable cornucopia of excellent stuff.  Some artists even found a way to release two solid LPs in one calendar year.  You never see THAT happen anymore…

Typically, albums do better on the charts when they include a hit single or two carney-frontsimultaneously climbing the Top 40 listings, and there were many examples of that:  Leon Russell’s “Carney,” Paul Simon’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” Rod Stewart’s “Never a Dull Moment,” Steely Dan’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” Cat Stevens’ “Catch Bull at Four,” War’s “The World is a Ghetto,” Bill Withers’ “Still Bill,” The Doobie Brothers’ “Toulouse Street” AND “The Captain and Me,” Lou Reed’s “Transformer,” Carly Simon’s “No Secrets,” Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past,” The Temptations’ “All Directions,” Elton John’s “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player” AND “Goodbye 16b47c4f5272ccc3becd0087f8f95961Yellow Brick Road,”  Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” Jim Croce’s “Life and Times,” The Allman Brothers’ “Brothers and Sisters,” Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Red Rose Speedway,” Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies,” America’s “Homecoming,” Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” AND “Innervisions,” Neil Diamond’s “Moods,” Chicago’s “Chicago V,” Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get,” The Moody Blues’ “Seventh Sojourn,” Dr. John’s “In the Right Place,” Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” Edgar Winter Group’s “They Only Come Out at Night,” Grand Funk Railroad’s “Phoenix,” Pure Prairie League’s “Bustin’ Out.”

220px-DavisBowieAladdinSaneAnd yet, some of the classic LPs of the year sold well without benefit of a hit single:  David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane,” Yes’s “Close to the Edge,” Todd Rundgren’s “A Wizard/A True Star,” J Geils Band’s “Bloodshot,” Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Trilogy,” Humble Pie’s “Eat It,” Van Morrison’s “St. Dominic’s Preview,” Joe Walsh’s “Barnstorm,” Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” Jethro Tull’s “A Passion Play,” Diana Ross’s “Lady Sings the Blues,”  Led Zeppelin’s Yes-closeHouses of the Holy,” Johnny Winter’s “Still Alive and Well,” The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” The Small Faces’ “Ooh La La,” Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire,” Traffic’s “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory,” Joni Mitchell’s “For the Roses,” Santana’s “Caravanserai,” Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” The Grateful Dead’s “Europe ’72,” The Eagles’ “Desperado.”

Also, in the same year came debut albums by artists who would soon be major stars:  Aerosmith, The Marshall Tucker Band, Bette Midler, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Peter Frampton, Bob Marley, Lynyrd Skynyrd, KISS, Jackson Browne, 10cc.

And then there were the albums that flew under the radar that I was lucky enough to stumble upon at the right time.  Technically released in 1971 but discovered by me in the fall of ’72, Batdorf and Rodney’s “Off the Shelf” was on my turntable for untold hours in the winter and spring of 1973.  It’s interesting, almost creepy, to note that the lyrics to the leadoff song, “Oh My Surprise,” addresses the issue of reminiscing about the good old days:  “I thought I could never go back to those years I loved so well, oh my surprise, oh my surprise…”

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517EgECnPrLThe year 1973 was a significant year for another big reason, according to Michael Walker, author of the revealing 2013 book, “What You Want is in the Limo.”  In his introduction, he maintains that 1973 was the year that the Sixties finally died and modern rock stardom was born, when bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who and Alice Cooper put together monumental, physically punishing concert tours that set new standards — for attendance, for the quality and quantity of recreational drugs, for the amount of equipment and lighting on stage, for backstage and hotel hijinx, for the sheer volume of sound coming from the speakers.

“The bands and music of the ’60s created an outsized hunger for rock culture but lacked the infrastructure to deliver it,” Walker writes.  “In 1973, supply finally catches up with demand.  As the ’60s bled into the ’70s, the naive counterculturalism that bound rock bands in generational solidarity to their audience began to fray.  A new generation of AliceCooperfans too young for Woodstock inherited the tropes of the ’60s, minus the boring poli-sci socio-overlay.  Thus do peace, love, and understanding devolve into sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  The sex was younger, the drugs harder, and the rock and roll louder, longer and infinitely more belligerent.”

Walker makes a valid case that, post-1973, the rock music got bigger but more indulgent, more of a business and less of a pleasure, more destructive and less creative.  “The template created in 1973 will, three years later, metastasize into mega-albums by Peter Frampton and Fleetwood Mac and, in the ’80s and ’90s, tours upsized from civic arenas to Jumbotronned stadia and records shipped in R-52_LedZeppelin1973_Gruenthe tens of millions, though by then the rituals, commodified by corporate patronage, will seem increasingly scripted.”

Of course, there were many exceptions to these statements, but there’s no question that rock stars became more distant from their fans by the mid-Seventies.  In 1970-1972, you could still go see a show by a big name group and not have to take out a loan to buy a ticket.  Walker sums it up this way:  “1973 distills a decade’s worth of decadence into twelve awesome months and resets the clock for the rest of the Seventies and all that they imply.  It’s a year that, by any measure, ought to be its own decade.”

For a guy who graduated from high school that year, I must say I wholeheartedly agree.  The singles and albums outlined above demonstrate that fact.

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I’ve compiled two playlists on Spotify for this post.  The first includes some of the more commercial hit singles from ’72-’73, and the second offers a sampling of some of my favorite deeper tracks from the albums of that period.