27. Stevie Wonder (Stevland Morris)

Stevie Wonder is a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Saginaw, Michigan. Stevie was born six weeks premature, and the blood vessels to his eyes failed to develop properly. He has been blind since birth. Stevie’s mother Lula Hardaway moved her family to Detroit when Stevie was four. As a child, he played a number of instruments and sang in his church choir. By age eleven, the precocious young man was introduced to Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, and “Little Stevie Wonder” signed his first contract with Motown in 1961.

061313-shows-bet-awards-performers-stevie-wonder-portrait

Stevland Morris, aka Stevie Wonder (b. 1950), singer, songwriter, keyboards, harmonica

Comprehensive British Website for Stevie Wonder
New York Times Index of Stevie Wonder Articles
The Funk Brothers: Standing In the Shadows Of Motown Website

Adolescence

Stevie Wonder’s career has two distinct phases. In the early sixties, Stevie was Motown’s first childhood star, years before the record company struck gold with The Jackson 5. Initially, the record label struggled to find a niche for the talented young man. Motown scored a surprise #1 hit in 1963 with the live performance “Fingertips (Part 2)”, which featured Wonder singing a few simple phrases, while playing harmonica and bongos. Otherwise, Wonder’s early career finds the record company trying to find the right fit, somewhere between the extremes of jazz musician and singer of pop standards. Several albums of songs were released with little success. Throughout these early years, Wonder was a diligent student of music and studio production, a trait that would soon pay dividends.

Berry Gordy feared his young star’s popularity would dim with adulthood, but Wonder’s voice matured handsomely and in early 1966, Wonder achieved a breakthrough hit with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, based on a riff that he constructed. Over the next four years, Wonder found a niche as lead singer on a series of Motown classic singles, including “I Was Made To Love Her” and “For Once In My Life”, each of which feature memorable contributions by bassist James Jamerson.

Adulthood

Wonder’s contract with Motown expired in 1971, and he became the equivalent of a sports free agent, holding out for agreeable contract terms. While on hiatus, and equipped with a full complement of recording skills — singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer — he worked independently on his own musical ideas. Motown signed him to a lucrative new contract in 1972, with Wonder commanding near complete control and a higher royalty rate for songs. He then embarked on his most fruitful period of music, five albums in a four year period which define his mature phase as a popular artist.

Music Of My Mind
Talking Book
Innervisions
Fulfillingness’ First Finale
Songs In The Key Of Life

Analyze and Reminisce

In the fall of 1976, I left home for my first year in college with a second hand stereo, a box of cassette tapes and two record albums, The Best of the Crusaders and Songs In The Key Of Life. Songs In The Key Of Life was that rare double album where all four sides were good enough to play all the way through. I never heard anyone criticize the record; everybody knew it was a masterpiece. In my experience, the Beatles’ White Album and perhaps Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland are the only double albums of new material that are comparable, and they don’t match Wonder’s masterpiece in terms of depth and musical complexity.

Among an audience of his peers, Wonder’s contributions to music during the seventies received unprecedented acclaim. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded Wonder twelve Grammy Awards between 1973 and 1976, including best album for Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs In the Key Of Life. In an era where less musical territory remained unexplored, Wonder created beautiful, complex, relevant music with a social conscience.

“Wonder’s songs are renowned for being quite difficult to sing. He has a very developed sense of harmony and uses many extended chords utilizing extensions such as ninths, elevenths, thirteenths, diminished fifths, etc. in his compositions. Many of his melodies make abrupt, unpredictable changes. Many of his vocal melodies are also melismatic, meaning that a syllable is sung over several notes. Some of his best known and most frequently covered songs are played in keys which are more often found in jazz than in pop and rock. For example, “Superstition”, “Higher Ground” and “I Wish” are in the key of E flat minor, and feature distinctive riffs in the E flat minor pentatonic scale.”

— Wikipedia

Here’s an excerpt from the documentary Classic Albums – Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life. Not only does Stevie Wonder sing, play keyboards and harmonica and produce his greatest albums, he also plays drums on most songs.

Amazon.com Link to the Documentary “Classic Albums – Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life”

I reviewed the chord structures for a number of Stevie Wonder songs. They are as complex as any non-jazz musician in my artist countdown. Wonder composes with a keyboard, a more versatile instrument than the guitarists who dominated much of my early education in music. Nevertheless, the complexity indicates extensive knowledge and attention to detail. A serious musician, whose stage persona belies his true nature. The stereotypical image of Stevie, perhaps enhanced by a memorable impression by comedian Eddie Murphy, is carefree, smiling broadly, weaving back and forth to the music. Perhaps his blindness frees him from any restraints of self-consciousness.

The repetitive use of E-flat minor for the funky, upbeat songs is curious. The E-flat minor triad (E-flat, G-flat, B-flat) are all black keys; perhaps the dominant use of black keys makes the sound distinctive. Stevie Wonder helped popularize the use of various keyboard synthesizers, including the clavinet which gives the “Superstition” riff its unique sound. Without being able to ask Mr. Wonder whether E-flat minor has special significance, I’d guess it’s just a favorite key to work in, one that worked well for him when creating upbeat music. I think of Wonder’s own music as listening music first, and not dance music, with the upbeat songs being danceable, but not dance music. Except for “I Wish”, to which I danced to many times in the lounge of my college dormitory. “I Wish” is a great bumping song. We used to bump back then; that was a fun way to dance.

Stevie Wonder sings and plays “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” from Songs In The Key To Life. A beautiful song about agape, the universal love:



For Once In My Life

“Adding to the pitch saturation of “My Cherie Amour” is the fact that it modulates up a half-step for the last stanza. Musicians often criticize this type oF upward modulation (heard to great effect in Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, in which he changes key several times) as being a somewhat cheap way to maintain or increase intensity, but it works fairly well for Stevie Wonder, probably because he used the technique so sparingly in his career.”

— James E. Perone, “The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words And Music”

Amazon.com Link to “The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words And Music”, by James E. Perone

I disagree with Mr. Perone. There are quite a few Stevie Wonder songs that use the upward modulation. Here are a few examples of songs that use this “trick”:

And I Love Her, The Beatles
Penny Lane, The Beatles
My Sweet Lord, George Harrison
These Eyes, The Guess Who
New Kid In Town, The Eagles
Hello It’s Me, Todd Rundgren

There’s a funny website, no longer maintained, that documented this phenomenon in over a hundred songs. You can find anything on the Internet.

The Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame

“C’mon, Marianne” by the Four Seasons, modulates down one half step in mid-song.

In addition to the Stevie Wonder songs mentioned by James Perone, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Years Away” and “For Once In My Life” all change gears. “For Once In My Life” a lifetime favorite, moves from F to F# for the harmonica solo and final verse. My Dad absolutely loved “For Once In My Life”, and once again, the apple does not fall far from the tree. He thought the harmonica solo was the most beautiful thing he ever heard, and though I agree it may be the best harmonica solo in pop music history, what moves me these days is the Motown ensemble, driven by James Jamerson’s bass and Earl Van Dyke’s piano. Classy, swinging, timeless, it is forever one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard.

It’s impossible to replicate the beauty of a classic recording, but here is a fine rendition from the Motown 25th anniversary program in 1986:

In conclusion, here is Stevie Wonder performing the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”. In 2010, McCartney was awarded the Gershwin Prize by the Library of Congress, and performed a concert at the White House. Wonder, who had received the Gershwin Prize the year before, was invited to perform his version with Paul McCartney’s band. The band clearly appears to enjoying himself, perhaps more than McCartney, seated next to the President. Good luck to the Jonas Brothers, who have to follow this:

Stevie Wonder Song Notes:

1. I have included 45 Stevie Wonder songs in the collection. Only four of the songs, “Ribbon In The Sky”, “Do I Do”, “Part-Time Lover” and “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”, were recorded after Songs In The Key Of Life. A distinct lack of attention is given to his later work.

2. I try to include alternate mixes of favorite songs, when I can find them. Motown has good stereo and monaural mixes of many hits, and two are included here, though they won’t count towards the artist’s “total star” rating. The monaural mixes are reserved for devoted fans.

3. Good clean versions of every song can be found on the At The Close Of the Century compilation. Since I decided upon a list independently, it’s interesting to compare my list of songs with the seventy songs recommended there.

4. “If It’s Magic” has special meaning for me. There was a time during the first year of dating my wife, when it looked like our relationship would end. I made her a cassette tape of love songs, and “If It’s Magic” is perhaps the most memorable entry. No other song on the tape draws a straight line to that event, and that time in life.

Stevie Wonder Songs:

For Once In My Life, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭✭✭
For Once In My Life (Mono), Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭✭✭
Uptight (Everything’s Alright), Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭✭✭

I Wish, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭✭
I Was Made To Love Her, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭✭
I Was Made To Love Her (Mono), Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭✭
My Cherie Amour, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭✭
If It’s Magic, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭✭

Boogie On Reggae Woman, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭
Higher Ground, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭
Sir Duke, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭
Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭
Superstition, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭
You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, Stevie Wonder ✭✭✭

Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
If You Really Love Me, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Fingertips (Parts 1 & 2) (Live), Stevie Wonder ✭✭
I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever), Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Too High, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Visions, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Golden Lady, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
You Haven’t Done Nothin’, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Ribbon In The Sky, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Love’s In Need Of Love Today, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Isn’t She Lovely, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
Living For The City, Stevie Wonder ✭✭
He’s Misstra Know-It-All, Stevie Wonder ✭✭

We Can Work It Out, Stevie Wonder
Blowin’ In The Wind, Stevie Wonder
A Place In The Sun, Stevie Wonder
Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday, Stevie Wonder
Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away, Stevie Wonder
Creepin’, Stevie Wonder
Part-Time Lover, Stevie Wonder
Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You), Stevie Wonder
Master Blaster (Jammin’), Stevie Wonder
Do I Do, Stevie Wonder
Have A Talk With God, Stevie Wonder
Knocks Me Off My Feet, Stevie Wonder
Pastime Paradise, Stevie Wonder
Summer Soft, Stevie Wonder
Ordinary Pain, Stevie Wonder
As, Stevie Wonder
Another Star, Stevie Wonder
Big Brother, Stevie Wonder

Related Songs:

Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭✭

We Can Work It Out, The Beatles ✭✭

Blowin’ In The Wind, Bob Dylan ✭✭✭✭
Blowin’ In The Wind (Alt), Bob Dylan ✭✭✭
Blowin’ In The Wind, Peter, Paul & Mary ✭✭

Little Old Man (Uptight, Everything’s Alright), Bill Cosby

The Tears Of A Clown, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles ✭✭✭✭
The Tears Of A Clown, The English Beat ✭✭✭

It’s A Shame, The Spinners ✭✭✭
It’s A Shame, The Funk Brothers ✭✭

I Was Made To Love Her, The Funk Brothers ✭✭

For Once In My Life, The Funk Brothers ✭✭

Tell Me Something Good, Rufus ✭✭

I Can’t Help It, Michael Jackson ✭✭

Ebony & Ivory, Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder

One thought on “27. Stevie Wonder (Stevland Morris)

  1. Cheryl November 6, 2012 / 2:11 AM

    John gave me the “Cheri, Cheri” mix tape in January, 1990; we had been dating for five months. What a direct line to a girl’s heart! Does anyone do that anymore? Two of the twenty eight love songs on that cassette tape were by Stevie Wonder: “If It’s Magic” and “My Cheri Amour”. I still have the cassette although it doesn’t get played anymore. Instead, the digital version of that same playlist is on my iPod. It still gives me a silly grin.

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