Stevie Wonder – A Musical History (BBC4 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Friday night is traditionally music night on BBC4 and over the last few weeks there have been a series of “Musical Histories”. These have been genre based, this is the first one I have seen which have focused on one artist, I didn’t actually realise that this was linked in with this series until I saw the return of the dodgy retro graphics which have opened these programmes and which are reminiscent of some afternoon children’s pop show from the 1970’s. Next week it is Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music who come under the spotlight with another performer scheduled later in the year for this three part artist retrospective.

I did manage to watch three of the Musical Histories which focused on Disco and Electronica, Soul & R&B and Greatest Voices. The format was of two artists or experts from the chosen genre discussing an ultimate playlist and watching clips of their chosen tracks. Thus we had Ana Matronic and Martyn Ware on Disco, Trevor Nelson and Corinne Bailey Rae on Soul and Beverley Knight and James Morrison focusing in on voices. At times it proved to be odd television, you couldn’t help but feel it might have worked a little better on the radio as pairs, in relative states of ease and unease, discussed their choices perched on soft furnishings. The clips, although fascinating to see, seemed a little well-used, having been featured on many such music compilation shows in the past. Nevertheless, I was interested to hear what the presenters had to say and this kept me tuned in.

stevietv3Get back on that sofa James and Beverley!

Friday’s hour focused on Stevie Wonder, who I have been thinking about recently, having written a review for his “Love Songs”, one of my Essential CDs, only last week. What I hadn’t realised when I spotted this in the schedules was that it would largely be the pairings who talked about genres over the last few weeks talking about Stevie Wonder. There were a few talking heads who went it alone, including Martin Freeman, Alexander O’Neal, Norman Jay, journalist Sian Pattenden and broadcaster Emma Dabiri and these tended to be more insightful and less off the cuff than most of the duos’ comments . The most natural of these pairings were Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris but they are a couple who were used to working together (and have been married since 1993). They were featured the least. The Knight-Morrison pairing was featured the most and this at times became grating because of James’ over-eagerness to agree with everything that Beverley Knight said. This made for slightly uncomfortable viewing. BBC4 recently found a successful pairing with good chemistry between them for their series about British pop which sent Midge Ure and Kim Appleby out on a road-trip but here the couples here perched on sofas were not exactly sizzling. But format aside, it was really the music here that should do the talking.

stevietv1Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris

It did provide a good overview of Stevie’s career and stressed just what it was that made him special. Musically it went from his first Top Of The Pops appearance in 1966 with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” his initial UK hit to 80s tracks such as “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (his biggest selling single in Britain) and “Part Time Lover”. There was a mixture of TV appearances, live concert and video (Stevie was never really well served by video. Beverley Knight really nicely built up “Ribbon In The Sky” one of his lesser-known 80’s tracks yet the video shown was cringe-making in the way that American videos of the 80’s could be (Lionel’s “Hello”, anyone?) I especially liked the songs performed for a very uncool (judging by the earnest audience) German show called “Musikladen” in which a smoking 70’s Stevie performed “Superstition” and “He’s Misstra Know It All” and “Higher Ground”.

People got to mention their favourites, thus we had Alexander O Neal championing “Sir Duke , Martin Freeman “As” and Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17 the beautiful (and quite late in the canon of Wonder hits) “Overjoyed”- which is one of my all-time favourites of his. Emma Dabiri reminisced over her childhood Stevie Wonder impersonation to “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. What was brought out by the talking heads and I was pleased to note this is, as it is often forgotten, is how young Stevie was when he was churning out absolute classic tracks, just how good is voice (a great natural range without having to use falsetto) and also the importance of him as a political and social protestor.  At one point we learnt he was going to give up the music business to concentrate on social issues (what a loss that would have been). He is a man who was able to put his message in his music in a way which never diluted what he was saying but was incorporated into the exuberance of his music, tracks like “Higher Ground” “Living For The City” and the lyrically dark “Superstition” are all examples of this. In the early 80’s Stevie’s role in the campaign to get a US holiday established to commemorate Martin Luther King was instrumental and ultimately successful and couched in his million-selling “Happy Birthday” single.

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One thing about the clips which disappointed me came with another of my favourites “Isn’t She Lovely” which was taken from a concert clip that I had seen before. In the concert Stevie announces that the song, about the birth of his daughter Aisha, and who featured as a baby gurgling in the original track, was dedicated to one of his backing singers, that very daughter Aisha. This was a really touching moment which has stayed with me and the clip shown does feature Aisha looking understandably emotional at singing an all-time classic song which was written about her. I would have liked the talking heads to have picked up on this and mentioned it but they didn’t, which deprived the audience who hadn’t seen this clip before of a lovely story.

Despite the cheapness of the format I was once again drawn in and for a Stevie Wonder fan there was perhaps no better way to spend an hour on a Friday evening. If these Musical Histories focus in on an artist or a genre that you are interested in, or that (you younger generation out there) you are interested in finding out more about then they are certainly worth seeking out.

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Stevie Wonder – A Musical History was shown on BBC4 at 10.00pm on Friday 30th November.  It is currently available to watch on the BBC I-Player

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