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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100 Essential CDs – Number 65– Stevie Wonder – Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits

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Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits (Motown 1985)

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The CD I turn most to for the early years of Stevie Wonder’s career is this 1985 compilation which arrived without much fuss nor any impression on pop charts.  It has an interesting mix of tracks which are predominantly from the 1960’s, kicking off with a 1962 recording , and is a fascinating blend of hit singles and other less well-known performances.  It goes up to the point where Stevie manages  to wrest more control over his career from Motown and come up with a sequence of albums in the 1970’s which are considered to be soul classics.  It provides a very solid introduction to the sheer talent that is Stevie Wonder in his formative years.  Hit-wise it contains 11 UK Top 40 hits spanning from 1967-72 and 12 US Top 40 hits covering the same period. 

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Motown signed Stevie Wonder when he was just 11 years old in 1961.  It took a few singles for him to make his breakthrough.  CD opener here “Contract Of Love” was his third single released at the end of 1962.  I’d never heard it before its appearance here and it’s an interesting proposition to open the album with such a rarity.  It begins with “Baby Love” style handclaps and male voices until Stevie, voice not yet broken, eases confidently into a doowop style song produced by Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland just before they also really hit form.  It was obviously a learning process for all concerned, it’s certainly not a bad track but rather pales compared to the quality of the songs that follow on.

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Stevie then billed as “Little Stevie Wonder” broke big with his next track in his homeland.  This was a rough and ready harmonica instrumental which was probably too raucous to make much impression in the UK charts of 1963.  In the US it gave him a chart-topper for three weeks.  “Fingerprints Part 2” may very well be the only occasion where a Part 2 of a song topped the charts.  His youthful exuberance and obvious talent charmed America although it did seem to push him along the novelty instrumentalist line as 1963 and 1964 was spent putting out harmonica dominated singles that never lived up to “Fingertips”.  That debut hit is not included here as it does not fulfil the brief and nor does his more mature comeback track form 1966 which saw the “Little” dropped, concentrated on vocals and gave him a US#3, UK#14 “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”.

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This CD picks up again with his next UK hit, a cover version and really the only version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” that I would like to listen to.  The folk song is transformed into a rolling call and response duet between Stevie and I always believed an uncredited Levi Stubbs but now I can’t find any evidence which says this is so.  It is, however, an early example of the social awareness and his eagerness to convey protest in a song.  This became A Top 10 hit in the US in 1966.  On both sides of the Atlantic the big version of this had come three years before recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary but this has a gospel grittiness which works very well.  From here the hits carried on flowing and most of them are present here, his next one being the country-folsky-R&B mash-up of “A  Place In The Sun” which does recall Stevie’s hero Ray Charles in the type of song and slightly uncool backing vocals which also got to #9 in the US and became his second Top 20 hit in the UK. 

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I think things notched up a gear with the next track which really has the feel of some of Stevie’s best tracks over the next few years .  Henry Cosby produced “I Was Made To Love Her” which combines the Stevie sound with the Motown sound more successfully than what we have heard from up until now.  A US#2 and UK#5, this track really asserted Stevie’s position as a leading male vocalist of the time.  Pretty much the same team of Cosby producing and Stevie and Sylvia Moy helping out with song-writing duties for “I’m Wondering” (US#12,UK#22) and “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Do-Da-Day” (US#9), acceptable enough tracks although unlikely to be too many people’s Stevie favourites. 

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Things move up to the top notch again for a great song written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden which had been given to other artists but Henry Cosby decided on a more uptempo version which turned the song instantly into a pop standard.  “For Once In My Life” gave Stevie his biggest UK hit to this point, reaching number 3 and US #2 and is a great vocal performance from him as well as an exciting return from the harmonica.  We are now in 1969 and Stevie notches up three hits the lovely although rather uncommercial sounding ballad “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” which marked the first time a Stevie recording performed better in the UK than in his homeland (#14 as opposed to #39) and also had Stevie credited as co-producer alongside Don Hunter; the absolutely commercial gem which hovers a little towards the sickly “My Cherie Amour” which reached #4 on both sides of the Atlantic and “Yester-Me-Yester-You-Yesterday” a song which is infinitely better than its title might suggest which got to number 7 in the US and became his first single to just miss out on the top spot in the UK, reaching number 2 (held off by “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies).  Hard to believe that at this stage in his career, after this string of hits Stevie was still a teenager.

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Stevie was still spreading his wings here, doing more in both the song-writing and production fronts but Motown were keen to keep the relationship with Henry Cosby going.  In 1970 we had the lovely, swaying “Never Had A Dream Come True” (US#26,UK#6), the driving “Signed, Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” (US#3,UK#15) and the brooding gospel tones of  “Heaven Help Us All” (US#9,UK#29) all drastically different sounding tracks which once again underlined his versatility and all three would sow seeds for the Stevie material that was to come later in the decade.  In 1971 Stevie produced his own version of the Lennon & McCartney song “We Can Work It Out” which reached  US#13 and UK#27.

stevie8Stevie and Syreeta’s wedding day

 Stevie was growing up.  In 1970 he married his Signed Sealed Delivered writing partner Syreeta Wright, who was also signed to Motown as a solo artist and had been boosting the girl group sound of both Supremes and Martha and The Vandellas tracks.  He was also, now he was no longer a child, in a better place to negotiate with Motown.  1971 saw the release of his statement of independence, the album “Where I’m Coming From” with all tracks written by Stevie and Syreeta and all produced by Stevie.  The hit track from this “If You Really Love Me” took him back to number 8 in the US and 20 in the UK and features a singalong chorus alongside Syreeta vocalising and a rather sparse, slowed down verse which makes it all rather fascinatingly uneven yet very likeable.  Single-wise this is where “Love Songs” calls it a day but also included is the star track from this Stevie produced album “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” which only appeared as a B-side.  This is a big and yet tender, mournful ballad track which has remained near the top of Stevie’s repertoire and was a song he chose to revisit at the Memorial Service for Michael Jackson and certainly fulfils this album’s “Love Songs” brief. 

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The remaining tracks on the album include a harmonica instrumental version of Bacharach and David’s “Alfie”, a 1967 song written by Stevie with Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax which remained unreleased until Aretha Franklin had a hit with it in 1973 “Until You Come Back To Me”, the same team’s “Hey Love”, a doowop influenced tune which doesn’t stand out in this company and “Nothings Too Good For My Baby”, a Northern Soul style stomper from 1966.

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These 20 tracks represent, if a long way from definitively, the early years of Stevie’s career when he was still very much under Berry Gordy’s control.  From his age of majority Stevie was able to explore avenues with a greater freedom that had also been accorded to Marvin Gaye who had responded with a couple of all-time classic soul albums.  This was Phase 1 of the Wonder career and throughout the rest of the 70s and into the 80s Stevie would continue to soar, but this time more on his own terms.  There would be considerably more gems to come…………………..

Love Songs is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £8.83 new and used from £0.33.  It can be purchased as a download for £7.99.  In the US I found it on Amazon with a different cover new from $28.32 used from $2.55.