100 Essential CDs – Number 69– Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

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Hotter Than July – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1980)
UK Chart Position – 2
US Chart Position – 3

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Four years on from his essential “Songs In The Key Of Life” opus Stevie Wonder put out his next proper studio album. The result, was for me, even better than what had gone before. “Hotter Than July” is the Stevie Wonder album that has given me the most pleasure over the years. Part of this might be because it was the first of his albums that I did not come to retrospectively, I bought it as soon as it came out but I think it is also because these ten tracks encapsulate the magic and genius of Stevie Wonder in a concise. meaningful way.

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Stevie had not just been resting on his laurels since “Songs In The Key Of Life”. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at the Motown Offices when he announced that his follow-up to this huge selling classic album would be a double album movie soundtrack for a documentary about plants. The film is long-forgotten but with the music Stevie came very close to producing another essential work. It is certainly something I would consider as being five stars but just misses out on being essential. It’s very nature as a soundtrack meant it was a combination of songs with vocals, instrumentals and repeated themes which, although at times absolutely terrific, did not hold together as well as the best of his studio recordings. What it lacked was a big hit single like he had when he later worked on “The Woman In Red” Soundtrack, a much higher profile film which gave him his biggest selling hit in “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Nevertheless, “The Journey Of The Secret Life Of Plants” was not shunned by the record-buying public. In the US it reached number 4 in the album charts, number 8 in the UK. Every time I listen to it I am surprised by how good it still sounds.

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With “Hotter Than July” Wonder was back with a very commercial feel which produced a Top 5 and Top 20 hit in the US and really got the thumbs up in the UK with four top 10 singles including two which stopped just one place short of the top spot, very good going for a 10 track CD. And with these ten tracks we had very strong examples of what Stevie excelled at from uptempo funk, to social commentary, to political activism, to ballads which have become soul classics to those which edged towards the cheesy and as might be expected, everything was written and produced by the man himself. Technologically, he was once again using the latest equipment and although there was nothing radically different on this, his 19th studio album it certainly sounded fresh in 1980 and still, although not often critically cited as being amongst his very best, it still sounds good today.

Album opener “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” is a strong uptempo slab of funk which recalls the danceability of “I Wish” and “Superstition” without being as compulsive. This eases into “All I Do” which was a song from the Wonder back catalogue. He originally wrote it alongside Clarence Paul in 1966, in the early days of Stevie’s career, when he was aged 15 as a solo track for Tammi Terrell, best known for her classic duets with Marvin Gaye. I have always really liked Stevie’s version with its star backing vocalists including Michael Jackson, Miami hit-maker Betty Wright and representing Motown’s rival Philadelphia Sound, two thirds of the O’Jays, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams. It’s a really romantic track which oozes sincerity and there’s a good sax solo courtesy of Hank Redd. The original Tammi Terrell version was largely unheard of until Motown began raiding its vaults in its “A Cellarful Of Motown” series which appeared in 2002. Her version entitled “All I Do (Is Think About You)” is exceptional and completely blew me away when I heard it hidden on this CD set of unreleased tracks. It has become one of my all-time favourites, and so whilst I still enjoy Stevie’s very much, it is definitely the original version which really hits home for me.

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Tammi Terrell

With “Rocket Love” Stevie certainly approaches the cheese counter in the way in which he had done previously with tracks such as “My Cherie Amour” and would certainly do again with “I Just Called To Say I Love You” but once again he really gets away with it and comes up with a track which I should write off as cheesy but find it impossible to do. This one has lyrics like “A female Shakespeare of your time with looks to blow Picasso’s mind” for goodness sake. And yet, from its “do do do” introduction it weaves a laid-back hypnotic spell and if lyrically dodgy it is musically lovely with an exquisite swirling string arrangement by Paul Riser.

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The next track “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” was surprisingly chosen to be the second single from the album in favour of later singles which if released earlier would have surely topped the UK charts and in favour of another couple which remained on the album and which could also have been big hits.  In fact, this is probably the track I like the least. As a single it got to number 11 in the US and one place better over here. It goes for a slightly hillbilly country and western feel, especially in the verse which gives the suggestion that Stevie’s vocal is not quite up to scratch, especially on the lower notes but it has a good humoured feel about it, which makes it pleasant but slightly throwaway, which is surprising that Motown on both sides of the Atlantic went with this track to follow up what has been the big opening hit from the album. The first side of the vinyl album ended with the much stronger “If You Could Read My Mind”. This is reminiscent of the salsa flavour that Stevie brought to “Another Star” from “Songs In The Key of Life”, which was a great track which just went on too long. This is shorter, tighter and effective, even though the song itself is not as likeable as “Another Star”. There is another memorable harmonica solo from Stevie, however.

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With the lead single “Masterblaster (Jammin’) Stevie was largely giving kudos to another performer, in much the way he had celebrated the jazz greats in “Sir Duke”.  Stevie had flirted with reggae before, most obviously with his hit track “Boogie On Reggae Woman” from 1974 but in 1980 Bob Marley and The Wailers had been Stevie’s opening act on his US tour (they hadn’t made the commercial breakthrough that they had throughout much of the rest of the world) and this track was largely Wonder’s salute to another musical visionary, Bob Marley.  He gets a name check, “Marley’s hot on the box” and the album’s title is also referenced within this song.  The song itself is optimistic and  uplifting “When you’re moving in the positive/Your destination is the brightest star.”  It’s as if amongst all the social issues raised within the music from both artists there comes a point when you just have to enjoy yourself and get dancing.  Marley did not work with Stevie on this track but his influence is there.  It’s a reggae flavoured track rather than a reggae track and that ensured its commercial success in the US who had to this point not fully embraced reggae.  In fact, Marley would never have a US pop hit single.  Stevie’s attempt to introduce his music to America reached number 5 Stateside and was a number 2 in the UK (held off by “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police).

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Stevie with Bob Marley

“Do Like You” is more, like “Isn’t She Lovely”, paternal pride, this time a song about Keita who was three at the time of this album’s release.  It’s a musical anecdote about his love for dancing, learnt by copying his big sister, to winning a school talent show.  It’s an enjoyable enough track and ends with Mummy’s vase ending up in pieces. From the light-hearted we move onto “Cash In Your Face” , the most serious track on the album where Stevie adopts the role of social commentator again in the guise of a potent funk track.  It’s about insidious underhand racism with the title providing a clever play on words “You might have the cash/but you can’t cash in your face”.  A track which still feels relevant today.  Stevie here plays two roles, the tenant and the racist landlord and it all works very well.

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“Lately” is a little gem of a track and the album’s highpoint.  This was the one everyone was clamouring for in the UK and Motown eventually relented making it the third single release and it got to number 3 (I still say it would have topped the charts if it was put out straight after “Masterblaster”).  In the US something went very awry because it did not become a hit.  It’s a majestic, superbly structured sad soul ballad about facing up to emotional insecurity and jealousy within a relationship.  The piano work is beautiful and there is some real pathos about a blind man writing such lines as “But what I really feel my eyes won’t let me hide.”

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Perhaps the biggest surprise came at the end of the album.  Stevie had been a leading campaigner to recognise the birthdate of Martin Luther King as a US national holiday and here he advanced his cause considerably worldwide by putting the campaign to music.  The nature of the track “Happy Birthday” with its sing-along chorus may have been felt to have clouded the seriousness of the issue lying behind the song, the non-recognition of a man who had done so much to further the civil rights movement.  However, annoying the song might get it was effective in getting a message across to a wider audience.  In 1983 Martin Luther King Day was officially agreed upon for a  mid-January celebration and the first took place  (it wasn’t exactly rushed in) three years later.

In fact, the message would have hit home more outside his homeland as it completely failed to make the charts as a single in the US.  Perhaps a fourth single was asking too much of an American record-buying public who had already bought the album in droves.  Over here we loved it and it once again took Stevie to number 2 in the UK charts (this time it was the less worthy “Green Door” by Shakin’ Stevens which prevented Stevie from getting his first UK solo number 1 single during the summer of 1981).  I think we were looking for a viable alternative to the traditional “Happy Birthday To You” and both this and Altered Images’ 1981 hit with the same title which followed pretty hot on the heels of Stevie’s tracks provided this.  For the past nearly 40 years both tracks have provided radio and mobile DJ’s with the opportunity to dedicate a song to someone’s special day.  As an example of Stevie the political activist it fits nicely into the Wonder canon, but I’m not sure if it is going to be too many people’s favourite song by him, but it certainly gets people singing along.

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Despite welcoming Stevie into the 80’s, his third decade of hitmaking, this was the last time he produced an “Essential” studio album.  Much of the 80s were taken up with compilations or soundtrack work.  1985’s “In Square Circle” was a solid, enjoyable release (which did feature in “Overjoyed” one of my all time favourite tracks).  The nearest he has got to really blowing me away again was in his five star 2005 album “A Time 2 Love” in which he showed he was still a contemporary, extremely relevant performer.  Despite this being so good it was the last Stevie studio album to date.  Now in his late 60’s releasing new music is not so hot in his priorities.

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I really enjoy listening to “Hotter Than July” and more than any other Wonder album it takes me back to the time when it was released.  My only gripe is that my CD copy suffers from somewhat muted sound probably because of the way it was taken from the masters in the early days of CD releasing.  I’m sure the version currently available from Amazon which states it is “Remastered” has put this right.  It’s not really an issue in itself because I just turn the sound up a notch but these tracks don’t work so well in general playlists on the I-Pod.   I do have “Lately” on there however and just have to crank up the volume each time it comes on.

Hotter Than July Songs is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £5.69 and used from £1.88.  In the US it no longer seems to be on general issue and is available, other than as an impor, used from $3.89 but it is there as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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100 Essential CDs – Number 96– Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life

 

Songs In The Key Of Life – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1976)

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position – 1

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 There was a huge amount of anticipation surrounding the release of this album.  It had been two years since his US chart-topping “Fulfillingness First Finale” and the leaks emanating from his record label was that this was going to be an extremely special follow-up.  Potential release dates came and went and there was actually a mini-fashion explosion in “Stevie’s Almost Ready” t-shirts.  In September 1976 the album appeared and it was a biggie in very sense.  A double album and a bonus extended play seven inch single made it an expensive proposition.  I know that I couldn’t afford to buy it until I found it much cheaper after it had been out a few years.  On its CD release the 21 tracks fitted easily onto 2 discs.

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Despite the tongue-twisting title Stevie’s previous album had topped the US Charts and been a Top 5 success in the UK in 1974.

I do acknowledge the common perception that this is one of the greatest Soul albums of all time.  I do feel, however, that it could have benefited from a little editing, in the length of a couple of the tracks and I think there’s another couple that could have been dropped together without compromising this album’s status or reputation.  It is not the highest ranking Stevie Wonder album on my list but it is still an essential purchase.  The list of the Greatest Soul Albums of the 1970’s voted for by thousands on the Soultracks.com website has it at number 3 behind Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.  It was very much Stevie Wonder’s statement on the mid 70’s which came exploding through the speakers like a torrent.

It contained two UK Top 5 singles and 1 Top 30, two US number 1’s and two Top 40 singles and a handful of tracks which although never released as singles are all-time classics and rank amongst the best of Stevie’s output.

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For an album which had such a big fanfare it has a rather muted beginning and does take a while to get into its stride.  Album opener “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is certainly a pleasant enough track but is an early example of a track which would have benefited from having a minute or so lopped off the end as it all gets a bit rambly and noodly.  I didn’t think it stands out especially amongst other tracks really until George Michael (who said “Songs In The Key Of Life” was his all-time favourite album) began  performing it on tour and as a B-side to his chart-topping “Father Figure” single.  Michael’s version seemed to me to breathe a bit of new life into this original and I think as a track it has dated quite well.  The insidious funk-lite of “Have A Talk With God” has not weathered the passing of time and sounded better on release than it does now.  Lyrically rather heavy-handed “He’s the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout the world” this has never been one of my favourite tracks on the album.

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It’s the third track where things really crank up a gear when Stevie takes on his social commentator role on “Village Ghetto Land”.  One thing Stevie Wonder always does well is to dress up protest into something that sounds really good.  He’d done this before on tracks like “Living For The City” and here again.  There’s a majestic synthesized neo-classical orchestral opening, courtesy of the Yamaha- GX1and this is counterposed with some pretty hard-hitting lyrics of poverty and crime; “Families buying dog food now/Starvation roams the streets”.  It works superbly.

Next up is the bruising, funk instrumental “Contusion” (contusion/bruising see what I did there?) which is not exactly vital to the existence of the album.  It leads the way to the second US chart-topping single from the album (it reached #2 in the UK, his highest chart position for over 6 years) and is perhaps one of his most commercial tracks ever.  Stevie could sometimes veer towards a fine edge of the annoyingly poppy or cheesy but because of that little dash of Wonder magic he is able to sprinkle over he ends up triumphant.  This was certainly the case with his biggest UK hit “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, but also “My Cherie Amour”, with “Isn’t She Lovely” on this album and also “Sir Duke.”  This joyous blast of nostalgia serves very much as a history lesson for a new generation.  When I first heard this track as a young teenager I did not really know who Duke Ellington was nor his importance in the history of black music and here we also find out that “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo and the King of all, Sir Duke/And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out there’s no way the band can lose.”  This is all-time classic pop name dropping alongside Madonna’s rap in “Vogue” and the fashion designers in “He’s The Greatest Dancer”.  This is a lovely tribute track from its infuriatingly catchy brass introduction to singalong chorus.  It’s the musical equivalent to eating marshmallows but knowing just when to stop before they make you feel queasy.

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The second side on the vinyl version kicks off with the first single release which also topped the US charts and went Top 5 in the UK.  This is a track which I think has got even better with time and now ranks up amongst Stevie’s best.  “I Wish” reminisces on childhood and the passing of time in a storm of commercial funk.  The childhood depicted is not one of cosy innocence as its about sneaking out, hanging with hoodlums and playing doctor but whatever was going on Stevie wishes those simpler times would come round again.

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There’s a charming simplicity to “Knocks Me Off My Feet” as well as a strong melody which ensures this is a highspot.  And like all Wonder songs with strong melodies this has led to a number of cover versions over the year perhaps most strongly by Luther Vandross on his 1996 “Your Secret Love” album.  “Pastime Paradise” has a Hare Krishna choir on back-up and what I have always felt of as an African feel as Wonder dons the mantle of social commentator once again attacking those who view the world through rose-coloured glasses when the reality is; “Dissipation/Race relations/ consolation/ segregation/ dispensation/ isolation/ exploitation/ mutilation/ miscreation/ confirmation to the evils of the world.”  It’s a song which has been very much absorbed into hip-hop culture.  A sample took on a life of its own when it was used by Coolio on his “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995 where it was the biggest selling single of the year in the US, Australia and New Zealand and the second biggest selling (behind Robson and Jerome’s “Unchained Melody”!)  “Summer Soft” starts off as another pretty ballad, surges upwards for the chorus but is another track which ultimately goes on a little too long.  The first CD closes with “Ordinary Pain”, a song in two parts which has a first half which is a nifty little soul ballad which chugs along very effectively with Stevie very much in charge until it winds down almost to a stop before taking a funkier edge with a response from Shirley Brewer, aided by an impressive back-up group which features amongst others Minnie Riperton, Syreeta Wright, one-time Supreme Linda Laurence and Deniece Williams.  At over 6 minutes it is another track which could have benefited from fading earlier.

 

Luther and Coolio – two artists inspired by the tracks on this album

The second CD opens with the album’s high-spot and possibly Stevie’s best ever track.  “Isn’t She Lovely” a father’s song to his baby daughter could really have gone either way and versions of it being used in beauty pageants have pushed it well over the edge but taken here in its original full-length version it’s a powerful piece.  Stevie knew this and refused to allow Motown to release it as an edited single, which would have watered down its potency and its surprising funkiness.  In the UK, in particular, there was a great demand for a single release and there is no doubt that it would have topped a chart.  A limp cover by white session singer David Parton almost did but eventually stalled at number 4 and even the ignominy of this did not get the original out as a single.  The Parton release seemed to be the latest (and perhaps one of the last) of a long line of tracks where a white artist would water down a black artist’s vision and achieve great success, a situation which had been occurring regularly since the dawn of popular music.  I’ve said elsewhere that editing could have done a lot for this album but I would not edit one single section of this track, there’s brilliant use of harmonica and even daughter Aisha playing in the bath.

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After the bluster and grandeur of “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears” feels understated, a mature, graceful, atmospheric ballad which sort of creeps up on you.  “Black Man” is another history lesson as Stevie aims to redress the balance of traditional American history lessons by stressing the importance of the role of people of colour in the development of the USA.  “It’s time we learned the world was made for all men.”  Musically, the first section is a good paced funky track but however worthy the second half call and response catechism section where Stevie uses 43 voices of the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble of Harlem to question and answer landmarks in the history of ethnic groups it does begin to grate on the listener.  Stevie is not usually as didactic as this and has been much better at getting a message across without compromising the musicality of the piece but this is more questionable here.

The simplicity of “Ngicuelela-Es Un Historia-I Am Singing” feels even more effective after the last track.  This is a quite lovely track sung in Zulu, Spanish and English and the high quality is maintained with “If It’s Magic” which beautifully and quite chillingly features just Stevie on vocals and harmonica and Dorothy Ashby on harp in probably the best ever use of this instrument in a pop song.  Extraordinary.

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“As”, the 4th single release brought out after the album had been around for a year unsurprisingly underperformed reaching number 36 in the US Top 40.  It is another one of those tracks that you get the message clearly long before it ends.  It’s a good track but for me had a new lease of life when turned into a 1999 duet between George Michael and Mary J Blige.  This is one of those rare occasions when a Wonder cover is better than the original.  Both turn out performances that rank up there amongst the best in their career and got a UK#4 hit.  Stevie’s version at over 7 minutes long pushes the song to the extreme.  This is also the case with the 8 minute plus track “Another Star” which in a slightly more edited form would have been one of the album’s highlights.  As it is, it starts to get on your nerves.  Motown did put out an edited version of this track as a single which got to #29 UK, 32 US.  In the edited version it is a thrilling salsa-influenced track with George Benson on guitar and backing vocals.  The whole thing gallops along at a fair old crack, but on the album version the repetition of the “la la la” chorus once again overeggs things.

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This is where the original double album ended and you had to fish around in the packaging to get to the bonus seven inch record.  I didn’t bother that often because it felt like these were tracks not considered to be good enough to be included on the album but here on the CD their importance has been reinstated.  In the mid 70’s we were all a little obsessed with things spacey, and Stevie ventures onto Earth Wind & Fire territory with “Saturn”.  This is a good quality pop track with fairly trite lyrics of a Saturnite returning to his planet because of disillusionment with the way the Earth is going.  It’s all rather grandiose, which because of that Wonder magic again escapes being pretentious and ends up being rather good.  Following that “Ebony Eyes” is a fun novelty-type song which reminds me a little of “Your Kiss Is Sweet” which Wonder co-wrote and produced for ex-wife Syreeta.  “All Day Sucker” has never really done it for me and is probably the weakest track on display and the whole thing is rounded off by “Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call) quite a mournful little harmonica-led instrumental.

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There is no doubt that this album represents Stevie Wonder at his creative peak and these 21 tracks have influenced many artists who followed Stevie into the charts at least over the next decade.  Prince said it was his all-time favourite album and artists such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston have also been keen to stress its importance for them and much of the solo career of George Michael derives musically from this recording.  It is a great album but I did come to it a little late and this might be the reason why it is not actually my favourite of Stevie Wonder’s studio albums.  That would come a few years later.  It is an unrestrained slab of big dollops of genius which must have delighted the record company and re-established Stevie Wonder as one of the most important artist of the 1970s.

The video chosen comes from a 2009 concert in London where Stevie sung a medley of “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely”.  One of the backing singers is daughter Aisha, to whom the song is dedicated and who was making those baby gurgling noises on the track all those years ago.

 

Songs In The Key Of Life is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £6.99 and used from £2.66.  In the US it is available for $11.85 and used from $4.36.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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

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.