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