Happy birthday to him: Stevie Wonder is 70

Celebrating a wee bit of Stevie Wonder on his 70th birthday, because we should. 

A musician friend of mine—he’d be Les Nemes, bassist extraordinaire from Haircut 100 and owner of pert posterior in a butt-baring episode of Absolutely Fabulous—and I often have heated debates over which decade was better for popular music, the 1970s or 1980s.

It’s no surprise that we usually have a sentimental attachment to the first decade we bought music, or that of our teenage years. And no matter how sophisticated our tastes might otherwise grow to be, our brains may stay jammed on those songs we obsessed over during the high drama of adolescence.

Haircut 100 circa 1982. Les is the dashing preppie in the V-neck tank top

So that’ll be the Seventies for Sir Les and the Eighties for yours truly. But despite being a floppy-fringed part of one of Britain’s most successful bands of the early ‘80s, Les’s argument is that the decade merely carried on where the ‘70s left off. 

“I don’t think any other decade came close to the ‘70s. So much going on, so creative, innovative and prolific. Everything from the cross overs of the late ‘60s to disco, funk, jazz funk, reggae, glam rock, prog rock, punk, the beginnings of electronic music with the likes of Kraftwerk etc. Just look at the range of artists that were putting out music. The ‘80s just built on what had already been invented. No other decade comes close.”

He does have a point. 

The 1970s was the decade of the pioneers: David Bowie, Roxy Music, Giorgio Moroder, Krautrock and the aforementioned Düsseldorf Kling Klangers. And it was also the period when Marvin Gaye and Stevie came into their own, wresting creative control from Motown to make their respective bids for long-playing freedom in an era when recording artists were like actors under the Hollywood studio system.

“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision,” Wonder once said, a warning to any who doubted the potency of his imagination.

The man born Stevland Hardaway Judkins signed to Tamla Motown at 11, started recording at 12 and as had his first hit No.1 single with Fingertips 1963, making him the youngest artist to top the chart. From those simplistic beginnings he emerged as a dizzying child prodigy and multi-instrumentalist, the strong inedible centre of the Detroit label.

In the first half of the Seventies, he had visualized an untried musical path, one that took him far from the assembly line pop of his “Little Stevie, the Boy Genius” era during the early days of Motown. This road ultimately led to 1976’s majestic Songs In The Key Of Life, a multi-disc 21-song collection that would be the 26-year-old’s crowning achievement. It’s the sound of a creatively emancipated young artist coming into his own, surrendering himself to his ambition and harnessing his power and potential.

Motown never really traded in classic albums though. And in retrospect, outside of Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971) and Let’s Get It On (1973), and Wonder’s own six-LP rally from Where I’m Coming From (1971) to Key Of Life just five years later that rarely changed, if at all.

Be in no doubt, Wonder’s Seventies sextet is where he became a deity, and is as good a body of work as anything the pop/rock/soul music canon. An incredible creative achievement, full of innovation and invention that we can still hear in R&B today. His music just radiates with creativity and joy, and his production and arrangements are always innovative and interesting.

Songs In The Key Of Life is probably Stevie Wonder’s crowning glory, a magnum opus masterpiece of unrivalled musicianship and artistic ambition. A huge hit and critical success, its creative exuberance arguably left Wonder exhausted – he wasn’t to put another studio album out until Hotter Than July in 1980, although he released a couple of compilations and a film soundtrack in the late seventies. It culminated an extended period of success for Wonder, who was possibly the premier hit maker of the first half of the decade.

The cultural impact of Key of Life can never be imitated, but its status shows no signs of decline. Like Bob Dylan and possibly Bowie, Stevie’s breadth of vision (for want of a better word) and incredible talent could also exercise a profound effect on a generation’s attitudes. And yet, you mention the name Stevie Wonder to the man in the street under 45 and they will largely show indifference, knowing him for only two things. 

His blindness

I Just Called To Say I Love You

And although it was and still is hard to believe a guy as monumentally talented as him could ever release a song as horrible as the corny, jingle-like I Just Called To Say I Love You (which, in its album version, goes on for about three weeks), it did go on to sell ninety trillion copies or something, so anyone questioning his wisdom in recording it doesn’t really have much of an argument against it. (Plus Ebony And Ivory, that naive if well-intentioned duet with Paul McCartney, was actually even more of a shocker). But hang on – that was also a number one, so he clearly knew a thing or two about releasing successful records.

I can recall the housewarming party my partner and I were about to host in Holland. In November 2002 I left Britain for the first time and immigrated to The Netherlands so we could officially move in together in a brand new house.

Stevie’s double album best of, The Definitive Collection, had been released the month before, and it’s fair to say I played it constantly, though usually when the other half was at work. Though a couple of days before the shindig Marcel did hear me spinning the opening tracks of said disc and looked surprised. “It sounds a bit like Stevie Wonder?”

“That’s because it is,” came my reply, as Superstition and Sir Duke master-blasted out.

He looked a little puzzled, so I asked him if anything was the matter?

“Nothing. It’s just that I only know I Just Called To Say I Love You. This is nothing like that.”

I laughed, “Oh, he made much better records before that song!”

“Yes, so I hear.”

He then asked me if I would take care of the playlist for the Saturday night bash, and that he had only one stipulation. 

“Can you make sure you play this CD?”

I was happy to oblige, more than a little stoked I’d managed to inform and introduce someone to music they would have otherwise been ignorant of, even if in only a minor capacity. But at least he already knew who Stevie Wonder was, and wouldn’t be silly enough to confuse him with Lionel Richie or anything.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qa2ATCFrpDE

For the record, I’d have a bloody tough time between those two ‘70s classics as my favourite Stevie 45, Wonder’s use of the Hohner clavinet on the funky and fantastically vibrant Superstition must have sounded like it has been beamed in from Mars when it lit up the airwaves in 1972.

Sir Duke too. What an unstoppable tour de force Key Of Life is. This was released at a time when Wonder had immense freedom to create, with this being his eighteenth studio album by the age of 24. 24. Just let that sink in for a minute.

Though, ultimately, it suffers the same fate of almost every double album ever released of being over-stuffed and under-edited, this is the same record that includes such genius moments as I Wish, Pastime Paradise, Village Ghetto Land, Love’s In Need of Love Today, Isn’t She Lovely?, and As, later covered with respectful aplomb by George Michael.

But there’s something about the disciplined, feel-good pop of Sir Duke that grabs me every single time.

The song was written in tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington, who died in 1974. Ellington had a strong influence on Wonder as a musician and he wanted to write a song acknowledging musicians he felt were important. Sir Duke is one of the great songs from the era, fresh and bold with lots of harmonised brass upfront and a fantastic vocal melody by Wonder. The utter joyousness of the horns are just utterly irresistible and a fitting tribute to Ellington.

Which reminds me, I remember a rumour back in the pre-internet days that David Bowie, who had just adopted the moniker The Thin White Duke earlier that year, was secretly the sax player on the track but had to remain uncredited (the album credits state it’s the double header of Hank Redd and Trevor Lawrence). 

Obviously, the playing is way too good to be Bowie, but during an interview with the Dame’s producer Tony Visconti in 1996 I decided to ask him anyway, to put to bed any possibility that the Thin White one and the not white as thin black one might have worked together. 

Visconti looked puzzled. It was the first he’d heard of it.

“I know they met. Bowie told me Stevie put [David’s] hands on his face to feel his energy, to detect what kind of a person he was.”

7 Feb 1973: Bowie attends Stevie’s afterparty at NYC’s Genesis club, where the Dame also met Ava Cherry for the first time

I met Stevie Wonder too, albeit briefly, at a taping of Top Of The Pops in 2005, the second time I’d witnessed him in the flesh after his surprise turn at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert in 1988.

While most of the audience seemed to one there for Sugababes or a opera quartet that weren’t Il Divo but thought they were, I couldn’t believe my luck to discover that not only were one of my favourite bands on—Eurythmics—but that the genius that played that incredible harmonica part on their chart-topping There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart) was pre-recording a song of his own in the studio that week, a new 45 entitled Positivity.

He cut a bit of a lonely figure when he wasn’t performing, I thought, and was on way better form when I finally witnessed a Stevie Wonder concert proper at London’s 02 Arena three years later. Not content with being an all round musical genius, he even entertained the capacity crowd with jokes, cockney accents and a wee bit of the Beatles and the Stones.

God love him.

From one Stevie to another, happy birthday 2 ya.

Steve Pafford

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