Stevie Wonder cemented his place in history as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century in the 1970’s with multiple chart-topping hits and timeless albums such as the still highly lauded {Songs in the Key of Life} (1976). (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
mgreen@afro.com

Stevland Hardaway Morris’ achievements over his more than six decades in the entertainment industry are astounding, however the 1970s took what was already a prodigious career to the next level.  By the 1970s, having turned 20 in May, the musical prodigy had already dropped the moniker “Little” in front of his stage name in the 60s, and Stevie Wonder began his journey into his adult career, creating music that solidified his truly brilliant artistry, activism and “Wonder.” 

Songs such as “For Once in My Life,” and “Yesteryou, Yesterme, Yesterday,” had already topped the charts in the late 1960s and were still rocking the airwaves by 1970, and with the new decade came more hit songs and game-changing music.  

In August 1970, Stevie Wonder made clear the transformation into his adult persona with the classic tune, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” singing, “Here I am, baby. Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours,” and was the first album the multifaceted artist received producer credit with Motown.  Almost four decades later, in 2008, then Sen. Barack Obama used “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” for his introduction to the national political stage and blasted the tune when he celebrated his election as the 44th President of the United States.

By 1972, Wonder was on a roll, releasing two albums: Music of my Mind, with the chart-topping “Superwoman (Where Were You?)” and Talking Book which contained the hit songs, “Superstition” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” as well as.  Talking Book garnered Wonder his first Grammy awards receiving Best Male Pop Vocal Performance 76for “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song for “Superstition.”

The following year he dropped, “Innervisions,” with timeless tunes such as “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” “All in Love is Fair,” “He’s Misstra Know It All,” “Golden Lady,” and the Afro-Latin influenced hit, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” Innervisions won him Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording at the 16th Grammy’s Awards with, “Living for the City,” a jam that speaks to audiences to this day, won Best R&B song.  Innervisions was Wonder’s baby.  Almost the entire album is Wonder’s work, from playing all of the instruments on six of the nine tracks on the album, to singing most of the parts, writing the music and major use of the ARP synthesizer. To this day, music critics regard Innervisions as a major point in Wonder’s career and a major influence on the Black and American musical cannons.

“This recording represents the pinnacle of a very important artist’s career, and of his physically blind, but nonetheless extraordinary humane vision. For all intents and purposes, and for all of its richness and variety of texture, it is essentially all Stevie Wonder. He personally created and arranged every sound heard,” wrote Bill Shapiro, former editor-in-chief of LIFE wrote, according to Jazz Record Art Collective.  “His canvas stretches from the tough realities of ghetto streets to the transcendent joy of spiritual acceptance, each rendered with an original, unique musical palette. The feel is a little more jazz than funk, the result is simply glorious pop music – uplifting sound and message.”

He followed his annual album drops in 1974, with “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” including songs like, “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” “Creepin’,” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” which featured background vocals from the Jackson 5.  Yet again, he was a big winner at the Grammys, winning  Album of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal, and “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” won Best Male Rhythm and Blues Vocal Performance.

Two years later, Stevie Wonder released an album that this reporter contends changed the trajectory of rhythm and blues, Songs in the Key of Life.  The album had four sides, featuring hit songs such as “Sir Duke,” Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” “I Wish,” “As,” “Pastime Paradise,” “If It’s Magic,” “Another Star,” and a major move in his artivism with the song, “Black Man.”  Stevie Wonder won Album of the Year at the 19th Grammy Awards for Songs in the Key of Life.

In his 1976 Rolling Stone review of Songs in the Key of Life, Vince Aletti was not so sure about the strength and impact of the album.  Having won Album of the Year at the time, and still being lauded as one of the best albums of all time, Aletti’s review might seem like he was a bit of a hater, but there were moments in the article where it was clear he understood the importance of what is now considered a masterpiece, such as in his breakdown of “Black Man.”

“Wonder’s message songs have always been a bit heavy-handed, but ‘Black Man,’ at 8:29 the album’s longest track, is one of his most effective. Set to a percolating, popping rhythm, the song is essentially didactic, a Bicentennial history lesson drawing together key figures in America’s melting pot with a forceful chorus that preaches (and sometimes demands), ‘It’s time we learned/This world was made for all men.’” 

Wonder put his heart and soul into Songs in the Key of Life.  Motown’s Berry Gordy gave him a huge check for the album, which took an extra year to complete, and caused major angst between he and the famed owner of the record label, and although 130 people contributed to the work, most of the heavy lifting was done by the mastermind artist himself.

After completing the triumphant masterpiece that is Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder didn’t release another album until 1979- Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, which featured the Billboard hit song, “Send One Your Love.”

However, in addition to the album, in 1979, Wonder began cooking up a song that wasn’t released until 1980, but will live on as not only the birthday dedication to one of America’s and history’s greatest leaders, but in African American communities, is also called, “the Black version of Happy Birthday.”  Wonder called up Coretta Scott King in 1979 to share with her a dream he had that he felt would continue her husband’s “Dream” and legacy.

“I said to her, you know, ‘I had a dream about this song. And I imagined in this dream I was doing this song. We were marching, too, with petition signs to make for Dr. King’s birthday to become a national holiday,’” Wonder told CNN anchor Anderson Cooper in 2011.

Wonder said Scott King was excited but not hopeful that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would be remembered and acknowledged by the United States in such a way.  She was wrong.

King’s life meant a great deal to Wonder, whose first memories of the powerful orator was as a child listening to him preach and speak on the radio.  At 16, Wonderful had the opportunity to meet King at a Chicago Freedom Movement rally.  A month before his 18th birthday, King was assassinated, which was said to leave a major mark on the young artist, who became an outspoken activist in daily life and through his music.

Eventually there were groups, lobbyists and politicians working together to make King’s birthday a national holiday, but much of the effort was led by Wonder and his famous “Happy Birthday,” song that has become an anthem for the Civil Rights leader’s legacy, but for Black families across the United States.

District of Columbia Jazz Prix winner, Washington City Paper’s Artist of the Year (2016) and multi-instrumentalist Elijah Jamal Balbed told the AFRO how much Wonder made a difference in his formation as an artist.

“I was fortunate to grow up with a musically inclined mother, so when I was a kid I heard everything: Jazz, Rock, R&B, Funk/Soul, even some Go-Go. But since childhood, Stevie Wonder has been and remains a consistent musical thread in my life,” Balbed said.  “Songs in the Key of Life was one of the soundtracks to my childhood. ‘Sir Duke’ was always a personal favorite, and I came to find out it was written for Duke Ellington!” 

Balbed, a composer himself and founder of the JoGo Project, noted the intricacies of Wonder’s musicianship and artistry.

“What I find interesting as I reflect back on those days is to my untrained musical ear, the songs did not sound that involved or difficult. It just sounded like good music,” Balbed said.  “However, any musician that has had to learn a Stevie tune for a gig knows his music is actually pretty complex harmonically. A few of his songs that I’ve come to love more recently are ‘Higher Ground’ and ‘Send One Your Love.’ He even released a GoGo track last year so you can tell he’s always open to new things and growing as a musician. Stevie is a genius in every way, and I consider myself a blessed human to exist in the same realm as him!”

Award-winning musician and Board Chairman Of the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, Aaron Meyers weighed in on Wonder’s major contribution to music to this day.

“Every aspect of Black music today has been influenced by Stevie Wonder.  I personally take pride in learning about how he interwove different keys into melodies like “Until You Come Back to Me,” that he wrote for Aretha Franklin.  The artful way he leads a band, while accompanying himself, has been a master class for all performers to follow.  We were both members of West Angeles Church of God in Christ at the same time, and his dedication to his faith also is seen in his music.  The best concert I ever saw was when he was brought up onstage spontaneously to do a Bob Marley song with Ziggy Marley and Mos Def,” Myers told the AFRO.  “Anything I write, whether consciously and subconsciously, will have his imprint, just as with most artists of today.”

Myers is not the only artist who attributes musical inspiration to the brilliant and prolific musician, who still makes music to this day.  In 2002 India Arie’s song, “Wonderful (Stevie Wonder Dedication),” is a musical tribute to the great artist, with the verses featuring lyrics that are an amalgamation of Wonder’s song titles (highlighted below in bold).  As an avid Wonder fan, Arie’s words were a perfect summary to the brilliance that is Stevie Wonder.

“(Verse 1) You are the sunshine of my life. Another Shakespeare of your time. You’re like a ribbon in the sky. You are a poet’s endless rhyme. You take me to a higher ground,  then you knock me off my feetLately I’ve been thinking about you, cause you’ve been creepin’ in my dreams.

“(Bridge) You inspire me, the way you make me feel inside is amazing.  Your honest, your artistry is engaging. You are everything I hope to be.

“(Chorus) You have touched my soul.  I want you to know you are my hero.  You got so much soul.  To put it plain and simple, you are wonderful.”

Help us Continue to tell OUR Story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members!  Join here! 

 

Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor