Happy Birthday Stevie Wonder: An Ode To Music Of My Mind

Stevie Wonder turns 60 today. I don’t need to tell you how hallowed a figure he is in the world of music, or his Grammy tally. His legendary status speaks for itself. His career has been phenomenal and his reach is far further than just ‘Black’ music, influencing countless artists from a variety of genres. What I do need to tell you, is what I feel is most important about Stevie.

Stevie has had 25 studio albums to date. These can be divided up into various eras. There was the Motown Era, then came the ‘70s and there was everything after the ‘70s. If you read books or articles on Stevie, you will see that many people break his musical career up this way and, on the whole, will agree that his best period was the magical ‘70s. In a time where soul music was a dominating force in western popular music, Stevie Wonder stood tall as an ambassador of the genre.

Gaining his chops at the legendary Motown records, to whom he is still signed, Stevie Wonder embarked on his musical career in Detroit at the tender age of 12. Motown provided him with a home to nurture his brimming talent with the crème de la crème of writers, musicians and business people in ‘Black’ music. Alongside such luminaries as Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder garnered a reputation as an outstanding artist. With a string of pop hits behind him, Stevie Wonder turned 21 and negotiated his own contract giving him artistic control and freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted. And he did.

He moved to New York, set up camp in Electric Ladyland Studios (of Jimi Hendrix fame) and begun work on what are regarded as his ‘classic’ albums, Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale and quite amazingly, produced these all in a four and a half year period, shortly followed by the phenomenally successful double album Songs in the Key of Life later in the ‘70s.

But, as I said, I’m not here to sum up Stevie’s career. I’m here to tell you about Stevie’s best album and why it is Stevie’s best album. People will be shocked and likely wars will ensue. However, as a disclaimer, I will say, I have tried explaining this concept to others through the immortal Michael Jackson’s albums. Off The Wall is his best album yet Thriller is a more perfect, more commercial album. And so you ask, “Well, if it’s more perfect, why isn’t it better?” Because beauty doesn’t always lie in perfection and often lies in imperfection. And ‘best’ is always a subjective term of opinion isn’t it?

So let me present to you, Stevie’s best album. No, it’s not Songs In the Key of Life or even Innervisions (all you ‘ubercool’ Stevie fans, I see you hatin’). It’s Music of My Mind, an album that only reached number 21 in the American music charts and is considered Stevie’s fourth most successful album.

‘How can this be his best?’ I hear you cry. Simple. It was the beginning of it all. The Stevie Wonder formula of success all began through this very album. This album was the one stepping stone to international acclaim that Stevie Wonder had to go through, and he left us with something that was not only astonishing, but possibly unmatched through his entire musical career. Yeah, I said it.

Consider the factors; throughout all his ‘classic’ albums, Stevie used the same engineers, Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil (of ‘Tonto’s Expanding Headband’). He used the same technology (most notably the ARP and Moog Synthesizer, with exception of on Songs in the Key of Life where he opted for heavy use of the Yamaha ‘Dream Machine’). The same musical style and instrumentation moulded these albums together into one long work of awesomeness. The same topics were covered on Stevie albums, political, philosophical and of course love. They were all concept albums, with groundbreaking and visually captivating artwork to match. Music of my Mind was the first to bring all those together and present it in a truly unrivalled, yet unsurpassed form.

There is the case of Where I’m Coming From, which was the album recorded before MOMM. Some may argue this was the beginning of the magic. This album was a great introduction to the new, independent Stevie Wonder however it lacked the artistic nature of MOMM, probably owing to its lack of synthesisers. Essentially, it was a trial run for MOMM.

MOMM is sonically apart from every other Stevie album, yet seems to somehow fit in perfectly to his collection of ’70s gems. Although I see it as a foreunner for the others, I still feel it stands alone in terms of it’s sonic merits. The moods and atmospheres Stevie takes us through on MOMM aren’t like on the other ’70s albums, there’s something more ingenious about them. It’s almost as if his introduction to synthesisers gave him a richer sonic palette and he painted a masterpiece. There is such a rich aural intensity and diversity throughout this album. The liner notes say: ‘The man is his own instrument… The Instrument is an orchestra.” Stevie has surpassed music and created an experience, something that you can not only hear, but see, feel and almost touch.

But what of the Music? Well, Stevie played almost all the instruments on this album, his first time doing so it seems, as WICF had a lot of Motown’s ‘Funk Brothers’ involved. Stevie explains, “Doing it this way, I don’t have to explain how I want things done. I can hear the finished records playing in my head.”

The instrumentation through the album is from the archetypal Stevie Wonder toolbox we all now know and love. His weaving of acoustic instruments such as pianos, organs, drums, harmonica into electric instruments such as electric guitars, pianos and synthesizers stitched together with his soulful, dynamic and distinctive voice create a fine tapestry on any outing, no less on this one. It’s the first time he had employed heavy use of synthesisers, which went some way to defining his sound. There’s a lot to be said for Stevie’s use of synthesisers, but even more to be said of it on this album.

He is a pioneer of synthesisers in music across all genres. He is widely regarded as the first major artist to have used the Arp and Moog synthesisers in a popular song format. Synthesisers were regarded as cold and lifeless instruments used for avant-garde experimentation only. Stevie Wonder dispelled this by bringing them to life, giving them emotion, texture and colour through MOMM. I don’t think we’ve seen Stevie use the synthesiser quite this way since. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock notes, “I’m always intrigued by his orchestral use of synthesisers. He lets them be what they are – something that’s not acoustic.”

Stevie Wonder created sounds of his own through the technology and also inspired many sounds to come from future generations. Also worth mentioning, is Stevie’s use of the early talkbox/vocoder. We see it on this album, and of course, this instrument gave Zapp & Roger its distinctive sound, which turned into Teddy Riley’s Blackstreet croonings and then somehow, by some sour twist of a technological lemon, brought us autotune. But let’s not blame Stevie for autotune.

“Love Having You Around” sets the tone for the album in its raw, driven sound, with the playful banter and tongue in cheek lyrics; “Every day I want to get on my camel and ride.” Stevie provides various soundscapes with love at the foreground on this album, amongst which are “Girl Blue” and “Happier Than The Morning Sun” and brings the funk on “Keep On Running”, almost early indications of “Superstition” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” “Sweet Little Girl” almost picks up where “If You Really Love Me” left off, bouncing between two grooves.

“Seems So Long”:
[audio:http://soulculture.com/07 Seems So Long.mp3]

“Seems So Long” is the sublime ballad which could have easily featured on Lauryn Hill‘s Miseducation album, in which we feel Stevie’s longing for the touch of a “wanting hand” through his supremely delivered vocal and there’s no doubt it’s a blueprint of songs such as “You And I” and Blame It On the Sun”. The closer “evil”, is a dark yet uplifting, philosophical look at the subject matter and is very much a prototype for the stunning “They Won’t Go When I Go”.

“Superwoman” is the standout track of this album and this track alone provides a template for the following albums through its sophisticated pushing of compositional boundaries. The opening of the track bounces between bright chords, such as those to come on “You Are The Sunshine” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” The instrumentation is straight up Stevie Wonder; Rhodes, synth bass, drums and guitar provided by Buzz Feiten. Not a synth in sight as Stevie talks about how ‘Mary’ can’t “boss the bull around.”

“Superwoman” (Live at BBC):
[audio:http://soulculture.com/Superwoman Live at BBC.mp3]

But then, in a cinematic turn, enter the synth and segue into a section that can only ever be described as pure genius. In this two-part extravanganza (“Ordinary Pain” is also a two-part song) Stevie Wonder flips perspective and fast forwards us to the point in the story where he says, “Where were you when I needed you” and goes from being someone who can “cope with everything going through your head” to his object of desire “parting from loves nest, leaving me in doubt.” The segue holds all culture of Bach and all the jazz traditions of soul music either side it. The second half was so good alone; it was in fact was famously covered in by the enchanting Donny Hathaway. The lyric speaks almost of a maturity beyond Stevie’s 21 years, as does the whole song.

But that’s the magic of this song and indeed the album. Stevie Wonder, having taken wide-ranging influences created an artistic masterpiece and aligned himself with the huge icons of his day – not only in soul music, but in music as a whole. This work is as important to ‘Black’ music as it is to popular music. It proved him akin to, if not superior to The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, The Beach Boys and his friend the revered Marvin Gaye, whose What’s Going On album was released just the year before. Both showed a departure from the Motown sound in two very different and equally incredible ways.

In closing, I shall let Stevie Wonder have the final word on this. When asked about this album, he said: “I’m not trying to be different, I’m just trying to be myself.”

Happy Birthday, my musical idol, Stevie Wonder.

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