Stevie Wonder: Perennial Inspiration or Blagger’s Legend Of Choice?

There are a handful of artists who, on discovery, change the way I listen to music.  Without question the first one to start the trend was Steveland ‘Stevie Wonder’ Morris.  I was seven years old when I truly understood the power of music and its potential for socio-political impact and I have Innervisions to thank for it.

For a while I had been both frightened and mesmerised by the artwork on the family copy of Stevie’s 1973 album.  It took a while for me to actually put it on the old turntable as I kept examining the strange humanoid creatures on the inside cover.  I’d got it into my head that Stevie had drawn them himself and being blind these depictions were a fruit of the ‘innervisions’ of the title; strange other-worldly beings that only someone, whose remaining senses were heightened by the absence of sight, could concoct.  I know – a lot for a seven year old’s imagination – but ask anyone who knows me well enough and they’ll confirm my tendency to over-think things.

Prior to listening to Innervisions my main exposure to Stevie were vague memories of him being number one in 1984 for what seemed like forever to my three-year old self with ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ (it was actually closer to six weeks).  I remembered the Flamingo-pink hue of the video, Stevie’s disembodied head floating around and little else.  I knew he was a big deal but that single – tellingly, his only UK number 1 – wasn’t exactly the best showcase for his exceptional gifts.

I can’t recollect what actually made me play Innervisions but the enticing nature of its artwork must have had something to do with it.   Well, that was the start of a lifelong relationship with Wonder’s music.  As I listened to ‘Too High’, ‘Misstra Know-it-All’ and ‘Jesus Children of America’ I lay on the floor and literally tripped off his music.  When Stevie asked existential questions (‘Visions’) or explored social injustice in a big American metropolis on ‘Living For The City’, I understood that music could be more than just entertainment: it’s a multi-faceted, transcendent force to boot.

I was too young to query how someone who had been a star since childhood and would only have been a mere 23 years old on penning that particular opus, could write about the vicious cycle of poverty with such insight.  I was later to learn, through Sharon Davis’ excellent biography ‘Rhythm of Wonder’ that Stevie wrote Innervisions not long before almost losing his life in a severe accident.  Some say the record was prescient; touched by an added wisdom gained by being so close to death.  I was also to learn, as my knowledge of Stevie’s back catalogue increased, that insightful lyrics were not the exception but indeed the norm.

There are two American songwriters whose poetry through song, for me, surpasses others.  Paul Simon was allegedly once described as America’s poet laureate; if so then Stevie is arguably its greatest all-round musical emissary. Songs In The Key of Life – the inspiration for many an artist and DJ who has come in its wake – is the closest thing to a perfect album.

Apparently, the release date for Songs… was put back several times as Wonder continuously tweaked his masterpiece but goodness, was it worth it.  Three discs displaying incredible craftsmanship – from the lyrics (there are few pop compositions I’ve heard that match the profundity of ‘As’) to the arrangements; the experimental texture of its soundscape as multi-instrumentalist Stevie really took his fascination with the Moog to another level as well as the presence of haunting strings on blinders like ‘Village GhettoLand’.  There’s the pure pleasure of ingeniously devised yet unforgettable melodies such as ‘Sir Duke’, ‘Summer Soft’ and ‘Another Star’.   Plus there’s something for everyone on this record.  The defiant ‘Ordinary Pain’ for instance, has been my crush-gone-sour anthem for a while now. I knew of a man who cried whilst listening to ‘Isn’t She Lovely?’ after the birth of his daughter.

Growing up my appreciation for Wonder’s work increased with each discovery, as did my sister’s.  After we trawled through the family record collection to find Songs in the Key of Life and Hotter than July these and other Stevie compositions fast became soundtracks to our daily activities, be it completing our homework or just leaping around the living room doing impromptu Karaoke.  The beauty of singing along to Stevie is that the female voice doesn’t always have to modulate the key. To this day, on cue sis and I can harmonise to the middle-eight on Wonder’s duet with Michael Jackson ‘Just Good Friends’.

During the 1990s and early 2000’s others seemingly couldn’t get enough of Wonder’s early work either.  You had characters singing his songs on sitcoms and the spectre of Stevie’s music cast over every TV talent show.  Ignoring the lousy pop boy bands who wanted in on the act, in the 90s there were R&B groups such as Jodeci, Blackstreet and Intro doing Wonder covers too.  And we can’t forget the monster success of Coolio’s sample of ‘Pastime Paradise’.

I remember feeling a mixture of annoyance and delight when Donell Jones covered ‘Knocks Me Off My Feet’.  Delight because it’s a beautiful song and he did a worthy interpretation but annoyance because now everyone would know about one of my favourites from …Key of Life. Jones was also part of a fraternity of Wonder sound-alikes who emerged in the 1990s and early noughties – Eric Benet, Frank McComb, Stokley from Mint Condition, Rahsaan Patterson and Glenn Lewis are others that come to mind.

With the exception of Lewis, most of these vocalists managed to be inspired by Wonder without sounding like complete carbon copies.  It’s not difficult to understand why they would be so heavily influenced.  Wonder’s agile counter-tenor has a stunning, instantly-recognisable tone. It wasn’t always this way – the story goes that on signing him to Motown, Berry Gordy was more impressed by the energy of his young protégée than his purportedly ‘scratchy’ voice.  Stevie more than made up for it as he matured though.  ‘If It’s Magic’– a song that encapsulates all the enchantment of Wonder’s skills – remains one of his best vocal performances to my ears.  Perhaps because it’s one of his most understated.  It proves that he’s not just impressive on the powerful, high notes but is every bit as much, if not more so, giving a more subtle vocal delivery.

Having immersed myself quite heavily in the three Stevie Wonder albums to which I was exposed as a child and adolescent, I supplemented my Stevie collection with classics like Talking Book, Music Of My Mind and various compilations as I reached young adulthood.  I must confess my favourite Stevie period is early ’70s to early ’80s.  There are a number of his songs either side of that era that I enjoy but most of it doesn’t reach the creative zenith of the aforementioned decade for me.  I’ve steered clear of anything that I feel could dampen my admiration for Wonder’s work hence my somewhat circumscribed listening.

With Stevie’s music so often being covered, sampled or used for advertising and hearing his name dropped by every artist seeking instant credibility, I was fooled into thinking that there were many bona fide Stevie Wonder fans out there.  I say fooled because of late I have come to realise that this isn’t necessarily the case.

Not very long ago I had a vehement discussion with a friend who said she didn’t rate Wonder’s work that highly partly due to him being ‘over-exposed’.  I was so busy defending his genius it took a while for me to admit she had a point about the over-exposure.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d argue from now till tomorrow that any self-respecting music fan who doesn’t value Wonder’s artistry needs to re-consider their supposed love for the art-form.

Yet I can understand more now where my friend is coming from.  Stevie has become somewhat of a ‘designer’ legend; so many punters and musicians alike mention his name to sound clued-up yet personal knowledge of his music might not stretch beyond a couple of tunes.   There are obviously artists such as Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Raul Midon whose sworn affinity to Wonder’s music is evident in their own art.  There are those however, I believe who have heard his name from the lips of genuine adherents so often that they feel they cannot divulge their ignorance of his work and therefore jump the bandwagon.

I’ve seen this perverse phenomenon manifest at Wonder-related gigs.  When Jazz Café used to host their birthday tribute nights for the great man featuring Eric Roberson, you could tell the real Stevie fans from the dilettantes.  I once encountered a young lady who, on explaining my observations of people using Wonder’s name in vain, confessed that she herself was guilty of only knowing covers of his songs.

No more was the point driven home that, on these shores in any case, Wonder’s name is better known and revered than his music, than when I attended one of his shows at the 02 Arena during his 2008 tour.  The concert was packed to the rafters with people who, it soon became clear, only came because they could afford it.  As another soul fan told me when asked if he had purchased a ticket, at circa £60 a pop it was out of his price range and that of many aficionados who would sincerely want to be there.

At the actual show I was taken aback by the demographic of the audience.  They lacked the diversity in age, class and culture I thought would be standard at a Stevie gig. Plus many of them seemed more interested in getting drunk than paying attention to his music. Wonder played solidly for two hours, vocals intact, incorporating plenty of his best tunes. My sister and I whooped excitedly on hearing hits such as ‘All I Do’ ‘Overjoyed’ and ‘Golden Lady’, which should have been instantly recognisable to those who cared.

Nevertheless the rest of the crowd were borderline indifferent.  Stevie himself appeared to get bored at times trying to enthuse this ungrateful audience, fluffing his lines on ‘Lately’ (my guess was that his mind wandered).  Sad to say the crowd only came to life when Wonder played some of his songs that had gained commercial success in the UK.  As many jumped to their feet, sis’ and I resolutely refused to respond to ‘I Just Called…’ silently protesting in our seats; arms crossed, brows furrowed.  Even Stevie and his backing vocalists sang with an air of reluctance as if to say, “Go on then you ingrates; this is what you’ve been waiting for.”

I learned a valuable lesson that night – no matter how amazing an artist is a concert is only as good as its audience.  What should have been a once in a lifetime experience ended up underwhelming through no fault of Wonder’s own.  The lazy reviews that featured in the British press were no better-obviously written by Philistines irritated by the fact Stevie played more than the little that they knew.

I’m not sure if Wonder has fallen foul of the fickleness of the British listening public but I better understand the view of a friend of my sister’s who once claimed rather flippantly that Stevie is more of a cultural icon Stateside and therefore more relevant across the Atlantic than in the UK.  Of course there are genuine fans out there whose appreciation makes mine pale in comparison and no-one would argue that he isn’t regarded with the utmost respect even if many Brits don’t really know his stuff.  More importantly, none of this negates what Wonder’s music has meant to me over the years and his singular contribution to the world of song.  Soul and Pop would have been missing something substantial without Stevie’s music – and so would I.

–Tola Ositelu

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