The Vision of Wonder
Stevie Wonder's transition from child star to self-reliant artist began with (what else?) a contract dispute. In 1971, when he turned twenty-one, the blind multi-instrumentalist negotiated for, and eventually received, complete control over his music—the sounds, the words, the mixes, everything. Motown wasn't happy at first, but what followed was an explosion of creativity that reverberated powerfully throughout the music world and beyond. Between Where I'm Coming From (his first self-produced work, issued in 1971) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976), Wonder created four milestone albums, one right after another. These mind-blowing works represent a confluence of craft and heaven-sent inspiration not attained since. They've all got buoyant, stretchy-elastic rhythms, and refrains so resolutely positive they defy gravity, and lyrics of substance. Wonder's incredible string of classics expand the definition of "message music" to include hard-grooving, instantly addictive radio songs.
Following the example of labelmate Marvin Gaye (whose 1971 album What's Going On, see p. 304, was one of Motown's early forays into social commentary), Wonder began addressing the problems of urban America on his magical 1972 release, Talking Book. With Innervisions, he cranks things up a notch. He writes idealized prayers and strident calls to awareness about drug abuse ("Too High," perhaps the funkiest antidrug song of all time). He tackles poverty and racism (the striving "Higher Ground," as well as the seven-minute narrative about the struggles of a Southern family, "Living for the City") and then sermonizes more generally on the evils of arrogance ("He's Misstra Know-It-All").
Wriggling through graceful vocal melodies and adlibs as daring as those from any jazz musician, Wonder speaks truth to power. But he doesn't harangue: Everything comes wrapped in Wonder's resolutely bright, indomitable spirit—particularly on the sun-splashed "Golden Lady" and "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing," a blithe fantasy in son montuno rhythm that comes near the end of the record. One of his indisputable flashes of radio genius, "Don't You Worry," turns on the Spanish phrase Todo está bien chévere (Everything's gonna be alright). Listening to Wonder sing, it's almost impossible not to share that feeling.
Released: 1973, Tamla/Motown
Key Tracks: "Golden Lady," "Higher Ground," "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing," "Too High."
Catalog Choice: Talking Book; Fulfillingness' First Finale
Next Stop: Curtis Mayfield: Superfly
After That: Donny Hathaway: Everything Is Everything
Book Page: 872