Wonder Why: The Ascent and Decline of Stevland Morris
Stevie Wonder saved my life once. It was November of 1988, and I had just been finally and irrevocably turned down by a girl I’d been pursuing for most of the fall semester of my sophomore year of college. I was on a train back to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, watching the gray New England landscape roll by and feeling utterly convinced, as only lovesick teenagers can, that my life was over, I would never love again, the world was full only of suffering and pain, blah blah blah. Then I popped a borrowed copy of Innervisions into my Walkman. By “Golden Lady” there was a glimmer of hope in my heart. By “Higher Ground” I was cracking a smile. By “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” I was laughing at my own self-pitying melodrama, and by the glorious fadeout of “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”, I was checking out the girl in the seat across from mine. So okay, maybe Stevie Wonder didn’t save my life—but he was sure the fastest soul healer I’d ever encountered.
Like a lot of children of the ‘80s, prior to that day on the train I had always put Stevie Wonder in the same category as artists like Lionel Ritchie and Michael McDonald, washed-up purveyors of adult contemporary crap like “Part-Time Lover” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. I vaguely knew he had recorded a fairly groovy-sounding tune called “Superstition” back in the day, but that was about it. I spent the next several years educating myself, snapping up all his great ‘70s albums and marveling at all this amazing music me and my white suburban friends had missed out on while we were busy listening to Kiss and Cheap Trick. As everyone except me already knew, Stevland Morris, a.k.a. Stevie Wonder, was radio-friendly R&B from 1972 to 1976, when he recorded a string of albums that not only spawned a slew of hits, but were actually great, great albums unto themselves. Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Songs in the Key Life. How had this guy gone from such towering brilliance to the pablum of “Part-Time Lover”?
It’s this question that, in a way, makes Stevie Wonder: The Definitive Collection such a fascinating disc as greatest-hits compilations go. Presenting 21 tracks recorded over a period of 22 years in chronological order, The Definitive Collection lays out the arc of Wonder’s career from boy wonder to pop genius to shadow of his former self so plainly that it’s heartbreaking. As is always the case with such abbreviated compilations, there are a few dubious omissions and inclusions, but quality aside, the album’s producers Henry Weinger and Jeff Moskow have done a masterful job at distilling Wonder’s long career down to its most essential moments. For the casual pop/R&B fan, The Definitive Collection actually lives up to its name.
The album starts out somewhat jarringly with Wonder’s first big hit, a live track he recorded in early 1963 at the tender age of 12 called “Fingertips (Part 2)”. As the title implies, it’s not even a song, just a three-minute edit from the finale of a “Little Stevie” concert; but it shot to number one on the pop charts on sheer novelty value, as everyone rushed out to hear the little kid who could sing like Ray Charles and play harmonica like nobody ever had. By the time Wonder scored big again two years later with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, his voice had changed and he was starting to show flashes of what was to come, but the song itself was pure Motown, a chiming piece of chrome-clean R&B that could have just as easily been recorded by the Temptations or Smokey Robinson. Wonder was still part of the Barry Gordy hit machine in those days, and his material, as wonderful as it could be, was still not really his own.
Weinger and Moskow could have chosen any number of lesser hits from Wonder’s early period to round out this collection—“Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” would probably have been the popular choice—but they settle happily on the often-overlooked “Hey Love”, a breezy ballad from 1966’s Down to Earth. The song itself is a pleasant but fairly forgettable Motown ditty, but it’s fascinating to hear what the 16-year-old Wonder does with it, belting it out with an unforced passion that shows him finally settling into the power of his voice, like a young cleanup hitter learning how to put the ball in play instead of always swinging for the cheap seats. It’s a nice prelude to the track that, for me, marks the real emergence of Stevie Wonder as a force to be reckoned with, the amazing 1967 single “I Was Made to Love Her”. Working with the same co-writers who helped him pen “Uptight”, Wonder was still making Motown music, but there’s something different going on here, an unbridled exuberance that Motown’s squeaky-clean sound was always a little too polite to include. It’s still one of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs of all time.
Wonder’s 1968 version of “For Once in My Life” has become so definitive that people forget it was originally recorded by Tony Bennett just a scant year before. There’s not much I can say about it; it’s one of the more lightweight entries into the Wonder canon, but still irresistible thanks to the sheer joy of his performance. The years have been less kind to “My Cherie Amour”, another sweet ditty that’s simply been overplayed into cliché status.
Lest we forget that every track on The Definitive Collection has been digitally remastered, it’s worth noting how fantastic “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” sounds here, buffed to a high gloss by Kevin Reeves. You can even hear the electric sitar, which instantly restores much of the hipness this track had stripped from it by years of overexposure on oldies radio.
After “Signed, Sealed” we finally get to the life-saving stuff, that amazing peak period of Stevie Wonder’s career that I was talking about earlier. It began when Wonder renegotiated his contract with Motown in 1971 and was given more or less complete artistic freedom, something almost unheard of in R&B in those days; only Marvin Gaye at Motown was granted similar carte blanche, and although he used it to make bold political statements on his masterpiece What’s Going On, he was never the musical one-man army that Stevie Wonder had become by the age of 21. Writing and producing all of his own songs and playing most of the instruments (he was also a mean drummer by this point in his career, as “Superstition” amply demonstrates), Wonder plunged into the studio and began cranking out a series of albums that literally—and I hate to drag out this cliché, but what are you gonna do when it’s true—changed the face of pop music.
The Definitive Collection skips entirely the first two albums of this period, Where I’m Coming From and Music of My Mind. True believers will cry foul at this, perhaps, but I think it’s fair to jump right into 1972’s Talking Book, especially since it was the first of Wonder’s “real” solo albums to produce any major hits, and Wonder is one of those rare artists whose defining artistic statements seem to always coincide with his greatest commercial success. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition” perfectly represent Wonder’s two sides during his extraordinary peak years: the golden-voiced pop/R&B balladeer of “Sunshine” and the funky Man with a Message of “Superstition”. Most of his subsequent hits off of Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale carry on in the latter vein, including all of the tracks included here: the deeply funky “Higher Ground”, which probably contains the best lyrics Wonder ever penned; the jazzy pulse of “Living for the City”; the dated but still catchy anti-Nixon anthem “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and the zippy “Boogie on Reggae Woman”, which isn’t really a reggae track at all, just another syncopated slice of Wonder’s sun-dappled funk. All of these tracks, with the exception of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”, still sound fresh today even after nearly thirty years of heavy radio exposure, thanks largely to Wonder’s endlessly rich voice and a twangy, intricate synth sound that’s been ripped off a million times but never successfully imitated. To this day it’s something of a mystery how Wonder and his main collaborators, programmer/engineer/co-producers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, made their synthesizers sound so organic.
1976’s epic two-and-a-half disc Songs in the Key of Life was both a culmination and a transition, taking two years to make—an eternity in those days—and marking the first time since Where I’m Coming From that Wonder worked without Margouleff and Cecil. Although the album contains some of Wonder’s best work, it’s also marred by his first true signs of self-indulgence: an incoherent “artist’s statement” in the liner notes, tracks that aimlessly meander on way longer than they should (including, alas, one of Wonder’s most beautiful songs, “Isn’t She Lovely”, a perfect three-minute pop tune dragged out to six-and-a-half by an aimless harmonica solo and vaguely embarrassing recordings of happy daddy Stevland cavorting with his newborn daughter), and egomaniac album credits like, “PRODUCED, ARRANGED, WRITTEN AND COMPOSED BY STEVIE WONDER, EXCEPT WHERE INDICATED” (all in caps, of course). It’s important to remember that Wonder was still only in his mid-twenties when he recorded Songs in the Key of Life, an age when self-indulgence is practically obligatory, and it seems obvious that without Margouleff and Cecil keeping the young genius in check, he felt free to wander wherever his muse took him and put nearly all the results on vinyl.
Of course, here, none of that really matters; what we get on The Definitive Collection is two four-minute slices of pure pop perfection, the irresistible singles “I Wish” and “Sir Duke”. It’s probably not coincidence that these two fantastic songs are among the few on Songs in the Key of Life to feature a full complement of backing musicians, including an absolutely incredible horn section; letting Stevie Wonder the control freak take a back seat to Stevie Wonder the bandleader brings back some of that unfettered joy that made Wonder’s best early singles such standouts. Neither track matches the funkiness of his work with Margouleff and Cecil, but they recall and then exceed the exuberance of “I Was Made to Love Her” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”.
After “I Wish” and “Sir Duke”, The Definitive Collection tells the story of an artist whose creative powers began to wane. Although tracks like “That Girl” and “Overjoyed” still show Wonder capable of affecting vocal performances and compelling melodies, his sound entering the ‘80s became increasingly generic, until by his last big hit, 1985’s “Part-Time Lover”, he was lifting his chords and backbeat from Hall & Oates’ “Maneater”. Even more unforgivable was the odious “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, a throwaway track that became Wonder’s biggest hit on the strength (for lack of a better word) of its simple melody and greeting card lyrics. “I Just Called” might have been just another mark of Wonder’s waning artistic credibility, but it became a positive black spot when it was revealed that Wonder had ripped off part of the lyric and melody from an old song by his former collaborator (and co-writer of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”) Lee Garrett. Garrett eventually dropped his lawsuit against Wonder, and the scandal faded, but for anyone who’s heard Garrett’s “I Just Called to Say”, there’s no doubt that Wonder plagiarized him, consciously or otherwise.
I’m grateful to the compilers of The Definitive Collection for their decision to place the underrated “Overjoyed” between these two slices of anemic Wonderbread (if you’ll pardon the pun). The second-best song on Wonder’s last decent album, 1985’s In Square Circle (the best was the jittery pop-funk anthem “Go Home”, but it’s not included here, presumably because it didn’t chart as high), “Overjoyed” is a deceptively simple ballad with an distinctive, chirpy percussion loop background and a cleverly modulated chorus that makes the track soar without lapsing into melodrama. Faithful fans of Wonder can take comfort in a song like “Overjoyed”; their hero may have lost his way in the ‘80s, but at least he didn’t entirely lose his talent.
The other tracks included on The Definitive Collection are fairly obligatory: Wonder’s token foray into reggae, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”, a track that’s only ever been appreciated by people who don’t actually listen to reggae; and “Do I Do”, a catchy but fairly forgettable pop/R&B love song with a jazz-scat-inflected chorus, which gets my vote as the compilation’s most dubious inclusion—I mean, it’s better than “Part-Time Lover”, but still, why include this minor hit when “That Girl” is already here to represent Original Musiquarium I and so many hits from Wonder’s early Motown days have been omitted? Why not, for that matter, include another hit from Wonder’s amazing early ‘70s period, like “Isn’t She Lovely” or “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”? What “definitive collection” rule is there that says you can’t have more than two songs from any one album, as is the case here?
But of course, with any career retrospective like this, popularity and chronological breadth outweigh artistic merit, and the whole idea here was to give collectors their first chance to own all the big hits of Stevie Wonder’s entire career on a single disc. For fans of his early work there are plenty of Motown compilations, and fans of his ‘70s heyday who insist on skipping the original albums can hear most of the best songs on Original Musiquarium I (along with “Do I Do”, but never mind). In fact, amazingly, there are no less than 17 other Stevie Wonder “greatest hits” packages floating around out there, for which we can thank the boundless greed of Barry Gordy’s Motown Records. Which of them are the best is a matter of taste—I’d still have to go with Original Musiquarium I—but there’s no doubt that the The Definitive Collection is the most comprehensive, and gives the most complete portrait of this brilliant, frustrating artist. It’s a long-overdue retrospective of one of the most influential artists in pop music history. Just don’t expect to love every track.