Stevie Wonder: Where I’m Coming From

Stevie Wonder
Where I'm Coming From

Time was, my Wonderlove was so intense and notorious that they called me “L’il Stevie” at boarding school. There, at Northfield/Mount Hermon in the northwest corner of the Bay State, I had proudly displayed a huge, red, wall-sized poster of Stevie Wonder from France in my dorm room that my father had given me. Up the hill, in the “cool kids” co-ed dorm, one of our campus’ best musicians, Shelby Gaines (whose elder sister/NMH graduate Greta Gaines now hosts “Freeride”), had the same image on his wall, reproduced from Stevie’s Hotter Than July album cover. Shelby told me some girl had made this silkscreen or whatever it was for him (perhaps authoress Rebecca Carroll, whom I later attended Hampshire with?). He was my nigga cause he’d always be singing Stevie’s “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” under his breath at the mailroom. Any given time, upon passing this co-ed hall, you could hear Shelby playing his vintage Fender Rhodes piano — his room was right above the main entrance and had a often open balcony — in an era long before the likes of Jason Kay and other acid jazzers revived Rhodes fetishism. Fortunately, Shelby would always say “C’mon up” or some such so my twin sister Camara and I would ascend and pester him to sing Stevie classics and other Soul standards. Ah, happy, simpler days.

At Northfield too, during our sophomore year, Camara and I performed a Stevie sketch in the vein of Eddie Murphy’s hilarious Wonder send-ups on Saturday Night Live from the early 1980s. It was apparently such a hit that one day my math teacher — I was long an utter failure at math but I precede the “girls have math anxiety” and VH1 Save the Music epoch; my math teacher, Keith Robine, was hip and had a Grateful Dead cover band on campus for which he played guitar and sang — asked that I do a solo command performance of the Stevie imitation in class. Went well until Camara’s old and hard-line math teacher Sally Mann came in from next door, coldly calling a halt to the hijinks. After class, during the rehearsals of the performing dance troupe, our cherished dance teacher Patty Smith had us warming up to Stevie’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale — you know, the good one — and befo’ y’all could say “Ebony & Ivory”, I had a black market running out of my tiny dorm space, supplying contraband cassettes of that record and other choice Wonder cuts to both campuses’ biggest womanist bohos, hippies and/or potheads.

Why oh why, Dear Reader, do I bore you with all this nostalgic prologue? Me, myself, I don’t really recall when “Steve” automatically became Mr. Stills rather than Mr. Morris. Trying to convey to you the degree to which I was (over) identified with Stevie Wonder my entire life until the age of 20 or so, despite a deep adolescent divergence into Deadhead-dom, is rather difficult on paper. My twin and I were born on May Day; Stevie’s birthday is May 13 (all of us “preemies” set to languish in incubators). We Negresses; he calls his thangs Black Bull Music & Taurus Productions. My first musical memory ever is listening to “Big Brother” from Talking Book in my crib on a Saturday morning. Stevie named his elder children Aisha and Keita; we had West African names too and in fact resided in Mali where “Keita” is much revered, referring to one of the ancient empire’s greatest heroes, Sundiata the Great. We come from that red-black-and-green diaper baby generation wherein fathers habitually played “Isn’t She Lovely” for their daughters.

I simply believed that I would grow up to be a member of Wonderlove, Stevie’s backing group, swinging that tambourine and singing right in between Jim Gilstrap and Niecy. Really entertained the idea of moving to Nashville to sing country after hearing “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” (an actual hit on country jukeboxes). Used to hallucinate on Efram Wolff’s inside cover album art from Innervisions, thought Steve wrote “Too High” about my favorite Aunt Margaret Ann (although she was not a junkie merely a Betty Davis-style wild child of the ’70s) and — as all this music was always played in its vinyl form — would lean close to the circling grooves ‘neath the needle during the coda of “He’s a Misstra Know-It-All”, turning the volume all the way up and unbalancing the speakers to catch every last exhale and southern baptist descant on that mother as it faded out into that sorrowful oblivion where all beloved songs go. I learned virtually every thing I know about music from Stevie Wonder’s entire oeuvre, from A Tribute to Uncle Ray through Conversation Peace — yep, y’all know I’m a diehard fan because I own and actually like and listen to such derided later platters as In Square Circle and Characters! Which brings us to the long player selected as The Favorite: Where I’m Coming From (released a month before Stevie’s 21st birthday and the year we were born…you see?).

Honestly, it’s been some years since I listened to my “favorite” record. I really started going to concerts after age 18, when I moved to Manhattan, getting interested both in genius favorites from my childhood (Wonderlovers P-Funk & Gil Scott-Heron) as well as new delights (Widespread Panic, the Family Stand) and Stevie never seems to tour. With the exception of the great soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, the late ’80s and most of the ’90s have almost universally been viewed as years of baffling unproductivity for my boy Stevie.

For reasons unknown, other singer-songwriter-virtuosos have asserted themselves in my consciousness over the last decade and refuse to cede the mass that once belonged to Wonder alone: Gram Parsons, Donny Hathaway, Gene Clark, Leon Russell, Richie Havens, Hugh Masekela, Jon Lucien, George Clinton, Chris Robinson, Jeff Buckley, the aforementioned Stills & his perennial sparring mate Neil Young. Also, it’s been annoying to say the least that every time one turns on music television or otherwise there’s some damned fatuous musician, be it Shania Twain, Lenny Kravitz or Alicia Keys, parroting on about how much they love Stevie Wonder and he’s such a huge influence blah blah blah (and now, to my horror, my Donny is starting to assume that position). Flippant fanboy flicks like the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity denounce Wonder for a great lapse in quality after the Golden Four run beginning with Music of My Mind (used to ill effect in the movie) and ending with “triple” album masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life, without seriously pondering the strains of such genius on black male artist figures of the previous generation: Wonder, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Scott-Heron, Al Green & Hathaway.

Although I really wanted to choose Stills or his old band the Buffalo Springfield for this assignment, the truth is, in either guise, he’s never made a perfect record — although the first Manassas comes close and I adore Stills’ complete works. A part of me also wanted to be kool, Man, and write on Hendrix . . . but I am not a 20- or 30-something fanboy with something to prove so . . . Camara, the twin, who loathes rock ‘n’ roll but, like everybody else in the universe got Wonderlove, suggested the far easier task of dropping a paean to the irrefutable masterwork that is Innervisions. So, stubborn Taurus bitch that I am — show me some love, Stevie — I’m a-gonna try to briefly cast a vote for Our Natural Wonder’s first major flop.

For that is what Where I’m Coming From was, released the same year as fellow Motown Corporation refugee Gaye’s masterpiece What’s Goin’ On. Apocrypha has made plain the degree to which Corp. honcho Berry Gordy detested both of these records. What’s never rests well with me is the audience’s response to these young brothers attempts to rid themselves of mental and rockbiz slavery to embrace aesthetic freedom. Thirty years later, rising “artists” of all races habitually cover Gaye classics (see Bono’s recent all-star “What’s Goin’ On”) but even a slew of Wonderlovers would probably tell you that Stevie’s career jumps from the (justifiably great) Signed, Sealed, Delivered to Music of My Mind by which time our main man cemented his tightness with arp and moog synthesizer programmers Bob Margouleff & Malcolm Cecil of Tonto’s Head Band. WICF (as with Gaye’s record) was the first time Motown printed lyrics on their album covers, indicating that Stevie Wonder wished to make a Big Statement. Even if portions of this turning point collection are not as smooth as later wordy highlights (“Jesus Children of America”, “Lately”, “Free”), my precious Steve — like Scott-Heron who never met a pun he didn’t like — can be the king of syrupy “moon in june”-isms and that precise lack of ongoing adherence to “Hall of grit is known too well” from “Do Yourself a Favor” has perhaps caused the work to suffer. Slow jam “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and the horn-drenched, midtempo bounce of “If You Really Love Me” were relative hits from WICF that one still can hear on the oldies stations. Yet the rest of the songs, co-produced and written with then wife Syreeta Wright, are typically deemed pretentious, overproduced, didactic, dated, maudlin etc. . . . but not by this kid.

Personal, ambitious, sprawling, underrated: Where I’m Coming From still has its pleasures. Stevie on the cover as a soldier in Vietnam then a dapper brother on the avenue? Priceless. On the whole, accompanied by his soon to be signature keyboard approach and famed Motown Funk Brother James Jamerson on bass, he gets to revisit the musical genres that had piloted his string of hits thus far: show tunes, neo-folk, R&B, mainstream pop, a tinge of psychedelia. The social consciousness also blossoms here. Album opener “Look Around” shows Fabs influence (that’s not great shakes in my book) but moreover sounds like something the late period Zombies could have easily done or that Arthur Lee could’ve jazzed up with great results. As it is, just a dirge with Wonder’s multitracked voice and a clavinet (mimicking harpsichord) it’s pristine and hauntingly beautiful. The next cut sits pretty in my Wonderlove all-time top 5: “Do Yourself a Favor”

Even if the not dissimilar “I Wanna Talk to You” is now a tad cringeworthy, I never tire of “Do Yourself a Favor” and its 4:05 minutes of innercity blues wallowing bliss. A lost classic from a transitional work, this is Stevie at his funkiest, ballsiest and most strident . . . ain’t no love, heaven and “apple of my eye” here. If later records saw Wonder take a cue from competition such as Sly and Marley, WICF seems all about newly solo Curtis Mayfield and the fuzz mania of such dance jams du jour as Jimmy Castor’s “It’s Just Begun”. When asked to produce a final for video class at film school, the result, full of ’60s civil right marches, Black Panther and Wattstax footage, was scored to “Do Yourself a Favor”. The song is such a creeping glory as you can scarcely believe. Don’t let the facile surface fool you: “Do yourself a favor / Educate your mind / Get yourself together / Hey, they ain’t much time”. “Take Up a Course in Happiness” joyously heralds Hathaway’s revisitation of vaudeville musical conventions like tack piano on 1972’s Come Back Charleston Blue and indeed, Wonder’s own crowd-pleaser “Sir Duke”. Sliding into home stretch with the elegiac “Sunshine In Their Eyes” — complete with children’s chorus, horns redolent of both Stills and Mayfield’s solo shots in and Syreeta holding court so sweetly — one is (or ought to be) rightly reduced to tears at the album’s flawed beauty.

The record was a necessary step for Wonder to take, even beyond the pop gems of Signed, Sealed, Delivered, to arrive at the blueprint for the Good Ones. From a certain viewpoint, Music of My Mind could be considered no more than tiny steps removed from its predecessor, mellowed out by the studio lassitude seeping into the Los Angeles smog from Sly and Shuggie’s concurrent experiments. I believe it would have been otherwise impossible for Wonder to work out how to achieve the mini-opera that is “Livin’ for the City”, the muddy funk of “All Day Sucker”, the gorgeous samba of “Another Star”, the sub-space rock balladry of “Rocket Love” (yep, “Rocket Love”). WICF is Stevie Wonder’s difficult sophomore effort (fifteen albums into his career), his thorny, impenetrable Trout Mask Replica, his “scary” Oar (inasmuch as Motown allowed such goings on!), his first tentative political manifesto foreshadowing a long line including (goofy) “Don’t Drive Drunk”, “Black Man”, and “Cash in Your Face”. Where I’m Coming From is the portrait of the artist as a young man at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood, the ’60s and the ’70s, showbiz and aesthetic independence. In the case of Stevie the Boy Wonder, I urge you to consider the highs of his misses as well as the sonic nirvana of his hits.

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