“Stevie Wonder’s albums from the 1970s mark one of the most extraordinary, creative streaks in the history of popular music. Innervisions from 1973 marks a key moment in that streak, when the subject matter in his songwriting broadens beyond the traditional romantic ballad to also address a wide range of contemporary themes and issues such as drug abuse, racial inequality, systemic racism and political commentary, all expressed through his individual musical synthesis of soul, jazz, gospel, blues, funk and popular styles.” Louis Rosen
“Stevie Wonder wrote this first song when he was 17 and still in high school,” host Louis Rosen begins. We listen to “My Cherie Amour” (co-written by Henry Crosby and Sylvia Moye), our heads collectively bobbing. “But how did he get to Motown?”
Born six weeks premature, Stevland Hardaway Morris (Wonder) spent an excess of 52 days in an oxygen tank which resulted in a condition in which the growth of the eyes is aborted and causes retinas to detach. The result was blindness. When he was four, his mother divorced, packed up the kids, and moved from Michigan to Detroit where she was able to buy a home in the east side ghetto. “Detroit had famous history with The Klu Klux Klan. In certain areas, African Americans were met with signs like Negroes who move in here will be burned. Even if he hadn’t been blind, Stevie would’ve been at a disadvantage.”
This is the first of Rosen’s performer/album lectures which evidences a political bent. With racial equality at the forefront of news, we look at Wonder’s awareness of bigotry and expressions of unity. His first 2018 Twitter tweet was a five minute video called “The Dream Still Lives” celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Dozens of famous people enthusiastically contributed.
“To me being blind was normal,” Wonder has said. “It bothered me that my mother was crying all the time. She thought God might be punishing her for something… So I just told her I was happy to be blind and I think she felt better after that.” His mom did her best to assure him a normal childhood. The boy swam, skated, rode a bicycle and even bowled. “We were poor alright…but being blind I didn’t see the things I couldn’t have, like on television… I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being black as a disadvantage.”
“Living in the ghetto there was not much contact with racial prejudice,” Rosen tells us, “but teachers made it clear options were extremely limited.” By seven, the boy who would become “Little Stevie Wonder” played harmonica and drums. “There are two kinds of harmonica, one that plays in a single key and a chromatic instrument that lets you play all 12 notes. Stevie is expert on the latter. The sound he gets is like nobody else. When a neighbor moved out, she gave the family her piano. At eight, he started banging out tunes.”
Ronnie White of The Miracles (Smokey Robinson and The Miracles) was pestered by his brother to hear one of his friends. He and fellow Miracle Peter Moore went to hear Wonder who greeted him by announcing, “I can sing better than Smokey.” “The visitors were amused and impressed with what they heard and set up a meeting with Brian Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland…it was after that that Stevie met Berry Gordy, who then, of course wanted to sign him at once.” (Quote and anecdote from Higher Ground by Craig Werner)
At their first meeting, however, Wonder’s mother was suspicious of the company’s taking her son’s money and bundled him off home. Apparently he played drums day and night until she relented. Because of his age, a rolling five year contract was drawn up with the adolescent getting a $2.50 weekly allowance (equivalent to $21.39 in 2019), his mom receiving clothes and upkeep, and the rest held in trust until he reached 21.
“Performers at Motown were not writers. They were groomed for nightclubs. It was a factory but also a musical education. Stevie learned to understand a studio and gradually broadened his influences beyond blues, soul, gospel, rhythm and blues to encompass Bacharach, Dylan and The Beatles.”
“When I think of the sixties, I think of two things: I think of Motown and I think of The Beatles. The Beatles made me feel I could do some of the ideas I had…” (Stevie Wonder from On Higher Ground.)
He became a mascot for the label, adopted by performers, especially musicians. Running into trouble with the school board, he was transferred to The Michigan School for The Blind which allowed him to continue to perform. “He was essentially holding down two full time jobs,” Rosen remarks.
Motown didn’t know what to do with the prodigy. He’d play any instrument lying around and sing. Mentor/songwriter Clarence Paul worked on two albums with the boy when he was 11, one Ray Charles cover, the other an instrumental record of Paul’s music. His debut single “I Call It Pretty Music, But the Old People Call It the Blues” hit the market when he was 12. It never cracked Billboard 100. Wonder then joined The Motortown Revue touring the Chitlin’ Circuit where black artists were allowed. (The label hired a tutor.)
A year later, he hit the chart (with the single “Fingertips”), the youngest artist ever to do so. As Wonder’s voice changed, however, a number of misfires followed before another success. “At 13 years old, you know you’re a big star. OK, fine, but I want to go and watch Huckleberry Hound.” (Stevie Wonder)
“Motown was all about singles, not albums. When he was 16/17 his producers were changed. They wanted him to guide them, not vice versa.” The burgeoning star dropped “Little” from his name and became part of the Motown Songwriting Department. His ‘The Tears of a Clown,” co-written with Robinson, was a hit for Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.
“In 69, Wonder revisited ‘My Cherie Amour’ additionally writing something that shows the other side of the equation.” We listen to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” It’s difficult to sit still. “At 21, he took advantage of his legal right to disavow any contract signed FOR him as a minor. Motown traditionally owned performers’ publishing rights. A solo agreement was negotiated with substantial raise in royalties, publishing rights, and something no other artist had-artistic control.” He established production and publishing companies and collected the money in trust, over one million dollars.
No longer tied to Motown, Wonder began to record at Electric Lady Studios on 8th Street in Greenwich Village. “I’d like to be one of those who power Motown change,” he said. He then got married for the first time. (There would be 3 wives and 9 children.) Though it wouldn’t last, the union inspired Music of My Mind, his first album outside Motown. We listen to “Superwoman” in which the song’s namesake imagines a grander, more public life.
Jazz musicians Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, the duo called Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, had released an album called Zero Time on which Wonder heard sounds he wanted to utilize. “They told him everything came from a single instrument they called Tonto `combining Moog and Arp synthesizers with a broad mix of other modules.’ At the start of Memorial Day, the new collaborators entered a studio. By Monday, they had recorded 17 songs.” Margouleff and Cecil would guide Stevie through a series of Grammy-winning albums.
“In 1972, The Rolling Stones invited him to be their opening act. The idea of an African American artist opening a rock show was exceptional. We forget how segregated music was at the time. So he goes on tour and is met not only with indifference, but a particularly decadent period for The Stones. Wonder had no interest in drugs.”
“Motown was going out of fashion. They were slow to allow political content. Marvin Gaye made the first thoroughly political album – What’s Going On? in 1971. Others, including Stevie with his recording of Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ had already begun to slowly move Motown toward accepting political content in recordings of particular songs. Suddenly training people for Las Vegas was inadvisable. The next year he puts out Talking Book, the first album that’s really cohesive. It also has two songs with contrasting musical qualities and intentions that became huge hits.”
We listen to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition:” From the latter: “Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall/ Very superstitious, ladders ‘bout to fall…” The serious groove/electronic sound was achieved by clavinet, a five octave electric keyboard instrument with short strings struck by a piece of metal when the key is pressed. Wonder called it “a funky, dirty, stinky instrument.”
“With Innervisions, Stevie Wonder combines gospel influence with Martin Luther King’s message of racial harmony. I think he was the most significant African American composer of the late 20th century – with Duke Ellington representing the first part. He’s singing to the white folks about his community, seeking a vision of harmony that wasn’t the political fashion of the post civil rights era.”
We listen to the album. “Too High” is about escape from oppression and culture, trying to confront the realities of black life and remain positive. It also specifically addresses the negative, dead-end choice of using drugs to escape…thus the title. Chromatic harmonica and reverb are front and center. “Visions” follows suit embracing sounds we associate with jazz or George Gershwin rather than The Brill Building. Melody seems uncontained here, electric guitar darts like a dragonfly.
“Living for The City” is a one act play about the hazards of being black in an urban environment, replete with sound effects, voices, and dialogue. Wonder is playing every instrument. His vocal is strident and gritty. “Higher Ground,” doubles as reference to a moral stand and reincarnation. Its author says he wrote and recorded the number in 3 hours. “I had to get it done,” he said. Likely as a result of being introduced to transcendental meditation by his first wife, he, like George Harrison, became interested in the spirit’s return. Affiliation with Baptist churches never interfered.
“Jesus, Children of America” is a plea for truth and clean living, this time using church language. Rhythm moves through layer upon layer of sound. The familiar “All in Love is Fair” is a true ballad. Wonder’s expansive, elastic vocal brings it home. “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” (Richard Nixon?) warns the community away from a certain type of influence. Another story/song, the terrific vocal arrangement echoes a revival meeting.
“With this album he’s part preacher, part social critic, and part political commentator,” Rosen notes. “I’m struck how thoroughly relevant it is today though recorded 46 years ago.”
The host closes by relating his own experience with a Steve Wonder concert. “The first hour was like he took you to church. It was as if the entire arena was levitating. He enters a deep sense of spirit. Then he combines that with a non-sugar-coated view of African American life.”
A potent portrait.
All non-attributed quotes are Louis Rosen.
Louis Rosen: STEPHEN SONDHEIM: MUSICAL THEATER MEETS CLASSICAL FORM Thursday, July 23, 2020, 12:30 – 2:15 https://www.92y.org/class/stephen-sondheim
Louis Rosen: JOHN COLTRANE: ON THE RISE
Thursday, July 23, 2020, 7:15 – 9 pm https://www.92y.org/class/john-coltrane
Stevie Wonder photo – Bigstock