Louis Rosen: Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book

This session follows one over the summer that explored Wonder’s album Innervisions. The artist’s background here is excerpted from my previous article.

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.

“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… ” 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.”

By seven, the boy 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.” (Host Louis Rosen)

Ronnie White of The Miracles (Smokey Robinson and The Miracles) was pestered by his brother to hear one of his friends. Wonder greeted the visitor by announcing, “I can sing better than Smokey.” The boy was then introduced to Berry Gordy, who wanted to sign him at once. (Anecdote from Higher Ground by Craig Werner.)

At their first meeting, Wonder’s mother was suspicious of the company’s taking her son’s money. 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 upkeep, eventually a house, and the rest held in trust until he reached 21.

“Motown didn’t know what to do with the prodigy. He’d play any instrument lying around and sing. The label was all about singles, not albums. When he was 16/17 new producers Henry Crosby and Silvia Moy were brought in. They decided to build on Wonder’s own ideas, to guide rather than control his output.” (LR) “My Cherie Amour” was one of the first released songs. We watch a video of its performance at a ceremony for The Gershwin Prize 40 years later. The simple number arrives exhilarating.

In 1971, at 21, Wonder surprised everyone by hiring a lawyer to renegotiate with Motown. It was estimated he earned something like $3.5 million in the preceding nine years, but the check of monies in trust amounted to only $100,000. Every personal and professional expense had been taken out along the way. Rosen points out that we have no way of knowing whether records were accurately kept.

In limbo, the burgeoning star dropped “Little (Stevie Wonder)” from his name. He married vocalist Syretta Wright, but timing was unfortunate. (There would be three wives and nine children.) Motown moved to Los Angeles. Gordy’s attention was consumed by his new bride, Diana Ross, letting much of the label’s talent fall by the wayside. Wright moved to the coast to record, Wonder flew to New York, letting it be known he was open to offers.

In search of a unique synthesizer he’d heard on the album Zero Time by the British/American duo Tonto’s Expanding Headband (Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff), the artist knocked unannounced on the door of Electric Lady Studio in Manhattan. TONTO is an acronym for “The Original New Timbral Orchestra,” the first, and still the largest, multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world, designed and constructed over several years by Malcolm Cecil.

Cecil and Margouleff were thought of as “the mad chefs of aural cuisine with beefy tones and cheesy timbres, making brain chili for those brave enough and hungry enough.” (Mark Mothersbaugh) “In my book ‘multitimbral’ means each note you play has a different tone quality, as if the notes come from separate instruments,” Cecil wrote.

“Show me,” Wonder said. Touching the elaborate instrument, he realized he couldn’t operate it himself. The three men (with the addition of musicians as finances allowed) recorded Wonder’s next four albums together beginning with Music of My Mind. “He almost lived at the studio,” Rosen tells us. Cecil describes their method as leaving a room tape recorder on all the time so that every improvisation could be captured. “You just had to be ready,” he wrote. “If there was something really good, we’d reference it later.” By the first week, they’d finished 17 songs.

Rosen explains the use of telemetry in Wonder’s recordings, a practice which began with Motown. Lyrics were read into his headphones half a line ahead. Amazingly, he was able to hear, take them in, and sing the next line perfectly. In Cecil’s opinion, “There are four ways you can look at someone like Stevie, the lyrical/vocal side, the music/instrumental side, composing, and lyrics. We never stood for his taking the easy way out with lyrics.” In fact, at one point Cecil (half kidding) locked Wonder in an office declaring he wouldn’t be let out until a song was resolved. Time passed. A lyric was slid under the door.

Stevie Wonder (Bigstock photo)

Cecil and Margouleff became Wonder’s cheerleaders, producers, and editors, astonishingly charging him only by the hour. They were on call 24 hours a day which meant showing up if the talent wanted to record at 4 a.m. “Then business got in the way. Wonder evidently told his collaborators they should be directors of his company and receive a percentage. (‘Didn’t happen.) He was a genius. These guys didn’t make him, but they guided him.” (LR) Motown didn’t care. No deal was in place. No promotion followed. Still, the album managed to hit #21 on the pop charts and #6 on that of rhythm and blues.

We listen to “Superwoman” about a couple (Wonder and his wife) breaking up. It’s an easy dum dum da, dum dum da ballad. The team kept recording as the musician resumed negotiating with Motown. He managed to secure a one million dollar advance against five years/five albums, would receive 50% of his back and future publishing (his own company Black Bull – he’s a Taurus-was established) and, here’s the clincher, he’d retain full artistic control. (Gordy got to pick the singles.) Because Motown didn’t want to set a precedent, it was decided to use its original label Tamla for Wonder.

The next release was Talking Book. “Stevie wasn’t making albums, he was making songs,” Cecil said. By the time they had to put out a new recording, they’d amassed 32 songs. “This isn’t an album, it’s a talking book,” Cecil remarked. Rosen shows us the photographic cover. It’s the only image of the artist without his dark glasses and an early reference to the more recent trend of cornrows. (At that point the afro was trendy.) “He wanted an African, Biblical look” the host notes.

Apparently its initial release included a message in Braille inlaid on the cover. It said: “Here’s my music. It’s all that I have to tell you how I feel. Know that your love keeps me strong…” Motown hated the extra thick cardstock as it prevented more albums from being stacked in a bin.

The album came out coinciding with Wonder’s opening for The Rolling Stones, an uncomfortable pairing. Wonder was sure he’d be met by a hostile rock audience and disdained the decadent lifestyle of the tour. The Stones resented his terrific reception. “We forget how segregated the times were. Rock music was white music. The great Jimmy Hendrix was almost a token. It bothered him he didn’t have much of a black audience. Wonder crossed over as a boy, but the Stones tour cemented that.” (LR)

“Superstition” climbed to #1 on the Pop chart, to #1 on the R&B chart early the next year, and then 13 weeks in the Top 40. There was no ignoring Wonder anymore. Rosen tells us the artist kept Motown financially alive for the next 14 years. We listen to Talking Book.

Feeling his voice was inappropriate for “Sunshine,” the musician used two singers from his new band, Wonderlove. The song is infectious and nostalgic. He plays every instrument but bass and conga drum. Released as a single in ’73, it become Wonder’s third #1, won him a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and was nominated for both song and record of the year.

“Maybe Your Baby” arrives twangy funk- bell bottoms, vinyl boots, afros. “One of the things you notice is how many colors he brings to his voice,” observes Rosen with admiration. This is the first occasion on which the host has donned headphones for a full experience. “You and I” is simple, direct, sincere; “Tuesday Heartbreak” with David Sanborn on alto sax and“You Got It Bad Girl” return to funk.                                                                                 

Side two opens with “Superstition,” the single Gordy chose. A multi-layered, energizing tune, it’s buoyed 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.” “Stevie got more and more political. Here he’s speaking directly to Richard Nixon,” Rosen informs us introducing “Big Brother”: You’ve killed all our leaders/ I don’t even have to do nothing to you/You’ll cause your own country to fall. “Blame It On the Sun” and “Looking for Another Pure Love” (with Jeff Beck on guitar) are slow-dance ballads.

The album ends with “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” another track that reverberates with memories. The song is universal and very like a spiritual. It’s easy to get hypnotized by Wonder’s repetitions and the richness of sound. These are not brief tracks. “When was the last time you just sat and listened to this whole album,” Rosen asks. Forty years ago, several attendees respond wistfully smiling.

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About Alix Cohen (970 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.