Gave the People What They Had

Stevie Wonder: The Wonder Years

It was 1971 and Stevie Wonder had just turned 21, but when he reached into the trust that was to hold the estimated $30 million he had earned with such hits as "For Once in My Life," "My Cherie Amour," "I Was Made to Love Her," and "A Place in the Sun," Wonder discovered that Motown Records hadn't been setting aside his share. "Trust fund" is an oxymoron in the music business, and Wonder was given just more than a million dollars for eight years of smash hits.

Rather than take to the courts, in which case Wonder could've siphoned off some of the profits Motown was making with its new sensation, the Jackson 5, Wonder made a deal with Berry Gordy: Keep your money, Mr. Gordy, and give me complete artistic control. In the world of Berry Gordy, a hands-on Svengali who even liked to dress his acts, such a demand was like Oliver Twist asking for more porridge. But Gordy loved his money, and since Wonder had just proved that he could produce his own hits, with 1970's "Signed Sealed Delivered (I'm Yours)," Gordy gave him the keys to the studio. What followed was, with the exception of The Beatles of 1964-'65 and Bob Dylan releasing Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in a span of 15 months, the most fertile spurt in modern music history.

From May 1972 through August 1973, Wonder brought the world a trio of masterpieces: the synth-pioneering Music of My Mind; Talking Book, with "Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" showing an incredible range on the charts; and Innervisions, which provided funk-rock models with "Higher Ground" and "Living for the City." What made Wonder's accomplishment all the more amazing is that he produced the records and played nearly every instrument--at ages 21 and 22.

In conjunction with Stevie Wonder's 50th birthday last May 13, Motown/Universal reissued earlier this year those musical landmarks, as well as 1974's slightly less important Fulfillingness First Finale (whatever that means) and Wonder's crowning commercial achievement, 1976's Songs in the Key of Life. Just last week came the remastered Original Musiquarium 1, 1982's double-disc best-of that collects songs from 1972 to 1980--the glory years.

Hearing these records again after so many years of letting them gather dust is to be startled anew at just how fully and completely Wonder could create visions from vibrations. No one, before or since, ever sang and played with such instinct. His lyrics were often simple to the point of being childish on the written page, but there's poetry in the notes and true meaning in a voice that proves the existence of a higher power. Stevie has the shining, plain and simple.

Get a bunch of rock critics to engage in a "greatest of all time" conversation, and you'll hear all about The Beatles, Hank Williams, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Howlin' Wolf, Charlie Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kix (who invited Chuck Eddy?), and the like. You won't hear anybody bring up Stevie Wonder, who truly is the most all-around talented musician America has ever produced. It could be, as Jack Black's character in High Fidelity wondered, that the artist is being punished in perception for a couple of decades of triteness such as "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and "Part-Time Lover." Wonder's recent years have been so musically unproductive that he must be referred to in the past tense as an artist.

Even at the top of his game, Stevie released a few errors of judgment, such as the annoying cry of a baby in "Isn't She Lovely" and the jive Spanish lessons that open "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing." His messages were often as heavy-handed as a Spike Lee script, and he dressed like, well, someone who couldn't see. These are things that shouldn't mean so much when your calling is to make the air good with sound. But how many "Stevie Wonder at 50" appreciations did you read back in May? Perhaps a handful, even though critics had at their disposal At the Close of a Century, last year's four-disc set that contained one CD too many.

If Stevie Wonder had died on August 6, 1973, when a truck threw a log through the window of a car in which he was traveling and put him in a coma for almost a week, you can be sure he'd get his full recognition. He'd have streets named after him, and his tunes would become national anthems (in addition to their current status as wedding songs). As it was, Wonder recovered from the accident and went to work finishing Fulfillingness First Finale, which contains the hits "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and "You Haven't Done Nothin'," plus the gorgeous ballad "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away." Two years later came Songs in the Key of Life, which sounds so current today that Coolio managed to lift that record's "Pastime Paradise" wholesale; all he did was talk over it, and still he managed to sell millions of copies of "Gangsta's Paradise" in 1996. Will Smith would do the same thing with "I Wish," bastardizing it as the title song to Wild Wild West.