Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Celebrating Stevie: List Four: 10 Wonderful Surprises

by Odienator

Happy 70th birthday, Stevie Wonder!

This is a milestone for one of the greatest singer-songwriters in the history of music! As a fellow Taurus and a lifelong fan, I salute his longevity, his activism and his love of humanity. And of course, I worship his talent, as evidenced by the three list-like pieces I wrote about him here at Big Media Vandalism back in 2013 and 2014. I say "list-like" because, besides my number one choices, the other numbers really don't mean shit. I just put them in to troll you AND I told you this up front. I also told you this was not a "best of" list series in ANY REGARD. Some of you jackasses still wrote me to complain about ordering and what I left off.

I had no intention of writing a fourth list because this project was designed as a trilogy and my math degree will not allow me to squeeze a fourth item into something meant for exactly three items. But this is a milestone May birthday not only for Stevie but for me also. On May 11th, I turned 50, which means my mother was rocking my cradle in time with my favorite Stevie song, Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours. That came out in June of 1970 and was written by a 20 year old with three prior Grammy nominations under his belt and 25 Grammy wins ahead of him. (He'd lose for this song, however, to nasty ol' fellow blind man, Clarence Carter's Patches.)

Stevie's first hit was 57 years ago. Just think about that for a second. I went to Wikipedia to see what you get for your 57th anniversary. You don't get shit. It's an off-anniversary! But for your 70th anniversary, you get Platinum. And what is a birthday but an anniversary of your marriage to life? Of course, Stevie got his platinum long before turned 70. In fact, Hotter than July went platinum was Stevie was 30 and I was ten.

So, trilogy be damned! The man deserves another list, not just on the 70th anniversary of his life but as a 50th anniversary present for my own battle with life.

This is the fourth of what was originally three lists of Stevie Wonder songs. The lists are here and you should read them in this order: 
  1. Love is Wonderful
  2. Peace, God and Protest  
  3. What the Fuss? 
For a fourth list, I needed a new concept. I had already done the random thing (see list 3), love songs and protest songs. So this one is all about Stevie Wonder surprises. I won't define what a "surprise" is; that's on you to figure out. I will say that one of the songs on this list is the worst song Stevie ever wrote. The rest of them are great songs at best, good and intriguing songs at worst.

Since I know y'all hate reading and love bitching, here's a handy list of the 40 songs I've already covered in this series. 

On with the show! As if I need to remind you: The numbers don't mean shit!

Herewith: 10 Wonderful Surprises.

10. Faith- My first pitch on the mound is a batshit curveball! No, this isn't a remake of George Michael's classic solo debut single (though I'd empty my bank account to see Stevie shaking his ass in a pair of tight jeans while strumming a guitar in a remake of that song's video). This is a song on the soundtrack of the animated feature Sing, a duet between Stevie and Ariana Grande. Now, I'm way too old to even know who Ariana Grande is, but age didn't stop Stevie. How you stick around in this industry is by letting future generations know who you are. By teaming up with Grande for a cartoon, Stevie's all but guaranteeing that the grandkids of his original fans will also know who he is. And sue me, but the song's kinda catchy, especially when Stevie works the chorus. This is the only entry where I'll tell you what the surprise is: Despite what imDB tells you, this is the only song in this entire series that Stevie Wonder did not write.

9. I Ain't Gonna Stand for It- Remember when I said this list contained the worst song Stevie ever wrote? Well, this is it! My fellow Henderson, Eric Henderson, likes to tease me about this song and how misguided my choice is. Back in list one, I went to bat for what everybody else thinks is Stevie's worst song. I disagree with y'all's choice, and so did the Academy Awards. To quote Stevie, "somebody's been pickin' in ya charry trayyy!"

"My album still went platinum, Odie. So, you can kiss my Natural Black braids!"

Here's the thing: I Ain't Gonna Stand for It isn't a bad song by itself. I really appreciate that Stevie followed in the country music footsteps of Georgia's own Ray Charles, The Commodores' own Lionel Richie and Oakland's own The Pointer Sisters (who won a Grammy for their masterful country song, Fairytale). But they had something Stevie doesn't: They can master a Southern accent, either by default (Richie's from Alabama, for Cripe's Sake) or by mimicry (Anita, June, Bonnie and Ruth Pointer). Stevie cannot pull this shit off. Perhaps this is the ONLY thing Stevie can't do well. Get some White boy with a twang--or Hootie--to sing this, and we might be onto something here.

I kinda think Stevie's fucking with us on this one by making his "Southern" drawl intentionally bad. Be that as it may, it still torpedoes the song! No matter: Bad Stevie is still better than most people's masterpieces.

8. Maybe Your Baby- Stevie's "heart is blazing like a 5-alarm fire" and the lighter fluid is the incredibly funky music underneath his vocal. You can easily tie this second song on Talking Book to at least two of Stevie's later hits: The perfect groove on You Haven't Done Nothin' ups the funk quotient exponentially and a certain song on Songs In The Key Of Life takes this song's romantic masochism to a shocking yet appropriate extreme. More on that latter one later. For now, enjoy shakin' ya ass while being taunted by a title-including chorus that toys with your suspicious heart like a cat with a mouse: "Maybe Your Baby done made some other plans!" it teases just before Stevie mutters a word that sounds like "shit!" in frustration. (Listen at around 1:27.) As an added bonus, the electric guitar is provided by the guy Stevie beat for that aforementioned Oscar, Ray Parker Jr.

7. Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer- It wouldn't be a Stevie list without a sad song, so here it is. This 1971 collaboration between Stevie and then-wife Syreeta Wright takes a favorite metaphor of his, the seasons, and fashions out of them the hauntingly sad arc of a lover's broken promises. "You said you would be warm love in springtime," Stevie sings, "that is is when you started to be cold." It's important to note how devastated Stevie sounds here--his still-youthful 21-year old voice makes the pain feel like your first heartbreak, you know the one where you thought the world was just going to fucking end. And yet, the words are ageless; the emotionally battle-scarred voice of a 59-year old singer could sell this song on another, equally devastating though more mature level. I know, because this is the song Stevie sang at Michael Jackson's memorial service.

6. We Can Work It Out- Flip the 45 of number 7 over and play this remake. Perhaps the greatest cover of a Beatles song, though the more I think about it, James Brown's take on Something might be a tad better. Like James' version, Stevie takes this in a different direction, respecting the original's composition while remaking it entirely in his image. You can hear John and Paul rattling about in the bones of this thing, but everything else about it is pure Stevie. From the distorted opening notes, to the harmonica solo in the middle, to the surprise of the tambourine shaking during the "life is very short and there's no time" bridge, this is how you do a cover. The subject matter is also a perfect fit for the man who sang a helluva lot of songs of peace, love and protest. 

5. Creepin'- There's a reason Lufer, I mean LUTHER Vandross chose this as the afterglow to follow the astronomical sex of his biggest baby-makin' hit, If Only For One Night. This is as mellow smooth as Maxwell, a relaxing moment of introspection as you try to catch your post-coital breath. Stevie also has it follow a song about fuckin' on Fulfillingness' First Finale, but that song is the uptempo jam Boogie on Reggae Woman, perhaps the raunchiest song in Wonder's canon. The ass is so good in both the songs that precede it that the person has become your own personal Freddy Krueger. "Why must it be that you always creep in my dreams?" asks Stevie before describing what sounds like Wet Dream on Elm Street: "When I sleep at night, I feel those moments of ecstasy." Add to this a sweet harmonica solo, a hesitant moment of doubt and the impeccable voice of Maya Rudolph's Ma Minnie Riperton on backgrounds and you've got a romantic keeper.

Master Song Thief Luther ALMOST steals this song from Stevie. Almost!

4. St. Louis Blues- Remember when Herbie Hancock played them keyboards on Stevie's 2nd greatest song, As? Well, Stevie returns the favor by providing vocals and harmonica on Hancock's take on W.C. Handy's "jazzman's Hamlet." They got some big shoes to fill here, considering that Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Der Bingle, Glenn Miller, Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday, the goddamn Boston Pops AND even Dr. House himself, Hugh Laurie, have taken cracks at it. Did I mention this song is 106 years old? It was 85 when Stevie sunk his teeth into it, and for his trouble, he won two Grammys. This dame he's singing about is a bad mama jama too! "St. Louis Woman with her diamond ring," begins Stevie, "she pulls that man around by her apron strings." Late in the song, he deadpans "if you see me with a St. Louis Woman, slap me before she slap me!" Behind him, this menagerie of animals posing as jazz instruments fill the speakers. I wouldn't dare say Stevie bests Bessie Smith here, but she might well have slapped him for sounding this good had she heard this version.

3. Hey Love- We had young heartbreak on here, so let's have some young love to balance it out. While 70's era Stevie's voice, especially in his major run of albums, brought him the most success and remains the strongest of all his singing eras, I've always been partial to his adolescent voice. You can find it in famous songs like My Cherie Amour and Uptight, but the purity of it on this song is unmatched. I almost went with I Was Made To Love Her here, with its great line about being "knee high to a chicken," and its stronger vocal, but this song had an in: Just like The Temptations' version of Rudolph, this is a song I cannot help but sing a line from whenever it comes on. I could be doing God Knows What anywhere on God's Green Earth, and if this song comes on, I will drop everything to sing "HEY-AY-AY-AY LOVE!!"

2. Ordinary Pain- When Betty Wright died recently, everyone was tweeting The Clean Up Woman and Tonight's the Night in her honor. I tweeted She's Got Papers on Me, a song she didn't get credit for singing. But she's on it with a vengeance! And her appearance is a huge shock. It always made me think of the similar trick Stevie pulls on this song. The first 2:41 of the song is, dare I say, a bit uneventful. It has some wonderful background vocals by Niecy and others but Stevie's lyrics are, to quote Addison DeWitt, "maudlin and full of self-pity." They're so self-consciously so that you start to wonder if every sad love song, even the great ones, is really this way. Stevie even sounds a bit whiny, to the point where you almost want to say "Jesus, man, you're really self-serving and pathetic right now!"

Stevie is fucking with you.

"Lemme take my glasses off for this..."

The song ends, or so it seems, at 2:41. You look at the album cover and go "hey, wait a minute, Stevie! You owe me 3 and half more minutes!" He's going to give it to you alright!

Or rather, Shirley Brewer is going to give it to you. Suddenly, this becomes a funky answer record! You know that woman Stevie was singing about, the one who made him miserable? Well, she's here and she sums up his sad little number in the first line she utters: "You're just a masochistic fool!" she growls, "because you knew my love was cruel!" It's all downhill from there for poor Stevie. She reads him six ways til Sunday, to the point where you almost feel bad about how hard this lady is kicking his ass. It would be unbearable, that is, if you could stop dancing for one second to feel bad for him. Suddenly, all those sad love songs Stevie sang take on a different look! Perhaps those mopey, heartbroken men aren't entirely blameless for their situation! Maybe they wanted it! I've never been more confused while shaking my ass to a record before or since.

1. Fun Day- Folks familiar with this series know of my undying love for the Jungle Fever soundtrack, so this list couldn't end without a song from it. Sometimes, Stevie Wonder songs are just unrepentant odes to joy. Innervisions contains his masterpiece in this regard, Don't You Worry Bout a Thing. "This song makes me happy," I wrote about Thing back in list 2. "That's all I want to say about it." Well, this song makes me happy too, even moreso now that I'm trapped in the house as we all weather that pandemic caused by the Rona. Just listen to the words of this contraption, buoyed by a boisterous chorus of background singers, and let them take you on a carefree odyssey in your mind. "On a day like this, not even bad can rub you wrong," notes Stevie. He even gives you two solos on his most well-known instruments, the harmonica and the piano. It's an IV tube full of good feelings. And it contains a line that I will definitely quote the day I can once again roam around this Earth with impunity: "I cannot believe a day like this has come, that's if this really is." For now, however, I just have this song. And yes, it makes me happy.

Stevie likes messing with the conspiracy theorists, y'know.