Monday, May 20, 2013

Celebrating Stevie: List One: 15 Wonderful Love Songs

by Odienator

Stevie Wonder and I have a few things in common. We’re both May babies (Stevie on May 13th, May 11th for me). We’re both dealing with levels of blindness (half for me, total for him). We’re both Black. And we’ve both done things with our hair we probably regret. 

I'm just jealous that I couldn't get those beads on my damn braids.

The similarities end there, but I bring them up because I’m such a fan of Stevland Hardaway Morris that I’d treasure any coincidental detail I could find.

As Eddie Murphy said in Delirious, Stevie Wonder is a musical genius. That point needs no belaboring; his music speaks for itself. Blind since birth and brilliant ever since, Stevie plays a mean set of drums, blows an even meaner harmonica and is a virtuoso on the instrument he’s most often seen behind, the piano. With a career spanning 51 years, Wonder has written and sung songs you, your mama, and your mama’s mama can all enjoy. In today’s world of autotuning and video performance over skill, Wonder joins Prince, Springsteen and a few others in the ever-dwindling group of musicians who write, play instruments and perform their own work live in concerts. No lip-synching for Mr. Wonder, because he doesn’t need to dance like Beyonce to entertain us. (Though I’d pay big bucks to see Stevie dancing his ass off with 15 backup dancers.)

Wonder’s classic run of albums in the early to mid-70’s yielded hit after hit and award after award. 22 Grammys and an Oscar later, Wonder is still around, inspiring the next generation  of entertainers like the Jonas Brothers, with whom he recently performed. I wish he had hit them with his keyboard, but you can’t always get what you want.

"Jonas Brothers, where you at?" 
"Right here, Stevie." 
"Hold still...WHAM!"

To celebrate Stevie’s 63rd birthday, I wanted to do a top 10 list of his songs. This proved impossible; I know what my favorite Stevie song is, but after that, there were way too many choices. So I did what I always do here at Big Media Vandalism: 

I cheated.

This is the first of three lists of Stevie Wonder songs. The lists are:  

  1. Love is Wonderful
  2. Peace, God and Protest  
  3. What the Fuss? 

There are 40 songs in total, 15 for the first two lists and 10 for the last. It's a safe bet that Stevie-Prince-En Vogue song will make an appearance on that third list.

Let’s start with what Stevie has written about most of all: Love 

Nobody writes a good, mushy love song like Stevie Wonder. Nobody writes a tale of heartbreak like him, either. For the latter, try All In Love Is Fair, which may be the most devastating sad song written in the last 50 years. For this list, I’m sticking to the happier side of l’amour, as I am still giddy from my own current plunge into the depths of romance. A year ago, this would have been one depressing ass list of Stevie sad songs, so thank Heaven for small favors. You may still cry anyway.

Note: This is not a best songs list, but a list of my favorites. Chime in with yours below, and check back in a few days for the second list.

Love is Wonderful

 15. If You Really Love Me- Written by Stevie and then-wife Syreeta Wright, this is either a plea for a coy woman to reveal her true intentions of love, or a request for her to give up the drawers so the man can decide if the ass is good enough for him to commit. Either way, this is an ebullient musical contraption, constructed as a series of slow, pleading sequences alternating with fast, hand-clapping renditions of an equally pleading chorus: "If you really love me, won't you tell me?"  This push and pull gives the song both its emotional heft and its uniqueness. This has one of my favorite intros: The opening piano notes form the backbone for Wonder to hang his gorgeous horn riff.

14. Ebony Eyes- Musically, with its straightforward nod to tango, this is certainly less ambitious Wonder. Lyrically, however, I remain a fan because this was the first love song I ever heard that was explicitly about a Black girl. And not just any Black girl, but one that might be attainable by yours truly for one reason only: Like me, she was “born and raised on ghetto street.” Everything else in the song puts her squarely out of my league—“she’s a devastating beauty” and “when she smiles it seems the stars all know, ‘cuz one by one they start to light up the sky.” But that ghetto commonality was my trump card, my hustle, my glimmer of hope. Surely, I could work that to my advantage. Suffice it to say, you lied to me, Stevie Wonder!

13. I Just Called To Say I Love You- Oh SHUT UP!! If you think this song is syrupy glop, you haven’t been listening to Stevie Wonder lyrics. He’s written far gooier lyrics than this, and I’ll prove it later in this list. In High Fidelity, Jack Black famously says this is the song where Stevie jumped the shark, and that it’s the worst song he ever wrote. I disagree! The worst song Stevie Wonder wrote is here. Gene Wilder’s The Woman in Red is far from the worst movie Wonder scored (see The Secret Life of Plants), but it’s the movie that got Stevie his Oscar. I wish he could trade that win for one of the songs on the Jungle Fever soundtrack, or the next song on this list, but no matter. This song is the musical equivalent of the trashy movies I feel no guilt for loving.

12. I Can Only Be Me- On the School Daze soundtrack, Keith John does a spectacular cover of this song (with Stevie accompanying him on the piano). Spike Lee uses it memorably in the film, intercutting his characters’ love-making with John singing the song. I never knew a version by Stevie existed, but once I  heard it, I was even more in love with the song. My only complaint has nothing to do with how hard it is to sing this song, but how short the song it. For a man who sometimes let his songs go on far longer than necessary, you’d think Stevie would give a few more minutes to his most fuckable composition. But noooooo! This is less than 3 minutes. I can hear the ladies in the audience saying “that’s about accurate for summa y’all!”

11. With Each Beat Of My Heart- One could figuratively say that Stevie puts his heart into his songs. Here, he does so literally: His heartbeat is the appropriate percussion section for a song with this title. Backed by Take 6, Wonder sings the best lyrics he’d write for the mediocre Characters album. “There’s a time when playing ends, and the serious begins,” he sings, “like the love that I felt from the start.” Any song that can get away with calling one’s beloved “my morning cup of tea,” and do so without irony, is a keeper. Even if I do prefer coffee in the morning.

10. From the Bottom of My Heart- Another heart song, and Stevie’s most recent on this list. It’s on his last studio album, A Time To Love, and it won him his 20th Grammy. The verses have an odd lyrical construction that Stevie easily navigates; it took me a few listens to get it. The chorus, however, is as straightforward as lyrics come, with its notions of love lasting forever. About love's expiration date, Stevie crafts the best last line of any of his songs, as defiant about its hyperbole as it is simple: “Forever is a long, long time,” he tells us, “but so what?”

9. You and I- Ladies and Gentlemen, I hereby submit my choice for the mushiest love song Stevie Wonder has ever written. In fact, it is downright nauseating and could  send Wilford Brimley into a screaming fit of the word “diabetus!” I just listened to it again and ugh! “In my mind, we can conquer the world. In love, you and I.” Aunt Jemima has less syrup in her factory. Blegh! No, I’m not crying! Something got under my contact lens. Seriously, this song did not just make me cry. You believe what you  want! Anybody with a nappy soul will remember that this was Thelma’s wedding song on Good Times. Think about that for a minute, will you? Tito, get me some tissue. Jermaine, stop teasing! 

8. Make Sure You’re Sure- This hauntingly beautiful jazz-infused selection from the Jungle Fever soundtrack feels like falling in love itself; it’s a halting mix of uncertainty and passion. The opening lyrics pull you in (“Well the night is young. And the stars are out. And your eyes are all aglow”) and, buoyed by a swelling string section, you float along, hoping for the desired destination but unsure if you’ll get there. There’s a cinematic quality to this one—you can close your eyes and see Stevie’s story unfold. Though he’s worked in the blues/jazz genre before, I don’t think there’s another song that sounds like this in Stevie’s canon. As an evocation of mood, it’s a masterpiece.

7. Knocks Me Off My Feet- I was 6 years old when Songs in the Key of Life was released. It came with a big book of all the lyrics, which I read over and over. When I got to this song, the human spellchecker that I was at that age noticed an error. “Ooh, Stevie made a mistake! I told my cousin. “He spelled something S-U-M-P-T-I-N.” As in “but there’s sumptin ‘bout your love that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet.” I was wrong about it being a mistake, though. Stevie does indeed say “sumptin" in that lyric, because whatever was in that chick’s love had transcended the boundaries of proper spelling and come back Black and Ebonic. This was BETTER than something—it was sumptin’! Now that’s some good ass, almost as good as this song. Contains the most earnestly dismissive, drawers-disintegrating declaration of love ever written in a chorus: “I don’t want to bore you with it, oh but I love you, I love you, I love you.”

6. Boogie On Reggae Woman- Let’s keep those drawers off, shall we? I learned the words to this song long before I had any clue what they meant. Fast-forward to my teenage years. The song came on the radio, and almost by rote, I started to sing along. As I was singing, I came to a startling revelation I wouldn’t have had at 5 years old. “Wait a second,” my hormone-filled brain said, “this song is fucking NASTY!!” Proving that Clarence Carter isn’t the only perverted blind singer out there, Stevie sings about wanting to lay the Long John on some dancing chick from Jamaica. While she drops it like it’s hot, Stevie tells her how he wants to “see you naked under the stars above” and how he wants to “make love to you so you can make me scream.” All this plays out over a very danceable beat complete with harmonica solos. You want to dance to the beat, and screw to the lyrics. They say you can tell how good a man is in bed by watching him dance. Here’s your litmus test.

"I'm singin' 'bout ass so good, it'll make ya glow up in the dark!!"

5. All I Do- Hotter than July is widely considered Stevie’s last consistently good album (despite having the worst song he ever did on it). This is the second song on that album, and since 1980, I have yet to attend a Black party, a Black club or a Black wedding where I did NOT dance to this song. It always played just when I was about to ask someone to dance, too, as if it were magically tuned to the moment when I abandoned my wallflower tendencies. I can’t sit still when it comes on, either. As I write these blurbs, I’m also listening to the song about which I’m writing. When I got here, I abandoned this keyboard 30 seconds in, opting instead to dance my ass off in front of this computer. I’m sure footage of that would be more entertaining than this blog post, but not as much fun as this song. As an aside, Stevie Wonder wrote this in 1966 for Tammi Terrell, a fact I did not know until recently. Her version is slower, and one of the sweetest, most beautiful things I have ever heard.

4. Ribbon in the Sky- True story. I was in the Casio section of Kmart looking for a new keyboard. I turned on the floor model and started to play Ribbon in the Sky, which I had been learning, A couple walked by. Suddenly, the woman looked at the guy and burst into tears. The guy looked at me, and I panicked. “I don’t know what I just did,” I thought, “but I’m about to get my ass kicked.” Immediately, I stopped playing, but the guy did a hand gesture that implied I should continue. My confused look was met with one of desperation. I picked up where I’d left off. The woman tearfully kissed the guy and turned to watch me play. As they stood there, I telepathically sent out a message: “Leave! Leave! I don’t know much more of this song!” When I ran out of notes, the couple held hands and left. About ten minutes later, I ran into the guy. “That was one hell of a coincidence,” he told me. “That was our wedding song, and today is our anniversary.” Before I could contemplate spending one’s anniversary in Kmart, the guy said “Man, she thought I planned that shit!” He shook my hand and walked away. I suppose he passed my accidental Stevie tribute off as his anniversary present. By the way, this song is hard as hell to play, and even harder to sing, but I’ll bet it’s the wedding song of somebody you know.

3. Until You Come Back to Me- Stevie wrote this for Aretha Franklin, but he also covered it. It’s blasphemy, but I prefer his version to 'Re’s. (Her version is still fantastic.) Calling this a love song is kind of stretching the definition; it’s straight up Fatal Attraction! The spurned lover in the song is going to “rap on your door, tap on your window pane” until the song’s title comes true. Digging through YouTube, I found a clip of Stevie and 'Re singing the song. Watch it. It’ll make you happy. In the hands of Aretha and Stevie, obsession sure is catchy.

2. As- What a shitty title for such a great song. “As?!” Seriously? For decades, this was my favorite Stevie Wonder song. The plot is familiar: The singer’s love for you will last forever. Except this time, rather than say that directly, Stevie says his love will last until certain events occur. As then lists those events, things like the Earth turning in the wrong direction, rainbows burning the stars out of the sky and dolphins flying. Seven minutes seems a long time for a love song, until you realize that you’re not supposed to be listening to it; you’re supposed to be dancing. With a Herbie Hancock keyboard solo and background vocals by a shitload of soul singers, As professes its love while daring you to sit still. No matter how many times I hear it, I am always taken by the subtle tempo change that occurs about 1 minute and 54 seconds in.

1. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours- This is what happens when you write a song with yo’ Mama. Stevie’s Mom, Lula Mae Hardaway, contributed the title after hearing the melody. Stevie delivers this self addressed, stamped hit with a heavy focus on drums and a deceptively simple vocal. This is Stevie at his most vocally sadistic; when he covered it, Elton John said he had to squeeze his balls to sing the high notes! Released the same year I was, 1970. (Great things came from that year.) I realized Signed et al. had replaced As on the top of my list after I saw Crooklyn. Spike Lee uses it in a montage that made me nostalgic for the days when  I used to dance in front of my TV while watching Soul Train. This was Stevie’s first Grammy nomination, [Ed. note: it was his fourth, actually] which he lost to the only clean song Clarence Carter ever sang, Patches. Nasty ol’ blind men fighting over Grammys! This is the perfect place to stop.

Next time: Stevie gets mad, gets religion, and gets shit done.