Happy Birthday, Stevie Wonder!
If you even remotely know who I am, you are probably on your way to bust me upside the head with your keyboard. Before you get here, I've got some 'splainin' to do.
Last year, on Stevie's 63rd birthday, I started writing a trilogy of pieces on Stevie Wonder songs. I explained it thusly:
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:
This is the first of three lists of Stevie Wonder songs. The lists are:
- Love is Wonderful
- Peace, God and Protest
- 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.
I got through two of the lists, which I've linked to above. Please read them if you're new to the series, for they explain much of what I've been doing. Keep in mind that this is not a best-of list, and my order of the songs isn't that important. Chime in with your own selections for random Stevie songs (and check my other lists before you bitch about what I didn't include, please).
This will serve as my third and final leg of the trilogy. My apologies for keeping everyone waiting, but sometimes life happens to ya and things fall by the wayside. Perhaps a better way of saying that would be to quote our subject:
"There's a time when playing ends, and the serious begins."
So Let's Get Serious! (Stevie wrote that song too, for Jermaine Jackson.)
For Stevie's 64th birthday, I'll finish what I started on his 63rd. Herewith: 10 Perfectly Random Stevie Selections, or 10 Songs of What the Fuss?
10. So What the Fuss- It makes sense that I start here, as this is the song that gives this list its title. It's from Stevie's last full album, 2005's A Time to Love. Back in the days of Michael Jackson's Bad album, there was a rumor that the title song was going to be a duet between Prince and Mike. That never happened, but Prince did rub elbows with Motown royalty by providing Stevie with musical accompaniment on this song. This is their first direct collaboration, but not their first collaboration: Stevie plays harmonica on Chaka Khan's remake of Prince's I Feel For You.
I still get a giddy kick when Stevie calls out "Prince! POP IT!" and Prince drops his effective little minimalist riff on So What the Fuss. I get even giddier when Stevie presents his girl-group back-up singers, and they turn out to be En Vogue.
The song itself is a take on the old "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me" adage. Stevie sings different scenarios, then applies shame to the appropriate parties: me, you, them and us. As usual, what sounds simplistic in description is given deeper credence by Stevie's singing and writing. The scenarios that put the blame squarely on us have a power that practically moves you to act for change.
It's not a top Stevie song, but it's a damn catchy one, and did I mention he's got Prince and En Vogue on it? Stevie even has an answer for those who find this a sub-par number:
"If we're jammin the music and somebody's got the audacity
To say that they can jam it better than us
Shame on them!"
To say that they can jam it better than us
Shame on them!"
Extra points for the clever use of "fuss" instead of the word old-school Prince would have used.
9. Gotta Have You- Readers of this trilogy are already hip to my love of Stevie's Jungle Fever soundtrack. Here's yet another song from that movie. What I love about this song is its focus (for lack of a better word) on sight. "Never been too much for watching," Stevie sings, "'cuz there's too many things to view. And when eyes begin to wander, they more than rightly never get through." The chorus sings of a girl who is "a sight for sore eyes to see." Even the video I linked to focuses on seeing, with Stevie jokingly taking off his glasses several times to observe his surroundings.
Ruth Brown used to joke that Ray Charles was faking his blindness, because his sense of where things physically were was at times eerily accurate. Especially when there were titties involved. Stevie Wonder may be blind, but I don't for one minute believe he can't "see." Listen to the viscerally descriptive lyrics he's been writing for the last 50 years. The colors he describes leap out like Vincente Minelli's Technicolor. You can close your own eyes and vividly visualize exactly what Stevie is telling you. "But beyond my own temptation," he sings here, "I'm enticed by what I see."
Some part of me wants to believe that this song, with its emphasis on the visual, is Stevie's secret way of revealing "I'm not really blind, I've just been fuckin' wit' y'all since 1962!" I know it's not true, but considering how some of the greatest images in music have emanated from Stevie's records, it's not entirely implausible.
8. Skeletons- OK, I'm just gonna come out and say this: This song is too damn long!
Stevie goes to the lyrical well a few times too many, but before he makes the extra trips, this is a tight, funky little number that drips with the nightmarish fear that your lying ass is about to be exposed. "Skeletons in your closet, itchin' to come outside," begins the song, and as the hand-clappy, bass-driven groove makes your head bob, your might start reflecting on that cemetary in YOUR closet. "What did yo' Mama tell you 'bout lies?" Stevie asks accusingly, before revealing that what yo' daddy told you 'bout lies is even worse: "He said one white one turns into a black one!"
In this song, Stevie is your prosecuting attorney, your guilty conscience and your hanging judge. As you dance your way to the gallows, his most accusatory sentence rings in your ears: "Yet you cry why am I the victim, when the culprit's Y-O-U."
Extra points: This is the song the limo driver is listening to as Bruce Willis evades terrorists in Die Hard. And they BLAST it in the movie!
7. It's You- Let's get a Stevie duet in here! In addition to containing most people's least favorite Stevie song (I addressed that in part 1 of this trilogy), The Woman in Red soundtrack features the PSA friendly Don't Drive Drunk, Love Light In Flight, and several songs by the delightful and psychic Dionne Warwick. I almost chose Love Light In Flight, as I love to sing its airplane metaphors, but the romantic in me won out.
Stevie and Dionne duet here, and it's an interesting combination. Granted, Warwick had great duets with Luther Vandross, and her duet with The Spinners is one of my all time favorite songs, but she was widely seen in the 60's as sounding "too White" for R&B. Of course, this is bullshit; Warwick was a fantastic singer who was fearless in how she used her voice--just like Stevie. So, we get two vocal sadists together, and what do they sing? A mild, by vocal comparisons, love song that plays over the opening credits of a French remake.
Gene Wilder directed The Woman In Red, a remake of the awesomely titled Un éléphant ça trompe énormément (translate it yourself). I haven't seen it in 30 years, but I recall Gilda Radner's pretty good in it, and also that they show Kelly Le Brock's bush despite the film being rated PG-13.
The story goes that Wilder sought Stevie to do one song for the movie, and after he showed the film to him, Stevie returned with an entire album. I give Wilder credit for managing to put the entire album in some form into the movie, and for using this song to open it. It has a good harmonica solo and a nice melody that announces something good is coming. (Unfortunately, it's not the movie.)
There's a lyrical nimbleness as Stevie and Dionne volley back and forth before joining on the chorus. Said chorus once again proves that Stevie's simplicity is the most beautiful thing about his love songs:
Nobody has to tell me so.
You're that angel sent from Heaven above.
Nobody has to tell me so.
You're that angel sent from Heaven above for me.
If only I had not waited, I would have picked the wrong one.
To show my dedication, I rented the movie just so I could get that credits shot above. And maybe I looked at Kelly Le Brock's perfectly coiffed pudenda again. Stevie would approve.
6. Front Line- Like my second favorite singer-songwriter, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie sings this song as a blue collar character. He's a Vietnam War veteran who "up and joined the Army back in 1964." For his trouble, he got his legs blown off in the war. Lieutenant Wonder sings zingers about how anti-Christian war is, and how recruitment usually came from the impoverished and downtrodden. He also sings about how few opportunities existed for vets who come back from any war. "They had me standing on the Front Line," he sings, "but now I stand at the back of the line when it comes to gettin' ahead."
One of the songs on Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium Vol. 1, Front Line contains one of my favorite bitter passages from Wonder's lyric universe:
My niece is a hooker and my nephew's a junkie too.
They say I have no right to tell them how they should do.
They laugh and say "quit braggin' 'bout the war you shoulda never been in."
But my mind is so brainwashed I'd probably go back and do it again.
Like You Haven't Done Nothing, Stevie employs a catchy, funk-infused rhythm (here represented by a distorted guitar) to deliver a vicious, pointed message on the nature of being poor and used in the U.S.A. A year later, Springsteen would deliver Born in the U.S.A., a misunderstood classic told from the same perspective as this song.
5. Uptight (Everything's Alright)- Those drums, that horn section, that bass line! The first song Stevie got a writing credit on, back in 1966 (the same year he wrote All I Do) is pure joy. You want to find something to bang the drum parts on while it plays. And like Ebony Eyes, Stevie presented the younger version of me with the false hope that my broke ass might be able to secure someone to love. The narrator of the song is "a poor man's son from across the railroad tracks," but he has something richer than money. He's the apple of some rich, bougie girl's eye.
He laments about how he can't give her "the things that money can buy." She loves him anyway, and how can't she? Hasn't she heard the song he's singing about her? The Funk Brothers' musical interplay alone is enough to get ANYBODY laid.
Stevie's voice sounds like the teenager he was when he recorded this, which made my a hopeful adolescent. I wasn't even trying to get some rich girl; I was pining for the broke-ass chicks on my block. Uptight gave me confidence and hope, and as I said in the first part of this trilogy: Stevie Wonder, you LIED to me!
What did yo' Momma tell you 'bout lies?
4. Sir Duke- I play the trumpet. I wanted to master this song, with its tricky runs and its swing-era horn section "ba-dahms!" Eventually, I did, but before it happened, I managed to get so winded I threw up in my horn. Stevie Wonder is NOT for amateurs!
Whenever I hear this song, I like to focus on one musical part of it, usually the horns as I know the notes to play. But other times, I bask in the percussion section or the guitars. I've sung plenty of Stevie songs, but this one has my heart because, shit, I puked in my trumpet trying to master it. It's the one song of his I kind of feel I've earned as a crappy musician. It damn near killed me.
Lest I forget Sir Duke's chorus, which I know you're already singing:
"You can feel it all O-o-o-vuhhhh!
You can feel it all Ohhh-vuh, people!"
Good Lord, yes I can.
3. Superstition- Click that link to see just how cool Sesame Street was when I was a kid. This clip is one of the earliest memories I have. Stevie came to Cookie Monster's 'hood and turned the joint out! I wish they had shown Mr. Snuffleupagus doing the bump with Big Bird, or Gordon and Susan going down an alphabet-studded Soul Train Line. Listen to how Sesame Street gets worked into the lyrics. They wouldn't do this on today's Sesame Street!
When I was in high school, I interacted with a lot of guys who knew little about soul and R&B because they were into rock. But whenever I mentioned Stevie, they knew THIS song. Later I'd discover that Wonder had written it for rocker Jeff Beck. Guitarist Beck even composed the drum section of the song with Wonder, and eventually recorded his own version. But the original is still the true classic, the rare Stevie song that gets played on AOR stations, oldies stations and R&B stations. Every guy I know who plays guitar can play this song. Jeff Beck does a helluva job of it in this live clip with Stevie.
But what the hell is it about? Superstitions, I gather, but is that all? I know as a kid, the words scared the shit out of me. "When you believe in things that you don't understand and you suffer." It still gives me the creeps. The opening drum solo is KILLER.
2. Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing- This song makes me happy. In fact, that's really all I want to say about it. I could be having the most miserable, fucked up day in God's creation, and this song will pull me out of my despair, if only for the 5 or so minutes Stevie devotes to it. Its Latin influences are on its sleeve, from its piano rhythm, to its shakers, to its chant that everything is really chévere. My grin stars at the beginning, with Stevie butchering Spanish almost as bad as Mike Bloomberg. It gets bigger as Stevie reaches the first chorus' run on the word "off." Like Aretha Franklin, for whom he wrote Until You Come Back To Me, Stevie turns a one syllable word into a spine-tinging, multi-syllable stretch over a series of notes.
By the time it reaches its joyous finish, where it sounds like the folks who played on this song have broken free of any restraints and surrendered to its groove, my grin is so big it feels as if my head is about to fall off. This song makes me happy. That's all I wanted to say about it.
1. Fingertips (Part I and II)- You knew this was coming. Little Stevie Wonder takes the stage at age 12 and this is the result. A tour-de-force for his harmonica playing and his infectious personality. "Clap yo hands just a little bit louder!" he commands, and we comply. When I was a kid, I relentlessly made fun of this song, clapping and jumping around the house, moving my head like Stevie and credibly imitating him saying "Everybody say YEAAAAH!!" Who am I kidding? I was just doing that shit right now as this song blared through my house. Some things never change.
Stevie Wonder's voice did, however, change, and Berry Gordy was forced to find another little kid to promote. That kid turned out to be Michael Jackson, Wonder's occasional duet partner and the background singer on several of his early 70's songs. Wonder's talent kept him from getting ditched by Motown, and as we saw with #5 on this list, he started writing his own material, eventually besting Gordy and taking control of his own music. This led to the 70's run of genius that will never be duplicated.
I know how much fondness folks have for that period, but in this trilogy I tried to spread the love, picking songs from Wonder's later periods and a few more obscure faves of mine.
It would be impossible to compose an all-encompassing list of great Stevie Wonder songs, as there are WAY too many. Hopefully, this served as an appetite-whetter for fans and newbies alike.
I'll end this trilogy with Stevie singing Happy Birthday to himself!