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.

Friday, April 03, 2020

We All Need Somebody To Lean On

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Music legend Bill Withers died today. He was 81 and no, the Rona didn't get him. According to the Associated Press, Withers died from heart complications. But dead is dead and gone is gone, no matter the delivered route, and this week seems an especially cruel one for music with Adam Schlesinger and Ellis Marsalis also passing away. So, as I sit here trapped in my apartment and my sadness, wondering if I'll yet again see the Harlem Withers once sang about, here are a few words about the guy who, despite his legendary status, will always be Still Bill to those who loved him. 

As a kid, I loved Bill Withers because he sang about his grandmother, specifically how she kept him from getting his ass whupped that one time...

"Grandma's Hands
Boy, they really came in handy--she'd say:
'Mattie, don't you whip that boy
What you wanna spank him for?
He didn't drop no apple core..."

But I was, and remain, destroyed by the line that comes after this:

"But I don't have Grandma anymore."

I lost my grandmother when I was 4 years old. It was my first of many dealings with death in the 50 years I've been on this Earth. I have two memories of her that I cherish and hold dear, both of which I wrote about on this very blog. I remember the long braid of hair she wrapped up into a bun on her head. I recall the religious candles that burned in her room and her telling me about Lana Turner's Imitaiton of Life. I have a vague recollection of her voice. I do not remember her hands, a body part which would have been unmemorable to the kind of 4-year old boy I was.

But Bill Withers remembered his grandmother's hands--and his grandmother--far more richly and expliclty than I remembered mine. And so, for the two minutes he sang about her on that record, Bill Withers' grandmother became my grandmother. Or rather, the kind of grandmother I wish I'd had or had lived in my memories. The type of gentle yet firm gramdma I saw my mother become. Nowadays, when my mother acts benevolently after my nieces and nephews do things that would have gotten me shot, I have no idea who this woman is. I feel like Mariah Carey. 

But I digress. Withers' description of his grandmother was so simple, yet he created such a lasting visual in my young mind. I crafted an image of her hands comforting the local unwed mother and shaking that tambourine so well. I felt them picking me up each time I fell. Most importantly, I saw them when they "used to isshuh out a warning." Not issue--isshuh. That glorious West Virginia voice emanating from Bill Withers threw an extra dollop of Blackness on that word and I felt it in my nappy soul the way I felt when Lionel Richie turned value into val-ya and Stevie made something into sumptin'.

God, I loved Bill Withers' voice. The funny thing about it is that, until I was well into adolescence, I had no idea what Bill Withers looked like. Instead, I'd created an entire picture of him in my mind based entirely on that voice. And this wasn't in the late 80's when he disappeared from the limelight, we're talking about the 70's when the man was everywhere.  Hell, he's on the album cover at the top of this piece. We had that album! How on Earth could I not know?

You see, what had happened was...

Back then, I'd never seen the album covers for Just as I Am or Still Bill. Those LPs were just in the white slips that came inside the album covers. My parents used to hide the album covers they thought were too nasty for my curious young eyes. So, I thought Bill Withers records looked like The Ohio Players records. Bill was all sticky because the lady leaning on him was covered in honey--or something like that. When I finally saw him in an old clip singing Lovely Day aka "that song whose impressively long notes make people pass out at karaoke," I discovered Bill Withers looked nothing like I'd envisioned. At least I got the Black part right.

Speaking of Lean On Me, I'm surprised some celebrity hasn't tried to record a new version of Withers' most well-known composition for charitable contributions in this Time of the Rona. Really, there's no need to do that because we have the original song (and the Club Nouveau version if you be jammin', you be jammin' hey). Despite having the most memorable opening chords in soul music history, and despite providing the title of one of the greatest bad movies of all time (and doing so expeditiously, I might add), Lean on Me is my least favorite Bill Withers song. I've heard it 22 million times and despite that rush of excitement I still get when it gets to the hand-clapping "just call on me, brother, when you need a hand" section, its status remains unchanged.

Don't get me wrong--Lean on Me is a masterpiece. But my triffling behind always leaned toward darker, rowdier Bill Withers songs like Who is He and What Is He To You and my all-time favorite, Use Me. The former is a menacing classic, a take on male paranoia so potent Bill doesn't even have to cuss to scare the bejeesus out of the listener; he says daggumit the way Sam Jackson says a certain word beginning with M. It contains my favorite of all Withers' lyrics: "before you wreck your old home, be certain of the new."

The latter song is a magnificently masochistic ode to ass so good it'll make you put up with the emotional mistreatment that goes with it. "You get me in a crowd of high class people and then you act real rude to me," Withers sings here, before adding "but oh baby, baby, baby, bay-baaaay, when you love me I can't get enough!" The exasperated, forceful and horny way Withers delivers that line contains more sex in it than a thousand dirty lyrics. Those who've been there understand, and those who haven't are gonna want to buy a bus ticket to that destination.

Withers could also be heartstoppingly romantic, again using his trademark lyrical simplicity to paint vivid pictures in the listener's heart, soul and mind. "Ain't No Sunshine when she's gone," he sings in the opening line of the lush and buttery Ain't No Sunshine, and that's enough to spark the imagination. And the opening verse of his collaboration with Grover Washington Jr., Just the Two of Us, uses nature to conjure up feelings of love to rival Stevie's best lyrics.

Thankfully, there's an excellent documentary on Bill Withers that you can watch in its entirety on YouTube. Even more thankfully, we have the music of this legendary singer-songwriter to inspire, enrapture and enterain us even as we mourn the loss of his physical presence. With a heavy heart and joy-filled ears, I say rest in peace to the man who not only gave us great music, but who provided the sample for No Diggity. Something tells me Grandma might not have stopped Teddy Riley from getting his ass beat for doing that. Here's hoping that Withers found her when he got to Heaven.

That Bill Withers Doc I mentioned is here

Y'all knew you weren't getting out of here without seeing this.