STEVIE WONDER-TALKING BOOK.

STEVIE WONDER-TALKING BOOK.

From an early age, I’ve always loved soul music. One of the first artists I remember hearing was Stevie Wonder. Since then I’ve always loved his music, and admired him for everything he has overcome. I can’t help but admire how he has triumphed over adversity. To have overcome blindness, yet still, achieve everything he has, says a lot about his determination and motivation. He really is an example to everyone, and someone everyone should respect. My favorite period of his music, is what many people refer to as his “classic period,” between 1972 and 1976. During this period, he released five great albums. One of those albums was Talking Book, released in 1972, at the start of this “classic period.” Talking Book features some wonderful music, including two of his best know hits, Superstition and You Are the Sunshine of My Life. In this article, I’ll tell you about Stevie Wonder’s career, and just what makes Talking Book such a classic album.

Stevie Wonder was born Stevland Hardaway Morris on May 13 1950. He was the third of six children born to Calvin Judkins and Lula Mae Hardaway. When he was born, he was six weeks premature, and because of his premature birth he was born blind. Several things combined to cause this, but one of them is retinopathy of prematurity. Aged four, his mother Lula, left his father, and moved the family back to Detroit. Once their, she reverted to her maiden name Hardaway, and changed Stevie’s surname to Morris. Since then, Morris has remained his legal name.

Like many great musicians, Stevie Wonder began playing various instruments at an early age. This included piano, drums, bass and harmonica. Another similarity to many great singers, particularly soul singers, was his participation in the church choir. By age eleven, however, Stevie Wonder would become a professional singer and musician.

It was in 1961 that Ronnie White, of The Miracles first met Stevie Wonder. His brother Gerald, had persisted in telling him all about Stevie Wonder, and how talented and singer and musician the eleven year old was. So impressed by Stevie, Betty Gordy the Chief Executive of Motown signed him to their Tamla label. Soon, he was given the name Little Stevie Wonder, after producer Clarence Paul kept referring to him as the “eighth wonder of the world.” He released a single in in the Detroit area in late 1961 entitled I Call It Pretty Music, But the Old People Call It the Blues. Two albums The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie and Tribute To Uncle Ray were released in 1962, but neither were particularly successful.

Between 1963 and 1971, Stevie Wonder enjoyed some early success. In 1963 he had his first number one hit in the US with Fingertips (Pt. 2). This track was recorded live and was from a recording called Motor Town Revue. The drummer on that track was none other than Marvin Gaye. By the mid-1960s’, Stevie dropped the Little from his name, and had a number of hits as Stevie Wonder. These included Uptight (Everything’s Alright), a cover of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind and A Place In the Sun. It was during this period that Stevie began working as a songwriter for Motown. One of his first hits was Tears of A Clown, a hit for Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. 

Towards the end of the sixties, Stevie continued to record and write great songs. Hits kept coming for him, including For Once In My Life, Signed Sealed and Delivered I’m Yours and I Was Made To Love Her. By 1970, he was a married man, having married songwriter Syreeta Wright, and had let his Motown contract expire. Part of the reason for letting the contract expire, was his wish for more artistic freedom. To prove his point, cowrote and played many of the instruments on The Spinners hit It’s A Shame. Whilst negotiating with Motown, he recorded two albums independently. It was only once his new contract was finalised, that he returned to Motown. This new contract gave him a much higher royalty rate, and full creative control and the rights to his own songs.

Between 1972 and 1976, Stevie Wonder entered his “classic period.” It was a time when classic album, after classic album, was released. This period began with two albums during 1972. The first was Music of My Mind, an album with lyrics dealing with romantic, political and social issues. Another of the themes he explored was mystical themes. On that album, he started overdubbing and playing many of the instruments himself. It was a highly mature album for Stevie who was still only twenty-one. His second album of 1972 was Talking Book, which this article is about. It featured the Hohner clavinet. Two singles were released from the album, Superstition and You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Talking Book won three Grammy Awards. To promote Talking Book, Stevie decided to tour with the Rolling Stones. One of his reasons for doing so, was he wanted his music to be heard by a wider audience. No longer did he want to be perceived as an R&B or soul singer. 

In 1973, Stevie released Innervisions, another of his classic albums. Like Talking Book, the album was critically acclaimed, a huge commercial success and won a further three Grammy Awards. Sadly, tragedy struck in 1973 when Stevie was involved in a serious car accident. It resulted in him being in a coma for four days, and temporarily losing his sense of smell and taste. As always, Stevie overcame this setback, and soon, he was back performing.

During the period 1974 and 1976, Stevie only released two albums. However, they were two great albums. Fulfillingness’ First Finale was his seventeenth album, and was a much more subdued, understated album. Unlike previous recent albums, the arrangements weren’t as full, and the tone was much more sombre. Still, the album was well received by critics and fans alike, and it became his first number one pop album. 1976 saw the release of Songs In the Key of Life, a double album, which became his best selling album. Since its release, it’s seen as one of the greatest albums ever released. Regularly, it features in the lists of greatest albums, including Rolling Stone magazines 500 albums greatest albums of all time.

After Stevie’s classic period, he continued to regularly release albums. Between 1979 and 1990, many people see this as Stevie’s commercial period. This to me, is slightly unfair, because during this period he continued to release many great albums. Among the best was 1979’s soundtrack album Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants. This was a mostly instrumental, conceptual album. Many critics and fans didn’t know what to think of the album on its release, but still  it sold well, reaching number four in the Billboard 200. 1980’s Hotter Than July was my other favorite album by Stevie during this period. Four singles were released from the album, including Happy Birthday which he wrote to honor Dr Martin Luther King, and campaign for Dr King’s birthday to become a national holiday in the US. These two albums are my two personal favorites from this period of Stevie’s career. Much of the music he released during this period was highly successful commercially, but wasn’t up to the standard of his work during the “classic period.” It seemed that he had moved on, and was producing music for a wider audience. This was proving hugely successful, but maybe alienated the fans who preferred the music he produced during his “classic period.” 

Between 1991 and 2011, Stevie hasn’t released many albums of new material. Most of the albums he has released during this period have been either compilation albums or live recordings. Apart from Conversation Peace in 1995 and A Time to Love in 2005, new recordings are thin on the ground. He still continues to perform and is a respected political activist. His music is now being discovered by a new generation of artists, and many artists have either sampled his music or covered his songs. Even today, people still are buying his older material and discovering the music he recorded during his “classic period.” 

Talking Book was Stevie Wonder’s fifteenth album, and was released on October 28 1972.  The first track on the album is You Are the Sunshine of My Life, the song that won Stevie a Grammy Award in 1974, for Best Male Pop Performance. When the track begins, it’s apparent this is a very special song. It begins with Stevie playing a Fender Rhodes keyboard playing melodically accompanied by congas played subtly. Jim Gilstrap sings the first lead vocal, and Lani Groves who sings the second lead vocal. Then when Stevie sings, his voice is strong and clear, sometimes sounding joyous as he sings some beautiful lyrics. Gloria Barley’s backing vocals are stunning, they drench the lead vocals with their beauty. Quite simply, this is not only one of the most beautiful, tender songs on Talking Book, but one of Stevie Wonder’s best ever songs.

After the tenderness and beauty of the previous track, Maybe Your Baby is a very different track altogether. Here Stevie becomes funakateer number one. From the opening bars, the most glorious slice of funk emerges. His use of synths on this track combined with Ray Parker Jr masterful electric guitar playing give the track this funky edge. Add to this, Stevie stunning vocal, accompanied by some brilliant backing singers and you get the picture. It’s a melting pot of funk and soul, with the backing singers providing the soul, with their soulful stirrings. Stevie’s vocal soars, as he whops and hollers during the track. Anyone expecting the album to continue in the vein of You Are the Sunshine of My Life is in for a shock. This hard edged funk influenced workout is a welcome and wonderful contrast to the opening track.

When You and I begins, the tempo drops, and it’s just Stevie singing and playing piano. His voice seems higher here, but his voice is crystalline clear and full of hope as he sings the lyrics. This is a love song, full of hope and optimism, where he sings about having met someone, with whom together, they’ll be able to conquer the world. Although mostly just Stevie and his piano, this lovely subtle arrangement suits the song perfectly. The only instrument you can hear is a T.O.N.T.O. synth playing. It does so subtly, and never comes near to overpowering either the vocal or piano on this stunning track.

Tuesday Heartbreak has a much fuller arrangement than You and I. It also has a lovely joyous sound. When you hear Stevie singing, he sounds both really happy, and as if he’s really enjoying himself. A Moog bass opens the track, accompanied by an alto saxophone blowing gently. On this track he uses the Hohner clavinet and Fendher Rhodes keyboard to produce the sound here. This contributes to the fuller joyous arrangement. Another key ingredient was David Sandborn’s alto saxophone playing which punctuates the track. That and backing vocals from Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer. However, the star of the track is Stevie Wonder. Here, he gives one of his best vocal performances on Talking Book, and plays most of the instruments himself. I’ve always loved Tuesday Heartbreak, and for me, it’s easily one of the best songs on the album.

A much more subdued start awaits the listener on You’ve Got It Bad Girl. The track has a lovely warm sound at the start, as a synths and are accompanied by drums playing subtly. Stevie’s vocal is quieter, and he’s joined by backing vocalists who compliment his vocal perfectly. This is tender song about love, featuring some wonderful, thoughtful, lyrics from Stevie. He sings them tenderly, demonstrating just how good a voice he has. Here, although the arrangement features electronic instruments which back then, were in their infancy, the sound they’ve produced still sounds good. It hasn’t dated, and still retains a freshness and timeless quality. Much of this is credit to Stevie Wonder’s mastery of these instruments. In mastering them, he produced not just a great song here, but several great albums.

One of the most familiar songs from the album is Superstition, a favorite of many a fan of Stevie Wonder. Again, Stevie plays most of the instruments on the track, apart from trumpet and tenor saxophone. When the track begins, you’re greeted by that familiar combination of drums and Moog bass. I’ve heard this song so many times, and still I love this start. After that, the song is just as good, and is a joyous feelgood track, designed to lift your spirits. When Stevie sings, his voice starts quieter, whilst around him this glorious arrangement emerges. A trumpet and tenor saxophone play, the Hohner clavinet can be heard, and that combination of drums and Moog bass continues. The longer the song progresses, the stronger Stevie’s voice gets. Around him, the arrangement just improves, and sometimes, a riff emerges that reminds me of David Bowie’s 1975 hit Fame. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear it numerous times during the track. Whether Superstition had any influence on Bowie, we’ll never know. For four and a half minutes you’re swept along in a glorious mixture of melodies and rhythms, hooks aplenty catch your attention and by the end of Superstition, you long to hear its brilliance again.

What I’ve always wondered is that after such a brilliant track like Superstition, does the following track sound a slight disappointment. After all, genius is can be fleeting, and therefore, not every song will be a masterpiece. However, Big Brother ensures that comparisons are difficult because it’s a very different style of song. Here, the song is an example of Stevie Wonder’s social conscience, and demonstrates his role as political activist. He sings about how the subject of his song is tired seeing him protesting on television, and later songs about how he’s tired seeing people die in ghettos of poverty, they’re living in poor conditions and have nobody to speak up for him. These are powerful, cutting lyrics, that get straight to heart of the problem. Sadly, nearly forty years later these problems remain. When the song begins, Stevie plays harmonica and sings, whilst behind him, the arrangement is gradually building. One of the highlights of the track is Stevie’s clavinet playing which is incredible, it really swings. Likewise, his harmonica playing is masterful, and punctuates the track perfectly. What’s remarkable about Big Brother is that Stevie played every instrument on the track. To be able to do that takes a remarkable man. Stevie Wonder truly is a remarkable man. Big Brother is both magnificent musically, and an honest appraisal and protest over terrible social conditions.

Blame It On the Sun begins with Stevie playing piano and singing. He’s accompanied by T.O.N.T.O. synth which meanders gently, the Moog Bass is played subtly in the background and drums fill out the sound. A guitar can be heard, it’s gently plucked, a masterclass in subtly. Behind Stevie’s vocal, Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves lushly accompany him, their backing vocals complimenting his voice perfectly. During this beautiful song, Stevie sings beautifully, his vocal perfectly suited to the lyrics. The lyrics written by then wife, Syreeta Wright, talk about lost love, and question where has love gone? This song is a combination of Stevie Wonder’s incredible talent, some brilliant backing vocals, a great arrangement and good lyrics. What more could you ask for?

Syreeta Wright wrote the lyrics to two songs on Talking Book, the second of which is Lookin’ For Another Pure Love. Like the previous track, the lyrics are sad, about out of the blue, getting a phone call to say that a relationship is over. These lyrics explore the sense of hurt and loss, and are well written by Syreeta. Stevie Wonder’s music is just as good. At the start, the chord progressions have a similarity to You Are the Sunshine of My Life. That’s the only similarity. This is a much sadder song, lacking the joyousness of You Are the Sunshine of My Life. From the start of the song where Stevie plays Fender Rhodes, the arrangement is understated, matching the lyrics. He’s accompanied by Jeff Beck on electric guitar, and drums play quietly in the background. Backing vocalists envelop Stevie’s vocal, sounding lush, and giving it a dream quality. The arrangement flows beautifully along, the tempo never really increasing. Overall, the arrangement is a masterclass in subtly, and it’s very much a case that less is more here. Lookin’ For Another Pure Love is quite simply one of the most beautiful songs on the album, and much of that is down to the arrangement and Syreeta Wright’s great lyrics.

Stevie Wonder closes Talking Book with I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever), another song where Stevie plays every instrument. It’s a track unlike any other track on the album, and almost seems out of place on Talking Book. Why is that? Maybe it’s the style of the song, maybe the lyrics seem a little bit sugary, it’s only a personal opinion. From the start it’s a dramatic track, with an almost grandiose feel and sound.  A combination of piano and Hohner clavinet open the track, before Stevie sings. Behind him, the Moog bass buzzes in the background. The arrangement is quite stop start, and the clavinet reverberates during much of the track. Later in the track Stevie whoops, by now, he’s joyous. On this track he even sings all the backing vocals. Towards the end of the track, Stevie ad-libs, and the track veers of towards a funky style. This is only momentarily though. Like most of the songs, Stevie wrote this song, and it features some beautiful tender lyrics. Overall, even though the song seems out of place on the album, it’s still a good song, albeit not one of my favorites from Talking Book.

Since I first heard Stevie Wonder’s music, I’ve always loved the music he made between 1972 and 1976 most of all. During that period, he was at his creative peak, producing classic album after classic album. He produced Talking Book at the start of that period, and even though he produced several other great albums during this period, this remains my favorite. It’s an album that has no bad songs. Most of the songs he wrote himself, apart from the two he cowrote with Syreeta Wright. On Talking Book he played most of the instruments himself, apart from trumpet, saxophones and electric guitar. It was his mastery of the new electronic instruments that made this such a great sounding album. He embraced synths and instruments like the Fender Rhodes and the Hohner clavinet, which he put to great use on this album. It allowed him to move his music in a new direction, and nearly forty years later, this album sounds fresh and timeless. Sometimes when artists use electronic instruments, they quickly sound dated. Not here, and that is down to Stevie Wonder’s ability to master these instruments, and bring out the best in them. Personally, Talking Book is among his finest albums. If you’ve never heard this album, it’s well worth buying, as are any the albums he made between 1972 and 1972. Among my other favorites are Innervisions and Music of My Mind, two other great albums made by Stevie during this period. Truly, Stevie Wonder is one of the most talented and remarkable musicians ever. He should be congratulated and celebrated for overcoming his disability, and is an example to all of us. Standout Tracks: You Are the Sunshine of My Life, Tuesday Heartbreak, Superstition and Blame It On the Sun.

STEVIE WONDER-TALKING BOOK.

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