STEVIE WONDER-FULFILLINGNESS’ FIRST FINALE.

STEVIE WONDER-FULFILLINGNESS’ FIRST FINALE.

Sometime, I revisit artists I’ve previously written about before, because of the amount of great albums they’ve released. One such person who deserves more than one article written about them, is Stevie Wonder. Between 1972 and 1976, he released five great albums, starting with Music of My Mind and Talking Book in 1973, Innervisions in 1973, Fulfillingness’ First Finale which this article is about in 1974 and Songs In the Key of Life in 1976. During this period, the quality of his music was outstanding, which was reflected in both the critical reception and commercial success of his music. Each of the albums provided Stevie with number one US R&B hits, while Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs In the Key of Life both reached number one in the US Billboard 200. 

By 1974, Stevie Wonder was in a rich vein of musical form, and it seemed like he could do no wrong. He was producing some of the best music of his career, music with a message and a social conscience. However, on Fulfillingness’ First Finale only You Have’t Done Nothin’ saw Stevie comment on the state of the world, his target being the ongoing saga of ex-President Richard Nixon and his administration. Apart from that, most of the songs on the album were free from social comment, with the tone somewhat sombre, the arrangements much more sparse, less fulsome, than on previous album. This slightly different sound was hugely successful, winning Stevie three Grammy Awards, for Best Male Pop Vocal, Best Male R&B Vocal, for Boogie On Reggae Woman and Album of the Year. Quite simply, Stevie Wonder, it seemed could no wrong, with Fulfillingness’ First Finale just the latest classic album from one of the most talented, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist ever. However, just what makes this such a great album? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Fulfillingness’ First Finale opens with Smile Please a track that has a lovely melodic sound thanks to the combination Fender Rhodes, rhythm section, guitar, congas and bongos that feature during this track. Together with Stevie’s gentle and tender lead vocal, it’s the way that the instruments combine, and their collective sound that  give the track such a melodic sound. There’s a subtlety about the way some of the instruments are played that’s important too. During the track, Stevie’s accompanied by some similarly tender and gentle backing vocalists including. Jim Gilstrap and Deniece Williams. She was already a star in her own right, but became famous for her hit single Free in 1976. This tender vocal from Stevie and melodic arrangement suits the lyrics, which have a lovely sentiment, about happiness, friendship and love. During the track, Stevie resorts to scatting, and this improvisational style won’t please everyone. I’ve always felt that this style suits the lyrics, and are done in such a way that reflects the joyfulness of the song. Overall, it’s a lovely melodic track to open the album, one that features a tender vocal from Stevie and catchy, melodic arrangement.

The style changes quite considerably on Heaven Is 10 Zillion Years Away, a track that has both spiritual sound and feel, featuring some backing vocals that have their roots in gospel music. Like much of Stevie’s music, his lyrics are strong, intelligent and if you listen carefully, have something interesting and worthwhile to say. Here, he sings about God and heaven, but also race, love and hate. In the song he’s questioning, uncertain, looking for answers, maybe even angry. There’s so sign of anger or hate as the song opens, with a Hohner Clavinet, Moog bass and drums combining to accompany Stevie. Here the arrangement is quite spartan, stripped down to just keyboards and rhythm section. The song doesn’t suffer for this, and if anything, helps Stevie’s vocal to shine. His vocal is quiet and thoughtful, as he ponders a serious of important questions. Meanwhile, backing vocalists produce some stunning backing vocals. Two of the people responsible for these joyous, almost spiritual backing vocals are Paul Anka and Syreeta Wright. Together with Stevie’s vocal which by them is laden in passion and joy, surrounded by joyful whoops and hollers. Combine his vocal with some intelligent and questioning lyrics, and a somewhat pared down arrangement and some joyous backing vocals, and you’ve the recipe for an excellent song, easily one of the album’s highlights.

To Shy To Say is slow piano led track which sees Stevie accompanied by Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar James Jamerson on acoustic bass. The song features a beautiful tender and thoughtful vocal from Stevie about being in love and loving someone. Making the track even better, is the pedal steel guitar, which reverberates, drenching the track in a sound that’s full of pathos and hugely atmospheric. What is  quite a simple arrangement really works, especially when fused with such a tender, emotive vocal as Stevie gives on this track. Quite simply, it’s a beautiful song.

One of the singles taken from the album was Boogie On Reggae Woman. It reached number three in the US pop charts and number one in the US R&B Singles Charts. Another feature of this track is that Stevie plays nearly instrument on the track himself, playing Moog bass, Fender Rhodes, piano, harmonica and drums. The only instrument he doesn’t play, are the congas. When the track opens, a loud, buzzing Mood bass opens the track, with its unmistakable sound. Meanwhile drums, piano and Fender Rhodes combine before Stevie sings, his voice louder and stronger. During the track, there’s some lovely jazz influenced piano solos, and later, Stevie plays a great solo on his harmonica. It’s quick and soulful, and yet another contrasting sound on this track. That’s one of the things that make this such an irresistible track, the contrasting sounds that make up the layers and textures of music.

What was the final track on the first side of the album was Creepin’ another lovely ballad, with some subtle backing vocals. The track opens gently and slowly with synths, rhythm section and Fender Rhodes combining with Stevie’s vocal which is a mixture of tenderness and joyfulness. He’s accompanied on backing vocals by another soul legend, Minnie Riperton. Her vocal is a perfect accompaniment for Stevie, as he sings about his dreams of love and loving. During the track, the arrangement meanders melodically and beautifully, with a wistfulness in Steve’s vocal as he sings some lovely, tender lyrics.

The only track on the album that saw Stevie make any social comment on the world around him, was You Have’t Done Nothin’, where he strongly criticised the administration of ex-President Richard Nixon. Here, the lyrics are quite pointed, cynical even, with Stevie fed-up, dismayed, maybe even disgusted at what went on. It was a song the public loved and related to because when it became the first single  to be released from the album, it reached number one in the US pop and R&B Charts. It’s a dramatic sound that opens the track, reminding me in some ways to the opening of Superstition. A funk laden Hohner Clavinet, percussion, bass and drum machine open the track, combining with a yelp from Stevie before he emotively sings the lyrics. Horns blaze, as if disgusted at the goings on, while later, The Jackson 5 sing backing vocals sweetly. Together with a loud buzzing bass and subtle percussion, this fuller, arrangement is outstanding. No wonder this track was such a huge hit, featuring everything you could possibly want from a slice of soul with a social conscience.

It Ain’t No Use is very different from the previous track, and is almost the polar opposite. This a tender and gentle ballad, with a much more subtle sound and stripped down arrangement. It’s just a combination of Fender Rhodes, drum machine, Moog bass and backing vocals that accompanies Stevie. As the track opens, the Fender Rhodes and gentle backing vocalists unite before Stevie sings about a relationship gone wrong, where there’s no going back, it’s over. His vocal is slow, but his voice is fuller, stronger. When the backing vocalists interject, their voices range strong and loud, to soft and subtle. Regardless, like Stevie, their voices are always soulful in the extreme, especially Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams, two hugely talented singers. By the end of the track, you can’t help but be seduced by this beautiful sounding, and sometimes, subtle song, with many people being able to empathize with the lyrics about love gone wrong.

A piano plays slowly and dramatically, as They Won’t Go When I Go, a track that sees Stevie play every instrument and sing lead and backing vocals. Straight away, the tone is sombre, a sadness apparent even before he sings the lyrics about deceitful friends, friends who lie, pretending to be something they aren’t, pretending to care and to miss someone when they die. These people Stevie sings, will never be pure, always be sinners and will never go when he goes. Although there is plenty of truth in the lyrics, about deceitful friends, I don’t particularly like the way he portrays himself above everyone else. He perceives himself as pure, while others are portrayed as sinners, almost unclean, less worthy than him. This faux spirituality isn’t for me, and neither is the sombre, thoughtful sound and mood of the track, which is a combination of piano and T.O.N.T.O synth. I just can’t quite take to the near arrogance of the faux spiritual lyrics and the arrangement. So far, it’s the only poor track on the album.

Thankfully, Bird of Beauty has a brighter, uptempo sound and things seem much more promising than the previous poor track. It opens with Fender Rhodes, cuica and rhythm section combining, while Stevie sings, his voice joyful and bright, the tempo quicker. Accompanying him are a triumphant trio of backing vocalists including Lani Grove, Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams. They soulfully interject and serenade Stevie’s vocal, their contribution huge, their voices a lovely contrast to Stevie’s vocal. Meanwhile, the arrangement has a bright, feel-good sound, thanks to the way the Fender Rhodes and cuica combine, while the Moog bass and drums drive the track along. The lyrics are about taking flight, going on holiday, recharging your mind, while you experience what life has to offer. After the disappointment of the previous track, Stevie has found his form again, on an upbeat track that mixes soul and Latin music to produce a track that has a joyous, feel-good sound.

Fulfillingness’ First Finale closes with Please Don’t Go, a song about love and love gone wrong. Here, Stevie pleads for his lover not to go, as he couldn’t stand the sadness and pain he foresees. A piano and Moog bass combine with percussion, drums and Fender Rhodes as the track opens. The song has a bright sound, as Stevie promises to change, to do whatever it takes to make his lover happy. Later, backing vocalists subtly sing soulfully, while later on Stevie plays harmonica. This seems out of kilter with the lyrics, and doesn’t quite work. It seems the wrong instrument, at the wrong time. When what sounds like a choir of joyous, gospel influenced backing singers combine beautifully, with a sound that’s almost spiritual, the song moves up a gear. Meanwhile, Stevie’s voice is laden with passion, as if feeding off the energy of the backing vocalists, producing an outstanding vocal. By the end of the track, I’m hooked due to Stevie’s passionate performance, some joyous backing vocals, and apart from the harmonica, an otherwise faultless arrangement. This is the perfect track to close a great album, one with an uplifting and upbeat sound.

During his career, Stevie Wonder has produced a number of classic albums. Between 1972 and 1976, it seemed he could do no wrong, producing a total of five great albums. Fulfillingness’ First Finale was the fourth of these albums, and features some wonderful music. One change on this album, was the sparse, stripped back sound on some of the tracks. This wasn’t the case on all the tracks, with some having much fuller and grander arrangements. Unsurprisingly, two of the best tracks were the two songs that were released as singles. These were the irresistible sounding Boogie On Reggae Woman and You Have’t Done Nothin’, Stevie’s cutting comment on the Nixon administration. Other great tracks were Heaven Is 10 Zillion Years Away, one of the tracks with a spartan and pared back arrangement. The song didn’t suffer for this and had a joyous and passion laden sound thanks to Stevie and his backing vocalists including Syreeta Wright. On the album, Stevie was joined by a number of guests who contributed backing vocalists. This included some legends of soul music, including Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams, Syreeta Wright and The Jackson 5. All of these musical legends helped Stevie Wonder make what is, quite simply an outstanding album. It’s among the best of the albums he released during his classic period. If you’ve never heard this album, it’s one that’s well worth buying, as are all of the albums he released between 1972 and 1976, a time when Stevie Wonder was truly was at his creative peak. Standout Tracks: 10 Zillion Years Away, Boogie On Reggae Woman, You Have’t Done Nothin’ and Please Don’t Go.

STEVIE WONDER-FULFILLINGNESS’ FIRST FINALE.

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