Something Else! Featured Artist: Stevie Wonder

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Stevie Wonder will be honored this month as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, during a benefit concert to be held Nov. 11 in Hollywood. We’d like to add to that resume line: Messenger of Funk, Sweet Soul and Pure Unfettered Get Down.

Don’t believe us? Too young to remember? Let’s take a spin through the stacks …

LIVING FOR THE CITY (INNERVISIONS, 1973): In 1973 I was in eight grade, living in Middletown, Connecticut. My little middle school was right down the hill from Wesleyan University. Associated with the modern jazz icon Anthony Braxton, our music class used to take little field trips to Wesleyan to listen to any number of weird (or so we thought) musical groups.

Music class? Yes, we had them back then. Our teacher wasn’t some stodgy old dude with a beard and wire-rimmed glasses either. No, she was young and interested in all forms of music. A common exercise involved her playing songs on her portable turntable and having us call out the instruments that we heard. Why I remember that she used “Living For The City” is sort of beyond me. I guess I must have thought it was cool to have a teacher who cared about the music that I heard on the radio.

It wasn’t until years later, when I finally got around to buying a copy of Innervisions, that I realized just how hip that teacher was. Stevie might be presenting a gritty story here, but that doesn’t stop him from laying down that nasty funk. — Mark Saleski

NEVER DREAMED YOU’D LEAVE IN SUMMER (WHERE I’M COMING FROM, 1971): I always feel a greater tug on my heart with breakup songs more than I do with love songs even though they are often the same thing. The sadness in the lyrics, the hurt in the vocal, and the emotions behind them are what make the best ones so powerful and those are the reasons why one of the three greatest breakup songs of all time is Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer.”

Wonder has always been one of the best writers of love songs and relationships in general and this tune, written with Syreeta Wright, his wife at the time, almost makes me cry every single time I hear it.

The piece is introduced with just Wonder at the piano singing like his lover has just put him through the ringer. Then an oboe and a wall of strings build just enough sound to allow the emotions to kick in big time. It’s not sappy at all. When you think that Wonder was only twenty years old when he released this song it’s astounding that the mature imagery in his poetry, the vocal, and the arrangement could all be so perfect. (The Motown superstar sang “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” at Michael Jackson’s funeral.) — Charlie Ricci, from www.Bloggerhythms.com

SIR DUKE (SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE, 1976): I’m pretty sure that my high school self didn’t know that “Sir Duke” was Stevie’s tribute to Duke Ellington. Heck, I probably wouldn’t have cared even if I did know. What was important was that the song had some insanely great horn passages.

Very much like Innervisions, I didn’t purchase Songs in The Key of Life until many years later. So when the song came on the radio, I had to crank that volume knob and bathe in the fun. My ears say that this is Stevie Wonder at his nearly-unhinged, exuberant best. — Mark Saleski

“SUPERWOMAN (WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I NEEDED YOU),” (MUSIC OF MY MIND, (1972): Having turned 21 and handed full artistic freedom by Motown, Stevie Wonder was ready to show the world the full range of his capabilities. That ball got rolling with 1972’s Music Of My Mind, but especially with the “Superwoman” track. Here is where Wonder spins a warm, inviting jazz melody, and sets the mold on how to use synthesizers in R&B the right way, anticipating the whole “Quiet Storm” subgenre by several years.

This is one track but two songs. “Superwoman,” with it’s gurgling Rhodes, spacey bass synth, and a damned tasty guitar by Buzzy Feiton, could have passed for premier soul-jazz fusion as an instrumental, but Wonder makes it better still with lyrics and the dubbed-in background vocals are superbly arranged. “Where Were You When I Needed You” continues the lost love story from “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” from the prior Where I’m Coming From LP. On this sequel, weeping synthesizers rise up and recede as Wonder begins his vocals, used so effectively to set the mood that it doesn’t sound the least bit cheesy even today. Feiten again puts in great work, picking his way around the Moog like a champ.

But everything else on that song, and the album for that matter, was all Stevie. Wonder wanted to be a supermusician, and he was sounding very much like one on this cut. — S. Victor Aaron

AS (SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE, 1976): Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, one of pop music’s greatest ever albums, is on my all time Top 10 list. One of the greatest songs from that masterpiece is a 7:08 triumph, simply titled, “As.”

It begins as a happy, pop-funk piece whose lyrics could be considered just another Wonder love song, but, oh that arrangement. The ultra-catchy, upbeat, melody is enhance by the band’s strong groove and some fine female gospel singers backing him up. It was tailor made for FM radio at the time. Then suddenly the final verse converts Wonder’s smooth voice into Tom Waits roughness as he takes on his often heard theme of peace and World harmony. Somehow his genius makes this final verse fit in well with the love song. The repetitive gospel refrain returns (Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky … Loving you, Until the ocean covers every mountain high … Loving you, Until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea … Loving you) and takes the long track home.

Wonder’s ability to come up with unique arrangements saves “As” from what could otherwise sound sappy in the hands of a less skilled musician. — Charlie Ricci

A PLACE IN THE SUN (DOWN TO EARTH, 1966): Hard to believe a mere teenager could write, sing and play a song so deep, but then again Stevie Wonder was no ordinary teenager.

Wildly talented since he was knee high to a grasshopper, the multifaceted musician pours his naked emotions into this beautifully melodic tune that simply melts in your ears. The lyrics are filled with hope, faith and love. Stevie’s soulful vocals may ache with pain and suffering, but in the end the message is hang in there and never give up.

One of the most inspiring compositions of all time! — Beverly Paterson

I WISH, (SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE, 1976): Stevie Wonder’s most singular accomplishment, more so than the Grammys and the platinum sales, is his honesty.

Oftentimes, that played out on the biggest of stages. His music has been a pathway toward moral emancipation — emancipation from racial hatred, since we all listened to it, as one; and from fear, since his artistic peak arrived during a period of war and strife in this country; and from expectations, since songs like “I Wish” were only possible because he loosed himself from the music business’ hitmaking machine.

But in this moment, maybe more so than in any other, you heard the unambiguous joy with which he approached his own story (through the hard times; despite them, really) and it had a particular grace. You saw, if only for a glimpse of time, into his life, and then you saw into your own, too. That only comes through hard artistic choices, through honesty — not only about his memory of childhood, and its innocence, but also the missteps and the lessons of that time for all of us.

It was, and is, Stevie Wonder’s greatest gift. Well, that and the ability to construct this totally kick ass bassline, then this totally even kick assier horn signature, and bring it all home. — Nick DeRiso

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