Stevie Wonder

    The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder (Motown, 1963)
    The 12 Year Old Genius (Motown, 1963)
   Tribute to Uncle Ray (Motown, 1962)
   With a Song in My Heart (Motown, 1963)
    Up-Tight (Motown, 1966)
    Down to Earth (Motown, 1966)
     I Was Made to Love Her (Motown, 1967)
     Greatest Hits (Motown, 1968)
    Alfie (Motown, 1968)
     For Once in My Life (Motown, 1968)
    My Cherie Amour (Motown, 1969)
    Signed Sealed & Delivered (Tamla, 1970)
     Where I'm Coming From (Motown, 1971)
     Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Tamla, 1971)
      Looking Back (Motown, 1978)
     Music of My Mind (Motown, 1972)
      Talking Book (Tamla, 1972)
      Innervisions (Motown, 1973)
     Fulfillingness' First Finale (Motown, 1974)
      Songs in the Key of Life (Motown, 1976)
     Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Tamla, 1979)
     Hotter Than July (Tamla, 1980)
     Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium I (Tamla, 1982)
    The Woman in Red (Motown, 1984)
    In Square Circle (Tamla, 1985)
    Characters (Motown, 1987)
     Jungle Fever (Motown, 1991)
   Conversation Peace (Motown, 1995)
    Natural Wonder (Motown, 1995)
     Song Review—Greatest Hits (Motown, 1996)
      At the Close of a Century (Motown, 1999)
      Definitive Collection (Motown, 2002)
    A Time to Love (Motown, 2005)

Perhaps the most singular talent ever to grace the Motown roster, Stevie Wonder began his recording career at age 11. At his peak, he scored five Number One singles in six years, and was a perennial favorite at such awards shows as the Grammys. Even more amazing is the fact that Wonder did so entirely on his own terms, building a catalogue of songs that managed to retain the harmonic sophistication of pre-rock pop while remaining completely up to date rhythmically.

It would be an exaggeration, though, to suggest that the scope of Wonder's potential was evident from the first. True, his second album did bill him as The 12 Year Old Genius, but "prodigy" would have been a more appropriate term. His debut, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, is an instrumental album featuring Wonder on piano, organ, harmonica, drums, and bongos, and while it's impressive from a technical standpoint, musically it sounds too much like the work of an adolescent. Fortunately, one track from that album, a bongo number called "Fingertips," is transformed into an absolutely incandescent harmonica showcase on The 12 Year Old Genius, a concert recording that became Wonder's first chart-topping single. But it's the only real bright point on Wonder's first four albums; Tribute to Uncle Ray finds the young singer reprising some of Ray Charles's better-known hits, while With a Song in My Heart is an earnest attempt at MOR ballad slinging.

Wonder doesn't get a proper Motown sound until Up-Tight, which even kicks off with the Motown tribute "Love a Go Go." Still, his commitment to the style is far from absolute, as Up-Tight finds room for a version of "Blowin' in the Wind," while Down to Earth has him handling such seemingly inappropriate material as "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" and "Sixteen Tons." I Was Made to Love Her has much better taste in cover material, tending more toward classic soul tunes such as "My Girl" and "Can I Get a Witness" (although Wonder doesn't quite know what to do with James Brown's "Please Please Please"), but even so, it's the title tune, with its incredible James Jamerson bass line, that makes this album—or the subsequent Greatest Hits Vol. 1—worth owning.

And yet he continued to yo-yo stylistically, swinging from the innocuous instrumentals of Alfie to the jazz-tinged soul of For Once in My Life to the sentimental balladry of My Cherie Amour to the straight-up soul of Signed Sealed & Delivered. The last was the first album Wonder produced on his own, but he doesn't truly begin to take control of his music until Where I'm Coming From, an album in which he uses his multi-instrumental virtuosity to provide nearly all the parts himself. It sounds dated today, but that's more a function of technology (primitive synths and the like) than the music itself, which is often striking. Wonder's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 covers most of his big singles since the last hits, but a far better overview (if you can find it) is the now-deleted Looking Back, which not only highlights his albums to this point but also includes a number of non-LP singles.

With Music of My Mind, Wonder turned a corner. His work from this point finds him acting as a self-sufficient, completely independent recording entity, handling the writing, production, and most of the instrumental chores himself—an unprecedented move for a Motown artist at that time. Unlike Where I'm Coming From, Music of My Mind arrives fully realized, with a resonant sound and songwriting that pushes his melodic instincts in unexpected directions. Yet as "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)" makes plain, this change of approach hasn't hurt his pop appeal. Talking Book, for instance, is a pop tour de force, with Wonder's work running the gamut from the blissful romanticism of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" to the melodic exuberance of "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" to the snaky funk of "Superstition."

Innervisions continues in kind, thanks to songs as accessible and inspired as the jazzy "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" or the deliciously melancholy "All in Love Is Fair." Innervisions also finds Wonder addressing deeper issues, as "Living for the City" dramatizes the injustice of black urban life while "Higher Ground" and "Jesus Children of America" evoke a sense of spiritual struggle.

Those topics crop up again on Fulfillingness' First Finale, and, indeed, spark one of its highlights, the bitingly anti-Nixon "You Haven't Done Nothin'." Still, Wonder's playful side dominates, and it's a pleasure to hear his almost bashful profession of lust in "Boogie on Reggae Woman."

By Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder is clearly at his peak, effortlessly sustaining the focus required of a double album while demonstrating an almost frightening capacity for hit singles. Even better, he's able to deal with an astonishing range of material, writing memorably about anything from childhood ("I Wish") to childbirth ("Isn't She Lovely"), and from ardent love ("Knocks Me Off My Feet") to fervent fandom ("Sir Duke").

But rather than try to top that album, Wonder went off in an entirely different direction, spending three years on The Secret Life of Plants. Although ridiculed at the time for its lack of commercialism, the album doesn't entirely deserve its reputation as a pop-star boondoggle, for not only does this atmospheric soundtrack succeed on its own terms, but it manages to do everything expected of a New Age album without succumbing to the usual directionless noodling. And it does have its share of pop elements, including "Send One Your Love" and the insinuatingly rhythmic "Race Babbling."

Even so, Wonder wasn't forgiven until he delivered the buoyantly tuneful Hotter Than July, an album most fans considered a return to form. To the extent that it produced two Top Twenty singles ("I Ain't Gonna Stand for It" and "Master Blaster [Jammin']") as well as the shoulda-been-a-hit "Happy Birthday" (a Martin Luther King tribute), that's a fair assessment. Wonder's methods are different this time around, though, as many tracks are recorded with either an all-star backing choir, a full rhythm section, or both, while "Do I Do," one of the four new numbers on the greatest-hits package Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium I, actually finds him jamming with a live band (and guest soloist Dizzy Gillespie).

From there, Wonder's output became maddeningly unpredictable. His soundtrack album from The Woman in Red has some astonishingly lovely melodies, including "Love Light in Flight" and a charming collaboration with Dionne Warwick entitled "Moments Aren't Moments," but it also presents Wonder at his schlockiest in "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

In Square Circle is even more uneven, as Wonder backs lusciously melodic songs such as "Part-Time Lover" and "Stranger on the Shore of Love" with gratingly mechanical rhythm programs, while Characters undercuts its obvious ambition with a near-complete lack of musical edge. The dearth of great material guaranteed the lightweight-but-likeable soundtrack to Jungle Fever a lukewarm reception, and left the earnest-but-unsuccessful attempts at relevance on Conversation Peace almost completely ignored.

The live-in-Japan Natural Wonder showed that his chops, at least, hadn't suffered, and in 2005 Wonder delivered his first studio album in ten years with A Time To Love, which balanced out cheesy stuff ("Passionate Raindrops") with funkier cuts ("Positivity") and some great melodies.

If you're looking for a greatest hits compilation, make it the one-disc Definitive Collection. The rich, funky hit-packed At the Close of a Century is a stellar box set, placing Wonder in a continuum with Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles as one of American popular music's most gifted and innovative performers. But avoid the distinctly middle-of-the-road pitch of Song Review, which seems to suggest he was the black Paul McCartney.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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