Readers’ Poll: The 10 Greatest Stevie Wonder Songs
Stevie Wonder is performing his 1976 masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life in full at a Los Angeles concert in December, but that album really only scratches the surface of his astonishing catalog. He was only 12 when "Little Stevie Wonder" scored a Number One hit with "Fingertips" in 1963, and the hits kept coming at a staggering rate after that. He effortlessly transitioned from the 1960s Motown sound to his more socially conscious, ambitious albums of the 1970s to his glossier, MTV-ready hits of the 1980s. We asked our readers to select their top 10 Stevie Wonder songs. Click through to see the results.
By ANDY GREENE
10. ‘Boogie on Reggae Woman’
A generation or two of stoners may consider this a Phish song, but anyone who listened to the radio in 1974 knows that "Boogie on Reggae Woman" is a Stevie Wonder jam. It's one of the standout tracks from Fulfillingness' First Finale, the first LP that Wonder recorded after his 1973 car accident. The relentlessly funky song (which doesn't much sound like a reggae or boogie number), fueled by one of the most memorable bass synth sounds in music history, reached Number Three on the Hot 100. Notice how often Wonder imagines seeing a woman in the song, whether she's boogieing "across the floor" or "in the raw under the stars above." Back then, Stevie certainly had woman doing both things quite often.
9. ‘I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)’
Stevie Wonder's career reached a new level in 1972 with the release of Talking Book. He was just 22, but he was already a veteran artist with 15 albums under his belt. He was enjoying a greater creative freedom, and a tour with the Rolling Stones introduced him to a new audience. The album has many of Wonder's most beloved works ("Superstition," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life") and it wraps up with the eternally optimistic "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)." It's one of the simpler songs on the LP, and one of the most beautiful.
Many of the biggest stars of the 1970s struggled to find a place in the radically different pop universe of the 1980s, but Stevie Wonder had no such troubles. He kept scoring hits well in the decade, and his 1985 ballad "Overjoyed" reached Number 24 on the Hot 100. He originally recorded the song for his 1979 LP Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, but it didn't make the cut. He rerecorded it six years later for In Square Circle. It was one of his last huge hits.
7. ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’
Not a lot of people remember the 1984 Gene Wilder sex comedy The Woman in Red, but everyone remembers "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from the soundtrack. The song shot to Number One on the Hot 100 and even won an Academy Award for best song, beating out Ray Parker Junior's "Ghostbusters." Stevie even sang a bit of the song with the cast of The Cosby Show when he guested on the program a few years later. You see, Theo and Denise got into a minor car accident with Stevie. He invited the whole family into the studio, and of course, they all broke into song fairly quickly. It's one of the all-time great episodes.
6. ‘I Wish’
Stevie Wonder looks back on his childhood when he was "a little nappy-headed boy" in his 1976 Number One hit "I Wish." The song kicks off the second side of Songs in the Key of Life, and (much like Sly Stone's "A Family Affair") was composed on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Will Smith sampled the song on his 1999 track "Wild Wild West" and even played it with Stevie Wonder at the MTV Movie Awards. It did little to save the movie, though, which was an absolute flop.
5. ‘Sir Duke’
"Sir Duke" is Stevie Wonder's loving tribute to Duke Ellington, but even people who had never heard of the jazz legend were blasting this song out of their cars in 1977. The song was everywhere, topping the Billboard Hot 100 and even reaching Number Two in England. Though clearly focused on the legacy of Ellington, Wonder broadened it out a bit to honor Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. Some may argue that Miller isn't quite up to the level of the others, but who is gonna argue with Stevie Wonder when it comes to music?
4. ‘Higher Ground’
Stevie Wonder was practically exploding with musical ideas in 1973, and he recorded "Higher Ground" in a mad burst of creativity. "I wrote it on May 11th," he said. "I remember the date. I did the whole thing – the words, the music and recorded the track – in three hours. That's the first time I ever finished a song so fast. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I don't know what or when, but I felt something." Months later, Wonder was in a near-fatal car accident that left him in a coma. The Red Hot Chili Peppers introduced the song to a whole new generation on their 1989 album Mother's Milk.
Stevie Wonder proclaimed his undying love for a woman on "As," yet another song on this list from Songs in the Key of Life. Herbie Hancock contributed Fender Rhodes piano on the seven-minute track and it's now seen as one of Wonder's finest love songs, though at the time, the public was a little burned out on Stevie Wonder and it didn't climb beyond Number 36 on the Hot 100.
The single marked the end of Wonder's golden period. When he returned three years later with Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, a certain spark was gone.
2. ‘Living for the City’
American cities were decaying at an alarming rate by 1973, and Stevie Wonder channeled the rage felt by many urbanites on this 1973 classic from Innervisions. It tells the story of a poor boy from Mississippi who moves to New York City to start a new life but winds up transporting drugs by accident and getting sentenced to 10 years in prison. Much of the story plays out in a spoken-word interlude in the middle of the song, but radio often cut that part out. Near the end, Wonder sang in a growl to convey his rage with the plight of minorities in America. It's a powerful song with a message that is often lost or obscured these days.
Wonder's incredible run of Number One singles in the 1970s kicked off in 1972 with "Superstition." The song began when Jeff Beck came into the studio to contribute guitar parts to the Talking Book sessions. Accounts vary slightly, but Beck created the drum intro and Wonder initially offered the song to the guitarist, but Berry Gordy insisted that Stevie record it himself. It became a worldwide smash, and the next year, Jeff Beck recorded it on his own album. They came together to play the song at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert in 2009.