I have Giles Smith to thank for my appreciation of Stevie Wonder; specifically the Stevie Wonder of Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life - a four-album run of peerless musicality and beauty.
Together, these four albums have spared me a life of thinking of Stevie Wonder as the cheesy Happy Birthday guy, or worse still, the sick and twisted mind behind I Just Called to Say I Love You. I very rarely find musical snobbery agreeable, but for that one song I am willing to make an exception.
Growing up in the UK in the 80s it was easy not to realise the greatness of the earlier Stevie Wonder - his only UK number ones both came in the 80s, first the cringe-making Ebony and Ivory with Paul McCartney, recorded during the former Beatle’s ‘bringing em down to my level duetting season (see also The Girl is Mine), and then then I Just Called… two years later. These were enough to put anyone off wanting to know much more.
It was easy not to know that just under twenty years earlier, the teenage Wonder had made his breakthrough with ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’.
For years, even the mighty Superstition wasn’t enough to make up for those 80s horrors. Only when I read Lost in Music did I take the plunge, inspired by Smith’s clear love and awe of Wonder’s writing:
It seemed to me that if you didn’t respond to the clipped keyboard over the striding drums in the introduction to Superstition, the chances were you had died.
Songs in the Key of Life was something of an adjustment for a baggy/shoegazing/britpop lover, but it didn’t take long before I was won over by the richness of Wonder’s voice and the easy groove of the band and backing singers; about 90 seconds of ‘Love’s in Need of Love Today’ was all I needed. After that, with the exception of Contusion, which sounds as daft as you might expect, it’s a cavalcade of extraordinary brilliance - Have a Talk With God, Sir Duke, I Wish, Pastime Paradise (these last two also providing useful music bore points for recognising them as the source for hits by Will Smith and Coolio. Then, on disc two, As - perhaps the most spine-tinglingly beautiful song I’d ever heard. For reference: on no account should you ever listen to the abysmal cover version of As that George Michael and Mary J.Blige karaoked out in 1999. On every account should you listen to the original, in its perfect majesty.
I would have posted As today, but I feel like I’m holding it back for some greater purpose, some sort of playlist to end all playlists, so I won’t say more about it just now…
Instead, today let’s enjoy the effortlessly smooth groove of ‘He’s Misstra Know-it-all’, the last track on 1973’s Innervisions, released as a single the following spring. Its a song as seductive as the trickster character it portrays; I’m sure it’s just a co-incidence that it resonates with me so strongly on the day of the European elections.