As Stevie Wonder turns 70, a look at how he wrote the soundtrack for a fragile America
Over five albums in the ’70s, Wonder’s music focused on our humanity in a way much of society refused to accept. And still hasn’t.
Dreamville Records president Ibrahim Hamad recently expressed some candid thoughts about the music industry in the age of COVID-19. “I can only speak for myself, but I’m finding it hard to connect with the music that’s been released lately cause it’s not speaking to the feelings and emotions that people are going through,” he tweeted last month. “I’m sure it’s not the same for everyone, but it sucks feeling uninspired by music.”
Agree or disagree, Hamad is correct that music has served as a therapeutic time stamp, especially in times of crisis. Few have measured up to this responsibility quite like Stevland Hardaway Morris — known to the world over as Stevie Wonder.
Since undergoing kidney transplant surgery in September, the “These Three Words” singer has been absent from the public eye. The 25-time Grammy Award-winning artist turns 70 on Wednesday. And following a catastrophic weekend that left an already vulnerable music industry mourning the deaths of Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell at 59, rock ’n’ roll architect Little Richard at 87 and famed R&B/soul singer Betty Wright at 66, Wonder’s milestone birthday takes on even more significance.
Signed to Motown’s Tamla imprint at the age of 11, the artist then known as “Little Stevie Wonder” landed his first Billboard Hot 100 hit at 13 with “Fingertips – Pt. 2.” By the time that original Motown contract ended in 1971, the 21-year-old Wonder had already amassed 13 studio albums (15 total). But over the next five years, Wonder unleashed five albums in a peerless display of both musical excellence and social conscience. It started with Music of My Mind and Talking Book in 1972, Innervisions in 1973, and climaxed with Fulfillingness’ First Finale in 1974 and Songs in the Key of Life in 1976.
“That is the greatest run in the history of the music business,” said Steve McKeever, a former senior vice president at Motown and the founder of Hidden Beach Recordings. “It was undeniable. Those were the best albums produced by anybody … by a long shot.”
Part of what made Wonder’s music so important was how it reflected the rising societal temperature in America, in particular black America. By the start of the 1970s, the Motown of “Baby Love” and “Bernadette” was forced to change because America had changed. The ’60s had been defined by both celebration and tragedy, from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
But the ’70s commenced with America in recession and still fighting in Vietnam, and a diet of love songs was no longer enough. Black unemployment was nearly double that of whites and incarceration statistics began to grow rapidly, with black people twice as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses than whites.
“Black communities were being torn in every single way possible,” said Dr. Zandria Robinson, a professor of African American studies at Georgetown University. “That’s why the Motown music as it existed had to shift. You can’t be sitting up here chanting black excellence when this is what is happening to our people. It’s no longer reflecting the majority of the experience of black life — if it ever did.”
When time came for Wonder to renegotiate his contract in 1971, only one issue mattered: creative control. Chasing hit records wasn’t enough.
Artistic inspiration came from various sources, ranging from Issac Hayes’ 1969 Hot Buttered Soul to Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace.” But Wonder’s chief source of light came from labelmate Marvin Gaye. “Marvin was the person who encouraged me that the music I had within me, I must feel free to let [it] come out,” Wonder would say at Gaye’s funeral in 1984.
Motown founder Berry Gordy initially opposed releasing Gaye’s 1971 anthem “What’s Going On,” even asking the singer why he’d want to “ruin” his career with such a single. The song was an intrepid political and social statement from a label that, up until then, had chosen to steer away from such topics. Both song and album became sweeping successes and redefined Gaye as an artist.
“[What’s Going On] was everything to Stevie. Marvin was his teacher. He was in the studio when Marvin was making that record,” said McKeever, who has known Wonder for more than 30 years. “All the stuff Marvin was doing — singing his own background vocals and all this other stuff — he got that lesson right there at the foot of it.”
By 1972 — the same year Gaye’s You’re The Man album was shelved — Wonder’s music expanded to encompass the breadth of black life in America. His next albums played like finely curated insights on life, love, birth, death, pain, political angst, social injustice and every emotion in between. Blackness was more than just political protests. It was the right to love freely. To grieve freely. To enjoy life freely. His songs embodied the 1938 Zora Neale Hurston quote, “Negroes love and hate and fight and play and strive and travel and have a thousand one interests in life like other humans,” she said. “When his baby cuts a new tooth, he brags as shamelessly as anyone else without once weeping over the prospect of some Klansman knocking it out if and when the child ever gets grown.” The music was an exact representation of this duality.
On “Evil,” the closing song from 1972’s Music On My Mind that was written at the height of the Vietnam War, Wonder sings, Evil, hey, evil, oh, why have you broken so many homes?/ Leaving sweet love all alone, an outcast of the world. (For recent context, this song was featured in the Teddy Perkins episode of Atlanta.) On the same album lived “Superwoman (Where Were You),” an ode to his first wife Syreeta Wright and a continuation of sorts from his 1971 single “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer.”
Later that year, Wonder would release Talking Book, a project so far removed from what any peer was recording at the time that it was evident Wonder was on the cusp of going supernova. The record was headlined by Grammy-winning singles “Superstition” and “You Are The Sunshine of My Life,” and also included a song like “Maybe Your Baby,” an anthem of insecurity fueled by infidelity.
In 1973 came Innervisions, which of all his albums, was the heir to What’s Going On and would earn Wonder his first album of the year Grammy. It was a project perhaps best described as a public open-heart surgery. “Too High,” the LP’s intro, is a fierce examination of drug usage. On the same album came a mental tug of war of quixotic societies in “Visions” and the vivid reality of life in the slums on “Living For The City.” And long before Kendrick Lamar dubbed himself “a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again,” Wonder’s “Higher Ground” nearly became prophetic as the singer was involved in a near-fatal car accident just three days after the album’s release.
The next year brought Fulfillingness’ First Finale and his second Grammy-winning album of the year. Though less of a social examination as its predecessor, it does house the song “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ” — undoubtedly Wonder’s most ferocious single and one aimed directly at President Richard Nixon. But we are sick and tired of hearin’ your song/ Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong, Wonder sang. ’Cause if you really want to hear our views/ You haven’t done nothin’. Two weeks after releasing “Nothin’ ” as a single, Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal that had engulfed his time in office.
Maybe it was a quarter-life crisis. Maybe it was negotiating leverage. Or maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the case, by the middle of the decade, Wonder was openly contemplating leaving the music industry for good. “I’ve heard of great needs in that part of the world, the African countries,” he said at a 1975 news conference. “I believe that you have to give unselfishly. … You can sing about things and talk about things, but if your actions don’t speak louder than your words, you’re nothing.”
His planned tour would end near the end of that same year, around the same time his contract was set to expire. All tour proceeds would go directly to Ghanian charities. When the dust settled, Gordy and Motown had no choice but to renew its most consistent talent with a contract unprecedented in the music industry at the time. Wonder negotiated a seven-year, $13 million advance (that would net up to $37 million if all incentives were met), 20% royalties and complete control of his publishing. The deal was richer than Elton John’s and Neil Diamond’s combined.
What followed was an instant return on investment with the 26-year-old Wonder’s magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life, his third and final album of the year. It is, by every metric, one of the most lauded albums ever recorded and a North Star for future greats such as Prince, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey. Two decades later, Songs inspired hip-hop double albums such as Tupac Shakur’s All Eyez On Me and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death. Ranging from songs such as “I Wish,” “Sir Duke” and “Isn’t She Lovely” to “Love’s In Need of Love Today” and “As,” Wonder reflected, “I challenged myself [to write] as many different things as I could, to cover as many topics as I could, in dealing with the title and representing what it was about.” Reportedly, Wonder recorded well over 300 songs for the album.
“That 29th [song] is as good as the fifth,” said McKeever. “The most powerful and valuable archive in the music business is Stevie’s vault.”
Frank Sinatra is the only other artist to have captured album of the year three times, (in 1959, 1965 and 1966) and Wonder did it over a four-year span. The one year he wasn’t eligible, he still found his name in the conversation. In a famous joke, Paul Simon, who won the award in 1975 for Still Crazy After All These Years, said, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn’t release an album this year.”
That’s how dominant he was in the ’70s. Wonder not only covered all the bases. He had everyone else wondering if they’d even get a chance to step to the plate.
Wonder’s evolution paralleled the black aesthetic movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s with peers such as The Last Poets and Don Cornelius’ Soul Train. Yet, Wonder moved from protest music directly into something far more nuanced. His ethnographic examinations of everyday black life focused on our humanity in a way much of society refused to accept. And still hasn’t.
He came of age as an adult in a decade during which war abroad rivaled the psychological wars stateside. One where the sins of yesteryear gave birth to new original sins in the current year. And one where emotional happiness intersected with real-life responsibilities and obstacles.
As we watch him age, there comes a sense of urgency to place Wonder’s legacy in its proper light. While he never quite replicated the magic he drenched the world with in the mid-’70s, that’s a foolish criticism. Because no one has come close since. At 70, Wonder is our greatest living musician — if not the greatest, period.
“What Stevie symbolized, especially during that time, is a fullness of the black experience,” Georgetown’s Robinson noted. “Stevie is the black documentarian of the 1970s. He is the documentarian of black life. His work is a full mirror, and not a fun house mirror. Not a mirror that only showed part of us. A full mirror.”