Study Guide

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder Essay - Critical Essays

Wonder, Stevie

Introduction

Stevie Wonder 1950–

(Born Steveland Judkins Morris) Black American songwriter, arranger, musician. Wonder is often considered responsible for expanding the range of rhythm and blues music through his use of diverse musical elements; reggae, jazz, blues, and rock are all part of his repertoire. Wonder's audience reflects this diversity; he was one of the first black artists to achieve the mass popularity and initial acclaim previously attributed to white performers. His keen sense of sound, perhaps enhanced by his blindness, steered him towards developing his musical interests as a young child. At the age of nine, he was under contract with Motown records, and was referred to as "the little boy wonder" around the studio, thus creating his recording name. A talented harmonica player, he soon mastered all the other instruments used as backup for his music, an accomplishment allowing for varied musical expression. As he matured both physically and stylistically, Wonder transcended the limiting image often set for Motown performers and their contract restrictions to develop a distinctive, personal approach. The year 1971 was pivotal for Wonder: he gained artistic control over his music, becoming one of the few artists who continues to govern his own creativity in this manner, and independently released Music of My Mind, an innovative album which set a precedent for all of his following recordings. Wonder's life was greatly affected by a near fatal auto accident in 1973. This brush with death led to a spiritual rebirth which is often expressed in his music, such as "Have a Talk with God" and "Higher Ground." Critics concede that his music sustains his lyrics, which have been called belabored and repetitious. His songs, however, reflect his genuinely optimistic and enthusiastic attitude towards life, often dealing with the many forms of love. The recipient of numerous Grammy awards, Wonder continues to be an inspiring songwriter and performer and one who, despite a sporadic recording career, consistently meets the expectations and maintains the respect of his audience.

Jon Landau

[The range of material on I Was Made to Love Her] is very limited, making it difficult to listen to the album as a whole.

Stevie's … style is essentially a variation on the kind of thing he did on "Uptight," a fine record. On that cut he added to the standard components of a Motown single a very personal lyric, and then sang the whole thing in a driving style from beginning to end. Stevie doesn't go in for dynamics, rhythm changes, or crescendoes, but prefers to sing frenetically for the duration of a piece.

The "Uptight" style continues to be the basis for all of Stevie's recordings, and the title song of his new album, I Was Made to Love Her, is a beautiful example of what Stevie can do using this approach. By far the best cut on the album, it contains a personal, down home lyric, some of Stevie's wild harmonica, and the basic overdrive that characterizes all of his records. (p. 179)

[The] album has all the worst characteristics of the Motown sound with only a very few of the saving graces. The whole thing has a blatantly manufactured quality to it typical of Motown's capacity to crank out albums without giving any thought to experimentation or expanding the range of its artists' capacities. The result is an album of second-rate single material. (p. 180)

Jon Landau, "'I Was Made to Love Her'" (originally published in Rolling Stone, December 14, 1968), in The Rolling Stone Record Review by the editors of Rolling Stone (copyright © 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Pocket Books, 1971, pp. 179-82.

S. K. Oberbeck

"My Cherie Amour" and "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday," are more haunting ballads than soul tunes. The funky, grinding backgrounds of [Stevie Wonder's] early records have been replaced by a silky, sophisticated bank of swelling strings and brass….

Hearing the old cuts of Stevie Wonder's high-jiving and scatting days, like "Uptight Everything's Alright" and "Be Cool, Be Calm and Keep Yourself Together," makes the changes in his current style apparent. You can turn on the radio today and hear white rock singers doing the same things, less gracefully, that Stevie was doing eight years ago. Now he is moving out, beyond blackness and beyond soul, ranging wider for what he likes and wants to sing.

S. K. Oberbeck, "Big Stevie," in Newsweek (copyright 1970 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1970, p. 65.

Arnold Brodsky

[Stevie Wonder] specializes in sentimental novelty songs which are very good when they work, very bad when they don't. "Never Had a Dream Come True" [from his album Signed, Sealed, Delivered] works. The best is reminiscent of "A Place in the Sun," one of Stevie's best early songs, but there is less of a dominant regularity here, and the added looseness enables his vocal straining to fit in better here than on the more stiffly structured "Yester You, Yester Me, Yesterday." (p. 199)

Arnold Brodsky, "'Never Had a Dream Come True'" (originally published in Rolling Stone, April 16, 1970), in The Rolling Stone Record Review by the editors of Rolling Stone (copyright © 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Pocket Books, 1971, pp. 198-200.

Vince Aletti

Any of the 12 songs on Stevie Wonder's [Signed, Sealed & Delivered] holds more creative singing than you're likely to find in another performer's entire body of work. And while everything may not reach the energy level of the title song, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," there's not a bad cut on the LP. One of the best is a version of Lennon-McCartney's "We Can Work It Out," which had a startling, brand-new vitality even on an early unmixed tape. In its finished state, it's extraordinary.

The rest of the album is original material, most of it written in part by Stevie…. Nearly every number has single potential, but a few rise above the rest: "I Can't Let My Heaven Walk Away" is a beautifully-written Lost Love song ("I accused my angel of being a liar / I said the flesh is weak and guys keep tryin'") that Stevie delivers in fine style—the way he slashes at the work "flesh" in the quoted line is worth the whole cut….

Stevie Wonder shines throughout, yes he does, and joy (takes over me), (p. 48)

Vince Aletti, in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 74, January 21, 1971.

["Where I'm Coming From" represents Stevie Wonder's] final emergence fror, being just another cog in the Motown hit machine to become a fully-fledged songwriter/musician with something personal and worthwhile to say.

Not that Stevie really ever was just another cog; he has always stood slightly apart, remaining a resolute and instantly recognisable voice through all the successive "sounds" dictated by Motown producers. This album confirms his identity and reveals new depths. It really is impressive with something of a "Sgt Pepper" feel in its conscious use of widely-differing moods and styles and its touches of wry humour…. [This album is] a solid delight.

"Stevie Works Wonders," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), June 19, 1971, p. 40.

Vince Aletti

It's only when I stop dancing and singing all around the room that it occurs to me Stevie Wonder's Music of My Mind may not be the great album of the year. It's certainly the best thing to come out of Motown since Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On and perhaps even more impressive as a personal achievement, considering Wonder not only wrote, arranged and produced the entire album but played every instrument…. Everything seems to fall quite comfortably within Steve's grasp and the effect is both satisfying and exciting. It's satisfying if you're willing to overlook a few flaws, some of which have cropped up in his other recent work. Most would fall under the heading Self-Indulgence: a tendency towards...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

Lenny Kaye

Stevie Wonder has become the brightest light of all [Motown's prodigies], his work since Music of My Mind consistently innovative and lustily creative, propelled by a confidence and artistic maturity that only comes through the dogged patience and understanding of day-to-day experience.

Innervisions is Wonder's 14th album, his third since fully becoming his own man, and it shows off his talents to luminous advantage…. Indeed, Innervisions may be as close to a concept album as Stevie will ever produce. Its tracks are coupled by a hovering mist of subdued faith, of a belief in the essential rightness of things; and if he seeks to offer no real solutions (should he?),...

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Jon Landau

Stevie Wonder has replaced Sly Stone as the most significant individual black innovator in the twin fields of R&B and rock. He has also replaced him as the most popular black music personality: Wonder's appeal now crosses every boundary. His music always sounds free and, at his best, he does things no one else can…. And though [the audio montage of "Living for the City" on Innervisions] would crumble in the hands of a lesser artist, he makes it work through the force of his personality. There is something complete about Stevie Wonder, and one senses that he is not only exceptionally important today, but will continue to be for as long as he chooses. (p. 67)

Jon...

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Ken Emerson

[The cover of Fulfillingness' First Finale is] remarkably apt, for the careers of few performers in popular music have been such uninterrupted ascents. Nothing, not even a brush with death, has interrupted Wonder's progress toward ever higher ground, and FFF is a new plateau. As its title declares, the album is a culmination of what has come before, but it is by no means a final destination.

Since he assumed complete control of his musical direction in 1972 …, Wonder's albums have been about vision. About the false visions that delude and undo people (ambition in "Superwoman," superstition in the hit of the same name, shady demagogy in "Big Brother" and "He's Misstra Know-It-All," and...

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Maureen Orth

Emotion—direct and straightforward—is the key to all of Stevie's music. His only real weakness is an occasional lapse into sentimentality that comes precisely from his total emotional sincerity—there's no chic toughness à la Mick Jagger, no metaphysical melancholy à la James Taylor. Stevie writes and sings exactly what he feels—a very rare gift. (p. 65)

Maureen Orth, "Stevie. The Wonder Man," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 28, 1974, pp. 59-65.

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Robert Christgau

Stevie Wonder is a fool. I state it that way—baldly, without qualification—because the qualifications are so obvious that they tempt us away from the truth. I'm not saying he's a complete fool; in fact, I'm not saying he isn't a genius. But you can't deny that if you were to turn on a phone-in station and hear Stevie rapping about divine vibrations and universal brotherhood, especially with that inevitable dash of astrology, you would not be impressed with his intellectual discernment….

Stevie's blather has more dimensions—about six in all—than that of the average Leon Lewis fan or rock and roll pundit. Foolishness is an annoyance; cosmic foolishness is an offense. Elton John and John...

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Ellen Willis

Wonder not only has attracted a huge interracial audience and made the cover of Newsweek at a time when there is little communication between black and white musical cultures but has engaged our imaginations, made connections, become more than a performer…. At his best, he has the power to make optimism and racial reconciliation marvellously credible. Without denying "the nightmare that's becomin' real life"—pain, anger, bitterness toward oppressors, even the petty spite that can arise out of disappointment in love are all present in his lyrics, in the strange, often tormented sounds he coaxes out of the synthesizer—he can suggest that the joy of being human ultimately prevails. And because the anarchic,...

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Robert Christgau

The first notes of Songs in the Key of Life waft up from a choir of humming colored folks who might be refugees from Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky. Their music is mellifluous, placid, and elevated; it seems to epitomize (as black critic Donald Bogle wrote of Cabin in the Sky) "ersatz Negro folk culture … passed off as the real thing." The catch is that this ersatz culture may be the real thing….

Fallacious or not, questions of intention arise immediately, as they so often do in popular culture. In order to understand what is actually going on here we are well-advised to try to determine what is supposed to be going on. So if we've forgotten for a moment who this...

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Mikal Gilmore

[How] does one approach the prodigy who technically deserves the highest of accolades, yet allows the grandeur of his work to obfuscate his perspective?… Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life is the first album which has stirred such ambivalent—nearly dichotomous—reactions within me in a long, long time….

[Since] when has it become incumbent upon Stevie Wonder to project himself as a spokesperson—spiritual, political, or otherwise? Have A Talk With God? Thanks, but my editor's heavy enough. Black Man? I'm not trying to slight Stevie's intentions, but I think we have more effective and less pedantic means at our disposal to impart historical lessons without catering...

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Vince Aletti

Wonder confronts us virtually single-handedly, grasps our expectations and wrestles them to the ground [in Songs in the Key of Life]. I give him four out of five falls gratefully, happily; were it not for his lyrics he might have won them all.

My immediate impression of Songs in the Key of Life is that the album has none of the pinched, overwrought, over-refined quality one might expect from material that's been coddled and polished over a period of two years. If there are scattered traces of icy, brittle perfection, the overall feeling is expansive, spontaneous and startlingly immediate. Wonder's particular genius is that his carefully crafted perfection sounds so convincingly...

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John Rockwell

[Stevie Wonder] isn't consistent; he has a distressing predilection for cosmic meanderings and soupy sentimentality. But listening to his albums in sequence is an instructive experience; it indicates that Wonder is perhaps most comfortable as a live performer and that his gifts are more constrained by the confines of the studio than those of some artists, and it suggests that the supposedly sharp break in his career around 1971—when he reached legal maturity and renegotiated his Motown contract to obtain a far-reaching artistic freedom—needs to be partially reevaluated. Certainly the post-1971 Wonder records are more innovative than those that preceded them. But the same polarities in his art can be observed from...

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Chris Albertson

[The multitude of songs on "Songs in the Key of Life"] is a generous portion by anybody's standards, but one that is praiseworthy only if the material presented on all that vinyl warrants so much of one's time. In this case it doesn't.

Let me point out right away that I am a Stevie Wonder fan. In fact, I went out and bought [the] album as soon as it became available, and buying albums is something people on my end of the record business rarely do. Though I confess to being disappointed, I must add that I don't feel the expenditure was a total waste—the album, besides representing the latest work of an important artist, does contain material of musical value, and, had I been...

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Jack Slater

[Stevie Wonder] has begun writing and producing music exploring several layers of experience—music that addresses itself not only to one's romantic needs but to racial grief, urban defeat, transcendental perception and, more recently, to religious experience.

Because of his music's transformation and also because of its variety, Stevie Wonder … has become all things to all who hear him: the child prodigy who made the transition to adulthood as a productive musician, the blind seer apocalyptically exposing America's injustices, the sightless man-child who still manages to smile, the musician who refused to accept the tyranny and paternalism of corporate recording interests, the black flower-child...

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C. Dragonwagon

Stevie's songs of [his earliest songwriting] period undoubtedly have the Motown stamp on them, some of them also clearly have his special touch. With few exceptions, even the most canned lyrics and monotonous bass line and percussion can soar when the song is performed by that swelling, feeling voice. Of this genre, I particularly like Signed, Sealed, And Delivered…. It is one of the all-time great dancing tunes, and Stevie manages to imbue the ordinary lyrics with immense feeling and life. The frisky brass that is so often a part of Steve's early work is there; it's been toned down a little so it's less overbearing, yet none of its excitement has been lost. The melody line is far less predictable, much more...

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