Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stevie Wonder: A Visionary Who Wrote A New Chapter In Music History

Stevie WonderStevie Wonder performs at the White House (Photo by Pete Souza, official White House photographer)

The word genius gets thrown around willy-nilly these days. However, when it’s applied to Stevie Wonder, it’s not just hyperbole as one could make a strong argument to support the claim.

For starters, Stevie’s a consummate multi-instrumentalist, a master on piano, drums, synthesizer, harmonica, clavinet, melodica, celeste, congas and bongos. Moreover, he was a child prodigy and was signed to Motown at age 11. When he was 13, he had his first major hit with “Fingertips (Pt 2).” On the song, the wunderkind turned in an assured and passionate vocal performance that belied his years. He also pulled off an amazing harmonica solo on the song. Throughout his teens, Stevie continued to burn up the charts with hits like “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “I Was Made To Love Her,” and “My Cherie Amour.” In addition, the gifted young artist co-wrote many of his early hits with Motown as well as songs for other artists on the label, including the Spinners and Smokey Robinson .

When Stevie turned 21, he renegotiated his contract with Motown, which granted him complete creative control over his musical output. The new contract made him one of the first artists to write, produce, arrange and perform his own songs. It also provided Stevie the freedom to explore the far reaches of his imagination and put it on wax. This resulted in an incredible run of albums in the ‘70s, starting with Music of My Mind in 1972 through Songs In The Key of Life in 1976. This came to be known as Stevie’s classic period in which he released one brilliant album after another.

Not only is Stevie a sensational musician, but he’s also a fantastic songwriter who possesses a strong melodic sense combined with great technical ability. He’s written great songs in a variety of music styles over the years, including funk, pop, blues, reggae, jazz, gospel, folk, soul and even country-and-western. He can drop a nasty funk groove like “Maybe Your Baby,” then floor you with a beautiful ballad like “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” And he can make you smile with the infectious, Latin-flavored “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” or almost bring you to tears with the elegiac “They Won’t Go When I Go.”

People who are only familiar with Stevie’s post-‘70s work often don’t realize what an inventive and groundbreaking artist he was in his prime. For one thing, he pioneered the use of synthesizers in R&B music. In addition, Stevie added his own innovations to funk music. He blew listeners away with his unique brand of clavinet-driven funk on monster cuts like “Superstition” and “Higher Ground.” He was also one of the first R&B artists to release albums that were fluid, cohesive musical statements rather than just a random collection of songs. Moreover, Stevie is responsible for some of the most beautiful ballads ever written in popular music. Musical gems such as “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever),” “Too Shy to Say,” and a slew of others prove that Stevie is without peer as a ballad writer.

And let’s not forget Stevie’s amazing voice, one his most effective and moving instruments. It’s supple yet gritty and unbelievably soulful. There have been numerous vocalists who have attempted to imitate Stevie’s vocal style and technique, but none have come close to capturing his nuance, passion and soul.

In addition to making great music, Stevie’s a very outspoken social activist who has never been afraid to infuse his political views into his songs. For instance, he lambasted the Nixon administration for its duplicity and indifference on the scathing “You Haven’t Done Nothin',” and he tackles racism and urban blight on the epic “Living For The City.” Some of his other political songs include “Big Brother,” “Cash In your Face” and “Heaven Help Us All." And Stevie puts his money where his mouth is outside the recording studio. Over the years, he’s been involved in a number of civil rights campaigns and other humanitarian and philanthropic endeavors. One of them was his spearheading of the campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, for which he wrote the song “Happy Birthday” to honor the late civil rights leader. Some of Stevie’s other noteworthy efforts include his work to help end apartheid in South Africa and his participation on “We Are The World,” a musical all-star benefit song released to raise money for famine relief in Africa.

Although Stevie has continued to make great music through the years, he has never quite equaled the brilliance of those albums he released in the ‘70s. But very few artists have been able to maintain such a high level of creativity and excellence. The ‘70s were the decade where Stevie’s genius shined the brightest, and that’ something we all can be thankful for.

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