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Stevie Wonder's Declaration of Independence
How Wonder gained his creative freedom at Motown
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
This edition’s essay spotlights an album by Stevie Wonder that I think has been lost in the shuffle: 1971’s Where I’m Coming From. It’s a key piece in Wonder’s evolution as an artist, the stepping stone to his celebrated five-album run from 1972 to 1976 that culminated in the mighty Songs in the Key of Life and largely how Wonder attained full creative freedom at Motown. I hope you enjoy it and will drop a comment below to let me know your thoughts.
Coming in December will be three essays on the music of the holidays (for those less inclined to seasonal music, have no fear, the usual fare here will return in January). First up will be a piece on Lou Rawls and his 1967 Christmas album, Merry Christmas. Ho! Ho! Ho!
In closing, a warm wish to all my American readers for a joyous Thanksgiving.
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When Paul Simon stepped onto the stage of the Hollywood Palladium to accept the Grammy for Album of the Year for Still Crazy After All These Years on February 28, 1976, he quipped “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder who didn’t make an album this year.”
If things had gone according to plan, Wonder would have released an album in October of 1975. But as October neared, he realized that more work on it was needed and the street date for his next album was pushed back indefinitely. Prior to Simon’s win, Wonder had copped the Album of the Year Grammy two years in a row, receiving the 1973 award for Innervisions and the 1974 award for Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Eleven months after it was supposed to hit stores, Songs In the Key of the Life was released and so it was at the Grammy Awards ceremony on February 19, 1977, it was Wonder once again, appearing remotely by satellite from Nigeria, who would receive the Album of the Year Grammy.
It’s oversimplifying things perhaps, but the mid-seventies were Wonder’s years, everyone else was simply along for the ride.
Similarly, it’s axiomatic that Wonder between 1972 and 1976 maintained an artistic peak that was unparalleled in music, releasing five uniformly excellent albums starting with Music of My Mind then onto Talking Book and then onto his Best Album Grammy winners. And while no one would dare limit Wonder’s contributions to a single time period for he released deeply compelling music both before and after the mid-seventies, few would add the album he released just before to his five-album run during that time. We probably should as Where I’m Coming From, released in April 1971, not only has Wonder emerging as his own artist but it remains a key document in Motown’s evolution at the beginning of the seventies.
In 1970, the label’s modus operandi had remained largely unchanged since its start in 1959. An immense factory of singers, groups, songwriters, production teams and musicians creating a seemingly endless stream of hits that held a deep appeal across the racial lines of America and around the world, Motown’s roster of talent—most of whom had been making records for the label for years—had the weight of deeply American institutions: a Four Tops recording had a different feel than the latest Temptations hit, even after they began to embrace, through the production team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, socially conscious psychedelic soul. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles offered something else entirely. The Marvelettes had a certain sound that contrasted with the feel of Martha and the Vandellas at their best. The Supremes, both with Diana Ross and after she left with Jean Terrell taking her place, were in a class by themselves and the label’s latest sensation, the Jackson 5, seemed to portend with four straight chart-topping singles in 1970 that the label’s hit factory was still firmly enmeshed with the cultural zeitgeist. But the label’s two leading men, Wonder and Marvin Gaye, were about to force a change in how they made their records.
In the sixties, Gaye was the suave, smooth soul man, the heir to the twin mantle of Nat Cole and Sam Cooke, who revealed a darker undercurrent to his music through the moody paranoia of Whitfield and Strong productions like ‘I Heart It Through the Grapevine’ and ‘That’s The Way Love Is.’
Wonder, signed to the label at 11—then known as “Little” Stevie Wonder—was a musical wunderkind. With ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ at the dawn of 1966, he hit his stride as the label’s extravert, the energy level as high on the infectiously danceable ‘I’m Wondering’ as it was on the civil rights anthem ‘A Place in the Sun.’ His recasting of ‘For Once In My Life,’ initially a song with the kind of swaggering braggadocio that tried to recapture the sui generis of the Great American Songbook but mostly came off as barely warmed leftovers, is so definitive that it is still a surprise to realize not only that Wonder wasn't the first to record the song but that he also didn’t have a hand in writing it. That the emerging funk of James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone would be a major driver in his musical evolution was confirmed with the clavinet-drenched ‘Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day.’
During the sixties, Wonder’s primary producer at Motown was Henry Cosby. Wonder himself produced, co-wrote and played most of the instruments on ‘It’s a Shame’ in the spring of 1970, the biggest hit for the Spinners before they hit in big in Philly and also co-produced his Signed, Sealed & Delivered album. His desire for more control over his recording career was mirrored by Marvin Gaye’s.
A week and a half before ‘It’s a Shame’ was released, Gaye produced and recorded ‘What’s Going On.’ While the sociopolitical nature of such Temptations’ songs like ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild’ and ‘Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)’ were released with no problem, label boss Berry Gordy Jr. balked at Gaye’s new song. Whether his objection was to the song itself or, in Gordy Jr.’s telling, his concerns were more about how different the song sounded—too ethereal, too jazzy—from Gaye’s previous records and the political edge to Gaye’s reflection on the unrest in America at the turn of the seventies are a matter of conjecture. What is clear is Gaye’s reaction to Gordy Jr.’s trepidation which was to refuse to make any new music until ‘What’s Going On’ was released. Through an assist by members of the label’s A&R and executive staff, the song made it out to stores at the beginning of 1971 and was a sensation. A chastened Gordy Jr. made Gaye a deal: if he could complete an album centered around his new hit by the end of March, Gaye would have carte blanche in the studio. Gaye did and in so doing, won his independence at Motown.
Wonder’s own quest for creative freedom was why he guided the Spinners’ ‘It’s a Shame.’ He was able to take the reins in the producer chair with little resistance but Motown still had the critical upper hand in deciding what would end up on his singles and long-playing albums. Wonder’s own ticket to independence didn’t come from a song but from a clause in his record contract.
On May 13, 1971, Wonder was to turn 21. In other words, an adult, and under the terms of his contract with Motown, once he reached adulthood, Wonder could exercise an option to void, or nullify, the contract. Wonder served notice he would do exactly that come his 21st birthday, effectively squeezing Motown to accept whatever he chose to record in the meantime. The fruits of his efforts were realized on Where I’m Coming From.
Whereas Gaye fully availed himself of the Funk Brothers in building the backing tracks for What’s Going On, Wonder, save for a few exceptions, was a band unto himself. His primary collaborator was his wife at the time, Syretta Wright, who co-wrote all nine of the album’s songs and made vital contributors as a singer on two of them: ‘If You Really Love Me’ and ‘Sunshine in Their Eyes.’
Wright had been with Motown for six years at the time. Starting as a receptionist and then working as Mickey Stevenson’s secretary and then, with the (Brian) Holland - (Lamont) Dozier - (Eddie) Holland juggernaut, becoming the lead singer on their demos for Diana Ross & the Supremes, Wright also released a single, under the name of Rita Ward, at the beginning of 1968. It was Wonder who encouraged her to explore songwriting. Their first two collaborations were the aforementioned ‘It’s a Shame’ for the Spinners and Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).’ They wed in September 1970.
Even as their marriage would prove to be short-lived—they would divorce in the spring of 1972 while continuing to collaborate musically long afterwards—the aura of promise and discovery that surrounds Where I’m Coming From is no doubt a result, at least in part, of the fact that the two most involved in its creation were newly united in matrimony.
It bursts forth in the brass blasts of ‘If You Really Love Me,’ the album’s most well-known track and a top 10 hit. The chorus, with an infectious radiance like the sunniest of Saturday summer nights and Wright’s background vocal which summons nothing less than the ecstasy of youthful romance, bely the ambiguity of the lyrics—here’s a couple that should be together but for whatever reason, can’t fully commit. The verse, in dazzling rubato with just Wonder, comes as a shock after the lead chorus and leads to a feeling of catharsis as the chorus’ glory starts up again. This daring use of form is interesting; principally so in light of the fact that it was only one of two songs on Where I’m Coming From that are made in the Motown mould. The Funk Brothers are on here but the shifting dynamics of the track suggests both a valedictory address to the first part of Wonder’s career and a page-turning preface to the next chapter. ‘Take a Course in Happiness,’ the other track that calls back to the Motown sound of yore, has a pleasant shuffle beat but is far more firmly anchored in a past that Wonder was determined to leave behind.
His future was clearly going to be bright. ‘Think of Me As Your Solider,’ with a soaring bridge, presages mighty love songs like ‘Blame It on the Sun’ from Talking Book. ‘Look Around,’ with its use of the clavinet and a multi-tracked Wonder vocal contains a germ of an idea that would flower on the chillingly stark ‘Village Ghetto Land’ from Songs in the Key of Life. ‘Something Out of the Blue’ hints at the intimacy of ballads like ‘Seems So Right’ from Music of My Mind and ‘Visions’ from Innervisions. Of course, the contemporaneous listener of the album had no idea of what was to come. What they would have heard is simply a musician making leaps and bounds in his artistry.
There may be missteps—‘I Want to Talk to You,’ in which Wonder dramatizes the divide between Black and white is the most obvious example—but it’s the abundant transcendence that sticks. It’s most commonly thought to be found on ‘Never Thought You’d Leave in Summer,’ indisputably the finest of the ballads on Where I’m Coming From and the song Wonder chose to sing at Michael Jackson’s memorial service in 2009. The ending with its plaintive plea of “why didn’t you stay” especially pierces the heart. The song, which Wonder adapted for the soaring climax of ‘Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)’ overshadows (unjustly, in my opinion) the ambition and grandeur of ‘Do Yourself a Favor’ and ‘Sunshine in Their Eyes.’
The former is fiendishly funky with a cutting clavinet riff and Wonder’s drums with their trademark smear of the beat. A bursting-at-the-seams interlude adds organ, handclaps and a double Wonder scat vocal. It’s as if he is cramming every idea he has about how to move his sound beyond the Motown trademark—a feeling that is intensified by the wild closing coda which doesn’t seem to want to let the song’s main refrain go. Herein lies the template for delights to follow like ‘Love Having You Around,’ ‘Maybe Your Baby,’ ‘Higher Ground’ and ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’’ for starters.
‘Sunshine In Their Eyes’ is even better. A two-part composition centered on the idea of what kind of world we are leaving for the younger generation, the first part again points to how Wonder was creating a distinctive approach to the ballad: melodies outside of what was de rigueur for soul at the time, bridges that lift and contrast with the more earthbound A sections and lyrics that situate the songs’ subjects in unique and personal ways. The only misstep here is the use of a literal children’s chorus which hits the point that Wonder and Wright wish to express far too explicitly. The seamless transition to the second section more than makes up for this error of youthful earnestness.
It’s here where Wonder and Wright have some tricks up their sleeves. After the first verse, which paints a scene of urban decay and hopelessness over a steady pulse of chords, Wright’s voice ushers in the chorus with its sophisticated, brass-laden urban groove. It’s an abrupt shift that reaffirms the precocious energy that powers Where I’m Coming From at its best.
After a second cycle of verse and chorus, the third and final verse leads to a truncated chorus that brings in ‘Sunshine In Their Eyes’’ ecstatic coda. It reaches its zenith when Wonder on drums moves from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal. On top of the unrelenting rhythm is a choir of Stevie Wonders—a totality of sound and feeling that eviscerates any doubt of his ability to take charge of his recording career.
Like Gaye, who parlayed the success of What’s Going On into, at the time, the richest contract awarded a Black artist that gave him the creative control he was seeking, Wonder’s new contract similarly gave him his independence. For him, the best was yet to come. Where I’m Coming From shows how Stevie Wonder got there.