On August 6, 1973 Stevie Wonder was en route to a radio station to promote his hot new album, “Innervisions,” his most successful and acclaimed release up until this point in his career. It was the third of five fabled albums that made up his “Classic Period” when he won twelve Grammys.
On this scorching Monday near Salisbury, North Carolina, the car he was riding in the passenger’s seat slammed into the back of a flatbed truck at a considerable speed. This accident put Wonder into a coma and left music fans around the world alarmed and distressed.
Luckily, Wonder stirred from his coma four days later when his road manager Ira Tucker Jr. began harmonizing “Higher Ground” to him. Wonder, always the musical virtuoso, began moving his fingers as if he was performing on the keyboard to Tucker’s singing. Wonder stayed in the hospital for a few more weeks and months later returned to the studio to begin working on “Fulfillingness’ First Finale.”
This near-death experience could have ended the master musician’s odyssey to spread joy and love through music. Instead, it reaffirmed Wonder’s faith, shaped his musical output and forced him to reexamine his life and mortality.
Born on May 13, 1950 as Stevland Hardaway Judkins, Wonder suffered from Retinopathy of Prematurity, an eye disorder for premature infants and has lived his entire life without sight.
He did not have a privileged or comfortable life growing up. However, he was still the most upbeat and positive person anyone could meet and has not changed. Wonder still preaches for love, empathy and justice even when our country is so out of tune.
Wonder arrived at Motown Records with his positive, creative energy at age 11 and released his first album at 12. This initial release proved to the world that he was talented, but it wasn’t until he renegotiated his contract with Motown at the age of 21 and he could control his artistic freedom, that he could prove to the world that he was sensational.
“Music Of My Mind”
Wonder released “Music of My Mind” on March 3, 1972, which was inspired by Marvin Gaye’s pioneering staple “What’s Going On” and was artistically liberated by his new contract.
The first album of Wonder’s “Classic Period” did not change the world or net Wonder awards or accolades, yet, it still communicated to listeners and critics to expect extraordinary things from him. Wonder was eager and comfortable experimenting with his music.
He played every instrument on the album except guitar. His use of drums, keyboard, synthesizer, piano, bongos, clavinet, harmonica and Moog bass is a shining example of his instrumental maestro status.
Key Tracks: “Love Having You Around,” “Superwoman,” “Girl Blue,” and “Evil.”
“Classic Period” Total Grammy Count: 0
Wonder didn’t have time to finish his breath by the time he released “Talking Book” seven months after “Music of My Mind.” October 28, 1972 marked the arrival of Wonder’s otherworldly talent and musical maturity. “Music of My Mind” appetized listeners, but “Talking Book” forced all to pay the utmost attention to Wonder.
The album’s opening track, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” is one of Wonder’s most enduring songs and features a beautifully balanced mix of angelic vocals and smooth congas, electric piano, drums and bass.
Listeners are immediately yanked from the gleaming, dreamy textures of “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and brought back to reality with the funky keyboard and bluesy, anguishing guitar on “Maybe Your Baby.”
Wonder and his first wife divorced before “Talking Book” was released. Together, these two songs are like falling in and out of love, except, after each piece, listeners will find themselves falling in love with Wonder’s music even more. His slushy drumming on the timeless classic “Superstition” is top-notch and a prime example of his underappreciated hi-hat expertise.
Key Tracks: “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” “Maybe Your Baby,” “Superstition,” and “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love.”
“Classic Period” Total Grammy Count: 3
Nine months later, “Innervisions” delivered critical and commercial acclaim. Here, Wonder really started to evolve his music and dive into complex questions regarding social and personal issues: drug abuse (“Too High”), the plight of Black Americans (“Living For The City”) and former President Richard Nixon (“He’s Misstra Know-It-All”).
“He’s Misstra Know-It-All” paved the way for future scathing attacks on disliked presidents. This track, however, is not why “Innervisions” is such a revered timeless classic. “Living For The City” and “Higher Ground” are responsible for that.
“Living For The City” is the story of a black man who leaves his struggling family in Mississippi to live the dream in the big city. The first half of the song feels optimistic and naive like the character the music follows.
The professional actors and sampled sounds of city streets form a startling spoken word segment that slam authenticity and gritty realism into the listener. The young black man was unfairly sentenced to ten years in prison and realizes that the city isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Wonder conveys the anger and disillusion the character is feeling through his strong, raspy vocals. His no-nonsense approach to the harsh reality of the unjust world is a far cry from his surreal and relaxing piece, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.”
Wonder wrote “Higher Ground” before his near-fatal crash and second chance at life. He already sensed that he needed to make some changes in his life and wrote this spiritual song about having a second chance to make things right. The timing of the release of this song and the accident is uncanny.
It is an earnest message that addresses everyone – live life the “right way” right now, because you never know when you’ll no longer have that opportunity.
Key Tracks: “Too High,” “Visions,” “Living In The City,” “Golden Lady,” “Higher Ground,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All.”
“Classic Period” Total Grammy Count: 5
“Fulfillingness’ First Finale”
Once Wonder recovered from the accident, he did not take any time off. He began recording his next album “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” where he is more introspective and personal after nearly dying. Wonder ponders existence, mortality and God on this piece.
Songs like “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” and “They Won’t Go When I Go” showcase Wonder’s rediscovered devotion to religion and feature classical influences.
“Too Shy To Say” is an intimate and vulnerable song where he sings all the things he is too shy to say to the woman he loves. He is emotional and confesses love in a truly masculine manner.
Not every piece of this album is low-key and reflective, however. Wonder zaps the listener into groovin’ and movin’ on “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and channels a “Superstition” reminiscent zeal, criticizing the outgoing President Nixon again on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” with the backing of The Jackson 5.
“Fulfillingness’ First Finale” is easy to overlook as it is sandwiched between the albums mentioned earlier and Wonder’s Magnus Opus “Songs In The Key Of Life,” but that does not mean it should be forgotten.
Key Tracks: “Smile Please,” “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” “Too Shy To Say,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “Creepin’,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” and “They Won’t Go When I Go.”
“Classic Period” Total Grammy Count: 8
“Songs In The Key Of Life”
Wonder took a break after “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” to reflect on previous years. 1975 was the first year since 1965 that Wonder did not release an album. Every talented superstar needs to take a deep breath, sometimes even one whose purpose on earth is to create incredibly diverse and moving music.
Once Wonder got back into his rhythm, he labored back to his optimal level of creativity and productivity, which resulted in the wondrous spectacle “Songs In The Key Of Life.” The previous four albums of the “Classic Period” make up the pedestal that this album sparkles on.
Wonder examines life thoroughly on this masterpiece through a masterful fusion and inclusion of many themes and musical genres.
Wonder touches on jazz (“Sir Duke”), childish funk (“I Wish”), ballads (“Ordinary Pain”), fusion (“Contusion”), loving soul (“As”), parenthood pop (“Isn’t She Lovely”), inspiring socio-politics (“Black Man”), haunting socioeconomics (“Village Ghetto Land”), tenderness (“Knocks Me Off My Feet”) and religion (“Have A Talk With God”). He even treats listeners to Zulu and Spanish lyrics on “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing.”
Out of all the albums in the “Classic Period,” this album tackles the most explicit concept: the numerous aspects of life. Duke Ellington’s death, the United States Bicentennial and the birth of his daughter inspired Wonder when creating “Sir Duke,” “Black Man” and “Isn’t She Lovely.”
Wonder produced the album himself but enlisted the expertise of Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams, and even his ex-wife Syreeta Wright to perfect the songs “As,” “Another Song” and “Ordinary Pain.”
Perhaps Stevie Wonder’s entire message can be experienced on “As.” The eternal power of love will always diminish the cowardice and weakness of hate until “8 times 8 times 8 times equals 4.”
Wonder makes all who listen to “Songs In The Key Of Life” appreciate humanity despite its various disappointing stains and deficiencies. Everyone should experience this masterclass piece of art that Wonder toiled to create so they can have a better outlook on life and spread positivity to others.
Key Tracks: “Have A Talk With God,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” “Ordinary Pain,” “Contusion” “As,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Black Man,” “Village Ghetto Land,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” “Summer Love,” and “Another Star.”
“Classic Period” Total Grammy Count: 12
Wonder has won 25 Grammy awards; 12 of which came from the “Classic Period.” He changed the music industry, starting with “Music Of My Mind,” by embracing the Moog synthesizer which was the freshest tech.
Wonder continued to experiment with technology throughout the next few albums and most notably utilized the Yamaha GX-1 to replicate a string ensemble to create the song’s contrasting feel with the lyrics of “Village Ghetto Land” on “Songs Of The Key Of Life.”
By embracing experimental technology during the “Classic Period” to create timeless music, Wonder advanced the music industry more than any other singular artist.
His music has been sampled and serves as the backbone to hits like Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West,” Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and Tupac’s “So Many Tears.”
Wonder’s magnetic aura comes from his mission to spread love, compassion and respect, despite his life challenges. His music regarding the under-represented, under-appreciated and disadvantaged people of the U.S. and the world is more moving than any blanket corporate statement. As long as Wonder is still uniting humankind through love, empathy and appreciation, the forces of corruption, malice and wickedness stand no chance.