Stevie joined, and somehow survived, the notoriously decadent 1972 Rolling Stones tour of America as their opening act. This did much to popularize his mega-hit songs “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” (I’m saving “Superstition” for a One Song/Three Versions post).
He joined the Stones not only for greater exposure but also to avoid being pigeonholed as a strictly R&B act. As it happens, I found a really shitty video of one of their combined encores (“Uptight/Satisfaction.”) But it’s great rock n’ roll history. Check out the video here or a better audio-only version here.
In this period of the early ’70’s – which in America was really still the late ’60’s – the country was dealing with a great amount of turmoil: the Vietnam War was still raging, colleges were burning, black people still had to fight the same old bullshit battles against racism, women were demanding to be seen as equals on a personal level and under the law, gay rights were being fought for at Stonewall – you name it.
And so Motown/Tamla performers (including the Temptations and Supremes, but especially Stevie and Marvin Gaye) did not want to be seen as just “moon/june/spoon” singers but wanted to also write and perform songs that had real social meaning, that addressed issues of the day.
While not entirely abandoning love songs and upbeat, optimistic tunes, Stevie felt himself compelled to write, for want of a better expression, songs of social consciousness. “Living for the City,” is a good example of this. And that brief story he tells in the middle? Probably a little simplistic. But even in 2016, sadly, still relevant:
I wasn’t being facetious when I mentioned Stevie’s upbeat, optimistic tunes. His songs, more than literally anyone I can think of, can lift my spirits. He sometimes expresses that feeling of being in love so well that he makes you feel like you are!
A touch of rain and sunshine made the flower grow
Into a lovely smile that’s blooming
And it’s so clear to me that here’s a dream come true
There’s no way that I’ll be losing
And golden lady, golden lady
I’d like to go there
Here’s the beautiful “Golden Lady”:
Given that he could easily be bitter, he chooses not to be. In fact, several days after the album Innervisions (1973) was released, Stevie was involved in a very serious car accident that put him in a coma for four days. He later said that, “the accident opened my ears up to many things around me. Naturally, life is just more important to me now… and what I do with my life.” And he started to see his music as an opportunity to reach people spiritually.
Like Prince who cited Stevie as an inspiration, he can jump from rock to funk to ballad to jazz-rock in a heartbeat. And his music is adaptable. Who anticipated that “Higher Ground,” another great (spiritually driven) funk-fest, would be covered 15 years later by The Red Hot Chili Peppers? And that they would jack up the tempo to 11! Anyway, here’s Stevie:
“Boogie On Reggae Woman,” from 1974’s “Fulfillingness’ First Finale was a hit single for Stevie back in 1974. (Covered memorably much later by Phish.) I get a kick out of what Wikipedia has to say about it: “Despite the song’s title, its style is firmly funk/R&B and neither boogie nor reggae.” Ha! Regardless, the only ones playing on this are Wonder and a conga player. And this song is the other side of “Golden Lady.” Sure he loves her. But now it’s time to get busy:
There used to be a terrific magazine out of Gloucester, Massachusetts called Musician, Player and Listener. Unlike Rolling Stone, Musician never veered from covering only music and covering serious music seriously. They called Stevie Wonder the Musician of the Seventies. And by the end of 1974, he had won eight Grammys.
Final post – Stevie releases his greatest album; I finally get to see him live.