Motown Monday: My Favorite Stevie Wonder Songs

Motown Mondays is a regular feature of this blog. By “regular” I mean whenever I feel like it but at least always on a Monday; and always about Motown, duh.

StevieA good friend JT (no, not that JT), apparently inspired by hearing Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, asked me what my three favorite Stevie songs were. Given that he texted me and I assumed he wanted an immediate response, what came to my mind was the saying “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

What did happen immediately – with surprisingly little difficulty – was I was able to write down eleven songs that instantly came to mind. The seeming impossibility, which took a little longer, was getting that list down to three. And what it took to get down to three was deducing what would make any favorite Stevie Wonder song more favorite than any other.

That’s impossible to ascertain through logic. I just feel some more than the others. The right sound, the right beat, the right note, the right key change, the right vocal tone, the right something that can happen in any song, is something I feel very intensely[1]. And with my list of Stevie favorites, it was easy to find four that met that intense feeling standard more so than the others.

That’s right. Four. Three was actually impossible.

I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever) (from the Talking Book album) This is my absolute favorite. What? You didn’t figure me for a love ballad? EVERYTHING about this song moves me from the melody, his vocal, the dark lyrics[2] that solemnly begin with “Shattered dreams/worthless years/Here am I encased inside a hollow shell”, the chorus – or should I say choruses? Around the 3:00 mark, magic happens. There’s one, then there’s another, and yet another, and then it’s like four choruses are happening AT THE SAME FREAKING TIME! And they all build into a crescendo which resolves into this cool, funky outro which you never saw coming.

There’s also personal history with this song that involves my getting it played every Saturday night on a popular local radio station in upstate New York when I was working at Howard Johnson’s while going to college.[3]

Before I move on to the other songs, I need to mention one crucial aspect of “the feeling” and why these songs are my favorites. The best way to listen to Stevie Wonder’s music is with a good set of headphones and in the dark.  One thing about Stevie Wonder’s music is that there is a LOT going on at the same time. His recordings are very subtly busy. He was a master of the technology of the day – which is astounding given his blindness – and was able to get all of what his genius was hearing somehow into vinyl. When you close off your sight (hence, listening in the dark) and put the music directly “inside” your head with headphones, you will hear things you will NEVER hear out of your car stereo. Like seemingly random stuff going on in each ear that is different than the stuff going on in the middle of your head. It’s astounding and on certain songs like this one and I Love Having You Around (see below), the sonic commotion adds to that intense feeling.

Maybe Your Baby (Talking Book) Funky. “Maybe yo’ baby done made some other plans.” Funky. So, so funky. Today’s electronic music still hasn’t managed to get as funky – and as creative – as Stevie 40-odd years ago. And his ability to manipulate his vocals is unmatched even with all the technology available to today’s singers. This is totally a headphones-necessary song. Oh, and it was originally written for guitar god Jeff Beck but Stevie liked it too much and kept it for himself.

Living For The City (Innervisions) Two years prior he was praying about race in Heaven Help Us All. Now he’s angry – A boy is born in hard time Mississippi” – and writing a searing song that’s one of the first to deal explicitly with systemic racism. The album version is even darker with its interlude of a wrongful arrest of a black man followed by Wonder’s distorted vocals that portray how screwed up the situation is.

We Can Work It Out (Signed Sealed and Delivered) Pretty much my favorite pop cover ever. This funky, bouncy, soulful, hopeful take is NOTHING like The Beatles somber, plaintive version and I just imagine John saying to Paul, “[Crap]! That’s what this was supposed to sound like?” I also love this song because it’s a couple of years before he becomes the Stevie Wonder of Superstitious and he’s giving us an indication of what’s to come.

The rest of the list (with inspired musings)

I Love Having You Around (Music of My Mind) – Total headphone song. It’s like a hallucinogenic trip without the hallucinogens.

All Day Sucker (Songs In the Key of Life) – “Play as funky as you can, Slim.” Slim and Stevie sho’ nuff do. Headphones are a must!

Superstitious (Talking Book) Originally written for Jeff Beck after Stevie kept Maybe Your Baby (see above). Stevie kept this one, too, although Beck did record it later.

Part-Time Lover (The Definitive Collection) – Luther Vandross scats and sings back-up vocals on this. That’s enough for me.

Pastime Paradise (Songs In the Key of Life) I’m a sucker for strings in rock music. This was one of the first songs to use a synthesizer to imitate a full orchestra string section.

Another Star (Songs In the Key of Life) – Great Latino/Disco energy.

Ordinary Pain (Songs In the Key of Life) – After the faint cymbal crash at 2:41, a pretty, mid-tempo piano-based song transforms into something completely, irresistibly, intensely, outrageously funky. Yeah, you’ll need headphones again.

But seriously, after my top four, I could just was easily pick another twenty favorites. At least.

____________________________________________________________

[1] While I was having something of an out-of-body experience at a Chicago blues club, a friend once asked me, “Where did you go during that song?”

[2] I like dark.

[3] I knew the DJ. On Saturday night, she had some leeway with the playlist and allowed me to be the informal program director. I could get 3-5 songs per night and I Believe was always one along with the Jefferson Airplane version (as opposed to the later one by Crosby, Stills and Nash) of Wooden Ships. And she always ended her shift with a shout-out to us with the song Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Workin’ by NRBQ.

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