Starting last year, I’ve done series of Facebook posts on favorite songs from Elvis Costello and Lou Reed albums — one album a day. I am now doing the same for Stevie Wonder, and will compile them here.
The ground rules are the same as they were in the prior series: I’m not saying each song is the “best” from the album, just a song that I like and want to share. I’ll include music from some anthologies, live albums, collaborative projects, etc., but not necessarily all.
So here we go, starting with the first post, from Feb. 14, 2021. This post will be updated daily until I’m done.
Wonder’s first album, in 1962, was titled The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. He was just 12. He doesn’t sing on it, and had a hand in writing just two of its nine songs. I doubt anyone who heard it at the time imagined he would grow into the visionary artist he would become, but for a 12-year-old, it’s pretty remarkable, showcasing his prowess on organ, drums, harmonica and bongos. Here’s “Fingertips” (Wonder plays bongos here), which became his first hit single a year later, when it appeared on his Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius album.
Wonder’s second album, Tribute to Uncle Ray, came out in October 1962, just a month after his debut. And it was actually recorded first — earlier in the year, when Wonder was still 11. It included eight songs written by or associated with Ray Charles, and two that weren’t — including one co-written by Wonder. Like the earlier album, it didn’t really offer any indication of Wonder’s future brilliance, but is still impressively assured for someone so young. Here’s Wonder’s version of the 1957 Charles hit, “Ain’t That Love.”
Wonder’s first two albums didn’t yield any major hit singles, but Motown must have really believed in him, because in May 1963, they put out Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, capturing him onstage at the Regal Theater in Chicago in June 1962. The album featured concert versions of songs from his first two releases, including a six-minute, 40-second version of “Fingertips,” which was split up as “Part 1” and “Part 2” on a single. “Part 2” became a No. 1 smash — Wonder’s breakthrough hit. I’ve already included the studio version of “Fingertips” in this series, so I’ll share, here, Wonder’s live cover of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So.”
Wonder may have become a star with “Fingertips,” but his December 1963 album With a Song in My Heart represented a step backwards, with lukewarm versions of pop standards, tied together with the theme of optimism and happiness. Wonder, 13, at least shows the beginnings of his distinctive future vocal style on his version of “Smile.”
In March 1964, Wonder performed the song “Happy Street” in the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello movie “Muscle Beach Party,” and in June of that year, undoubtedly trying to cash in on the surf-rock craze, Motown followed up with Stevie at the Beach, which featured “Happy Street” and other beach-themed songs (though it wasn’t surf-rock, per se). Not a great album, though “Happy Street” itself boasts a lot of energy and some wicked harmonica playing.
Wonder’s first five albums yielded just one major hit, the novelty song “Fingertips,” so it was a major accomplishment for him when he returned to the Top 10, still just 15 years old, with the buoyant “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” from his 1966 album Up-Tight. The song earned him his first Grammy nominations, and the album also saw him branch out into socially conscious material with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
After having a Top 10 hit with Up-Tight‘s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the first single of his next album, Down to Earth (released later in ’66), was also a social anthem of sorts. “A Place in the Sun,” co-written by Ron Miller and Bryan Wells (and covered by many other artists later in the ’60s) was pretty vague, as far as social anthems go. Anyone who wants more out of life than they are currently getting can relate. But it did align itself with the Civil Rights movement with the line, “Like a branch on a tree, I keep reachin’ to be free.” The arrangement is pretty bland, but the 16-year-old Wonder sings with impressive maturity, and the song became another Top 10 hit.
The title track of Wonder’s 1967 album I Was Made to Love Her was one of his most indelible ’60s hits, boasting, among other things, a breathtaking intro featuring strings, backing vocalists, Wonder’s harmonica and a sitar hook that repeats throughout the song. The song peaked at No. 2 (behind The Doors’ “Light My Fire”) on Billboard magazine’s pop chart during the Summer of Love.
Wonder had a minor hit with his “Someday at Christmas” holiday single in 1966, and included it on a holiday album of the same name in 1967. The album didn’t generate much interest at the time, but the joyous “What Christmas Means to Me” has become something of a holiday classic since then.
Wonder’s 1968 album Eivets Rednow (the title is his name spelled backwards) was a niche release — an all-instrumental collection of nine songs, including both covers and originals, in a laid back, easy-listening style. There’s not much of interest here, honestly, though one of the originals, “How Can You Believe,” at least has some memorable hooks and some passion in its harmonica solo.
“For Once in My Life,” co-written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden, had been around for a few years and been recorded by other artists — including Tony Bennett, The Temptations and The Four Tops — before Wonder made it into a Top 10 hit from his 1968 album of the same name. The other artists had always performed it as a slow, sincere ballad, but Wonder totally reinvented it as an upbeat, exhilarating pop song.
Wonder’s 1969 album My Cherie Amour had two big hits, the title track and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday.” His version of “At Last” — a standard going back to the Big Band Era that had already been brilliantly remade by Etta James — was not released as a single. But it’s pretty remarkable, and a good example of Wonder’s ability to take a familiar song and make it his own.
The original version of “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” from Wonder’s 1968 album For Once in My Life, was a Top 10 hit, but the concert version from 1970’s Stevie Wonder Live was longer, funkier and, simply, better.
After Stevie Wonder Live came out in January 1970, Live at the Talk of the Town — a U.K.-only release, though it later became available in the United States as well — followed in March 1970. I’m not sure why, except maybe Motown thought a concert album recorded in England — the Talk of the Town was a London nightclub — would be easier to market there. Anyway, one of the album’s highlights is a powerful, slow-building take on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which may be the song’s first officially released cover (Simon & Garfunkel had just released the original version in January 1970).
Still just 20 years old, Wonder released his 16th (!) album, counting live albums and a greatest hits compilation, in 1970. Signed, Sealed & Delivered was the first of his albums to include four Top 40 hits, including one of the most memorable songs of the first decade of his career, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I”m Yours).”
1971’s Where I’m Coming From, released a month before Wonder’s 21st birthday, was a transitional album: ballad-heavy, serious in tone and thoroughly adult, though not featuring the strongest material of his career. “Do Yourself a Favor” was a pretty good social anthem, though: tough and gritty, and a good indication of not just where he was coming from but where he was going in the ’70s.
Doubling down on the seriousness of Where I’m Coming From, 1972’s Music of My Mind contained a song that was Wonder’s most ambitious creation yet: “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” an eight-minute, two-part, sonically distinctive musical journey. The song was the album’s first single and became a Top 40 hit.
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