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.
Note: All the songs are also being compiled in a Spotlify playlist that is embedded at the end of this post. Thanks to Ken Shane for putting that together.
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.
Wonder recorded an album with his wife Syreeta Wright in late 1971 and early 1972. It came out as the self-titled album, Syreeta, in the summer of 1972, around the same time they got divorced (after less than two years of marriage). Wonder produced the album, wrote or co-wrote most of the material, and duets with Syreeta — showing a tremendous amount of musical chemistry with her — on “To Know You Is to Love You,” which they wrote together.
We’re up to 1972 now and so, it’s becoming really tough to pick just one song from each album. Today’s album is Talking Book: Not even considering songs such as “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever),” “Maybe Your Baby” and “Blame It on the Sun,” you’ve got to somehow pick between “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” I flipped a coin, and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” won. (Trivia note: Wonder eccentrically had his backing vocalists sing lead at the start of the song. That’s Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves who sing two lines apiece before you hear Wonder’s voice.)
Still just 23 years old, Wonder followed up the brilliance of Talking Book with another masterpiece, Innervisions, in 1973. The funky, inspirational “Higher Ground” was one of the three Top 20 hits from the album; Wonder, amazingly, played all of the instruments himself.
Wonder won the second of his three ’70s Album of the Year Grammys — beating out Paul McCartney & Wings’ Band on the Run and Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, among others — with 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which had two huge hits: The catchy “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and the angry protest song, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” The latter featured backing vocals from the Jackson 5.
How do you pick a song from Songs in the Key of Life? Released in 1976, this is arguably Wonder’s greatest achievement, a double album (with a bonus four-song EP) in which nearly every song is magical and distinctive. The album had big hits (“I Wish,” “Sir Duke,” “Isn’t She Lovely”) but that’s just the surface. You’ve also got “As,” “Another Star,” “Ngiculela,” “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Have a Talk With God,” “Pastime Paradise,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet” … I’ll go with “Summer Soft,” for no other reason than it kind of jumped out at me, when I re-listened to the album yesterday, as a Key of Life song that could have been a huge hit, too, if it had been released as a single.
Wonder waited for more than three years to follow up his Songs in the Key of Life masterpiece (September 1976) with another double album, Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” (October 1979). Those expecting something similar were disappointed. Journey was a soundtrack, about half of which was made up of instrumentals, made to accompany an obscure nature documentary. It had some interesting sonic experiments, but the songwriting was largely uninspired; ultimately, it represents a minor addition to his catalog, though it does contain a warm ballad, “Send One Your Love,” that would have fit in well on Key of Life.
The biggest hit of 1980’s Hotter Than July was the reggae song “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” but to my ears, there’s more heat in the album-opening “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me.”
“Ebony and Ivory,” a collaboration with Paul McCartney that was included on McCartney’s 1982 Tug of War album, was a big hit. But a second team effort from the same album, “What’s That You’re Doing?,” is a frequently overlooked gem — and very possibly the funkiest recording McCartney ever appeared on.
1982’s Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I was a double-album anthology of Wonder’s work from 1972 to 1980 that also featured four new songs, including one of the prettiest ballads of his entire career, “Ribbon in the Sky.”
Wonder’s 1984 soundtrack album for the Gene Wilder/Kelly LeBrock movie “The Woman in Red” contained three collaborations with Dionne Warwick as well as one hit that was so ubiquitous at the time it became annoying (“I Just Called to Say I Love You”) and a smaller hit that, in retrospect, may have deserved more attention than it received: “Love Light in Flight.”
1985’s In Square Circle had a big hit with “Part-Time Lover,” but the smaller one, “Overjoyed,” has stood the test of time better. Its warm glow and indelible melody makes it seem like a throwback to Wonder’s glory days of the ’70s.
Though not from one of his studio albums, 1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For” — an AIDS charity single recorded with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and Elton John — was one of Wonder’s high points of the ’80s, with inspired singing by all four and Wonder also featured on harmonica. It was a No. 1 hit, earned a Song of the Year Grammy for co-writers Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, and raised more than $3 million for AIDS research and prevention.
There isn’t, honestly, a lot to love on Wonder’s 1987 album Characters, though “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” at least offers a nearly two-minute B.B. King/Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar duel at the end. (The song was left off vinyl copies of the album but available on CD and cassette versions.)
Wonder’s soundtrack for the 1991 movie “Jungle Fever” is widely viewed as a lightweight, unambitious effort, though the ballad “Make Sure You’re Sure” aims for more and cuts deep.
Wonder’s output was definitely slowing down by the mid-’90s. 1995’s Conversation Peace was his first studio album in four years, and it would be 10 years before he released another one. It is not an essential Wonder album, certainly, but it has some good moments, including “Sorry,” which sustains its feverish intensity for nearly seven minutes.
More than 30 years after releasing his Tribute to Uncle Ray album, Wonder was featured with Charles himself, as well as Bono, on a fun big band version of the standard “Let the Good Times Roll” on Quincy Jones’ star-studded Q’s Jook Joint album.
Wonder’s 1995 concert album Natural Wonder was mostly devoted to straightforward versions of well known material, but there were a few more obscure songs choices on it, including the inspirational ballad “Stay Gold,” which had previously appeared only on the soundtrack of the 1983 movie “The Outsiders.”
Herbie Hancock’s guest-filled 1998 album Gershwin’s World was devoted not only to songs by George and Ira Gershwin, but to songs that had some influence on them, including W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” memorably reinvented with the help of Wonder’s vocals and harmonica.
Wonder’s 1999 four-CD greatest hits boxed set At the Close of a Century included pretty much all the expected songs, plus some nice surprises such as “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” which Wonder co-wrote and recorded in 1967, though he did not release it at that time. The song has been covered many times, both before and after ’99 — most successfully by Aretha Franklin, who had a Top 10 hit with it in 1973.
Wonder has released only one studio album since 1995 but has been a frequent guest on other artists’ albums. In 2001, for instance, he joined Tony Bennett for a loose, swinging version of “Everyday I Have the Blues”
Wonder’s last studio album — indeed, his only studio album since 1995’s Conversation Peace, was 2005’s A Time to Love, which, honestly, didn’t add a lot to his legacy, though there is no denying the power of the stately ballad “Shelter in the Rain.”
The lead single of the 2016 animated film “Sing” was the upbeat Wonder/Ariana Grande duet “Faith,” which turned out to be more fun than anything Wonder had released on his own in years, maybe decades.
In October of 2020, with the pandemic raging and people preparing to vote, Wonder released two new songs, including “Where Is Our Love Song,” an anthem that he had started writing at the age of 18 and recently finished. “How we need those words of hope/Not the kind of hope that leaves some of us behind/But the kind of hope that lifts up all humankind,” he sings.
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