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Stevie Wonder

“The Wonder of you!”

5 May 2016 Blog The Queen Street Observer

Each month when I sign off on another blog I'll have a quick read through it, checking the spelling and suchlike before finally submitting it. And then? Well, then my thoughts turn to the next month and subject matter. That's the tricky bit, thinking of an idea that engages me in some way. Once I have that though I'm away at a gallop.

  Browsing the Web a few weeks ago a Stevie Wonder story caught my eye. The news is that he's going to perform his "Songs in the Key of Life" album in full at the British Summertime Festival in London in July. Now I love Stevie and I love that record so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to write about this, having a fond look back at some of its highlights. And what highlights there were. There are the hits of course, Sir Duke, I wish, Isn't she lovely, et al, but as it's a two record set there's so much more. Let's begin at the beginning.

     Stevie began working almost immediately after the release of "Fullfillingness First Finale" in 1974 with a release date tentatively scheduled for October 1975. The sessions for this proposed album proved problematic from the start however, what with his perfectionist tendencies, never more evident than when six weeks of studio time were taken up working on just one track. Other distractions during this period included Wonder contemplating quitting the music industry altogether and moving to Ghana to work with handicapped children. This idea was shelved when he signed a new contract with Motown. If the record company thought the new contract meant an instant return on their investment they were forced to think again. The October '75 release date was pulled with Wonder feeling the album wasn't quite ready and in need of further re-mixing. If Motown were alarmed they chose not to show it, instead responding with their marketing department producing T-shirts with "We're almost finished" emblazoned across the front. Whatever, their patience was finally rewarded when the album, by now given the title "Songs in the Key of Life", was finally delivered and released in September 1976.

        The accolades, awards and statistics soon began to stack up. Thirteen consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the US, the second best selling album in 1977 (Behind "Rumours" naturally), sales of 10M. albums in the US alone and so on. Little wonder, if you'll pardon the pun, that Stevie rates it as one of his best, and it is too, beyond all doubt. For many people, myself included, it represents the high water mark of his career, with only1980's "Hotter than July" of his subsequent albums coming anywhere near. My introduction to "Songs…." was courtesy of David Parton's cover version of "Isn't she lovely" which hit the charts in 1977. It's a perfectly acceptable version too, that is until you hear the original, whereupon its anaemia is revealed for all to see. Celebrating the birth of his daughter Aisha – she's the crying baby you hear on the track – this song is faultless, a gem. If I have one very minor quibble with it it's the fact that for thirty years or more every time I've heard the song I've carried the image in my mind's eye of the musicians playing on the track being swept along by the sheer infectiousness of the groove on the extended outro. Stevie's doing his harmonica solo, the band are all looking at one another, exhorting each other to keep it going, don't stop now, once more! It was only relatively recently that I checked the album's sleeve notes and found that only three people played on the song, one backing vocalist, Greg Philllinganes on keyboards and Stevie on everything else. This on an album where something in the region of 100+ musicians played! So no band but never mind, when I hear that song now that mental image still prevails, thankfully.

         One of the benefits of it being a double album of course is that it contains quite a few lengthy numbers, time and space not being an issue. For instance the album opener "Love's in need of love today" stretches to 7 minutes and 6 seconds, while "Another star" is a mighty eight and a half minutes. None of those minutes are wasted though, you'll find no filler here. The long songs allow Wonder and his army of musos to show what they're made of, being the very best in the business. Funnily enough it's two of the shorter songs which float my boat the most. "Ngicuela – Es un historia – I am singing" in spite of its unwieldy title is just plain gorgeous and is probably the only song anywhere to feature a first verse in Zulu, the second in Spanish and the third in English, all wrapped in an irresistible melody. So too with "Ebony eyes", not even on the album as such but part of a four track E.P. which came with the original release. "Ebony eyes" sounds like something recorded live after the most perfunctory of run-throughs but sounding none the worse for it. A great singalong chorus as well.

       But hey, you can't appreciate a record by reading about it. Find it, load into your CD player and if you haven't heard it before, prepare to be blown away by its delights. There now, have I sold this to you? No need to thank me, it's my pleasure.

 Talk to you next month!!

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