The album to start with
Talking Book (1972)
The man born Stevland Morris began the 1960s an 11-year-old harmonica prodigy and exited them as one of Motown’s hottest artists, thanks to hits such as My Cherie Amour, I Was Made to Love Her and Uptight (Everything’s Alright). But as the next decade dawned, the contract Stevie Wonder had signed as a minor expired and, desperate not to lose his star, Motown boss Berry Gordy granted Wonder hitherto-unknown creative freedom from the label’s legendary “hit factory” production line.
Wonder recast himself as an auteur with something powerful to say – and, thanks to a fruitful creative relationship with early synthesiser pioneers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, a revolutionary way of delivering that message. Further breaking from Motown tradition, the newly liberated Wonder treated the album format as an art form in and of itself, rather than just bundling his latest hit single with lesser, filler tracks. Armed with a bank of still-futuristic Arp and Moog synthesisers, Wonder went on to deliver five solid-gold masterpieces across the decade. It’s tough to pick a favourite from the bunch, but Talking Book’s devotional fervour wins it by a nose.
Talking Book mostly eschewed the political edge that would characterise its follow-up, Innervisions – love is its dominant theme. Where contemporary Marvin Gaye investigated love’s darker side, finding inspiration in its paranoid shadows, Wonder was an apostle of the light, proselytising for love as a sacred, ecstatic, rejuvenating force. And Talking Book’s master stroke is how it eulogised love without ever succumbing to schmaltz, drawing power and profundity from Wonder’s superlative lightness of touch (You Are the Sunshine of My Life, Tuesday Heartbreak) and otherworldly sounds – You and I (We Can Conquer the World), a sublime secular hymn, saw Wonder duetting with soaring, theremin-like synths.
His other key collaborator on Talking Book was the inspiration for You and I, his wife, singer-songwriter Syreeta Wright. Though the couple divorced during the album’s production, she wrote the lyrics for two of the album’s final three songs, a redemptive arc tracing a path from heartbreak and recrimination (Blame It on the Sun), through healing (the achingly happy/sad Lookin’ for Another Pure Love), to hope (the closing, gospel-esque I Believe (When I Fall in Love). She remained Wonder’s close confidante until her death in 2004 – he later said they “were better friends when we weren’t married than when we were” – and their enduring relationship seemed a testament to Wonder’s belief in the power of love.
Talking Book’s biggest hit, meanwhile, ditched Wonder’s romantic theme. The sharp, cynical Superstition saw Stevie lay down one of the most instantly recognisable drum-licks in pop history, and realise all the funky potential within the clavinet on a track so blessed with groove it turned even the set of Sesame Street into a raucous dancefloor. Indeed, Talking Book was enough to suggest there wasn’t anything Stevie Wonder couldn’t do – and he would hold the world under that spell for the rest of the decade.
The three albums to check out next
Music of My Mind (1972)
Wonder’s first post-emancipation release had its shaky moments – not least the misjudged Sweet Little Girl, where Stevie warns his obsession, “Don’t make me get mad and act like a nigga” – but Music of My Mind was a bold statement of intent. Juggling ambitious epics like Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You) and Love Having You Around with the deliriously pretty pop of Happier Than the Morning Sun and I Love Every Little Thing About You, the album sounded drunk on the possibilities of new technology, and revelled in the abundant talents of Wonder, who – aside from one guitar solo and one trombone part – sang and performed every note.
More ambitious, perhaps, than Talking Book, you can hear Wonder’s confidence flexing throughout the many audacious strokes of Innervisions. He made the first of many successful experiments with Latin rhythms (Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing), proved himself a one-man funk colossus to rival Sly Stone on the synthesiser and clavinet-driven Too High and Higher Ground, and revealed himself an astute observer of human character on the closing He’s Misstra Know-It All. Best of all was Living for the City, tracing the journey of an unsuspecting country boy who falls foul of the racist system across a seven-minute track that played out like a movie.
Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
With his contract up for renegotiation again, Wonder briefly considered quitting music for charitable works in Africa before signing again with Motown for an unprecedented $37m. The label got its money’s worth with his next release, however: 105 minutes of music across four LP sides, plus a bonus EP. Its epic sprawl is part of Key of Life’s charm, switching between genius hit singles (the infectiously joyful Sir Duke and I Wish), blasts of deep fusion (Contusion), moments of disco-gospel ecstasy (As), visionary synthesiser symphonies (Village Ghetto Land) and effervescent, impossibly beautiful balladry (Knocks Me Off My Feet). Songs in the Key of Life is vast, it contains multitudes – and it maintains a standard most artists could only dream of.
One for the heads
Jungle Fever (1991)
While Wonder’s 70s output was inspiring in its quality and abundance – also producing classic albums by Minnie Riperton and Wright, and giving songs to the Supremes, the Pointer Sisters and Chaka Khan – the next decade witnessed a precipitous descent into triteness, signalled by 1984 chart-topper I Just Called to Say I Love You. But this soundtrack to Spike Lee’s edgy romance Jungle Fever signalled a late-period rally, reuniting Wonder with Cecil and Margouleff. The elastic funk of the title track and the excellent Queen in the Black were Wonder playing the new jack swing generation at their own game, but Jungle Fever’s peaks were firmly in his own voice: the keening ache of I Go Sailing, the unabashedly emotive These Three Words, and the precious whimsy of If She Breaks Your Heart.
The primer playlist
For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.
The Wild Stevie Wonder, by Ben Fong-Torres
An in-depth 1973 Rolling Stone magazine profile that finds Wonder reminiscing about his early days at Motown, talking on-the-road tensions with the Stones, and discussing his love for synthesiser music.
Stevie Wonder: ‘I never thought of being blind and black as a disadvantage,’ by Paul Lester
Wonder tries out his cockney accent on the Guardian’s Paul Lester, revisits the 1973 car accident that almost ended his life, and muses, “I’m always optimistic – but the world isn’t.”
Stevie Wonder producer Malcolm Cecil breaks down the making of Music of My Mind
Wonder is rarely the most revealing interviewee. This engaging conversation with one half of the team that helped shape his classic period offers perhaps the clearest insight yet behind the scenes of his landmark LPs – and on working with Cecil’s legendary early synthesiser, Tonto (The Original New Timbral Orchestra).