Stevie Wonder

Versions: 'I don't know why' Stevie Wonder (For Once in My Life, Tamla, 1968) Jackson 5, Thelma Houston, plus live performance

Forming a kind of flawless constellation, three points in triangle, that arguably represents the pinnacle of achievement of Black American Music in the 60s/70s: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Thelma Houston.       

This song with its highly complex lyrics, describing an addictive state of desire that makes no sense, was written by a sixteen-year-old Stevie Wonder. There is something so arresting about the music, with its heavy atmosphere of portent – those descending notes and the dramatic build – but what I like best about it is Wonder’s surprising (and idiosyncratic) vocal performance. Before the two-minute mark there is separation between Wonder’s vocal line and the music itself where he breaks away almost, sounding hazy and drugged; you can hear his breathing as it all falls apart and yet the music maintains its forward movement.

You throw my heart down in the dirt
You made me crawl on 
This cold black earth, baby
No I never, I never knew 
How much love could hurt
Until I loved you baby
Till I loved you baby, baby
Oh baby, I can’t stop 
I can’t stop crying can’t you see
Here I’m pleadin’ on my knees
I’m on my knees
Won’t you help me, help me please
Cause I love you, I love you baby
Sure enough, baby, yeah

Here’s a live performance from 1969 from the Hollywood Palace; check out the ever so hip “thank you” at the start, in acknowledgment of the brief applause from the audience (other listeners appreciate his little knowing laugh later on; I like the opening curtain effect behind Stevie that happens for no reason, as he is in front of it, at the start).

Second star in the constellation …

This gem was recorded when Michael Jackson was eleven years old, or maybe 12. There’s not much to write here, as it’s all there the artistry so obvious clear from first listen, the intensity of his delivery all the extremely cute ad-libs/Soul additions, from the opening drama of the, “sure enough baby, baby …” The “darling, darling, darling” and especially the “baby dear” added to the original “You made me crawl on/This cold black earth, baby” is so sweet.

The Jackson 5 released this version on their 1970 ABC album   

The third …

Thelma Houston, as a vocalist, has a lovely quality of restraint, of singing just behind the musical line and never over-stating and exaggerating things for effect. I like the way she sings in such a controlled, but sensual way: there are no playful additions here, no need. But this version is special, surely for the wonderful grace of the musicianship. Listening to this I can’t help but hear the continuum with the past, where current and earlier hip-hop feeds off this heritage. Obvious to say, I know, but listening to this it’s made so explicit the way the various elements play with notions of fusion, similarity and difference.

Other well-known artists have covered the Stevie Wonder classic then and since, including the Rolling Stones in 1969 with this out-of-synch honky tonk version that has certain charm. 

According to Wik

"The Rolling Stones released a 1969 cover of the song in 1975 on their ABKCO outtake album Metamorphosis. It was recorded on 3 July 1969 during the sessions for Let It Bleed, the night that news broke of Brian Jones' death. It was also used as the b-side for their 1975 single." 

Related article: Versions: “Sunny” Bobby Hebb (Sunny, Philips, 1966) 

 

Versions/Live Recordings: 'Sunny' Bobby Hebb (Sunny, Philips, 1966)

Live performance from 1972, with Ron Carter

Written in the 48 hours after a ‘double tragedy’ in 1963 - the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the murder of Hebb’s older brother, Harold who was stabbed to death outside a Nashville nightclub’ (source, Wik), ‘Sunny’ is one of those key touchstone tracks whose success has eclipsed all the other work by songwriter, Bobby Hebb.

Hebb claimed that he wrote the song as an expression of a preference for a 'sunny' disposition over a 'lousy' disposition following the murder of his brother and that his goal with the ‘optimistic’ lyrics was to express the idea that one should always ‘look at the bright side’.

All my intentions were to think of happier times and pay tribute to my brother – basically looking for a brighter day – because times were at a low. After I wrote it, I thought ‘Sunny’ just might be a different approach to what Johnny Bragg – from the Prisonaires -was talking about in ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain.’ 

Though if you listen to the Prisonaires’ track there is little obvious point of connection between the two: ‘Sunny’ appears to be a straight-up love song, while ‘Just Walkin’ is an expression of hopelessness. It was released on Sun Records in 1953, while the group was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville – here is some info on the group that included one member on a 99-year prison sentence. They were given day release to perform across the state and became famous during their time. 

The dark inspiration for the song’s composition – the two murders – and the reference to the imprisoned singers fascinates me, as it disrupts what would arguably be the most common associations with the song, as a ‘simple’ expression of love and feel-good, light-hearted entertainment, aka Boney M groovin' & movin' in sequins. 

Without wanting to over-state this too much, I like to think that this song holds this complexity and depth – as code – within it; you can feel it in the live version above, with Ron Carter, where there is an element of threat, or menace in the way Hebb enunciates and the music builds. You can sense it in the lyrics too that strike me as surprisingly non-specific for a straightforward love song:

‘Sunny
Thank you for the truth you let me see
Sunny
Thank you for the facts from A to Z
My life was torn like wind-blown sand
And a rock was formed when you held my hand (oh, sunny)
Sunny one so true, I love you.

Sunny
Thank you for the smile upon your face
Hmm, sunny
Thank you, thank you for the gleam that shows its grace
You're my spark of nature's fire
You're my sweet complete desire
Sunny one so true, yes, I love you

‘Thank you for the gleam that shows its grace/You're my spark of nature's fire ..’ aside from being wonderfully poetic it sounds far from human, is Hebb encouraging us to think that he is, in fact, referring to something more abstract, without spelling it out in fixed terms. This notion bewitches me a little; pop transcendence, hidden in plain view.    

The raw intensity of the live acoustic performance is missing in the original recorded version that has a sweet self-exposure and vulnerability, in the way it starts and falls away from time to time. Hebb’s 1966 album is really consistent, with some equally impressive songs; see, for example, I am your man and You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until You Lose It

Within the year and soon after, well-known artists were releasing their takes, most notably, Marvin Gaye and this superb version from the Stevie Wonder Live record – bassline paradise forming ...

'Sunny baby yeah ...'

Here’s Ella Fitzgerald/Tom Jones with the Welsh crooner tapping out the beat on a rocking chair, and even more surprisingly the film noir icon Robert Mitchum in 1967 offering his rendition as well. Jazz musicians also got involved in the celebration: notably, this classy and restrained Stanley Turrentine 1966 interpretation, but here is my preferred, as always, the passionate Les McCann exorcising spirits: 

Though the two versions that really strike me come from two non-Anglo women, first the Italian Luisa Casali – again from 1966  and this stunning rendition from Mieko "Miko" Hirota who has been called the "Connie Francis of Japan". Really love what she does here, encapsulating the erotics of the unhinged, while sounding completely committed.  

'All I do is think about you' Tammi Terrell (Tamla, 1966)

With a beat so clean, opening everything up like clicking fingers, while also offering such a sweet contrast with all the swooning effects and Tammi Terrell’s stunning delivery. Her voice is so pure, it could be an instrument right there in the mix, with her playful personality shining through.

Terrell’s phrasing is gorgeous, the way she pauses in unexpected ways to offer emphasis, but in a sense just also drawing our attention back to her gift; ‘trying … to find’ and I love the way she stretches the vowels, it’s highly expressive, but perfectly controlled.

When you hear Stevie Wonder’s 1980 version of the song he wrote as a teenager …

you can see how original Terrell’s singing was. (Stevie Wonder emphasises key words that make sense in terms of the lyrics’ meaning, Terrell emphasises words as if she’s luxuriating over the sounds. Having said that, this version by Stevie Wonder has one of the most extraordinary bass-lines in popular music, truly; the way it trips about, but maintains structure is something to behold. And on Wonder’s version, check out Michael Jackson helping out on backing vocals).

You can also hear how expressive Terrell’s version is when it is compared to that of Brenda Holloway, which appears to have exactly the same backing track and came out the same year, it seems.

Terrell’s individual style is so strong and so dominant in this song, with all those asides, all the ‘oh baby’ or ‘I’m going to tell you boy’. She’s so sweet, as a performer; something that also shines through in the duets with Marvin Gaye. See, for example, their cute, naughty expressions at the start of this famous song.

I love this so much, those first 30 seconds are so pure and beautiful ... it's enough to cheer anyone up on this below-zero, cold winter's day.

'Keep on Running' Stevie Wonder (Music of my mind, Tamla, 1972)

Some gonna get you
Some gonna grab you
Some gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you
Whole lotta folks, you better run faster.

Some gonna grab you
Some gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you
Some gonna grab you
Oh You need this thing to grab you, ha.
Yea, yea

Keep on running
Keep on running from my love
Keep on running, yea
Keep on running from my love

Disco precursor, some say that this almost seven minute sparkle and joy, where Stevie Wonder's exuberance comes to full effect could be taken from the template of the later work of Moroder, but also black echo, and radical reinvention - though there is nothing to suggest that Stevie Wonder did this consciously - of a key track from the 1960s rock canon. 

Whereas the Spencer Davis group tune from 1965 is extremely accessible, comfortably fitting itself into familiar conventions of rhythm and message, Stevie Wonder's track is playful, mercurial and hard to pin down. (There's an entire back story behind the rock version of 'Keep on running' first written and recorded by Jackie Edwards, an artist who played a key role in the invention of ska, first via his recordings for Studio One and then the songs he wrote for artists at Island Records: let's hope he got those royalties).    

'One fine day I'm gonna be the one,' sings the rather stolid teenage Steve Winwood, as he makes his way through the tune, his straight-up delivery set off by the fuzz effects on the guitar. In contrast, Stevie Wonder plays around with ambiguity; starting with the 'some gonna get you' (who is that subject talking there?) and sounds like he's having a ball, smiling at the ruse.

Opening with a 'single repeated pitch in the synthesizer and piano along with unpredictable percussion accentuations,' to use the words of James E Perone, who has written a book on the artist, The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words and Music.  Perone writes that the track is carried along by a 'harder-edged version of keyboard-based funk, particularly because of Wonder's synthesized version of pedal-laden electric rhythm guitar' (that he says marks the influence of other musicians from the era, such as Curtis Mayfield).

'Wonder's dissonant piano links at the end of the stanzas add significantly to the "scary" nature of the song,' Perone writes. But it is this 'scariness' that Perone has problems with, as he writes that while the track 'finds Stevie Wonder expanding his expressive range, (it) also presents him as a bit of an unsympathetic figure' - the problem being what Perone sees to be Wonder taking on a 'macho "superbad" persona' that is like a 'scary ... Superfly-like sex machine'.

The problem with the song is that the lead character is so foreign to anything Wonder had done before (or after for that matter) that it stretches the limits of believability for the listener ... (It is) almost like a song that was written and arranged for another singer.

Perone cites the song's lack of commercial success - it reached no. 36 on the Billboard R&B chart and no. 90 on the Billboard pop charts - and that it was one of Stevie Wonder's worst performing singles as evidence that the audience didn't know what to make of the song,

Now, it's not really my interest to defend or explain or locate Stevie Wonder, as if, but even a cursory look at the lyrics makes it clear that taking such a literal stance is a bit problematic, especially since the (female) backing vocalists have such an important role in the song's structure (and are ones repeating the essential refrain). 

What's interesting for me when listening to the greats of this era and this genre, perhaps, is the way they understood the importance of music as being made up of distinct elements and that their genius came through the way they played around with these elements, allowing some to come forward or recede, or keep them constant. This is where their creativity lies. For this reason I'm not listening to relate to the singer, or what he/she is singing, as this music is not an expression of Stevie Wonder's feelings. It's self-conscious and manufactured, intentionally: the lyrics are not the whole, just another element.  

Other than that my preference is to see the 'some' as intentionally vague; potentially referring to internal/external devils, ready to play havoc and attack your peace of mind, rather than a literal bad guy waiting to take a leap 'from the bushes'. Wonder, too, seems to be encouraging such a perspective ie that the lyrics should not be taken literally: at one point he shifts it to talking about his friend, rather than himself ('Some folks say that you're really, really fine/But all you want to be is just a friend of mine/But I know I'm gonna get you with him - real soon').

Anyway, whatever your take on the lyrics, this track is magic in itself, even the sceptical Perone can't help but recognise this:

Some of the synthesiser links are more showy than what Wonder would later allow himself in his more commercial funk pieces. The piece slows down approximately 4-1/2 minutes into a 6-minute-40 second performance. The subsequent re-crescendo in the repetition of “keep on running, running from my love” chorus sound like what a fine funky soul band might do in a live concert performance, or a studio jam.

And better sound quality, though am not 100 % sure it's the same live performance (or even if Stevie Wonder is playing in the video above ... he seems to be missing just a few musicians). 

It's commonplace for critics to note that Music of my mind marked an important development in Stevie Wonder's career, as a statement of independence (as his first record freed of the shackles of Motown) and musical intent. Penny Valentine in her review for UK magazine, Sounds praised Wonder's arrangement of 'intriguing vocal patterns" on what she deemed "an album of explosive genius and unshackled self-expression.'

Check out this interview between Valentine and Wonder on the album's release, where Stevie Wonder rhapsodises about the Moog synthesiser and how liberated he felt to be doing his own thing. Indeed, the use of synthesiser is key to Wonder's musical development, to quote a more recent Sputnik review: Wonder 'makes a small job of transposing the passion of soul music into a synthesized world, turning his army of electronics into delicate digital emotions.' Here's another assessment, running along the same lines:

What resulted was a cohesive album where the songs fit together well. It was his first album to make the synthesizer the dominant instrument, which resulted in the dramatic use of chord and key changes, which quickly became a consistent part of his style and sound.

And yet another that begins with a quote from the album liner notes ...

The sounds themselves come from inside his mind. The man is his own instrument. The instrument is an orchestra.”
Music of My Mind was also the first to bear the fruits of his increased focus on Moog and Arp synthesizers, though the songs never sound synthetic, due in great part to Stevie’s reliance on a parade of real instruments — organic drum work, harmonica, organs and pianos — as well as his mastery of traditional song structure and his immense musical personality.

 

But to close I like this quote best, from a super-enthusiastic contemporary review from Rolling Stone that captures my own point of view regarding this piece of music four decades on:  

‘Keep On Running’ is a knockout. The cut begins with a kind of ominous tangle of electronic squiggles, piano, nervous cymbal clashes and dark bassy threats as Stevie sings, “Something gonna get you/Something gonna grab you/Something gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you.” After two verses and a few anticipatory beats, the song breaks out in earnest, the beat picks up and Stevie repeats, “Keep on running/Keep on running from my love.” I can’t remember hearing a synthesizer sound so exciting and alive. Later, as the music gets hotter, and Stevie more mock-threatening, a girls’ chorus comes in and all build together on a relentless repetition of “Keep on running, running from my love” that takes up the better part of the song’s more than six minutes. If you can listen to this sitting very still in your chair, something is wrong.