What I’ve Been Listening To: Stevie Wonder/Talking Book

Stevie Wonder’s 15th studio album is one of the many gems in his incredible catalog.

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When it comes to an artist like Stevie Wonder, who has written, produced and released so much amazing music throughout a 50-year-plus career, it’s hard to decide which album to highlight. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons I picked Talking Book is Superstition, one of my all-time favorite tunes.

Various things amaze me about Wonder’s 15th studio album, which was released in Oct 1972. Even though he was only 22 years when he recorded it, Wonder already had a 10-year recording career under his belt. He also took the bold step to abandon the Motown template of radio-friendly songs that had brought him fame. As reported in this excellent NPR segment from 2000, Wonder called Talking Book a turning point, “his first real growth as a boy becoming a man…making all of the artistic decisions himself and relying less on Motown head Berry Gordy for direction.”

But Gordy did convince Wonder to record one song himself, instead of giving it to his friend Jeff Beck: Superstition. And when you hear the tune’s intro, it’s not hard to see why Wonder had Beck in mind – it sounds very much like a guitar riff. In fact, I initially thought it was an electric guitar altered with some sound effect. Instead, Wonder used a Clavinet, an electrically amplified clavichord, and created a cool sound nobody had ever heard before.

Stevie Wonder_Talking Book Vinyl Side 2

Superstition came to Wonder while touring with The Rolling Stones. “The first thing that I put down were the drums and then after that I put the Clavinet down, and really, I just starting singing the melody,” he told NPR. “I think that the reason that I talked about being superstitious is because I really didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe in the different things that people say about breaking glasses or the number 13 is bad luck, and all those various things. And to those, I said, ‘When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer.'”

Wonder’s drums and the Clavinet, together with the tenor saxophone and trumpet parts played by Trevor Laurence and Steve Madaio, respectively, give Superstition a killer funk groove that immediately invites you to move. The tune, which became the album’s lead single, hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973, and climbed to no. 11 in the UK in Feb that year. In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked it 73 in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Stevie Wonder_Talking Book Vinyl Side 1

Another standout on the album is the opener, You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Wonder’s Fender Rhoades electric piano and the congas played by Daniel Ben Zebulon give this beautiful mid-tempo ballad a very relaxed feel. Wonder gets some support on vocals from singers Jim Gilstrap, Lani Groves and Gloria Barley. The tune became the second single from the album and Wonder’s third no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. In March 1974, it also won Wonder the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

For the most part, the lyrics on Talking Book deal with love and heartbreak. A notable exception is Big Brother, where Wonder follows contemporary artists like Marvin Gave, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown with socially conscious lyrics – an approach he would further embrace on his next studio album Innervisions with songs like Too High and Living For the City. An excerpt: Your name is big brother/You say that you’re watching me on the tele/Seeing me go nowhere/Your name is big brother/You say that you’re tired of me protesting/Children die everyday/My name is nobody/But I can’t wait to see your face inside my door ooh…The song is also notable for Wonder’s use of a Moog bass synthesizer and a drum from West Africa – another testament to his fascination with new sounds.

Stevie Wonder

“I felt that the Moog synthesizer enabled me to reshape the oscillator, having control of the ataxias and sustained release,” Wonder explained to NPR. “I was able to really create various sounds, bass sounds and was able to bend notes the way that I heard them being bent, create different sounds of horns, string sounds and string lines and really arrange them in the way that I felt I wanted them to sound.”

Talking Book was produced by Wonder with some help from Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, with whom he had also worked on his preceding album Music of My Mind. A multi-instrumentalist, Wonder played most of the instruments himself, including drums, Fender Rhoades, Clavinet, Moog bass synthesizer, TONTO synthesizer and harmonica. Notable guest musicians included Beck (electric guitar), Buzz Feiten (electric guitar), Ray Parker Jr. (electric guitar) and David Sanborn (alto saxophone).

The album has been well received by music critics. A Rolling Stone review by Vince Aletti called it, “an exceptional, exciting album, the work of a now quite matured genius and, with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (an answer album?) and Wonder’s own Music of My Mind, one of the most impressive recent records from a black popular performer.” AllMusic’s John Bush characterized the album as “a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances.”

Here is a clip of a fantastic live performance of Superstition.

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, Rolling Stone, AllMusic, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye’s seminal 1971 album transformed him from Motown’s most successful pop artist to a social singer.

The clip of Marvin Gaye performing What’s Going On, which I posted on the blog last night, reminded me of his seminal record from 1971. The concept album, which pushed the envelope at the time with lyrics that remain eerily relevant to this day, is one of my favorite records from one of my favorite soul artists. Not only was it broadly acclaimed, it also became Gaye’s and Motown’s most successful record at the time, selling more than two million copies by the end of 1972.

In the spring of 1970, Gaye was in a deep depression. Singer Tammi Terrell, his duet partner on songs like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Your Precious Love and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, had passed away from brain cancer at the age of 24. His marriage with Anna Gordy, an older sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, was failing. And Gaye’s younger brother, Frances “Frankie” Gaye, had returned from Vietnam, sharing with Marvin the horrors of war he had seen firsthand.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

Then Obie Benson from The Four Tops handed Gaye a protest song, What’s Going On, after his band and Joan Baez had passed on it. The tune had been inspired by police brutality against young anti-war protesters in Berkeley, Calif., which Benson had witnessed during a tour with his band. Gaye liked the song and initially had in mind to record it with Motown quartet The Originals. But Benson insisted that Gaye sing the song himself. It would prove to be the channel Gaye needed to express what was going through his mind and plant the seed for an entire album.

When Berry Gordy heard the tune for the first time, he reportedly called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” He was concerned the song was too political and would not sell. But Gaye didn’t take no for an answer and refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy would change his mind. With the support of Motown executive Harry Balk and company sales executive Barney Ales, the song was released without Gordy’s knowledge.

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary

What’s Going On became an overnight sensation and Motown’s fastest-selling single at the time. Only during the first week, more than 100,000 copies were flying off the shelves. The song also climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Pop Chart and hit no. 1 on the R&B Chart. A stunned Gordy told Gaye he could record whatever music he wanted, as long as he’d finish an album within 30 days. Gaye did not need any further prompting and returned to the studio.

In only 10 days, between March 1 and March 10, 1971, Gaye recorded eight additional tracks for what would become a concept album. Kicking off with the title track, most songs lead into the next and have a similar laid back groove that is in marked contrast to the lyrics. Gaye covered a broad range of “heavy” topics, such as social unrest (What’s Going On), disillusioned Vietnam war veterans (What’s Happening Brother) – a song about his brother Frankie; environmental degradation (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)); and the bleak socioeconomic situation of inner-city America (Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)). The aforementioned songs are also the album’s musical highlights, in my opinion.

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary 2

Reflecting on What’s Going On, Gaye told Rolling Stone, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Gaye dedicated the album to Marvin Gaye Sr., his strict father and a baptist minister, who had introduced him to singing through church music but also abused him as a child. Throughout his life, Marvin would seek his father’s approval, but whatever he did wasn’t good enough. During an excellent PBS documentary Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On, Motown road manager Joe Schaffner explained: “Marvin went to buy his dad a Cadillac. He would send him all kinds of gifts…His father would accept them…But he would never come to grips and say, ‘thank you,’ or smile, or none of that!” Instead, he would tragically become the man who would shoot Marvin to death during a physical argument on April 1, 1984.

Photo of Marvin GAYE

What’s Going On was Gaye’s first record to hit the top 10 on the Billboard Top LPs. It climbed to no. 6 and stayed on the chart for almost one year. The album also became Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling record until his 1973 release Let’s Get It On. The album was broadly hailed by music critics. It also received numerous accolades, including best album of all time, as voted by writers on British music weekly NME, and a no. 6 ranking on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It was also one of 50 recordings selected by the Library of Congress that same year to be added to the National Recording Registry.

As first reported by Variety in July 2016, another film documentary about Gaye and the making of What’s Going On was planned by Noah Media Group and Greenlight. Production was slated to begin later in the year. Marvin, What’s Going On? was to include contributions from Gaye’s ex-wife Janis Gaye and his children Nona, Marvin III and Frankie Gaye – the first time his family supported such a project. Since I haven’t seen any other reports, I assume the film has not appeared yet.

Here’s a nice collage clip of Mercy Mercy Me.

Sources: Wikipedia; “Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On” (PBS “American Masters” documentary, May 2008; Performing Songwriter Be Heard; Rolling Stone; Variety; YouTube