Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book Turns 50

On October 27, 1972, Stevie Wonder released his 15th studio album Talking Book. While I missed the actual anniversary date, I did not want to skip this milestone. Not only does Talking Book represent a gem in Wonder’s long music catalog and marked the beginning of his “classic period”, but it also was an artistic turning point. This post borrows from a previous review of the album I published in May 2017.

Even though Stevie Wonder was only 22 years when he recorded Talking Book, he already had a 10-year recording career under his belt. Remarkably, he 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, the album proved his independence as an artist, 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.

The sound of Talking Book was largely shaped by Wonder’s keyboard work, especially his use of synthesizers. “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.”

A multi-instrumentalist, Wonder played most of the instruments himself, including drums, Fender Rhoades; Clavinet; Moog bass synthesizer; T.O.N.T.O., a massive multi-module synthesizer, and harmonica. Notable guest musicians included Jeff Beck (electric guitar), Buzz Feiten (electric guitar), Ray Parker Jr. (electric guitar) and David Sanborn (alto saxophone).

For the most part, the lyrics on Talking Book deal with love and heartbreak. A notable exception is Big Brother, where Wonder followed contemporary artists like Marvin GaveCurtis 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.

Let’s get to some music with the beautiful opener of side one (speaking in vinyl terms), 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 got some support on vocals from singers Jim GilstrapLani Groves and Gloria Barley. The tune became the album’s second single and Wonder’s third no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In March 1974, it also won him the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

Next up is You and I (We Can Conquer the World), another love song. In addition to singing lead vocals, Wonder played all instruments, including piano, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer and Moog bass. The tune has been covered by multiple other artists, such as Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker and Macy Gray. According to Songfacts, it also holds the distinction of having served as the wedding song for former U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who are both huge Stevie Wonder fans.

Side two of Talking Book starts off with what became Wonder’s second U.S. no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a signature tune: Superstition. That said, the album’s lead single ruffled some feathers. Jeff Beck who participated in the recording sessions for Talking Book came up with the opening drum beat. Wonder improvised the guitar-like riff, playing a Hohner Clavinet. They created a rough demo of the tune with the idea that Beck would record the song for his next album. However, by the time Beck did so, Wonder had recorded the tune for Talking Book, and at the insistence of Berry Gordy who saw a hit, it had been released as a single. In addition to Wonder (lead vocals, Clavinet, drums, Moog bass), the recording featured Trevor Lawrence (tenor saxophone) and Steve Madaio (trumpet). Apparently, Beck wasn’t happy and made some comments to the press Wonder didn’t appreciate. Eventually, he released his version of  Superstition on his 1973 eponymous debut album with Beck, Bogert & Appice.

Here is the above-mentioned Big Brother. It’s another tune entirely performed by Wonder (lead vocals, Clavinet, drums/percussion, harmonica, Moog bass). An excerpt from the lyrics: …Your name is big brother/You say that you got me all in your notebook/Writing it down everyday/Your name is I’ll see ya’ (Your name is I’ll see ya’)/I’ll change if you vote me in as the Pres’/ President of your soul/I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time…

The last track I’d like to call out is I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever), one of two tunes on Talking Book Wonder co-wrote with Yvonne Wright, a frequent collaborator for various of his other ’70s albums. Once again, it was solely performed by Wonder who in addition to singing lead and background vocals played piano, Clavinet, drums and Moog bass. The tune has been covered by Art Garfunkel, George Michael and British female vocal duo E’voke, among others.

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. Following is a Spotify link to the album.

Talking Book became a major chart success, especially in the U.S. where it climbed to no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and was Wonder’s first album to top the R&B chart. Elsewhere, it reached no. 12 in Canada, no. 16 in the UK, no. 24 in Norway and no. 34 in Australia. The record was also well-received by critics. In a review at the time, Rolling Stone’s 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.”

In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Talking Book at no. 90 in its list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the most recent 2020 revision, it moved up to no. 59. The album was also voted no. 322 in the third edition of Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums, published in 2000.

Sources: Wikipedia; NPR; Songfacts; Rolling Stone, AllMusic; YouTube; Spotify

Advertisement

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

It’s Sunday morning and time again to embark on another eclectic music mini-journey. Somehow it doesn’t feel a week has gone by since the last published installment of The Sunday Six, but the calendar doesn’t lie. This time, my picks include some saxophone-driven jazz, rock, funk and country, touching the 1950s, ’70s, ’80s and 2021. I actually skipped one of my favorite decades, the ’60s, which is a rare occurrence!

Sonny Rollins/St. Thomas

This time, I’d like to start with some saxophone jazz by Sonny Rollins. I first featured the American tenor saxophonist, who is very influential in the jazz world, earlier this year in this Sunday Six installment from March. Over an incredible 70-year-plus career, Rollins has recorded more than 60 albums as a leader and appeared on many additional records as a sideman. He has played with the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach and Modern Jazz Quartet. St. Thomas is the lead track off his breakthrough album Saxophone Colossus from 1957. The title of his sixth record became Rollins’ nickname. Credited to Rollins, St. Thomas is based on a nursery song his mother sang to him when he was a child. On the recording, he was joined by Tommy Flanagan (piano), Doug Watkins (bass) and Max Roach (drums). Earlier this month, Rollins turned 91.

Dave Mason/Let It Go, Let It Flow

Dave Mason had been a familiar name to me in connection with Traffic, the English rock band he founded together with Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood in April 1967. Over the course of his 50-year-plus career, Mason also played and recorded with many other artists, such as Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and Leon Russell. Between 1993 and 1995, Mason was a member of Fleetwood Mac and appeared on their 16th studio album Time from October 1995. In addition to that, he launched a solo career in 1970 and has released 15 albums to date. Let It Go, Let It Flow, written by Mason, is from his seventh solo record Let It Flow that appeared in April 1977. This is a catchy tune – I love the singing and the harmony guitar action, as well as the organ (Mike Finnegan) and bass work (Gerald Johnson). Let It Go, Let It Flow also was released separately as a single and reached no. 45 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100.

Cold Chisel/When the War is Over

A recent post by Robert Horvat from Rearview Mirror about Cold Chisel reminded me of When the War is Over, another song by the Australian rock band. Not only do I love this tune, especially the vocals, but it also brings back memories of my years as a bassist in a band when I was in my early ’20s. In addition to originals written by the group’s leader, we also did some covers. And, yes, this included When the War is Over, a track from Cold Chisel’s fourth studio album Circus Animals that came out in March 1982. Written by the band’s drummer and backing vocalist Steve Prestwich, When the War is Over also became the album’s third single in July 1982, climbing to no. 25 on the Australian charts. The song has been covered by various other artists, including Little River Band and Scenic Drive. ‘Who the hell is Scenic Drive?’ you might wonder. Hint: A German band that focused on West Coast-oriented pop rock and existed between 1987 and 1989.

Stevie Wonder/Superstition

After a beautiful rock ballad, it’s time for something more groovy, something funky. Superstition by Stevie Wonder was the first track that came to my mind in this context. One of my all-time favorite tunes by Wonder, Superstition became the lead single of his 15th studio album Talking Book from October 1972. It also yielded his first no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since Fingertips – Part 2 from 1963 when he was still known as Little Stevie Wonder. Jeff Beck who participated in the recording sessions for Talking Book came up with the opening drum beat. Wonder improvised the guitar-like riff, playing a Hohner clavinet. They created a rough demo of the tune with the idea that Beck would record the song for his next album. However, by the time Beck did so, Wonder had recorded the tune for Talking Book, and at the insistence of Berry Gordy who saw a hit, it had been released as a single. Apparently, Beck wasn’t happy and made some comments to the press Wonder didn’t appreciate. Eventually, Beck released his version of Superstition on his 1973 eponymous debut album with Beck, Bogert & Appice.

Scott Hirsch/Dreamer

For this next pick, let’s jump to the present and beautiful music from a forthcoming album by producer and singer-songwriter Scott Hirsch. From his Facebook page: You’ve heard the sound of Scott Hirsch. You might not know it, but his audio production has lurked deep in the cut of many admired recordings from the late 1990s to the present. A founding member of Hiss Golden Messenger, he was integral to the band’s formative years in the studio and on the road. His sonic imprint remains on their productions; most recently mixing the forthcoming album Quietly Blowing It. He recorded and mixed a Grammy nominated record by the legendary folk-singer Alice Gerrard and has produced and played on records by William Tyler, Mikael Jorgensen, Orpheo McCord and Daniel Rossen. I’m completely new to Hirsch who released his solo debut Blue Rider Songs in 2016. Dreamer, which features folk and alt. country singer-songwriter Kelly McFarling, is a mellow country-oriented tune from Hirsch’s upcoming third solo album Windless Day scheduled for October 8. He released the tune upfront on August 13.

The Robbin Thompson Band/Brite Eyes

And once again, it’s time to wrap up this latest music zig-zag excursion. Let’s pick up the speed with a great tune by Robbin Thompson. Thompson was a member of Steel Mill, an early Bruce Springsteen band that existed from November 1969 to January 1971 and included three members of the future E Street Band: Vini Lopez, Danny Federici and Steve Van Zandt. Thompson also worked with Timothy B. Schmit, Phil Vassar, Butch Taylor and Carter Beauford. Between 1976 and 2013, he recorded a series of albums that appeared under his and other names. Thompson passed away from cancer in 2015 at the age of 66. Here’s Brite Eyes, a track from Two B’s Please, an album released in 1980 by The Robbin Thompson Band. The seductive rocker also became a single and a minor national hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 66 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s got a bit of a Jackson Browne flair, while the harmony singing is reminiscent of America. Also, check out that great bassline – what an awesome tune!

Sources: Wikipedia; Scott Hirsch Facebook page; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: January 27

I know there is a certain degree of arbitrariness to look at happenings throughout rock music history on a specific date. But even as I’m putting together this 28th installment of the recurrent feature, I’m still intrigued with it. I guess in theory this leaves me with 337 remaining dates to explore – but one step, or perhaps I should say date, at a time!

1956: Heartbreak Hotel, one of the coolest tunes by Elvis Presley, was released as the first single on his new record label RCA Victor. Credited to him, Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden, the track climbed to no. 1 on Billboard’s Top 100, Cashbox Top Singles Chart and the Country and Western Chart. It became Presley’s first million-seller and one of the most commercially successful singles of the year. I always loved the double bass and the guitar solo in that tune. Here is a nice clip.

1964: The Beatles, or “Les Beatles” as they were called in France, played their 11th date at the Olympia Theatre in Paris as part of a residency in the French capital at the time. According to The Beatles Bible, the set list included eight tunes: From Me To You, Roll Over Beethoven, She Loves You, This Boy, Boys, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Twist And Shout and Long Tall Sally. Here’s a somewhat choppy clip with excerpts from The Beatles shows on January 16, 17 and 24, 1964, mostly featuring Roll Over Beethoven, I Saw Her Standing There and Boys. But, hey, it’s remarkable this footage is available on YouTube in the first place, so I’ll take it.

1971: David Bowie visited the U.S. for the first time. While he wasn’t allowed to perform due to work permit restrictions, his record label had urged him to go there on a publicity tour to support his latest album The Man Who Sold The World, which had come out in November 1970. But not all of America was ready for the androgynous image Bowie was cultivating at the time and the dress he was wearing. A post on Live For Live Music quotes him as recalling, “In Texas, one guy pulled a gun and called me a fag. But I thought the dress looked beautiful.” Sadly, one could picture the same scene these days.

David Bowie In Dress

1973: Superstition, one of the defining songs by Stevie Wonder, hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by him, it was the lead single from Talking Book, his 15th studio album released in October 1972. It also topped the soul singles chart and became his first no. 1 single since Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours in August 1970. The tune’s signature funky riff was played by Wonder on a Hohner Clavinet C. Jeff Beck, a great admirer of Wonder, came up with the cool opening drum beat.

Sources: This Day In Music.com, This Day In Rock, Songfacts Music History Calendar, The Beatles Bible, Live For Live Music, Wikipedia, YouTube