As today is, incredibly, the 70th birthday of STEVIE WONDER – a man who truly deserves the overused title of living legend – it’s only correct to take a moment to celebrate the great man’s mighty songbook. Of course, there’s globe-beating classics of the ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ – ‘I Wish’ – ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ variety that everyone knows and loves (if you don’t – class dismissed and please shut the door on your way out) but there is oh-so-much more.
Take a trip to Wonderland’s less travelled highways and byways with these ten treasures Stevie wrote and generously gave away to his pals…
From the first of two brilliant neglected albums Stevie wrote with the then Mrs Wonder, Syreeta Wright, comes this incredible meditation on racial identity, wrapped in an angel’s kiss from the heavenly soprano herself. Recently championed by the likes of hipsters Common and Solange, it’s as timely now as it was nearly 50 years ago.
A real lost gem that languished in the Motown vaults for decades before quietly emerging on a J5 compilation in 2009, this summery feelgood groover was apparently from an entire Wonder/J5 album mysteriously shelved from reasons unknown. Turned out to be the first of many great collabs with the Jackson clan including Jermaine’s super-fonky ‘Let’s Get Serious’, Michael’s sublime ‘I Can’t Help It’ and LaToya’s dreamy ‘My Love Has Passed You By’.
Quite why this wasn’t a massive hit for the revamped Ross-free Supremes of the early 70s remains lost in a drama of internal feuding and promotional missteps. Regardless, this proto-disco shuffler fuelled by Jean Terrell’s powerhouse lead, remains a sleeper classic and was soon superbly covered by Melissa Manchester and Leon Ware a few years later.
Over 12 minutes of sheer Steveland-magic, Miss Roberta – the Empress of Understated Soul – transforms this into an epic, transcendental trip, replete with ghostly background vocals from the likes of Patti Austin and Niecy Williams.
At a time when US radio’s colour lines were still firmly intact, Wonder’s genius simply rose above it all, to the point where Paul Simon even jokingly quipped that Stevie should stop putting out a record a year so someone else got a chance to win Best Album Grammy. Wonder’s all-embracing humanism won him fans across the board, including adoptive Californian folkster J.T. who cowrote this bittersweet pick-me-up, complete with masterful Wonder harmonica solo.
Bossa nova king Mendes had already amassed heaps of sun kissed jazz-funk Wonder covers on his 70s albums, but the pair finally got to work together on this forgotten genre-busting jewel that brought a balmy Brazilian breeze to Paradise Garage.
Master Q had named one of his albums – ‘You’ve Got It Bad Girl’ – after a Wonder tune as far back as 1973. Stevie returned the compliment by penning this slice of superslick 80s soul purrrfection – laced with gossamer vocals from Patti Austin and tasty bass from Louis Johnson.
8/ THIRD WORLD Try Jah Love (1982)
Wonder’s love affair with Jamaica is well documented through the 70s, from ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’ to performing live with the Wailers in Kingston and culminating with the massive Marley-homage ‘Master Blaster’. ‘Try Jah Love’ with reggae-fusion stalwarts Third World is the natural extension of that – mixing spiritual redemption with relentless groove in a way only Wonder can.
Sir Steveland fans of old knew Byrd from back in the days he co-wrote a couple of tunes on ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’, but nothing could have prepared them from the monumental groove of ‘The Crown’, a 10 minute plus nascent rap funk odyssey setting its sights on nothing less than reclaiming unwritten Afro-heritage.
Simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written, period. Tucked away on Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’ soundtrack, and masterfully sung by long time Wonder back-up singer Keith John with a touch of Donny Hathaway style gravitas. Seek out the late Eva Cassidy’s version if you have a couple of boxes of tissues handy.