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a time 2 love stevie wonder (pt. 2)
why he's still the sunshine of our lives
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)

Publisher's Note: Looking for Part 1? Here you go.

In 1973, Stevie Wonder made an album that changed my life, even though I wouldn’t be born for another four years. Innervisions is not only his best album, but also the one that I tell everyone I would most want to take if I were banished to a deserted island. From the deep confessional funk of “Too High” and “Living for the City” to the ecclesiastical clarity of “Visions” to the celebratory revelation of “Higher Ground” and “Jesus Children of America”, Stevie covers a whole lot of ground in only 44 minutes of music. He won five Grammys that year, including one for Album of the Year.

And to think, it almost ended right there. On the road to a show in North Carolina, Stevie and crew were involved in a car accident that left the 23-year-old in a coma and with a permanent loss of smell. The most stirring story is the oft circulated one in which Stevie’s loved ones stood around his hospital bed singing “Higher Ground” until he awoke. Having escaped death at the pinnacle of his creative powers, Stevie decided to reestablish his relationship with God and his music was all the better for it.

The next year brought Fulfillingness’ First Finale, to me, the forgotten treasure of his mid ‘70s masterworks, one that brought us classics like “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “You Haven’t Done Nothing,” and “Creepin.’” And more Grammys would follow with this album, five more, in fact. His stature within the industry had become so large that, the following year, when Paul Simon won the best album Grammy for Still Crazy After All These Years, he thanked Stevie for not releasing an album that year. But, as usual, Stevie was not on down time, he was using his stature to assemble some 100+ artists for what would be the biggest album of his career, Songs in the Key of Life.

The hits and samples that came from this double album are almost too numerous to name, but here we go: “Sir Duke,” the aforementioned “I Wish,” (reincarnated as the main sample for Will Smith’s “Wild, Wild West”), “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, “Summer Soft”, “Pastime Paradise” (which Coolio has forever ruined for me), “Isn’t She Lovely,” and “As.” The critical and commercial reverence continued for the 26-year-old, culminating in five more Grammys.

So where did he go from there? Where would you go? He was a father then and his marriage to singer Syreeta Wright had long since dissolved. As the decade he had dominated came to a close, Stevie Wonder found himself in a bit of a quandary. Disco had taken over, leaving a lot of truly skilled musicians in far lower demand. The year 1979 had been a difficult one, taking away both his idol, Donny Hathaway (to an apparent suicide) and his friend -- and former background singer -- Minnie Riperton (to breast cancer). In addition, his newest album, the largely instrumental Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, was not only panned by critics, but the movie that it was supposed to serve as the soundtrack for was barely released.

In retrospect, it seems that most of the problems that people had with Journey was that they just didn’t get it. But when one stops to realize that this man actually had the sensitivity to make an entire album about THE FRIGGIN’ WORLD OF PLANTS, the record’s merits become a bit more tangible. So he went back into the studio and emerged with 1980’s Hotter Than July, his last unquestionably great album.

The difference between Stevie’s ‘70s work and his ‘80s work, are, to some degree, the difference between those very decades themselves. In the 1970s, Stevie was at the cutting edge of popular music, introducing a host of synthesizers, bizarre mike placements (the reason the vocals for “Village Ghetto Land” sound so weird is because he was standing between two microphones), and overall sonic permutations. In the 1980s, he began to follow trends, which exposed him to a broader demographic, but left him a far cry from his previous work. I’m not trying to go all High Fidelity on him, but even with the monster hits “Part-Time Lover” and passionately detested “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” heads was easily more into MJ, Prince and the new jack swing sound.

But it’s during the 1980s when Stevie branched out in a direction that surpassed any of the accolades he had previously received. He used his notoriety to focus the spotlight on international causes that deserved more widespread attention. He was arrested for marching against South African apartheid, and eventually helped to lead to its’ overthrow. He also focused far-reaching recognition on the crusade to get Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. his own national holiday. (Because I was in grade school when all this was going on, it’s really hard to conceive that people had -- and still have -- issues with this. Meanwhile, I’m sure Columbus Day went through on the first ballot. But I digress.) You all remember his ghetto fabulous rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Well, as lovely as it sounds when you’re singing it at your cousin Tasha’s 30th birthday party, please recognize that the song’s origins run a little deeper.

The first time I saw him in person was a free memorial concert here in Los Angeles, a few months after Curtis Mayfield died. Lauryn Hill sang that day. Eric Clapton performed and so did The Impressions. But people couldn’t get enough of Stevie. And as I watched his stirring interpretation of Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman,” I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the love I felt in the church building. All of it was being directed towards Stevie, who was doing his best to direct all he could back at us. And there I sat, in the middle of it, wishing that I hadn’t come alone, wishing that I had thought enough to bring a friend to witness this experience.

The second time was in the summer of 2001 in Detroit, where he was a part of another free concert, this one to celebrate the city’s 300th anniversary. Me, my brother, his friend, my niece and 1.6 million other black people made a date with Stevie on a hot July day in Hart Plaza. The latest version of the Temptations were there, so were the Spinners and Take 6, but the buzz in the air made it clear that everyone had come primarily to see Mr. Wonder.

As I left the area, with Stevie’s regal reflection bouncing off the jumbo screen, I was able to stop and reflect what I felt in the air and saw with my own eyes. By that point, he had gone into “All I Do”, quickly transforming the 1.6 million into one. Everyone knew the chorus -- whether they were old black women with sleepy grandkids, drunk, potbellied men in tattered Isiah Thomas jerseys, teenage girls in halter tops, or loving couples locked in a warm embrace -- we were all truly one at that moment. It was then that I realized the true worth of Steveland Morris. That he had more than enough love to share. And then I realized that I had finally done it: I had finally seen the world through his ebony eyes. And that thought alone was enough to carry me home.


Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

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sandra thompson
7.18.05 @ 9:18a

Nobody can ever say enough good stuff about Stevie. Or Ray. Or, for that matter, John Lennon or Frederick Chopin. But I'm prejudiced: I really enjoy good music. Of course, I negate all the above by thinking most music is good. Maybe I just like to tap my foot.....

joe procopio
7.18.05 @ 11:19a

By the way, I'd call his new record sort of a return to roots, but it definitely has a contemporary sound too, one that isn't forced or faked.

Solid, solid effort and one I might even pick up - coming from a guy who doesn't own anything after Key of Life.

tracey kelley
7.18.05 @ 10:47p

We (and by "we" I mean everyone else) don't respect artists of his caliber. No flash = no cash, and that's a shame.

I'd like to pick up the new one, too.

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