LegenDARy Music: Stevie Wonder's Up-Tight and Talking Book

By Speed on the Beat (@SpeedontheBeat)

When we think Stevie Wonder, many tend to have the image of "We Are The World" Stevie stuck in their heads. It's because it's one of the most-prominent images we have of the legend. But, how did we get there? What was the turning point for Stevie Wonder to mature past being a "young Ray Charles imitator" into the musical mastermind we know and love today? I'd like to think it began with 1966's Up-Tight

For starters, the album literally discards the "Little Stevie Wonder" nickname audiences'd came to know. But, when the album starts up, you already hear something's different this time around. The intro track, "Love A Go Go," has less of the "we don't know how to market this kid" vibe and more of what we've come to accept from Stevie. Great songwriting, beautiful, fleshed-out instrumentation (with backing from The Funk Brothers), and a maturing voice that could do so much more than just mimic Ray. This ain't no Stevie at the Beach (seriously, Motown? What were you thinking?!), that's for sure. The title track combines Wonder's ability to just jam out with his ability to use his vocals to tell a story, even in a poppy song such as this. 

Wonder gets to show his chops even more with a Motown-flavored cover of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." While I still prefer Dylan's version, this is a friggin' beautiful cover. Its simplistic backing combined with Wonder's powerful vocals (and a guest spot from Clarence Paul) make for a great introduction to Dylan's music from a 60's R&B/Soul perspective. Meanwhile, songs like "With a Child's Heart," "I Want My Baby Back," and others, we're given more of the maturity-beyond-his-years that Wonder's known for, even today at 65.

But, as great as this album is, there's still something missing. Can you guess what it is? If you look at the credits for the album, Wonder's not there as much. So, the album sounds great, it's a nice album. It accomplishes its point to re-introduce Stevie...but it's still not fully Stevie. Heck, you could've easily swapped out Stevie's vocals and had the songs sung by, for instance, Marvin Gaye and it would've been just as good. 

That's, obviously, no dig on Marvin's legacy. It's just saying that some early Motown productions can feel, well, interchangeable (doubly for Marvin and Stevie, as their early careers took similar turns). It wasn't until 1972 when we got that so-called "Classic Stevie." So, now that we've looked at the stepping stones into making Little Stevie into Stevie, let's dive face-first into the legendary Talking Book, the album that took Stevie Wonder to heights unparalleled.

"You Are The Sunshine of My Life." Wow. There's nothing I can say on this one without sounding like I'm parroting someone else. However, it's a beautiful composition. It's so full. The lyrics, even 44 years later, feel fresh and less "sign-of-the-times" than others from this era. That's even after hearing this song covered ad nauseum on shows such as American Idol. Songs like "Maybe Your Baby" are funky, but they don't become limited by their funk. The relateable nature of the lyrics, and the jazz rock-esque vibes keep you into the song when Wonder and company decide to just let the instruments talk for them.

My God! Even though the aforementioned "Maybe Your Baby" clocks in just under seven minutes, you don't mind it, as the song continues to evolve throughout the fade-out and blends so well into the less funktified "You and I," acting as an edgy yin/subdued yang balance (possible adultery and love lost leading into the discovery of new love and the acceptance of that new love as being true)...only to be thrown through a loop again on "Tuesday Heartbreak."

This is a track that's just as funky and vibe-friendly as it is melancholy. It almost plays as a part two to "You and I." If you want to talk "music," and the composition of a classic, be sure you know your way around Talking Book. As a disclosure, it's my favorite Stevie album. But, even without that bias, the album is amazing and gives you a full gamut of emotions and sounds.

And, of course, you can't talk Talking Book without talking the definitive track "Superstition."

I could bore you with stats and facts on this track, acting as your own personal Wikipedia: SOTB Edition. But, that's no fun. Well, that, and Stevie doesn't deserve just a simple "this track is known for its definitive use of the Hohner clavinet model C." The song is a combination of an ethics lesson mixed with sex on wax.

It's funky, reassuring, educational without being caught up in being preachy...and the way it blends into "Big Brother" is nothing short of genius--from the almost "remix" of "Superstition" on "Brother" to the lyrical transition from discussing old wives' tales to real-life boogeypeople. Both of these tracks' lyrical warnings are disguised, in a way, through the instrumentation Wonder and company employ on them. Play these tracks back-to-back, the way that Stevie and his producers most likely intended.

What makes Talking Box so beautiful and legendary is its mix of "real life" and dreamy subjects and its discussion of both in realistic terms. The instrumentation may sound out-of-this-world, but the topics discussed? Lessons for this life and the next are included throughout the project. On top of its life lessons, the album is a great mix of love and tragedy, while still finding the beauty in darker topics such as lost love and government conspiracy, such as "Blame It On The Sun." It's a hurt-filled song, but it's so damn beautiful. The first time I heard it, it was in the late 90s. I was still a kid, supposedly unable to truly "understand" Stevie and his complexities.

The song had me bawling, both from being able to comprehend Wonder's sadness and the beauty within that sadness. That's another element of Wonder's greatness. From 8 to 80, you can find something that brings up some high level of emotion in his music. Be it elation from hearing the "Happy Birthday" B'more club mix, the melancholic triumph of Wonder's harmonica on Drake's "Doing It Wrong," the entirety of Talking Book, or somewhere in between, there's something for everyone to love and hold as great.

I don't think it's possible to overrate Wonder. And through this, I feel that these two albums are definitive and, in some ways, underrated in their place in music history. Do yourselves a favor, if you haven't already. Check them out and keep, at the very least, Talking Book on repeat every once in a while. Your mind, body, and soul will thank you for it.

Until next time.


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