Saturday, April 20, 2024

For Once In Your Life

Austin American Statesman 2011

To celebrate Stevie Wonder’s 50th birthday on May 13, 2000, Jody Denberg dedicated his two-hour Sunday night radio show on KGSR to the manchild whose records constantly strived for higher ground.

Any worries that Denberg would have to pad the last half hour of the show with lesser tunes like “Isn’t She Lovely” or cheat with a 9-minute “Superwoman” became an embarrassment when, after an hour and a half of classic soul hits and deep album masterpieces, there were so many more great tracks in the canon. No time for “My Cherie Amour.”

That’s how it will seem the Saturday night at ACL Fest when the air fills with some of the best music America’s ever produced. The best music in big fields of people is the most familiar: just being within earshot of Wonder’s monumental music is to be part of an unblievable celebration. ‘Ye and ‘Play are gonna try to out-gun each other on Friday and Arcade Fire are in the uncontested final slot of the fest, but make no mistake: Stevie Wonder is the headline act at ACL. Doesn’t matter that he hasn’t had a hit since 1985 with “Apartheid Lover.”

You only get so much and Stevie used most of his up in the early ’70s. With the exception of the Beatles rocketing four albums to No. 1 in 1964 and Bob Dylan putting out “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” within a 15-month period during ’65 and ’66, no artist has had a more fertile spurt than Stevie Wonder, whose ’72-’73 output brought the world “Music of My Mind,” “Talking Book” and “Innervisions.” What made Wonder’s accomplishment all the more amazing is that he served as producer and played nearly every instrument. At ages 21 and 22.

No one’s ever played and sang with more instinct. During his heyday, Wonder made music as if he was painting the sounds in his head.

Cover bands and oldies stations have kept alive tunes like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”  and “Superstition” from “Talking Book,” and “Living For the City,” “Golden Lady,” “Higher Ground” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” from “Innervisions.” But the true revelations can be found on “Music of My Mind,” the first synthesizer-driven LP masterpiece, and such forgotten later tracks as “Maybe Your Baby,” “Please Don’t Go” and “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away.” His lyrics were usually simple to the point of being almost childish on the written page, but there’s poetry in the notes and true meaning in the voice.

“You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” so simple, so direct, was a wedding classic when it was still in Wonder’s mind. That’s why he had a rather common male and a female sing the first two lines before he took over. How smart was that?

Stevie has had the shining, plain and simple. He’s possessed by some higher power, which is why he can’t control his head when he sings. In his darkness he’s invisible. He becomes the instrument. He becomes the soul. His voice goes unimpeded through the universe as far as he knows.

Steveland Morris, who grew up in Detroit and helped establish the Motown empire, was labeled for life on his first album “Little Stevie Wonder: The 12-Year-Old Genius” in 1963. As a teen-ager, he had a distinctive string of hits including “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “A Place in the Sun,” “I Was Made To Love Her,” “For Once In My Life” and “My Cherie Amour.”

When he reached 21, Stevie was shortchanged on money being held in trust, receiving only $1 million, even though he’d earned an estimated $30 million for Motown. But he settled for the fraction and in return was given complete artistic control over his recording projects.

Thus began an amazing period of creativity that almost came to a sudden halt on Aug. 6, 1973. After a truck accidentally launched a log through the front window of a car in which Stevie was riding, the singer spent nearly a week in a coma. He recovered, and less than a year later released “Fullfillingness’ First Finale” (whatever that means), with the hits “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” Not quite as good as the previous three albums, but still better than anything else on the R&B side.

The techno/ dance/ hip-hop explosion has made many old R&B icons obsolete except for their basslines and yelps, which are prime sample material. But listen to vintage Stevie Wonder — really listen to those sounds — and you’ll realize that there is no one today making more interesting music.


3 thoughts on “For Once In Your Life

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *