Between 1972 and 1976, a young Stevie Wonder recorded five albums that would leave their mark on the history of Motown, as well as on the entire world of pop and soul music: A musical and technological nirvana that is still just as influential today.

He said it himself: “Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes, doesn’t mean he lacks vision”. Stevland Hardaway Judkins - a.k.a. Stevie Wonder - had that vision between 1972 and 1976. During this short period he went from a young pop star to a revolutionary melodist and producer. In 1972, Little Stevie was only 22 years old but already had an impressive career under his belt. The musician, who has been blind since birth, had already proved to his fans that he knew how to do everything. Really, everything! It had been that way since he was 10 years old, when Ronnie White from Smokey Robinson’s Miracles introduced him to Motown’s charismatic boss, Berry Gordy. His first hit came three years later (Fingertips, Pt.2) and it was apparent that the child star was a born hard-worker. However, he was imprisoned in a very restrictive contract that was drawn up by a cash drawer-obsessed Gordy. Stevie was the Motown boss’ circus freak, accumulating gold discs thanks to his masterful mix of soul, R&B and pop.

Stevie would have to wait until 1970 for his first self-produced project with Signed, Sealed and Delivered, a record that was rooted in rhythm’n’blues. On the day of his 21st birthday (May 13th, 1971), Little Stevie from Saginaw, Michegan, took back his artistic freedom and brought Berry Gordy the music he (Stevie) had always dreamed of. Becoming more socially and politically engaged, as well as being at the forefront of the latest musical technologies, the new Stevie Wonder recorded five essential albums, slaloming between soul, funk, rock, R&B and pop with wonderful originality: Music of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976).

Supported by Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, two inseparable sound engineers from this fruitful period, Stevie Wonder explored the functions of all the synthesisers that were fashionable at the time (Moog, Arp, Clavinet) as well as the different recording, overdubbing and re-recording techniques. This exceptional multi-instrumentalist, who was just as at ease with the piano as he was with the drums and harmonica, was impressed by the musical and ideological concepts coming from the Sly Stone Family and would play Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On on loop, an album that was released in 1971 and brought Motown into its adulthood. With Music of My Mind, which was released on March 3rd, 1972, Stevie Wonder offered up his own musical and ideological vision of a period in which America was bogged down with Vietnam and ghettos were multiplying in the big cities. He was in total control on this new record and is practically the only performer on the album. Despite not being a concept album, Music of My Mind was thought of as an entity, like a novel with various chapters. For the first time, Stevie tackled adult topics, confronting the political, the social and the spiritual. It was a maturity that he coupled with technological experimentations linked to his meetings with Margouleff and Cecil. The mutation was praised by fans and critics alike, but the album had mixed success… His label was going through some radical changes: Motown left its historical stronghold to move to the Mecca of entertainment, Los Angeles. Thirsty for independence, Stevie spent most of his time in New York, a buzzing playground that he thought was much more creative.

Stevie Wonder ~ Superstition


Only seven months later, he recorded his fifteenth album with Talking Book, which came out on October 28th, 1972. Much like a certain Paul McCartney, the American was obsessed with melody. His compositions were thought up vocally. That’s not to say that instrumentation was insignificant, it’s just that he believed the melody should be able to hold with the strength of a simple voice. We see this with the hit You Are the Sunshine of My Life, on which he vocally jousts with Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves. His fascination with the machines that he discovered with Margouleff and Cecil became even more noticeable on Talking Book. On "Maybe Your Baby" and especially with his masterpiece "Superstition" TONTO breaks down the genre's code. What’s TONTO? The five letters hide a huge orchestra of synthesizers designed by the two sound engineers. It’s an acronym of The Original New Timbral Orchestra, and mixes the Moog, SEM from Oberheim, ARP 2600 and Clavinet by Hohner with other machines made by Roland and Yamaha. Boosted by this polyphonic keyboard, the sweet pop and percussive funk compositions sent sparks flying.

Composing without a break, Stevie Wonder managed to surpass what many people thought would be his ultimate masterpiece. At just 23 years old, he poured everything into the ground-breaking album Innervisions which was released on August 3rd, 1973: his struggles, his phobias, his passions… Playing all the instruments (even though some guests such as Jeff Beck, Ray Parker Jr., David Sanborn and Buzz Feiten make an appearance) and covering topics such as drugs, ghettos, spirituality, politics, racism and obviously love with a capital L, the genius from Michigan achieved the ultimate fusion of soul, rhythm’n’blues, funk and pop. The sounds of the synth, which were completely new at the time, were mixed into spiritual soul and took on some pretty crazy melodies. With Innervisions, America found the perfect soundtrack for its most troubling times, for example the track "Living for The City" where Stevie evokes the nightmares of a young Black man from Mississippi who moves to New York in search of a job that he’ll never get before ending up behind bars (to make the 7-minute composition even more realistic, he integrates the sounds of the street, siren noises and dialogue from the arrest). There’s also "He’s Misstra Know-It-All", a poorly disguised attack on the president at the time, Richard Nixon. The album was a perfect complement to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On from two years earlier: goodbye all things trivial, hello the broken American Dream! This was also a very personal moment for Stevie Wonder. He engraved braille onto the original album cover of Innervisions, which read “This is my music. It’s everything I have to say to you and everything that I feel. Know that your love helps mine to stay strong.”

Only three days after the release of the masterpiece, Stevie Wonder had a near death experience. On August 6th, while on tour in North Carolina, the car in which he was riding hit the back of a 38-ton truck. He spent several days in a coma and remained in hospital for a long period before finally getting back on stage at the beginning of 1974. On July 22nd he released Fulfillingness' First Finale which placed him at the top of the charts, mostly thanks to the two singles"Boogie on Reggae Woman" and "You Haven’t Done Nothin’", another anti-Nixon song with the Jackson 5 in the choir. Often considered as the weakest album from this period, Fulfillingness’ First Finale does contain a few beautiful songs about human relationships such as Please Don’t Go and Too Shy to Say.

A long break then began before Stevie Wonder sealed off the golden period with Songs in the Key of Life, which was released on September 28th, 1976. After Fulfillingness’ First Finale his status as a star didn’t stop him from being increasingly repulsed by government policy. He even talked about emigrating to Ghana to care for disabled children, and rumour had it that there was a farewell concert in the pipeline. But on August 5th, 1975, he signed a mind-blowing 37-million-dollar contract with Motown and decided to create a complete work. Shutting himself away for two years, he reached a new pinnacle of black soul and white pop fusion with this double album (accompanied by an EP). Recorded in the Crystal Sound and Record Plant studios in Hollywood and the Hit Factory in New York, and involving more than 130 musicians and technicians, Songs in the Key of Life was conceived without Margouleff and Cecil. The tandem had jumped ship during the last sequences of Fulfillingness’ First Finale, exhausted and annoyed by the star's noisy studio environment.

Stevie Wonder - Innervisions - Promo - In Studio Performance + Interview 1973

Pop Muziq

At the heart of a genre that he alone had created, Stevie Wonder unfurled his unique poetry. Songs in the Key of Life is full of harmonies from start to finish. These songs displayed his sophisticated songwriting, uniting genres such as soul, funk, reggae, jazz (overtly paying tribute to Ellington on the aptly named "Sir Duke"), rock or even classical. We find instrumental experimentation and a wide array of topics, from light songs to bitter sentiments ("All Day Sucker") and more serious subjects ("Black Man", "Village Ghetto Land"). It’s a rainbow of flavours, a symphony of eclectic hits that later lent themselves to numerous rappers (in 1995, Coolio transformed "Pastime Paradise" into "Gangsta’s Paradise"). In contrast to his four previous releases, Stevie is surrounded by people here and there are big names from the jazz scene by his side, such as pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist George Benson, flautist Bobbi Humphrey and harpist Dorothy Ashby. With this album he produced a piece of work that would go on to influence music for years to come, from Prince to Michael Jackson. In just over two years, Stevie Wonder laid down a straight flush of essential albums. Romantic ballads, melodic pop songs or furious funk. Gospel, soul or pop. Divorce, religion or politics. Rarely does an artist fuse together so many ideas, sounds, atmospheres, instruments and words in such a short period. And even when he approaches darker subjects and hits a raw nerve, he always leaves a little glimmer of optimism at the end of the tunnel. Another one of his visions no doubt…

Translated by Abi Church.