Petrology 101: Stevie Wonder

Music of My Mind (1972)

Music of My Mind (1972)

We’ve reached the end of the 101 course level and over the years it’s become a habit to wrap things up with a couple of inter-related personal anecdotes which speak to the material, in this case, Stevie Wonder’s groundbreaking album, Music of My Mind (1972).

At this point, you should probably stop and ask yourself, “What do I know about Stevie Wonder?” For instance, if you did not know that up until he turned 21 in 1971, he didn’t have artistic control of his music, you should probably go ahead and read this:

[From Wikipedia] (Throughout 1971), Wonder independently recorded two albums, which he used as a bargaining tool while negotiating with Motown. Although Wonder had been producing his own recordings, Motown still retained control over the content. Tensions increased as Wonder approached his twenty-first birthday; his contract had a clause which allowed Wonder to void it upon becoming a legal adult. When [Motown President Berry Gordy] approached Wonder about renegotiating his contract, Wonder refused. Eventually the label agreed to his demands for full creative control and the rights to his own songs. The 120-page contract was a precedent at Motown and gave Wonder a much higher royalty rate. Wonder returned to Motown in March 1972 with Music of My Mind. Unlike most previous albums on Motown, which usually consisted of a collection of singles, B-sides and covers, Music of My Mind was a full-length artistic statement with songs flowing together thematically.
Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

OK, great. Sometime in the winter of 1976-77, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life wound up in my parents’ record collection. At this point, my family had a membership in the Columbia Record Club, and I think Songs happened to be whatever record they sent you each month, and somebody forgot to send it back. This is a theory based only on circumstantial evidence.

The Columbia Record and Tape Club’s terms of membership stipulated that X times per year, the company informed each customer of the “Selection of the Month” album. The customer had to respond within 10 days whether or not he or she wanted to buy the record, which was offered at a discount, provided that the response was received by Columbia House “within the specified time.” Failure to respond resulted in the record being shipped at full list price. So that’s what I’m thinking happened with the Stevie record. It’s either that or my mom heard “Isn’t She Lovely” on the radio and actually ordered the record, which is entirely possible, but not at all in character. She was more of a Barbara Streisand-slash-Neil Diamond type of gal. The old man was into Willie Nelson and Hoyt Axton, so at least we can rule him out of the equation.

Not a bad spread for $15.99 + shipping and handling in today's market, but in 1976 it was extortionate.

Not a bad spread for $15.99 + shipping and handling in today’s market, but in 1976 it was extortionate.

Anyway, there it was, Songs in the Key of Life, in all its maroon, burnt orange and mahogany brilliance, and I was thrilled when I found the elaborate double-album also contained a 4-song EP, and I’d never seen that before. The packaging was fantastic and the music was pretty good, too. Within a couple of listens, I had found my favorite tracks: “Sir Duke”, “I Wish”, “Saturn” (from the EP), and “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” From that point forward, I began listening to and buying 45s from soul and R&B artists like The Spinners (“Rubberband Man”), The Isley Brothers (“Fight the Power (Part 1)”), and The Commodores (“Machine Gun” and “Just to Be Close to You”). I like to call it my Pre-Pubescent Soul Period. Sadly, it didn’t last very long.

The Spinners aka The Detroit Spinners, Motown Spinners

The Spinners aka The Detroit Spinners, Motown Spinners

Fast-forward about 20 years into the future, where I was now a struggling indie rock musician with a lot of time on his hands and access to thousands of records, thanks to my roommates, Bob Ryan and Ron Kwasman, of Bob and Ron’s Record Club fame. Since I no longer owned a turntable or stereo system, it was very uncommon for me to buy records; however, every now and then I would find a gem in a second-hand store to bring back for the ritual pat on the head from the big boys.

In Square Circle (1985)

In Square Circle (1985)

One day in 1995, coming home from a failed drug buy in Summit, IL, I stopped in a Salvation Army store way out on Archer Avenue at Harlem, where I found a magnificent used Stevie Wonder In Square Circle t-shirt. Boy, in those days, ironic hipster concert tees were part of the uniform, and I was so fucking proud of that shirt—even though lavender is definitely not my color—I must have worn it a week straight. Then one night I was in a bar (The Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village), proudly sporting the t-shirt, and some cocksucker (shall remain nameless but forever remembered) who had magnitudes of hipster credibility above mine, called me out in front of a bunch of people.

“Name one song off In Square Circle,” my hipster foe challenged with a sneer. Fortunately for me, this guy didn’t know who he was dealing with. While it was true that I no longer owned a single Stevie record, that didn’t mean I was fronting on my familiarity with his music, and as a matter of fact, I could name at least one song from the album.

“Part-Time Lover,” I responded, correctly.

The original t-shirt, 2012.

The original t-shirt, 2012.

The guy was taken aback. “Sorry, man,” he said, “it’s just that, you know…” Yes, I did know. But anyway, as you can see, I’ve still got the shirt.

That incident prompted me to start listening to Stevie Wonder again, but this time I decided to go out and buy something I was sure Bob and Ron didn’t have, or at least I was fairly certain they didn’t have. Those guys were buying so many records that it was impossible to know what they had at any given time. Every now and then, Ronnie would play some Stevie, usually something off Innervisions (1973) or Bob would blast Hotter than July (1980) during one of our Saturday beer blowouts.

Following a couple of aborted missions, one day I found Stevie’s Music of My Mind in a second-hand store on the North Side of Chicago. Upon pulling it from the bin, I clearly remember thinking, “There’s no way either of those two cats have this record.” First of all, I’d never even heard of it; a couple of songs on the track list looked familiar (“Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)”), but otherwise, this was uncharted territory. Returning home, I couldn’t wait to share my discovery with Bob and Ron, and sure enough, I was greeted with the exact response I was hoping for, which is what all record junkies want when they uncover a true gem: “Where did you get this!?!?”

San Francisco, January 1997.

San Francisco, January 1997.

[Allmusic review] With a new contract from Motown in his hand, Stevie Wonder released Music of My Mind, his first truly unified record and, with the exception of a single part on two songs, the work of a one-man-band. Everything he had learned about musicianship, engineering, and production during his long apprenticeship in the Snakepit at Motown Studios came together here (from the liner notes: “The sounds themselves come from inside his mind. The man is his own instrument. The instrument is an orchestra.”) Music of My Mind was also the first to bear the fruits of his increased focus on Moog and Arp synthesizers, though the songs never sound synthetic, due in great part to Stevie’s reliance on a parade of real instruments—organic drumwork, harmonica, organs and pianos—as well as his mastery of traditional song structure and his immense musical personality. The intro of the vibrant, tender “I Love Every Little Thing About You” is a perfect example, humanized with a series of lightly breathed syllables for background rhythm. And when the synthesizers do appear, it’s always in the perfect context: the standout “Superwoman” really benefits from its high-frequency harmonics, and “Seems So Long” wouldn’t sound quite as affectionate without the warm electronics gurgling in the background. This still wasn’t a perfect record, though; “Sweet Little Girl” was an awkward song, with Stevie assuming another of his embarrassing musical personalities to fawn over a girl.
Where I'm Coming From (1971)

Where I’m Coming From (1971)

Many observers count Music of My Mind as the beginning of Wonder’s “classic period”, though others suggest the previous album (Where I’m Coming From) or the following one (Talking Book, 1972). They say Music of My Mind is a more confident recording than Where I’m Coming From (his first effort while holding the majority of artistic control), but I wasn’t there and “many observers” are completely unreliable. What’s clear is that Stevie’s increasing musical ambitions allowed him to mix different genres of music and utilize longer song forms. Wonder played all of the instruments on Music of My Mind except trombone by Art Baron and guitar by Howard “Buzz” Feiten, on one track each. [P.S. Check out Buzz Feiten. He’s a certified genius, the Buckminster Fuller of guitar. You’re welcome.]

Meanwhile, Where I’m Coming From and Music of My Mind represent anomalies in Wonder’s commercial fortunes, with the former failing to make the U.S. Pop Chart (while hitting No. 7 on the R&B Chart), and the latter climbing to No. 21 on the Pop Albums Chart and No. 6 on the R&B Chart. However, Wonder clearly knew what he was doing, as his next nine albums spanning 1972-1995 cracked the top 5 of the Pop Charts, including two consecutive No.1’s, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life. Additionally, he won an astounding 12 Grammy Awards between 1973-76. In 2008, Wonder was ranked at number five on The Billboard Hot 100 Top All-Time Artists, making him as the third most successful male artist in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Over the course of his career, Wonder has sold an estimated 150 million albums. So don’t cry for Motown—they made out like bandits.

MotownChart information by Billboard ©VNU eMedia

For the next 15 years, Music of My Mind was one of the most important musical influences in my life, although you probably wouldn’t know that judging by the music I’ve made. Aztec Hearts came about as a direct result of listening to this (and so many other Stevie records) and thinking, “You know what, fuck playing in a band—I can do it myself.” Meanwhile, this record is by far my favorite Stevie album, despite lacking a big hit or signature cut. “Happier Than the Morning Sun” is definitely my favorite Stevie song of all-time.

Meanwhile, the album’s opener, “Love Having You Around” is one of the most slinky, funky tracks in the history of music. Check it.

Back cover of Music.

Back cover of Music.

A couple of his other records (Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale—perhaps the worst album title ever) were more cohesive and accessible, but Music of My Mind exemplifies the purpose and genius of petrology as method of discovery; in order to find some of the good shit, you gotta dig really deep. And we’re going deeper in the 202 course level, I promise. But this right here, is the essence of the science. Make no mistake, this type of study is a science. Every time you try something, whether it’s tasting an exotic flavor of yogurt or dropping the needle on an unknown record, you are conducting an experiment. The results are completely up to you.

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So that’s it for Petrology 101. Hope to see you all back here next year.

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