The Oral History of Stevie Wonder’s Classic Period | Part I

This series is co-authored and researched by Editor-in-Chief Bobby Rone, and Senior Editor Bayo Fasipe


Part I. Coming to Collect

In 1971 at the age of 20, Stevie Wonder was already one of the most recognizable musicians in America, and perhaps the single biggest star in the Black music universe. He had been growing into this role for quite some time –Motown had signed the (allegedly) blind musical prodigy known as “Little Stevie Wonder” when he was only 10. This was quite a time to be alive at Motown Records. Marvin Gaye forcibly took the reins from noted tyrant Berry Gordy and delivered What’s Going On, possibly the greatest soul record ever recorded and a timeless snapshot of the anger and unrest of the late 60s and early 70s. The times were changing, and the happy-go-lucky, doo-wop R&B that turned the label into a behemoth had become passé. Stevie knew this, and he knew his worth within the company and the music ecosystem as a whole. At the same time as What’s Going On, Stevie teamed up with songwriter Syreeta Wright and began experimenting with synthesizers to craft the album Where I’m Coming From, an electrically soulful, lyrically rich album that, in Stevie’s own words, was “meant to mean something.”

Where I'm Coming From - Wikipedia

But before he would begin the single greatest creative run in American music history, Stevie Wonder had to get his money right. Collecting debts at Motown Records at the height of its power was more than a notion. And Stevie Wonder was much more than an artist. 

Stevie had signed his first contract with Motown when he was only 11. The deal was horrible. It was practically indentured servitude. Nah, fuck it. Slavery. That shit was slavery. It promised him a 4 year recording deal with 3 years of artist management, along with 2% of royalties on retail record sales. In an added splash of generosity, Stevie Wonder received a weekly stipend of $2.50 a week. And what did Motown (Berry Gordy) ask for in exchange for such generosity? A mere 25% of all of Stevie Wonder’s earnings. Without many other options, Stevie re-upped on this contract in 1966, but was preparing to free himself when the opportunity came up, knowing all along that years of royalties owed to him would become available upon his turning 21 years old.

In May of 1971, Stevie Wonder celebrated his 21st Birthday. This already fun birthday for most Americans was made even sweeter, as this gave Stevie ownership of the ten years of music royalties and rights previously withheld to him, leading to the renegotiation of his contract at the label.

By this point, Stevie had the leverage to demand renegotiation. After holding out for a bit and entertaining offers from other labels like CBS and Atlantic, Stevie eventually resigned to Motown, and he made sure to get his money. The 1971 deal was a 3 year deal that gave Stevie Wonder 14% of his royalties, in addition to the royalty payments that had been held in trust for him, worth nearly $1 million . Additionally, Stevie secured publishing rights for himself and artistic control over his own song making. 

By 1975, at the end of his deal, Stevie was facing serious burnout. He had been on a relentless pace, releasing 4 albums since 1972 (in addition to producing Minnie Riperton’s Perfect Angel). He had won 2 straight Album of the Year Grammy’s –there simply wasn’t much left for him to do. Tired of singing about the same social problems, he had a desire to create change by doing something other than singing. At the time, he was seriously considering relocating to Ghana and working with blind children. None of this figured into Berry Gordy’s plans. Thus, Motown was willing to give Stevie Wonder any and everything, and he took full advantage. His 1975 contract extension was worth $13 million. Additionally, it gave Stevie Wonder 20% of his royalties–unheard of at the time–and allowed him to choose his own singles and work with any artist on any label. Over the course of successive contracts, Stevie had shifted power from label executives to artists, successfully making the case that, as the creator of the product, he as the artist had the right to control over exactly how that product was made, as well as a serious cut of the product’s profits. 

But beyond the money, beyond the bickering with lawyers and label executives, Stevie was on a warpath. Over the course of just six years, the singularly talented musician managed to shift the course of black music, popular music, and collective understanding of music theory on his own. During this time period, Wonder embraced the synthesizer, Rhodes piano and Moog module, darting forward on a futurist streak, its waves still reverberating across the surface of the pop music ecosystem. Stevie Wonder’s incomparable talent, writing ability and vision would convalesce into the greatest five album run in music history, with each release reestablishing the cutting edge of the music industry. He was lightyears ahead of his peers, drawing on Diasporic African sonic influences and classic Mississippi Delta blues roots to create lush, Afrofuturistic landscapes that captivated audiences around the world. Simply put, Stevie Wonder not only redefined what popular music could be: he redefined what the word “classic” even meant. 

Where I’m Coming From came right before the end of Stevie Wonder’s first contract with Motown, thus giving him some measure of creative freedom in its production. Compared to his previous album, Signed, Sealed, Delivered (1970), WICF is much more personal. Stevie Wonder and then-wife Syreeta Wright have all of the writing credits, and he shares credits with only three other performers. Additionally, tracks like “Something Out of the Blue” introduce string arrangements to his sound, highlighting increasing experimentation. The songs themselves are also different; rather than delivering carefully crafted pop hits or crooning downtempo teenage love songs, the songs feel much more intimate. The lyrics of many of the songs seem to be more conversational, like “I Wanna Talk To You”, which sees Stevie play both a young black man and an older Southern white man in conversation.

Whereas Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was hailed as an instant classic, Where I’m Coming From garnered lukewarm reception by critics, deemed overindulgent and aimless. In reality, it was decades ahead of its time, and the beginning of an unparalleled run of creativity and musical excellence that would prove to be foundational for those to follow in his footsteps. 

In 1971, Stevie moved to New York. He had just been released from his Motown deal after declining to renegotiate his contract. However, he would only receive $100,000 of his promised royalties. Nonetheless, he would move anyway and begin trying to record new music. 

Around the same time, Malcolm Cecil, a British audio engineer, was also moving to New York. Through his job at a studio, he met bassist Ronnie Blanco, who had played in Stevie Wonder’s band and would become a mutual friend. Cecil was a musician himself–he had started out on the bass–and, together with singer-turned- engineer Robert Margouleff (friend of Robert Moog, who made the synth with his name) would create the TONTO synthesizer, the world’s largest analog synth at the time. Under the name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, they released their first album, Zero Time, in 1971, to critical acclaim, including the acclaim of Ronnie Blanco. Blanco would go on to play Zero Time for Wonder, and encourage him to incorporate the synth into his own work. Stevie would meet up with them for the first time on Memorial Day 1971, when the studio was closed. That weekend, they would record 17 songs

Because he did not own any of his own publishing rights yet, Stevie did not want to play any new music for the executives at Motown, or any other recording company. Thus, dozens, if not hundreds of songs, were filed in his head, just waiting for the right instruments to play them on. After a year or so of recording, they had enough material for several albums. That’s why Stevie would drop two albums in 1972–MOMM and the more well-regarded Talking Book. The Wonder-Cecil-Margouleff collaboration would last for several albums.

Stevie WONDER Music Of My Mind vinyl at Juno Records.

Music of My Mind sounds like nothing else Stevie Wonder had released previously. The album opener has a driving, rock-and-roll drum shuffle, on top of which are whizzing synths. Stevie’s backing vocals are done through a talkbox, and the trip only takes more exciting turns from there. Lush synths–the TONTO, Moog, and clavinet, particularly–float and sway all over tracks like “Girl Blue” and “Seems So Long”, creating the lush background scenery for Stevie’s vocals. With Tonto’s Expanding Head Band producing him, gone were the stiff formulas of Motown’s writing and arranging teams. The result is a much more sprawling sound–Stevie’s writing is inspired by everything from the birth of Diana Ross’s child, King Curtis’ death, and his own divorce. MOMM would introduce the world to the thoughts and feelings of Steveland Morris, and he would only continue to blossom sonically as the decade progressed.

Favorite Tracks: Girl Blue, Seems So Long, Evil

Continued in Part 2

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