This series is co-authored and researched by Editor-in-Chief Bobby Rone, and Senior Editor Bayo Fasipe
Music of My Mind launched Stevie Wonder into the upper echelon of the popular music canon. He was already an iconic figure within the insular world of Black music, a culture that was explicitly dictating the sonic style of the white pop world, as disco music and blues-inspired hard rock began to dominate the charts. In smaller circles, Wonder’s influence was just as prevalent. His introspective and figurative songwriting style was being replicated by softer, folkier white sects of pop as well.
Still, Stevie was largely viewed as a black sensation, finding himself pigeonholed into the role as the best R&B artist, and little beyond that. Frustrated at this racist compartmentalization of his talent, Wonder joined The Rolling Stones on tour in late 1972 –just prior to the release of his followup record, Talking Book.
This was an act of defiance. Stevie was determined to show the white music world that he was more than the Black starlet they treated him as. On tour with the Stones, Wonder dazzled audiences across the globe with the futuristic, eclectic and experimental sounds of Music of My Mind, as well as the unreleased songs from the soon to be released Talking Book. Among these loosies were “You Are The Sunshine of My Life,” and “Superstition” two of the most forward thinking and genre-bending songs on the record. The two tracks both combined staples of white pop music – four-on-the-floor rhythmic schemes, conventional song structure and major melodic sequences– with the funky, jazz and blues concoctions that defined his newfound creative freedom. This resulted in an unexpected level of crossover appeal, not because Stevie capitulated to the sounds of white or white acceptable pop, but because he traversed genre style and composed such nuanced and blended music that it was unlike nothing heard before it, Black and white musical traditions alike.
As a result of his newfound crossover appeal, Talking Book was much more well received commercially, selling 1.2 million copies. Sonically, the album experiments with many of the same sounds as MOMM. Stevie does much more though–adding congas and African percussion, and layering the clavinet, Moog, and TONTO synths to create a dreamy, surreal landscape. While Stevie also continues to take steps with his lyricism here, Syreeta’s influence is still apparent on love ballads like “You and I” or “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love.”
Talking Book is a deeply emotional record, conceived and crafted in the context of his divorce from Syreeta Wright. For every experimental success, every bright major chord progression, the album falls back into the hurt and loneliness that birthed it, each song diving into love and heartbreak, fluctuating between ballad and anthem. Because of this, Stevie Wonder was now larger than the Black music world, and arguably the largest American pop star period. His innovation and ability to traverse racialized genre expectations without sacrificing his own cultural sonic roots had created a singular figure in popular music. Talking Book would earn Wonder his first two Grammy awards, and cement his status as the most influential and innovative artist in the pop universe.
However, despite his newfound fame, Stevie was not content to crank out love ballads or uptempo funk. He wanted to continue to push his lyricism and sonic palette by passing contemporary subjects and exploring new musical styles through his own lenses.
You Are The Sunshine of My Life
You And I
Not so Little Anymore
“We as a people are not interested in ‘baby, baby’ songs any more. There’s more to life than that.”
-Stevie Wonder, 1973 promotional interview
After proving his music had crossover appeal and critical acclaim, rather than doubling down on a proven formula, Stevie sought to make an album that was completely for him–his lyrics, his production, his rollout. Thus, for the next seven months, Stevie would look only to himself for inspiration as he crafted his next masterpiece.
It’s important to note that while Talking Book received massive commercial and critical acclaim, and that it did achieve crossover success, Stevie Wonder was still largely treated as a Black artist that white audiences could appreciate. His two Grammy wins in 1972 –Best Male Pop Performance for “You are the Sunshine of my Life,” and Best R&B Performance for “Superstition”– reflected a still limited and growing understanding of Wonder’s preternatural talent and influence. He was celebrated for song crafting and performance, especially when doing traditional Black musical styles with white-pop flourishes, as done on those singles, however he was not credited for his holistic musical talent. His multi-instrumental prowess, his deft vision and direction in composition as well as his skillful world building in his albums were on full display since Where I’m Coming From, yet at the start of his rise beyond the Little Stevie Wonder darling was not treated as such. This frustration would only drive Wonder further into his expanding desire for experimentation, and farther away from whatever crossover desire he had in crafting Talking Book.
The marathon recording sessions that drove the conception of Music of My Mind and Talking Book was funneling into his 1973 followup, Innervisions, as well. Released less than a year after Talking Book, Innervisions signaled the dying breath from the death throes of what Remained of Little Stevie Wonder on his two previous releases. Increasing technical experimentation with Cecil and Margouleff and decreased influence from Berry Gordy and Motown drove Stevie down a road that no Motown artist had traveled, not even Marvin Gaye’s polemic classic What’s Goin’ On dove into such a brave new musical world as Innervisions did.
The rollout for Innervisions would define this new world. The cover art, designed by Efram Wolff, depicts Stevie Wonder gazing out onto a rocky landscape, with light shooting from his eyes. Some of the rocks in the foreground spell out “Stevie Wonder Innervisions”. It lets us know that Stevie is heading into uncharted territory, one that is created, illuminated, and defined by his ideas. The inner fold art depicts three Black figures contorting, perhaps to this new music–letting us know that, despite the emergence of new ideas, these visions still are still rooted in from Black and African tradition.
The listening party for Innervisions consisted of 40 or so members of the press, led to one of the Motown Studios. Once inside, they were all blindfolded. To the uninitiated, this could be interpreted as Stevie re-iterating the “blind genius” trope–giving us a glimpse inside his thought process, as the album title suggested. But his intentions were entirely different. Sight, Stevie Wonder insisted, could hinder you from truly hearing and focusing on the music at hand. Once you closed your eyes and created a blank landscape, the new sounds and synths would fill in the rest.
“Innervisions gives my own perspective on what’s happening in my world, to my people, to all people. That’s why it took me seven months to get together–I did all the lyrics–and that’s why I think it is my most personal album. I don’t care if it only sells five copies: this is the way I feel.”
-Stevie Wonder, 1973 New York Times interview
This landscape is as vast as it is varied. We begin with the moody, pensive, jazzy Fender Rhodes of Too High, where Stevie delves into drug abuse. The drumless string track “Visions” sees Stevie muse on time, hope, and radical imagination. We then get into “Living in the City”–a TONTO synth driven ballad about structural racism in both urban and rural life. This track is really where the album starts to feel different from his previous output. His voice is strained, angry, and full of hurt–the result of Cecil and Margouleff forcing him to record hundreds of takes to capture the pain and struggle of the song’s lyrics. The skit in the middle features a black man getting locked up with policeman calling him a nigger–certainly a surprise to his new white audiences who had come for more “You & I”s. This seamlessly transitions into “Golden Lady”, where Stevie pines away over a Hammond organ and a funky Moog bassline. This is followed by “Higher Ground”, a clavinet-led Negro spiritual about perseverance. The spirituality bleeds into “Jesus Children of America” about faith on which Stevie Wonder plays all nine parts. We then dive into “All is Fair”, a slow love ballad, on which, again, Stevie Wonder plays all nine parts. This then goes into “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”, on which Stevie globalizes the musical landscape–I been to Paris, Beirut, Iraq, Iran, Eurasia–with Latin piano riffs, gourds, and bongos. The album closes on “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”, a biting Nixon critique.
That Wonder can fit so many ideas and themes into just nine tracks is a testament to his intellectualism, spirituality, and exploration. The visions we hear on this album would inspire other artists to create their own. The simple piano jazz riffs with matching vocals formula has since been copied countless times over by everyone from Solange(“Things I Imagined”) to the genius behind this:
Innervisions would win Stevie his first Album of the Year–it was simply too expansive, too undeniable, too brilliant, to shove into an R&B or Soul category. The album was met with commercial acclaim too, peaking at #4 on the Billboard charts. Stevie had explored new lyrical sounds and perfected the pop formula. But with the external validation of his internal compass, Little Stevie Wonder was not so little anymore; he was now unstoppable.
Essential Tracks: 1-9
Read Part 1 of our Stevie Wonder series here.