by Kevin Burton
Reflecting on Stevie Wonder makes me feel like a slow learner, very slow.
Last week Stevie turned 70. I found out about it because a magazine in Scotland, for the occasion, ranked his twelve biggest songs.
I am sure nobody thought people in Scotland would be marking his milestone birthdays when he first showed up at Motown, circa 1961. But it didn’t take long for people to take notice.
Ronnie White, a member of Motown act The Miracles, brought Stevie in for an audition at age 11, according to Wikipedia. He was signed to the Tamla label. By age 13 he had a number one Billboard hit, “Fingertips Part II.”
By contrast, by age 13 I had a limerick published in my school’s magazine.
But that’s not even the slow learner part I am talking about.
Growing up I liked just about all Stevie’s songs. I liked 1977’s “Sir Duke” one of his ten number one hits, but I always thought it was a shame he repeated one phrase so much.
The repeated phrase is some variation of “You can feel it all over.” That is about all there is to the last two minutes of the song.
I liked the song but I never got it until much later when I began trying to perform and record music. One Saturday morning I played “Sir Duke” and heard the opening lyric “Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand..”
And it must have been that I played my own music just well enough the night before that by the time he got to the “they can feel it all over” line, it made me tingle. It made me shout.
He repeated the phrase because on that musical mountain peak, words are not so useful. You can feel it all over, nuff said.
In honor of his birthday I watched “Stevie Wonder – A Musical History,” a BBC documentary available on You Tube. If you like Stevie it’s an absolute must.
This was me re-connecting with Stevie’s music. Now I can feel it all over, all over again.
In the video you see Stevie in various concerts playing his biggest hits. The songs are interspersed with comments by a series of British musicians, accomplished in their own right, just gushing over Stevie.
They speak as fellow musicians and music fans about how far his talent soars above that of other musicians. They first apologize for overuse of the term, then use the term that best applies, genius.
In this format I can barely scratch the surface of the man’s musical contributions. Let me just mention two more things.
First, I have his “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” way high up on the list of best popular songs ever.
If an irreducible essence of rock and roll is men currying favor with the ladies, as Graham Nash says in a Time Life rock documentary that I have, then “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” is as good a theme song as any.
The spoken introduction is hilarious. The actual song that backs it up is just as smooth as you would want to be.
Second, Stevie can play just about any instrument. He is the drummer on “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” a number one song from 1973.
In his book “Pick Up The Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music,” author John Corbett points out that Stevie’s bass drum is steady, unremarkable through most of the song (sounds like a heartbeat to me). But just before the last chorus it suddenly takes off.
“The music continues but for some reason it seems to explode with emotion,” writes Corbett. “Concentrate and you will hear a seizure hit Stevie’s right leg. His kick drum doubles down. It begins to twitch with improbable speed.”
“What a limber ankle. The bass drum is jubilant, low-frequency convulsions, shin-splint oscillations. Stevie Wonder’s foot speaks in tongues.”
Genius. Nuff said.