The period 3 January 1970 – 8 October 1977 covers 405 weeks.
Stevie Wonder spent 133 of those weeks with music in the Top 50 of the UK singles charts. 16 of his singles, stretching from Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday which was in the middle of a long run that had begun October 1969, through to Another Star, the fourth 45 to be lifted from Songs In The Key of Life, found huge favour with the record buying public, albeit he never enjoyed a #1 hit in this golden age, and indeed just six of them reached the Top Ten.
The fact that he was rarely off the airwaves during my most formative years in terms of listening to music on the radio meant that I was exposed to his songs way more than most other long-standing acts of that decade. I really don’t want readers to think that this was something I regretted then or now as there’s a high number of those singles in which I reckon I can sing many of the words unprompted and would be very confident of getting them all in the right order and to a fair approximation of tone if standing in front of a karaoke machine.
But it was really difficult in the early to mid-80s to admit of any love or affection for Stevie Wonder on account of the sheer awfulness of two songs that spent ages at #1 – Ebony and Ivory, in which he and Paul McCartney called for greater racial harmony over a non-tune and lyric that could have been penned by a nine-year old – and I Just Called To Say I Love You, a solo song lifted from the soundtrack to the smash hit film, The Woman In Red, and one which holds the remarkable distinction of being the biggest selling single ever issued in the UK by Tamla Motown (a stat which says a great deal about the general poor taste of the UK public).
I didn’t, until the time when he was having the #1 singles, realise that Stevie Wonder’s career went all the way back to the early 60s. I knew of songs such as Uptight (Everything’s Alright) from various radio shows that played oldies, but had wrongly assumed it was from the late 60s when in fact it was a hit back in 1965. We are actually edging close to the 60th anniversary of him signing his first recording contract, which he did as a child prodigy in 1961 at the age of 11. It’s fair to say that you could come up with a number of ICAs that cover his entire career, but this one focusses solely on the 70s…..and mostly on the hit singles.
1. Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday (peaked at #2, November 1969, exited the Top 50 on 13 February 1970)
This is a bit of a misnomer in that the song dates from 1967 but was released by Tamla in 1969 in lieu of the fact that Stevie Wonder was experiencing some severe problems with his vocal range when he reached the end of his teenage years, and rather than rush him back, the label went digging into the archives for previously recorded but unreleased material. It was his biggest hit in the UK, and would remain so until this……
2. Sir Duke (#2, May 1977)
Fun fact. The week that this peaked in the UK charts was the same week that The Jam debuted in the Top 50 with In The City – two completely contrasting but joyously upbeat pieces of music that have very much stood the test of time.
3. You Haven’t Done Nothin’ (#30, November 1974)
A wee bit of a cheat here on my part. This is one of the hits that I can’t recall from the actual time, probably on account of it only being in the charts for a short period of time; there’s also the fact that it was a highly political song, being an attack on the disgraced Richard Nixon which likely meant the BBC didn’t air it too often. Features a fabulous backing vocal from the Jackson 5.
4. He’s Misstra Know It All (#10, May 1974)
It was years before I found out that the title of this one wasn’t Mister Know It All. Again, I’d be pushing it to say that this was one that I fully remember from the time of its release on the basis that slower songs didn’t excite me all that much (which is probably the real reason that I feel head-over-heels for new wave), but it’s one of those songs that just oozes class and style from its opening second right through to its conclusion. It’s also incredible to realise that, with the exception of the bass guitar, every single note on this songs comes from the hands of Stevie Wonder….he was very much a genius.
5. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (#15, August 1970)
I reckon this is the first Stevie Wonder song that I can fully associate with. This joyous piece of music, complete with its ridiculously catchy chorus, would have sounded particularly good to the ears of my seven-year old self. I’ve had a look at the chart from the week it reached its peak, and there’s a few other songs that I can recall from the era, and in particular In the Summertime by Mungo Jerry, Lola by The Kinks and All Right Now by Free, although there’s every chance the latter two are more to do with them being played by older cousins whenever we went to visit them.
1. Superstition (#11, February 1973)
If I had bought this back in 1973, it would have certainly featured in my 45 45s at 45 rundown from 2008. I love this record in a way that it is difficult to express in words. Its opening notes offer one of the most immediately identifiable pieces of music in all history, one that defies any listener to stay rooted to their seat and not enjoy a boogie.
2. You Are The Sunshine Of My Life (#7, June 1973)
The follow-up to Superstition and early evidence of the eventual shift into a more mellow, smooth sound that would reach its peak just over a decade or so later. As I mentioned previously in this ICA, the younger me wasn’t a fan of slow songs and ballads, so the inclusion of this track in the ICA is to acknowledge that my tastes matured a bit as I got older. I’m not saying that it’s one of my all-time Top 10 favourite Stevie Wonder tunes, but it does fit in well at this point of the imaginary album, setting the scene nicely to close things off.
The first two lines of the song are sung, not by Wonder, but by Jim Gilstrap while Lani Groves sings the next two lines. It’s also the album version of the song as it doesn’t have the annoying horns to distract you.
3. Living For The City (#15, February 1974)
This is very much a relative of this rap song that featured a short while back in the ‘Some Songs Make Great Short Stories’ series. It’s still so relevant today, more than 40 years on.
4. I Wish (#5, January 1977)
Another song that could have featured in the great short stories series, being one in which the singer/songwriter put the story of his childhood days to a funky, upbeat tune. If you want an example of how much the record industry has changed, imagine the reaction to an exec who made the suggestion nowadays to have this single released exactly one week before Christmas. There would be little chance, no matter the fact that it’s such an outstanding number, of it getting any airplay against the drivel that we are subjected to year after year after year after year.
5. Don’t You Worry ‘bout A Thing (non-single in the UK, #16 on the US Billboards chart, March 1974)
No apologies for finishing things off a third cut from Innervisions, an album that many critics and fans feel to be the pinnacle of Stevie Wonder’s career. It just seems the right way to sign this one off.
Here in the UK, Top of the Pops was the name of a series of records on the Hallmark label, and they were made up of anonymous cover versions of current hit singles, intended to replicate the sound of the original hits as closely as possible.
The albums were budget priced and were a mainstay of the collections of many working class families for whom purchasing all the singles was prohibitive. There were more than 100 of the albums recorded between 1968 and 1985, at which point in time, the major labels realised there was something of a captive market and began to collaborate to issue compilation albums featuring the original artists and songs.
Volume 12 was released in 1970 and had this version of a Stevie Wonder hit
As usual, there were no credits given to the performer – they were always destined to be anonymous. It was later revealed that this had been the work of a jobbing singer called Reg Dwight, who went on to find huge fame and fortune under another name.