Saturday, January 3, 2009

Artistic Freedom in R&B: An Essay on Marvin, Stevie and the Rise of the Album in Black Contemporary Music During the 1960s and 70s

In the world of rhythm and blues music during 1971-72, a sea change took place that signaled a transition away from the structures of Memphis soul and Motown pop and toward a new, braver age of album making. The early 70s is remembered for funk becoming increasingly at the creative forefront of R&B, a genre almost exclusively belonging to black acts and audiences since the early 60s, after Elvis made "race music" acceptable to a white audience. Below the surface of chart dominators in the neo-classical doo wop vocal groups and the burgeoning Philly Soul sound was an ambition to create LPs on the same scale of artistry and vision as rock artists of the era. Two of the most important figures ins signaling the start of black music becoming more album-oriented were Motown Records' male stars Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. 

Rock music had seen the philosophy of the 45 over the LP begin to die off in the mid-60s until by 1968 albums were outselling singles. This was thanks to legendary works such as Pet Sounds, many Beatle LPs (most influentially, Sgt. Pepper) and various other groups dedicated to making albums their main showcase such as Frank Zappa, the Byrds and, by 1967, the Stones as well. In the world of African-American contemporary music, singles were still the barometer of success before the early 70s. Jazz had gone underground in the 1950s and with this came the preference for the album to be the main medium of expression. Black musicians in jazz had been producing albums of a high quality for years. John Coltrane had been one of the few to take it to concept levels, arcs which could never be properly transmitted through mere singles. And since jazz artists of the bop and cool eras were into making lengthy numbers, it hardly made sense not to release albums primarily. Outside of certain releases and artists such as Dave Brubeck, these records barely ever charted.

While it can be argued singles were still the defining aspect of many successful 70s acts in black contemporary music, the modern day significance of the album in the careers of various R&B and hip-hop luminaries can trace back to the breakthroughs of Marvin and Stevie. Most listeners today consider albums to be the central focus of R&B/Hip Hop luminaries such as Kanye West, Outkast, M.I.A., Nelly, John Legend and Lil Wayne. Their individual hits are identified by critics and most fans by what album they are off of, not really the reverse where their albums are identified by what hits are on it. By 1970, only a few prominent black artists had even attempted to prove themselves via the long player. The psychedelic acid-washed funk of Parliament/Funkadelic was light years ahead of most black music at the time, producing albums focused together on wildly experimental mixing of styles. 

But George Clinton's P-Funk enterprise would not see major critical and commercial attention until the mid-70s. The early Funkadelic albums were popular underground, setting the stage for the P-Funk empire to define 70s funk as well as influence the funk and rap of the 1980s. James Brown, often credited as the prime developer and purveyor of 1970s funk, had been attempting to make artistic statements with his albums, however the shaky relationship between him and King Records led to chaos with his recorded work. Often, his signature songs were released in two parts on the A and B sides and even then there were LP versions of such singles that stretched much further, to lengths in excess of 7 minutes. Past the 1970s, Brown's prolific work became reduced to a hodgepodge of edits, re-packages, discontinued releases and confusing compilations. As a result, his LP work never got the future revisionist credit it probably deserved. 

Brown would fade artistically as the 70s wore on but ultimately made his mark with the songs, not the 33 1/3 RPMs. The albums featuring these revolutionary funk pieces were almost afterthoughts or standard releases to house the "jams." Brown's overindulgence with film soundtracks and live albums (sometimes throwing the studio cuts in between live recordings).
But Brown had at least given his albums an aura of ambition, while labels like Okeh, Chess, Motown and Stax/Volt (Atlantic's soul subsidiary) preferred them as vehicles for the hits, padded by unfortunate filler. This was standard practice in the recording industry at the time, so it's not as if they were behind the times. However, rock and roll artists began to take their albums more seriously. 

Most were inspired by how the Beatles wrote tracks impressive enough to be hit singles, yet chose they remain album tracks in order to provide a cohesive set of new music no one could buy on 45 or EP. When it came to their original British LPs (now through CD considered the standard versions), only Please Please Me ever recycled old A and B sides while some entire albums (With the Beatles, Beatles for Sale, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, The White Album) had no tracks derived for release on 45, at least in the UK (their US distributors, Capitol Records, went hog wild scouring the album tracks for potential singles). While all this was occurring, R&B seemed to lag behind even if it was consistently delivering some of the most raw, exciting and memorable music this side of Liverpool.

The difference between Motown and other R&B record companies was that they controlled their roster with systematic precision. All decisions, from wardrobe to speech to attitude to music were micro-managed in order to distinguishably represent "The Sound of Young America." Albums were often used in the usual manner as any other label of the time, but sometimes Berry Gordy used them not to house hit singles but to breakthrough to the adult market (witness The Temptations singing show tunes such as "The Impossible Dream" or the Four Tops doing ersatsz covers like "If I Were a Carpenter"). Marvin Gaye himself debuted in 1961 with a whole album of crooners in the mould of his singing heroes such as Nat King Cole. Gordy at the time was into making hits for the kids and used the album's failure to move Gaye into recording songs with the standard Motown musical formula. Ironically enough, he would have encouraged such a move by 1967. 

By 1969, Gaye had grown tired of the assembly line approach. Feeling inspiration as well as depression, mainly over the brain cancer that had stricken duet partner Tammi Terrell and led to her death the following year, Marvin began refusing to record more tailor-made, corporate-ordered hits. Unlike other Motown singers, Marvin had considerable talents on instrument, mainly playing keyboards and drums so he was able to write songs throughout his 60s pop heyday. This experience would eventually cause a great burst of creativity heading into the 70s. He began working with the famed Motown house band the Funk Brothers on compositions he felt reflected the true tenor of the difficult times. At the same time, he penned deeply romantic songs (one co-authored by his wife, Anna Gordy Gaye, Berry's sister) for the neo-classical doo-wop group the Originals, striking classics with "Baby I'm for Real" and "The Bells."When Gaye began work on what would become this breakthrough statement, the much heralded What's Going On, R&B was not used to such grand artistic sentiment.

Previous to Marvin Gaye's renaissance as a serious artist, Sly and the Family Stone were perhaps the only comparable black act that was rising above the customary world of commercial singles. By 1970 when they went quiet with releases after the landmark single "Thank You Falletime Be Mice Elf Again," Sly & co. were riding critical and commercial success based on their progressive hit singles and strong albums. However now the rock press was finding more merit in their LPs than almost any other R&B artist. It had not been so from the very start for Sly, with the early releases of 1967-68, A Whole New Thing, Dance to the Music and Life, being best known for the individual hits (the title tracks of the latter two for instance). There was simply not enough impressive material in between the chart hits, although Life's "Into My Own Thing" still found new life into the 21st century as a core sample for Fatboy Slim's 2000 smash "Weapon of Choice." 

Then came 1969's Stand! This was a definitive statement as a whole, not just relying on the fact it had big songs with top 10 AM radio potential. There was also cuts to appeal to the new FM format, back in the days when it played without the rules, played whole albums and rejected the top 40 structure. There were more pronounced statements, both musically and lyrically through tunes with powerful messages, not to mention powerful arrangements, such as the uplifting, hopeful title track or the pessimistic militance of "Don't Call Me N***er, Whitey." The fact that almost every track was sensational was a big reason for Stand! being one of the first classic albums-as-pieces in non-jazz black music during the 20th Century. Plus, the songs were fresh in both lyrical and musical content which was rarely the case for R&B albums. 

But no one had ever gone for broke until 1971 saw Marvin Gaye's What's Going On break down tremendous barriers. Sly's highly regarded, though somewhat unfairly less universally praised There's a Riot Goin' On, also cast an ominous picture on how the optimism of the 60s had degenerated into social ills in the ghettos, disillusion, violence, drug abuse and paranoia, all delivered through blurry cocaine eyes and Sly's, if you'll excuse the pun, stoned, cracked vocals. Gaye's own version of "The Dream is Over" (to quote John Lennon's outlook on the 60s, circa 1970) statement took a look at inner city poverty, Vietnam, economic woes and the overpolluting of the Earth. The burgeoning world of rock criticism often found R&B artists' albums to be second-class in their cohesion and quality compared to rock artists until Sly and when Marvin Gaye made an album equal to that of any heralded white-bred Anglo or American rocker, perhaps even more triumphant than Stand!, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Suddenly, R&B artists could find their quality LPs discussed amongst the year's best. Al Green emerged as a viable artist around the time of Gaye's opus and became perhaps the most consistent producer of great albums in the 1970s music scene, let alone 70s soul. The best any R&B/Soul artists could do was put together a great set of performances, which was best exemplified by the stellar albums of Otis Redding, a singer who delivered better than most rock artists of the pre-psychedelia days of 1963-67. There had been great albums in R&B before, but what Marvin did was a create a widely praised one that was unified in spirit and sound. R&B artists before Sly, Marvin, Stevie and producer/writer Norman Whitfield never spoke out on relevant social issues. Now, modern R&B/Hip Hop seems to address pertinent issues moreso than any other style. 

In contrast, the majority of today's popular rock acts are incredibly mum on issues and even when they do speak out, they fall short of the mark (such as Green Day, though this was more because of a one-dimensional, flat musical approach on 2004's ballyhooed American Idiot). This is not to say that people have to speak out in order to be taken seriously. But whatever you do say, say it with a fresh voice and use deep, thought-out means to express it. Often, these "message" songs come across as cloying, lame and cliche in this world of American Idol cheapness, such as in Nickelback's "If Everyone Cared." Sure there are hip hop artists that are top 40 animals, who blend dance tracks into their music with the sole intention of getting the clubs to buy their newest disc. But every genre has them, heck back in the early 70s R&B had the Fifth Dimension and Isaac Hayes. 

The unfortunate part is that it seems like it takes hip hop for a white act, like Eminem, to say what matters today, to him and to others. And even when Eminem says what's on his mind, even if that ends up offending, it's a breath of fresh air- even when he's talking about what a bitch he thinks his mom is or other personal demons. Sure Eminem crosses the line at times and sure when he gets funny he becomes a jukebox of bathroom humour, stoner jokes, juvenility and immaturity. But that's part of the package that makes him one of this decade's more interesting musical characters. Newer rock/pop oriented groups are surprisingly tame and phony, and this is coming from someone who doesn't even enjoy most hip hop made today. It seems the gains made by the aformentioned giants of progressive R&B resonate louder than certain rock acts, not through any fault of their own of course.

Previous to Marvin, Motown had not taken albums seriously. as already mentioned. The one exception was staff writer and producer Norman Whitfield. Whitfield had taken the reins of the Temptations music in 1966 based on how his "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" (co-written with his writing partner Barrett Strong) bested the chart showing of former Tempts writer/producer Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready." But by 1968 he had moved away from penning suave, sincere doo-wop based pop for the Temptations, unleashing some harder-edged material for their fall 1968 album. With the Grammy-winning "Cloud Nine," and the subsequent album of the same name, psychedelia hit Motown (although side 2 is comprised of poppier tracks, not unlike the ongoing collaboration the Tempts were having with the Supremes, that generated hits like "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me"). Whitfield was major in keeping Motown highly prolific with smashes, even in the face of Gordy's hesitance to release the #1 classic "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" version by Marvin Gaye, only the biggest selling record in Motown's history to that point. 

Gordy's unwillingness to go with that version for Gaye, was not unlike the resistance he put up upon hearing "What's Going On." When the single he was sure would bomb, managed to become a top 5 pop hit and a #1 R&B hit, he allowed Marvin to keep making similar music and encouraged him to write a whole album's worth of such material. Whitfield's "Grapevine" had been tried out on many major artists at Motown, but Gaye's version was a brooding, twisted take on the tale of a cheated lover telling his significant other how he/she knows of the wrongdoing. Whitfield would go in even stranger directions through 1969-70. He was a free thinker at Motown but Gaye bristled under relying on others to provide his music, his own compositional work being too infrequently allowed for his liking. Marvin's epic duets with Tammi Terrell, a more powerful variation on his status as Motown's duo ma were provided by the husband-and-wife team of Ashford and Simpson, but somehow in singing their profoundly romantic music Gaye was inspired to re-think his career path. 

His trendy 1969 hits, two top 10 ones in "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby" and "That's the Way Love is" were catchy slices of the Motown formula, but nothing major nor heavyweight, even if they had been provided by Whitfield-Strong. Of course, Norman Whitfield pulled out gritty soul ("I Can't Get Next to You") and lush balladry ("Just My Imagination") for the Tempts to garner their two pop chart-toppers with him at the helm, so he was versatile. But Marvin Gaye was much more dedicated to material of his own volition at this point. For instance, other pre-What's Going On hits, like "How Can I Forget?" and "The End of Our Road" were in the vein of gritty soul that Whitfield had provided for Gladys Knight & the Pips but seemed wrong for Gaye, especially knowing what was to come. This was passable music but nothing the "Woodstock Generation" could appreciate. 

As for Whitfield's work with the Tempts, despite the adventurous, lengthy pieces with social subject matter he provided, the albums were sometimes sketchy, sometimes good until Whitfield left the company in 1973, shortly after the company's move to Los Angeles. Pieces like "War" (taken on in Edwin Starr's #1 classic), "Slave," "Message from a Black Man" and "Smiling Faces Sometimes" were almost as cutting edge topically as anything Bob Dylan had ever committed to record. They were indeed more authentic because of the principles involved in righting the song being African-American and therefore more personally invested in civil rights movement. Whitfield's departure brought a few of his acts with him, namely the Undisputed Truth, and effectively ended the hitmaking of the Temptations, practically the last major Motown act he produced that was still with Motown at the time (others such as Knight & the Pips having departed months earlier to score monster hits such as "Midnight Train to Georgia" at Buddah Records).

Gaye's What's Going on has served as a touchstone for all sorts of R&B masterpieces since, whether they be in hip hop or R&B. Something like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us BackThe Miseducation of Lauryn Hill or The College Dropout would not be very feasable without the direction Gaye and Stevie Wonder ultimately pointed R&B in. Not only were their albums ambitious in subject matter, they were also extravagantly produced. What's Going On was recorded breaking Motown's rules about studio hours. Employing arguably the Funk Brothers' greatest performances, tracks equalling and often surpassing their tremendous work on Holland-Dozier-Holland's Four Tops masterpieces of 1966-67. The instrumental performances, namely James Jamerson's bass, provided a perfect soundscape for Gaye to incorporate more jazz and classical elements than anything ever seen at Motown. Most of the Funk Brothers' backgrounds came out of jazz, so there was enough virtuosity to go around. 

On this album, Gaye began what would become his signature style of putting up a wall of his own multi-tracked vocals. As a "song cycle," What's Going On captured what Marvin had been feeling artistically and personally. When the title track, introduced a few months before the album, became a hit, Marvin had the confidence that this move would not kill his career, only reinvigorate it. Marvin would go on to record more great songs and great albums, but his personal struggles with depression and cocaine addiction led to his tragic end in 1984. But while 1971 was Marvin's impact statement as a major artist, it was not quite the breakthrough Stevie Wonder had hoped for. With Gordy's company experiencing a drying up of hits, attributed to the production line system becoming further irrelevant as well as the loss of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team in 1968, he had the challenge of facing demands for artistic freedom when Stevie's contract came up for renewal in 1971, the year the former boy genius turned 21.

Stevie, no longer Little as he had been billed from his debut in 1962, was itching to create his own highly innovative music. Constrained by the Motown system and his status as a minor, Wonder used Gaye's triumphant break from the norm to justify his own demands for artistic freedom. Wonder had scored many R&B hits, a few pop smashes as well, but overall had been jerked around by the corporate puppet strings at Motown. Signed to Motown as an 11-year old his music was geared toward jazz, early soul and teen idol pop with middling results (only the seeming shot in the dark of 1963's live double sided #1 hit "Fingertips, Pts. 1& 2" brought him to national consciousness). Stevie seemed a wildly brilliant young man, blind, but talented vocally and on drums, percussion, keyboards and harmonica. Even when a rave-up like 1965's "Uptight," featuring a raucous 15-year old Wonder, broke the top 20, it did not lead to Motown finding a niche for him. 

Stevie began to become more heavily involved in the songwriting and production side, mentored by Motown staffers like Henry Cosby, Clarence Paul and Sylvia Moy. If "Uptight," or its more minor predecessor hit, a cover of "High Heeled Sneakers," proved he was no innocent lightweight, his surprise cover of "Blowin' in the Wind" proved that if the arrangement was right, he could make a song his own even as a teenager. But for every "Blowin'" there were at least a few ill-conceived, akward album track covers like "The Shadow of Your Smile" or "Hello Young Lovers." Stevie seemed to enjoy crossing through the broad spectrum of pop music, singing every style possible. Motown was trying to have him appeal to every possible listener instead of sticking with the material he did best, frenetic hard-edged soul as well as tender love songs. There was an even a whole LP of instrumental standards, titled Eivets Rednow (guess what that is spelled backwards!). 

In 1967, he once again made an impact on the charts and on the minds of critics with "I Was Made to Love Her," arguably Stevie's greatest song pre-"Superstition." Featuring his signature style of breathless, frenetic vocals with much soul shouting and joyful hollering, "I Was Made to Love Her" had a similar tale to "Uptight" about a country boy finding love with a childhood sweetheart though this time there is no class barrier, just parental dissatisfaction. The arrangement was tight, growing denser as the song reached a fever pitch, though it started off that way. With strings added for the last minute or so and the vocal accompaniment gospel-esque, "I Was Made to Love Her" was proof this was not quite an ordinary teenage star. Though it featured just five or six chords and the usual outstanding rhythm from the Funk Bros., it was a barely 17-year old Stevie's searing vocals that really brought it home. Even though Stevie Wonder grew in vocal talent, it still might be his most exciting vocal performance committed to tape.

Proving his growing abilities to belt out R&B, the hit was one of 1967's great soul performances and could have served as a springboard for better things. The 1968 tunes "Sho-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Da-Day," "You Met Your Match" and "I Don't Know Why I Love You" were, especially the latter, indicative of the skill Stevie possessed and all were fine songs, but nothing special except for "I Don't Know..." which should have been a much bigger hit than it was. But instead, he was still saddled with lightweight, often schmaltzy material.  For the few times where the reliance on showy arrangements struck gold, like with the grand classic "For Once in My Life" and the puppy love drippiness of "My Cherie Amour." Still, such a style did not suit an artist who had proven what Stevie had by the age of 19. The sometimes saccharine, mushy side of Stevie was no fabrication, as he carried that sentiment with him throughout every album in his career, it becoming more pronounced once he passed 33 years old and donned the dreads! But he was not some blind, black Barry Manilow, even at his sappiest. 

Seeing the changes in black music going on around him (ok ok hearing them), led Stevie to cut his best album to date with Signed, Sealed, Delivered. The title tune was a strong funky soul cut, the album low on the usual Motown filler but even this strong effort felt a little too tied to the gritty Memphis soul that had gone out of style by 1969 so it was rather a simple pleasure, not that there's anything wrong with that. While it was his best album to date, it was no home run. Stevie was headed in further directions though, and this LP did not brace people for what was to come. He held out for a new contract in 1971 when he turned of age, recording several tracks for future release that highlighted his interest in keyboard work, namely of the synthesizer. Fearing Stevie would take his new work to another label, Berry Gordy capitulated on a new deal that gave Stevie access to his masters, freedom to choose his own material and styles and freedom to say what he wished. 

The first release of this new age was the somewhat of a feeling out process, not so subtly titled Where I'm Coming From. Though it produced some interesting, more eclectic avenues of music, and a more mature, unique top 10 hit "If You Really Love Me," co-composed with Syreeta Wright, a label mate married to Stevie from 1970 to 1972, it failed to knock the socks off anyone the way Marvin Gaye had done. Gaye had shaken off his image as a hitmaking soul crooner with precious little to say, but Stevie was still viewed as another whiz kid stumbling into maturity. The funk Stevie tried to incorporate into his sound made Where I'm Coming From like hearing a minor Sly Stone with a sentimental streak to him, one with more optimism and sunshine on the horizon than Sly circa 1971 (evidenced by the weepy ballad "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer"). Stevie would take an even more strange and interesting turn for his next release.

Whereas Stevie had explored funk and his own compositional abilities to his deepest extent yet on Where I'm Coming From, he had not exactly spun a new, fresh sound that pushed the limits of what black music could be. To do this, he became involved with Tonto's Expanding Head Band, a duo that pioneered synthesizer music. Even moreso than Where I'm Coming From, 1972's Music of My Mind showcased Stevie's multi-instrumental, multi-tracking prowess. While Gaye had gone for a lush, almost orchestral form of soul and funk, Wonder preferred a very jazz oriented approach that made songs such as the sweeping, multi-part "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You?)" This 8-minute standout consisted entirely of Wonder's own vocals and instrumentation, save for electric guitar. Quite literally, the guitar part by Howard "Buzz" Feinen on "Superwoman"and a trombone by Art Baron on "Love Having You Around" were the only instrumental parts not provided by Wonder. The album was a step forward, proved Stevie the best one-man band of his time, but it was not the masterpiece quality that would follow shortly.

Music of My Mind had a few rather ordinary songs and the somewhat bitter, chauvinist "Superwoman" was perhaps the only tune that indicated Wonder was a true genius in the making. It was a mature, composed, serious LP that stood in stark contrast to the innocent, youthful and carefree Wonder of the 60s. By the time Talking Book arrived later in the year, most ambitious black music seemed to pale in comparison to what Stevie was doing. Wonder had re-written the parameters of what African-American artists could do, creating highly personal, highly artistic music that has been a constant in the world of R&B from Al Green to Prince to Public Enemy to even the short-lived Fugees and right up to today's icons like John Legend. Perhaps without What's Going On, Stevie might have struggled a bit more to find his voice. 

But while Marvin's muse seemed more spiritual, self-doubting and extremely confessional at times (witness his sensual man at on 1973's classic Let's Get it On or 1976's erotic disco-esque song cycle I Want You, then his personal hurt and havoc on 1978's underrated divorce settlement album Here, My Dear), Stevie espoused a vision of love, peace and harmony that, while often undercut by sentiments of outrage and concern for social inequalities and world maladies, always seemed even more sincere than Gaye. Marvin had similar interests in jazz, but took to the free jazz, blues-jazz and cool jazz side of things for the most part, evidenced by his swinging soundtrack to the forgotten 1972 blaxploitation film Trouble Man. Wonder gravitated toward jazz forms of fusion, Latin, big band and modal jazz styles. As for the individuals themselves, Stevie was never the troubled kind of man Gaye was, as he has been continually lauded for making his blindness irrelevant, for fighting through the supposed barriers his lack of sight should have put up. 

As his genius blind predecessor Ray Charles (whom Motown compared "Little Stevie" to ad nauseum in the early 60s) had done, Wonder revolutionized black music in the face of disability. Charles' prime was cut short by personal struggles, mostly drug-related, and by the 1970s he was not as relevant as before, but his nearly 2 decades of brilliance is no more or less than Stevie's prime lasted. In the sense that he had a troubled personal life, Charles might have more in common with Gaye. Marvin's story reads much sadder than Charles, who lived long enough to be a living legend with a biopic film released shortly after his 2005 passing. Marvin's story reads more like a Shakespearan tragedy, not exactly a story tailored to a Hollwood happy ending. Gaye had endured a tumultous relationship with his abusive father, an ordained minister in the strict sect the House of God. This insecurity was exacerbated by his life on the road, his infidelities, his conflict between the spiritual and the sexual. 

Gaye's various hangups drew him to drugs as he used cocaine as a measure to reduce his worries. Relationships and marriage were torn apart by Marvin's whirlwind life and what became a crippling addiction to cocaine. It ended up consuming him financially and mentally before his murder at the hands of his dad, Marvin Gaye Sr., in 1984. Sometimes death can elevate an artist to higher stature, which could be argued with Gaye. But had he regained his composure, who's to say his 80s output would be mediocre? His creative juices were resilient and he even had made a commercial comeback with Midnight Love in 1982 with its lead single "Sexual Healing" cracking the top 3, making it his first true hit since the semi-disco "Got to Give it up" went to #1 in 1977. His divorce LP for Anna Gordy was much too nakedly personal for the public, while 1981's sendoff on Motown, In Our Lifetime?, had gone unnoticed despite it being Marvin's best album since Let's Get it On

Meanwhile, compare all that to Stevie's upbeat persona, positive energy and rosy outlook since the day he emerged on the music scene. It contrasts greatly with the moody, tortured, sometimes desperate expression of Gaye's music. Even when singing something happy, Gaye still had this aura of pain and burdening anger. When Wonder released the first of three straight Grammy winners (a symbolic approval of his newfound commercial and critical respect) in Talking Book, his image in the public's mind was revamped. No longer was he the cheery, jubilant harmonica playing teenage whiz. Now he was considered a serious and tremendous composer, changing the way pop records could sound. The runaway, almost unexpected success of "Superstition," a song retaining the traditional horns of 60s soul but in a funkier manner (not unlike the percussive use of horns by James Brown), did a lot to help in that transformation. Talking Book was the impetus for three more masterpiece releases that gave black artists a template by which to make albums an art form.

Stevie continued his outstanding use of synthesizers, seemingly employing different sounds for different emotions. A clavinet through a wah-wah pedal, a common feature of certain black acts of the 70s (a favourite of Billy Preston), for menacing funk like "Maybe Your Baby," "Big Brother" and the aformentioned "Superstition." ARP synth was the basis for the sweetly eclectic "You've Got it Bad Girl" and "Blame it on the Sun." Wonder's keyboard work was also distinctive with more conventional keys, such as electric piano, acoustic piano and organ. Wonder's ability to achieve something near a Tin Pan Alley knack for love songs that somehow defied corniness ("You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "You and I," "I Believe When I Fall in Love with You [It Will Be Forever]") was on display for Talking Book. The sprawling genius of Talking Book was replicated on Innervisions (1973), to a lesser extent Fulfilligness' First Finale (1974) and his double album quintessential work Songs in the Key of Life (1976). 

Afterward, Stevie made good albums (some bordered on great, like 1980's Hotter Than July), but seemed willing to write the occasional trite song and his affinity for gushy love songs became more cheesy than thrilling. Even his love songs suffered in comparison, either because they were too corny ("I Just Called to Say I Love You," the biggest hit in his career sadly enough) or over-the-top syrupy ("Overjoyed," actually written 6 years before its 1985 release). 1979's double LP Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants was perhaps Stevie's most ambitious project yet, but suffered from weaker material and half the tracks being New Agey instrumentals, thus snapping his streak of success. But there was no doubt that the breadth of his work in the 70s would reverberate through R&B for years. And that Marvin Gaye had truly gotten the ball rolling not long before Stevie's streak of imaginative creativity.

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