Drummer Bill Carbone, a good friend and colleague, wrote me an email today asking me about my upcoming launch of the “Fulfillingness Project,” where I’ll be doing arrangements of all the tunes from Fulfillingness’ First Finale with my trio. The question that stands out is how I chose this album, and honestly I can’t really claim to have chosen it, it really chose me. The number of artists I would say I “love” is probably in the hundreds, but there is a much smaller handful of those whose music are such a part of the fabric of my life that it seems weird for me to even refer to them in the same breath as others. So it goes with me for Stevie (and John Coltrane, in case you’re wondering).
As such, This is a tough list to compile on a couple levels. Most obviously, how do I pick only 10 tracks? Less obviously, how do I even frame the question to myself? Are these the songs that have influenced me the most as a musician? My favorites? The ones I feel to be the “greatest” of his career? Oy vey! In his heyday he was producing so much groundbreaking work that it’s actually kind of overwhelming – in a couple contexts recently I’ve come across Paul Simon’s Album of the Year acceptance speech for the 1975 Grammys, in which he thanked Stevie for not putting out an album that year.
So I have ultimately decided on approaching it as the top 10 tracks I cannot imagine living without; whether they are the “best” or “favorite” is of secondary importance here in that sense. Just as I can’t conceive of what my life would look like in the absence of the telephone or vegetables, I can’t imagine a world in which “Superstition” doesn’t exist. It’s like a force of nature, and describing it in terms of “favorites” almost trivializes that, as if I were having to choose which I prefer,” air or water. I also distinguish the impact of personal resonance from the impact of catchiness, though the two are hardly mutually exclusive. In the latter sense I also can’t imagine a world without “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (a song that seems to have been a psychic anticipation of the fact that someday the ringtone would exist), but that’s perhaps more akin to imagining a world without fast food. These, shall we say, less substantial ditties are still great for what they are, but they are not the subject of this list.
I thought about doing these chronologically, but that would be letting myself off to easily – instead, the list begins with the most indispensible in my life/reality and goes from there. Along those lines, my descriptions revolve around my relationships with the songs more than a nuts and bolts description of the tracks themselves. If in the absence of such musical analysis you’re not sure which of these you want to check out, let me give you a hint: ALL OF THEM.
1) “Superstition” from Talking Book.
In a story I’ve told many times, when I was about 6 I heard and saw Stevie Wonder performing this song on Sesame Street and in one of the biggest moments of clarity in my life said to myself “THAT is what I want to do.” I subsequently finagled a cassette copy of “Talking Book,” though at the time I really only listened to this song (save for the occasional foray into the album’s other hit, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”), over and over again, to the point where I could anticipate and sing along with most of the instrumental parts. I was no child genius, not by any stretch of the imagination, so this is a testament to just how much I loved the song and how deeply I wanted to understand it (the sort of learning in which I only engaged formally years later, after lots of piano lessons that were very useful but did not teach me how to do THAT). 30 years later, it has lost none of its freshness for me, though admittedly I do sometimes walk away from it for months at a time just to avoid getting super-saturated.
2) “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” from Hotter Than July.
After Talking Book, my next Stevie exposure came in the form of the 1980 album Hotter Than July, which my sister Alison got hot off the presses and which I did listen to in its entirety, and quite often. I was fond of “Rocket Love,” “Happy Birthday” (which I subsequently recorded on my Soul Force record, though at the time I had NO idea what it was about) and “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It.” But this tune, a Bob Marley tribute (again, I had no idea, even though Marley’s Kaya was another recent release in heavy rotation for me) was another that infiltrated my consciousness deeply, as I would sing along with the words (making up half the lyrics) and the super cool instrumental unison lines. Looking at it now, I think it’s not only a Stevie classic, but one of the best reggae songs ever produced by a non-Jamaican.
3) “Creepin” from Fulfillingness’ First Finale.
This whole album made a big impression on me when my roommate Roberto loaned me the cassette in 1994, and this song (the end of Side A) was when the light bulb really went on. I still remember walking up George Street to do my grocery shopping at C-Town (slogan: “the bad grocery you’re stuck with because this neighborhood is too scary for the mediocre ones to move in”) listening to the album, and when this song came on it was as if I had discovered a color I’d never seen before, which I suppose in a sense I had. During my 6 years studying jazz at Rutgers, I listened to music constantly and discovered a ton of life-alteringly great new stuff, but none of it opened my ears wider than this.
4) “As” from Songs in the Key of Life.
My oldest friend Noah Richardson gave me this 2-LP set around the time we graduated high school, as he was getting rid of his vinyl collection, and it took me a while before I listened to it. After all, I’d already heard “Sir Duke,” “Isn’t She Lovely” and “I Wish,” so what reason was there to listen to the album tracks? Suffice it to say I should have known better. I could have named at least a half-dozen songs from the album, but this is the one (even more than the aforementioned hits) that I go to first to lift my spirits (after which I move on to “Another Star,” then “Knocks Me Off My Feet” . . .).
5) “Superwoman” from Music of My Mind.
I feel as if I should be in a confessional booth (of the non-denominational variety, of course) each time I admit to a later-in-life discovery of a classic Stevie tune I feel like I should’ve known forever, and this one is perhaps the latest. Towards the end of grad school I discovered this album – I don’t really even remember how (it was presented to me from a couple different directions, including the aforementioned roommate and the esteemed jazz historian/scholar/pianist Lewis Porter), but I discovered that this album marked the real beginning of the adult/empowered Stevie. This track is one of the two that actually contains another musician (guitarist Buzzy Feiten, whose playing here I really enjoy), but the orchestra and choir of Stevie are just remarkable. I don’t love the lyrics on this one, but the otherworldly yet catchy music kills me every time.
6) “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” from Talking Book.
In high school I finally dug out my dusty cassette of Talking Book and decided to listen to the REST of the album. I love the whole thing now, and I was really struck by “Big Brother” (trivia – this was supposed to be a single until Motown pulled it and released “Superstition” instead), “Blame It On the Sun” and this one. I still find the passion on the chorus/vamp (starting around 2:39) to be unbelievably uplifting, and the layered vocals on this part along with the exciting drums to me represent a real highlight of Stevie’s “one man band” work.
7) “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” from Up-Tight (better known as a single).
I’m not sure if this still counts as “Little Stevie” – at what point did he become “medium-sized Stevie?” Anyway, I’ve been so influenced from Stevie’s 1972-1980 work that it’s easy to overlook the many amazing singles he put out before that, which I guess to me are more akin to the work of his Motown contemporaries from that era (Four Tops, Supremes, etc.). This is probably my favorite among these, featuring Stevie at his most ebullient.
8 ) “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” from Innervisions.
It was really hard for me to pick a stand-out song from Innervisions, even though I love the whole album. “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” are in the category of “I can’t imagine pop music without this,” while I’m always knocked out by “Golden Lady” (OMG, love that piano intro!), “Too High,” “Jesus Children of America” . . . okay, uh, I guess the whole album. This one gets me the most worked up, though – no matter how low my own energy may be at a particular moment, I get seriously pumped when I hear this song (musicians – is that part with all the resolving sus chords not one of the hippest things in modern pop music history?). It’s possible that the song is only this low on the list because of my years-long frustration that as hip as the tune is, I still haven’t figured out how to make it work for me in a jazz context.
9) “Pastime Paradise” from Songs in the Key of Life.
I already mentioned this album above, but I love this song for perhaps the opposite reason from “As.” While “As” is to me the standout among the uplifting tunes on the record, this one is my favorite of the edgy or unsettling ones (alongside “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”). I still remember where I was the first time I heard this one, and wondering how it could possibly be that a song this deep and memorable was never a hit single. I suppose Coolio had the same line of thinking a few years after that, but that’s another conversation.
10) “We Can Work It Out” from Signed, Sealed and Delivered.
By 1990 the Grammy ceremony was can’t-miss TV for me (a far cry from now when I don’t even have a TV and probably would skip the Grammys if I did – sorry Taylor Swift, no offense!). That year Paul McCartney was given a lifetime achievement award, and as part of the tribute, Stevie came out and did this one and holy crap did he rock the house. Geez, I wonder if it’s on YouTube (pause) – yes it is! Sweet! A little rough around the edges (out of tune backup vocals, awkward intro by Meryl Streep, Stevie off-mic for the first few bars of his harmonica solo), but Stevie, hoo-wee! Anyway, I subsequently discovered this LP (from 1970) in my sister Alison’s record collection and started listening to it intently. At that point I really didn’t know anything about the transition in Stevie’s music after he turned 21, which is probably good as I didn’t bring any existing biases to the table. There is some filler on it, but the whole first side of the record was just one excellent performance after another (most famously the awesome title track and “Heaven Help Us All”). I don’t know if I think this is the best track on it or if it’s just the memory of being wowed by it at age 16 that lingers . . . and I suppose in the context of this list it doesn’t even matter 🙂