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Stevie Wonder in the 1960s

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Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.

There was a period of time in the mid 1970s when Stevie Wonder could seemingly do wrong—his so-called “classic period.” But before this, he was known as “Little” Stevie Wonder, a multi-talented teenager signed to Motown Records still discovering his voice. And that’s my focus this week. The 1960s for Stevie Wonder is an interesting chapter in pop music history, as Motown Records tried to figure out how to market the young phenom, while Stevie tried to develop his own sound. It’s a journey of hits and misses through pop, soul, jazz, and the Great American Songbook.

It’s Stevie Wonder in the 1960s, coming up next on Afterglow.

<music - Stevie Wonder, “Hello Young Lovers”>

Stevie Wonder in 1969 with the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein song “Hello Young Lovers,” originally from the musical The King And I. That comes from Wonder’s 1969 album My Cherie Amour, an eclectic mix of jazz standards and newer material, recorded in a variety of styles. So while Wonder might have taken an old pop standard like “Hello Young Lovers,” once sung by crooners like Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, and felt the need to turn it into a groovy up-tempo R&B tune, that wasn’t not always the case. Just a few tracks later on the same album, he took the newer pop standard, Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster’s “The Shadow of Your Smile” from the 1965 film The Sandpiper, and performed it in a pretty typical manner, not unlike how Tony Bennett, Bobby Darrin or Frank Sinatra had recently performed it.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "The Shadow of Your Smile">

Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re looking at the 1960s work of Stevie Wonder. 

This show is in some ways a follow-up to two different shows I’ve done in the past: one on Aretha Franklin and one on Marvin Gaye. For all three of these artists—Franklin, Gaye, and Wonder—their talent was clear from the outset. However, these kinds of singular talents don’t always have a clear place in the established music industry, at least at first. So the first several years of their careers are often a series of false starts and missteps, as record labels figure out how to place them and the artists themselves figure out what kind of career they want. In the case of these three artists, those early career maneuvers all took a detour into the music of the Great American Songbook.

Stevland Hardaway Morris, dubbed “Little Stevie Wonder,” was a prodigy. Born in Michigan in 1950, and blind from birth, the young Stevland showed immense talent at nearly every instrument he could get his hands on. At age 11, he was signed to nearby Motown Records and given his stage name.

At first, Wonder was thought of mostly as a novelty: a blind pre-teen who could sing and play harmonica, keyboards, bongos, and the drumset as well as any professional musician. His first two albums, recorded shortly after he was signed, and released within a month of each other in 1962, show right away how Motown was grappling with exactly how to market their new young talent.

One album featured all instrumentals, with Stevie being showcased on drumset, bongos, piano, organ, and harmonica.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "The Square">

It was called The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, demonstrating that even at the beginning, Motown knew Wonder’s talent was bigger than just one genre. Besides showing off the talent of Motown’s young star, which even then was better than some of the other players on the record, the album was unremarkable. The only notable song was the opening track, an original song called “Fingertips,” named because it was a showcase for Wonder’s skill on the bongos.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Fingertips">

This song plays an important part in Stevie Wonder’s musical history, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

The other album he recorded showed off the young musician’s still under-developed voice and was an even more crude marketing ploy from Motown. Called Tribute To Uncle Ray, the album featured all covers of Ray Charles songs, clearly (and shamelessly) drawing a connection between the two blind musicians. 

Besides that most obvious similarity, Little Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, 20 years his senior, didn’t really have all that much in common. There was a raw sensuality in Charles’s gospel- and blues-inspired vocals, and an infectious, exciting pop energy to Wonder—an energy that would stick with him for the rest of his career. To hear the pre-teen growl through a Charles blues number like “Drown In My Own Tears” just falls flat.

However, even early on, you can hear the seeds of the talent that would soon begin to blossom. Here now is Stevie Wonder in 1962 with Ray Charles’s “Ain’t That Love,” on Afterglow.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Ain’t That Love">

An 11-year-old Stevie Wonder performing the Ray Charles song “Ain’t That Love,” from one of his first Motown Records Tribute To Uncle Ray.

After the critical and commercial failure of Little Stevie Wonder’s first two albums, Motown didn’t drop him from the label, but rather put him on the road. He became part of a Motown musical revue that travelled around the country. Motown recorded one of these revues on June 1, 1962 at Chicago’s Regal Theatre. That night, the so-called “12-year old genius” Little Stevie Wonder put on quite the show performing his song “Fingertips.” 

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Fingertips Part 1">

In the song you can hear the struggle play out between the hemmed in Motown product and the uninhibited artist just waiting to burst out. “Fingertips Part 1,” which you’re hearing right now, is Little Stevie playing the song as is from the record. It’s energetic, but still a bit conservative—even featuring a little bit of traditional jazz harmony. 

But when the song should have ended, the 12-year-old Stevie, brimming with talent, refused to leave the stage. From here on out, it was all soul and all Stevie. This remarkable second part of the song, “Fingertips Part 2,” was packaged and released as a single. In 1963, it hit number one on the Billboard pop charts, becoming Stevie Wonder’s first number one song, and his only number-one single for almost a decade.

Here is Little Stevie Wonder live with “Fingertips, Part 2,” on Afterglow.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Fingertips Part 2">

Little Stevie Wonder in 1962, the 12-year-old genius, with his first number one single, a live performance of his instrumental song “Fingertips.” 

After this initial success for Wonder, Stevie Wonder’s career still stagnated for a while. A few factors played into this. One was the young man’s changing voice, which was still in need of some polish. It made for several records through the mid-1960s that didn’t quite represent the immensity of his talent.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Without A Song">

The other was Motown’s direction. With a new pop-chart-topping phenom, they decided to push Stevie Wonder towards a broader audience, instead of realizing that the key to Wonder’s success was actually his precocious independence. 

This push towards a broader audience meant that Stevie’s next album was an album of jazz and pop standards called With A Song In My Heart. They even brought in veteran jazz arranger Ernie Wilkins, who had worked with Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, to write the arrangements. The arrangements were good—but it was Wonder who lacked the ability, again mostly due to a changing voice. However there’s also a sense that perhaps a 13-year-old might not have been ready to interpret the Great American Songbook, music usually performed by singers at least twice his age.

I’ll play something from that record now. This is Stevie Wonder from his 1964 album With A Song In My Heart, performing the Charlie Chaplin standard “Smile,” on Afterglow.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Smile">

A 13-year old Stevie Wonder with the pop standard “Smile,” from his 1963 album With A Song In My Heart, an album of jazz and pop standards arranged by Ernie Wilkins.

With A Song In My Heart was not a hit for Stevie Wonder, so for his next record, Motown turned him away from the middle-of-the-road Frank Sinatra/Nat King Cole route, and back towards the teen market. The album Stevie At The Beach was clearly trying to capitalize on the Beach Boys-era surfer music trend, although Motown’s interpretation of it. (Stevie had also made guest appearances in films like Bikini Beach starring Annette Funicello at this time).

The single from the record was a showcase for Little Stevie’s instrumental chops, a novelty record called “Hey Harmonica Man,” which was a modest hit.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Hey Harmonica Man">

But it also included some more traditional numbers, including instrumental versions of songs like “Red Sails In The Sunset,” plus newer pop standards like this next song.

Here is Stevie Wonder with the Charles Trenet and Jack Lawrence song “Beyond The Sea,” on Afterglow

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Beyond The Sea">

Stevie Wonder with the pop standard “Beyond The Sea,” from his 1964 album Stevie At The Beach.

Coming up after a short break, Stevie Wonder comes into his own, as we continue to explore the young musician’s work in the 1960s. Stay with us.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Paulsby">

Production support for Afterglow comes from:

Soma Coffee House and Juice bar, specializing in juices, espressos and Fair Trade Organic Coffee. Serving from downtown at Kirkwood and Grant and on the corner of third and Jordan. Online at i heart soma dot com

And from Stephen R Miller C P A, in downtown Bloomington at Graham Plaza, offering personal and small business income tax preparation and financial reporting. Helping clients reach financial goals for over thirty years. 8-1-2 - 3-3-2 - 0-5-5-7

I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Red Sails In The Sunset">

Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been looking at the 1960s work of musician Stevie Wonder this hour, a time before his “classic period” in the 1970s, when the young singer was experimenting with pop, soul, jazz, and the Great American Songbook.

A very important thing happened to Stevie Wonder around 1965—his voice changed. Now 15 years old, Wonder was beginning to shed his “Little Stevie” kid persona and starting to move into his own as a singer, performer, and songwriter.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Uptight (Everything's Alright)">

“Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” released in November 1965, was the single that saved Stevie Wonder’s career. He hadn’t had a hit since 1963’s “Fingertips, Part 2,” and with “Uptight” Stevie Wonder and Motown found the magic formula, although they didn’t quite realize it yet. “Uptight” was co-written by Wonder along with his frequent collaborators Hank Cosby and Sylvia Moy. With Wonder as co-writer, it shows the artist now shaping his own destiny instead of being pushed around by the label. In this way, it’s very much like his first hit “Fingertips, Part 2,” a moment when the precocious 12-year-old defied his handlers and kept performing on stage in the way he wanted to.

However on his 1966 record Up-Tight, Motown still kept pushing Wonder towards a crossover audience. So for every pure R&B song like “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby,” <clip>

You have a cover of a song like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or a more traditional jazz standard, like the Gene De Paul and Sammy Cahn song “Teach Me Tonight.”

“Teach Me Tonight” was always a bluesy standard. One of the first and finest recordings of this tune came in 1955 from Count Basie and blues shouter Joe Williams

<music - Joe Williams, "Teach Me Tonight">

In Stevie Wonder’s hands, it’s much more rhythm than blues, sung as a duet with Motown labelmates The Four Tops. It’s amazing how in just about a year’s time, Stevie Wonder’s voice had become strong enough to spar with the great Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, one of the finest R&B vocalists of all time.

Here’s that recording now. Stevie Wonder and The Four Tops with the jazz standard “Teach Me Tonight,” on Afterglow.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Teach Me Tonight">

Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops, featuring lead singer Levi Stubbs, performing the Gene De Paul and Sammy Cahn standard “Teach Me Tonight.” That’s from Stevie Wonder’s 1966 album Up-Tight.

Wonder’s follow-up to Up-Tight, the 1966 album Down To Earth was a commercial step back for the artist. It produced one single, the Ronald Miller and Bryan Wells song “A Place In The Sun,” a fairly conservative middle-of-the-road pop single… <clip>

“A Place In The Sun” became kind of a pop standard, sung by Diana Ross, Glen Campbell, and even Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother.

Down To Earth also included a few more Stevie Wonder originals, written alongside his collaborators Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy. The original song “Thank You Love” is notable because it shows Wonder, who mostly wrote the music not the lyrics, stretching his harmonic boundaries and demonstrating a growing sophistication. The chord progression on “Thank You Love,” full of borrowed and seventh chords, is now starting to resemble Wonder’s more jazz-inspired songs from the 1970s.

Let’s listen to that now. Here is Stevie Wonder in 1966 with his original song “Thank You Love,” on Afterglow.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Thank You Love">

Stevie Wonder with “Thank You Love,” a song he co-wrote with Hank Cosby and Sylvia Moy for his 1966 album Down To Earth.

In 1967, Stevie Wonder’s next album I Was Made To Love Her brought him further away from the jazz and middle-of-the-road pop sound towards something much more R&B heavy. On this record, his music resembles something more akin to the late 1960s Motown sound developed by The Four Tops, The Temptations, and the backing band The Funk Brothers—driving, raw, and edgy.

The album featured covers of earlier Motown and R&B hits, like The Temptations “My Girl,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and James Brown’s “Please Please Please.” And it also featured his number 2 pop single “I Was Made To Love Her.”

Let me play that song now. This is Stevie Wonder in 1967 with the R&B song “I Was Made To Love Her,” on Afterglow

<music - Stevie Wonder, "I Was Made To Love Her">

Stevie Wonder with his 1967 R&B hit “I Was Made To Love Her,” from the album of the same name. That was co-written by Wonder, Hank Cosby, Sylvia Moy, and his Wonder’s mother Lula Mae Hardaway.

After I Was Made To Love Her, Stevie Wonder’s career took a few odd detours. The end of 1967 saw a Christmas album Someday At Christmas

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Someday At Christmas">

and later in 1968, the instrumental easy-listening album curiously titled Eivets Rednow (which is Stevie Wonder spelled backwards). This album was centered around Wonder’s harmonica cover of the Burt Bacharach song “Alfie,” which actually became a minor pop hit for Wonder in 1968.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "Alfie">

Finally at the end of 1968, Wonder found his way back with the album For Once In My Life. The centerpiece of the album was actually a song made famous by none other than Tony Bennett. The song “For Once In My Life” was written as a ballad in 1965  by Motown songwriters Orlando Murden and Ron Miller. Miller had also co-written Stevie Wonder’s songs “A Place In The Sun” and “Someday At Christmas.” 

They had shopped the song around to a few different Motown artists and other jazz and pop singers, when it finally fell into the lap of Tony Bennett in 1967.

<music - Tony Bennett, "For Once In My Life">

Bennett was able to turn “For Once In My Life” into a respectable pop standard. Around the same time, the song also made its way to Ron Miller’s old buddy Stevie Wonder, who transformed the ballad into an up-tempo number. The song was shelved for several months. But when it was finally released at the end of 1968, a year after Bennett’s, it climbed to number 2 on the Billboard charts.

Here’s that song now. Stevie Wonder and “For Once In My Life,” on Afterglow.

<music - Stevie Wonder, "For Once in My Life">
<music - Stevie Wonder, "God Bless The Child">

Two songs from the 1968 Stevie Wonder album For Once In My Life. Just now, we heard his cover of the Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog song “God Bless The Child,” one of the many jazz standards he recorded in the late 1960s. Before that, Wonder’s hit version of the Ron Miller and Orlando Murden song “For Once In My Life,” made famous the previous year by singer Tony Bennett.

Stevie Wonder’s final album of the 1960s, My Cherie Amour from 1969, is also the final album that showed Wonder fully under the creative control of Motown producers. The album then is a curious mix of jazz standards like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Hello Young Lovers,” pop covers like The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” and new material like the title track. This mix highlights both Wonder’s growing ability as a jazz songwriter alongside his funk and R&B credibility. 

So on the one hand, you have a Stevie Wonder original “My Cherie Amour,” co-written again with Hank Cosby and Sylvia Moy, full of sophisticated jazz chord progressions, not unlike those heard on the 1966 song “Thank You Love” and on later Stevie Wonder originals. 

<music - Stevie Wonder, "My Cherie Amour">

But on the other hand, you have the 1941 jazz standard “At Last” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, turned into a driving, up-tempo R&B song, not unlike Wonder’s treatment of “For Once In My Life.”

By the 1970s, on albums like Signed, Sealed & Delivered, Music Of My Mind, or Talking Book, these jazz standards had been scrubbed from Wonder’s output. With Wonder now in the driver’s seat of his own production and songwriting, the 1970s were a period defined by a unified sound and complete creative control. That precocious, independent 12-year-old had finally come into own, forming a unique mixture of jazz, R&B and pop, shaped by the creative challenges (and missteps) of the 1960s.

To close off this hour, let’s hear one of the last jazz standards Stevie Wonder ever recorded, his 1969 recording of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s “At Last,” on Afterglow.

From Stevie Wonder’s 1969 album My Cherie Amour, that was the Harry Warren and Mack Gordon standard “At Last.”

And thanks for tuning in to this look at Stevie Wonder in the 1960s, on Afterglow.

<music - Larry Goldings, "Boogie On Reggae Woman">

Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University, and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.

Production support for Afterglow comes from:

Soma Coffee House and Juice bar, specializing in juices, espressos and Fair Trade Organic Coffee. Serving from downtown at Kirkwood and Grant and on the corner of third and Jordan. Online at i heart soma dot com

And from Stephen R Miller C P A, in downtown Bloomington at Graham Plaza, offering personal and small business income tax preparation and financial reporting. Helping clients reach financial goals for over thirty years. 8-1-2 - 3-3-2 - 0-5-5-7

Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.

I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow

stevie-with-a-song

Stevie Wonder's 1963 album "With A Song In My Heart" consists of all jazz standards sung by the young teenager. (Album Cover)

There was a period of time in the mid-1970s when Stevie Wonder could seemingly do wrong—his so-called “classic period.” But before this, he was known as “Little” Stevie Wonder, a multi-talented teenager signed to Motown Records and still discovering his voice. The 1960s for Stevie Wonder are an interesting chapter in pop music history, as Motown Records tried to figure out how to market the young phenom, while Stevie tried to develop his own sound. 

This show is in some ways a follow-up to two different shows I’ve done in the past: one on Aretha Franklin and one on Marvin Gaye. For all three of these artists—Franklin, Gaye, and Wonder—their talent was clear from the outset. However, these kinds of singular talents don’t always have a clear place in the established music industry, at least at first. So the first several years of their careers are often a series of false starts and missteps, as record labels figure out how to place them, and the artists figure out what kind of career they want and how to shape the industry around themselves.

In the case of these three artists, those early-career maneuvers all took a detour into the music of the Great American Songbook.


"Little" Stevie Wonder

Stevland Hardaway Morris, dubbed “Little” Stevie Wonder, was a prodigy. Born in Michigan in 1950, and blind from birth, the young Stevland showed immense talent at nearly every instrument he could get his hands on. At age 11, he was signed to nearby Motown Records and given his stage name.

At first, Wonder was thought of mostly as a novelty: a blind pre-teen who could sing and play harmonica, keyboards, bongos, and the drumset as well as any professional musician. His first two albums, recorded shortly after he was signed, and released within a month of each other in 1962, show right away how Motown was grappling with exactly how to market their new young talent.

One album featured all instrumentals, with Stevie being showcased on drumset, bongos, piano, organ, and harmonica. It was called The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, demonstrating that even at the beginning, Motown knew Wonder’s talent was bigger than just one genre. Besides showing off the talent of Motown’s young star, which even then was better than some of the other players on the record, the album was unremarkable. The only notable song was the opening track, an original song called “Fingertips,” named because it was a showcase for Wonder’s skill on the bongos. This song would end up playing an important part in Stevie Wonder’s musical history.

The other album he recorded showed off the young musician’s still under-developed voice and was an even more crude marketing ploy from Motown. Called Tribute To Uncle Ray, the album featured all covers of Ray Charles songs, clearly (and shamelessly) drawing a connection between the two blind musicians. 

Besides that most obvious similarity, Little Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles (20 years Stevie's senior) didn’t really have all that much in common. There was a raw sensuality in Charles’s gospel- and blues-inspired vocals, and an infectious, exciting pop energy to Wonder—an energy that would stick with him for the rest of his career. To hear the pre-teen growl through a Charles blues number like “Drown In My Own Tears” just falls flat.

"Fingertips, Part 2"

After the critical and commercial failure of Little Stevie Wonder’s first two albums, Motown didn’t drop him from the label, but rather put him on the road. He became part of a Motown musical revue that traveled around the country. Motown recorded one of these revues on June 1, 1962 at Chicago’s Regal Theatre. That night, the so-called “12-year old genius” Little Stevie Wonder put on quite the show performing his song “Fingertips.” 

In the song, you can hear the struggle play out between the hemmed-in Motown product and the uninhibited artist just waiting to burst out. “Fingertips Part 1”  is Little Stevie playing the song as-is from the record. It’s energetic, but still a bit conservative—even featuring a little bit of traditional jazz harmony. 

 But when the song should have ended, the 12-year-old Stevie, brimming with talent, refused to leave the stage. From here on out, it was all soul and all Stevie. This remarkable second part of the song, “Fingertips Part 2,” was packaged and released as a single. In 1963, it hit number one on the Billboard pop charts, becoming Stevie Wonder’s first number one song, and his only number-one single for almost a decade.

 

With A Song In My Heart

After this initial success for Wonder, Stevie Wonder’s career still stagnated for a while. A few factors played into this. One was the young man’s changing voice, which was still in need of some polish. It made for several records through the mid-1960s that didn’t quite represent the immensity of his talent.

The other was Motown’s direction. With a new pop-chart-topping phenom, they decided to push Stevie Wonder towards a broader audience, instead of realizing that the key to Wonder’s success was actually his precocious independence. 

This push towards a broader audience meant that Stevie’s next album was an album of jazz and pop standards called With A Song In My Heart. They even brought in veteran jazz arranger Ernie Wilkins, who had worked with Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, to write the arrangements. The arrangements were good—but it was Wonder who lacked the ability, again mostly due to a changing voice. However, there’s also a sense that perhaps a 13-year-old might not have been ready to interpret the Great American Songbook, music usually performed by singers at least twice his age.

Stevie At The Beach

With A Song In My Heart was not a hit for Stevie Wonder, so for his next record, Motown turned him away from the middle-of-the-road Frank Sinatra/Nat King Cole route, and back towards the teen market. The album Stevie At The Beach was clearly trying to capitalize on the Beach Boys-era surfer music trend, although Motown’s interpretation of it. (Stevie had also made guest appearances in films like Bikini Beach starring Annette Funicello at this time).

The single from the record was a showcase for Little Stevie’s instrumental chops, a novelty record called “Hey Harmonica Man,” which was a modest hit. But it also included some more traditional numbers, including instrumental versions of songs like “Red Sails In The Sunset,” plus newer pop standards like the Charles Trenet and Jack Lawrence song “Beyond The Sea,” made famous by Bobby Darin.

Years later, Stevie Wonder would say that both With A Song In My Heart and Stevie At The Beach were an "embarrassing" part of his career. 

Uptight

A very important thing happened to Stevie Wonder around 1965—his voice changed. Now 15 years old, Wonder was beginning to shed his “Little Stevie” kid persona and starting to move into his own as a singer, performer, and songwriter. 

“Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” released in November 1965, was the single that saved Stevie Wonder’s career. He hadn’t had a hit since 1963’s “Fingertips, Part 2,” and with “Uptight,” Stevie Wonder and Motown found the magic formula, although they didn’t quite realize it yet. “Uptight” was co-written by Wonder along with his frequent collaborators Hank Cosby and Sylvia Moy. With Wonder as co-writer, it shows the artist now shaping his own destiny instead of being pushed around by the label. In this way, it’s very much like his first hit “Fingertips, Part 2,” a moment when the precocious 12-year-old defied his handlers and kept performing on stage in the way he wanted to.

However, on his 1966 record Up-Tight, Motown still kept pushing Wonder towards a crossover audience. So for every pure R&B song like “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby,” you have a cover of a song like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or a more traditional jazz standard, like the Gene De Paul and Sammy Cahn song “Teach Me Tonight.”

“Teach Me Tonight” was always a bluesy standard. One of the first and finest recordings of this tune came in 1955 from Count Basie and blues shouter Joe Williams. In Stevie Wonder’s hands, it’s much more rhythm than blues, sung as a duet with Motown labelmates The Four Tops. It’s amazing how in just about a year’s time, Stevie Wonder’s voice had become strong enough to spar with the great Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, one of the finest R&B vocalists of all time.

Down To Earth

Wonder’s follow-up to Up-Tight, the 1966 album Down To Earth was a commercial step back for the artist. It produced one single, the Ronald Miller and Bryan Wells song “A Place In The Sun,” a fairly conservative middle-of-the-road pop single. “A Place In The Sun” became somewhat of a pop standard, sung by Diana Ross, Glen Campbell, and even Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother.

Down To Earth also included a few more Stevie Wonder originals, written alongside his collaborators Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy. The original song “Thank You Love” is notable because it shows Wonder, who mostly wrote the music not the lyrics, stretching his harmonic boundaries and demonstrating a growing sophistication. The chord progression on “Thank You Love,” full of borrowed and seventh chords, is now starting to resemble Wonder’s more jazz-inspired songs from the 1970s.


I Was Made To Love Her

In 1967, Stevie Wonder’s next album I Was Made To Love Her brought him further away from the jazz and middle-of-the-road pop sound and towards something much more R&B heavy. On this record, his music resembles something more akin to the late 1960s Motown sound developed by The Four Tops, The Temptations, and the backing band The Funk Brothers—driving, raw, and edgy.

The album featured covers of earlier Motown and R&B hits, like The Temptations “My Girl,” Aretha Franklin’s (and Otis Redding’s) “Respect” and James Brown’s “Please Please Please.” And it also featured his number 2 pop single “I Was Made To Love Her," co-written by Wonder, Hank Cosby, Sylvia Moy, and his Wonder’s mother Lula Mae Hardaway. This song was one of the first that resembled Stevie Wonder's hard-edged R&B that would define part of his early 1970s sound.

For Once In My Life

After I Was Made To Love Her, Stevie Wonder’s career took a few odd detours. The end of 1967 saw a Christmas album Someday At Christmas and later in 1968, the instrumental easy-listening album curiously titled Eivets Rednow (which is "Stevie Wonder" spelled backward). This album was centered around Wonder’s harmonica cover of the Burt Bacharach song “Alfie,” which actually became a minor pop hit for Wonder in 1968.

Finally, at the end of 1968, Wonder found his way back with the album For Once In My Life. The centerpiece of the album was actually a song made famous by none other than Tony Bennett. The song “For Once In My Life” was written as a ballad in 1965  by Motown songwriters Orlando Murden and Ron Miller. Miller had also co-written Stevie Wonder’s songs “A Place In The Sun” and “Someday At Christmas.”

Miller and Murden had shopped the song around to a few different Motown artists and other jazz and pop singers when it finally fell into the lap of Tony Bennett in 1967. Bennett was able to turn “For Once In My Life” into a respectable pop standard. Around the same time, the song also made its way to Ron Miller’s old buddy Stevie Wonder, who transformed the ballad into an up-tempo number. The song was shelved for several months. But when it was finally released at the end of 1968, a year after Bennett’s, it climbed to number 2 on the Billboard charts. 

On that same album, Wonder also recorded more straight-ahead R&B songs like "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day" alongside other jazz standards, like Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog's "God Bless The Child."



My Cherie Amour

Stevie Wonder’s final album of the 1960s, My Cherie Amour from 1969, is also the final album that showed Wonder completely under the creative control of Motown producers. The album then is a curious mix of jazz standards like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Hello Young Lovers” (recorded like an R&B song), pop/rock covers like The Doors’ “Light My Fire” (recorded in a mid-tempo style similarly to José Feliciano's 1968 version), newer pop standards like Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster's The Shadow Of Your Smile” (recorded like a middle-of-the-road pop song), and new material like the title track. This mix highlights both Wonder’s growing ability as a jazz songwriter alongside his funk and R&B credibility. 

So on the one hand, you have a Stevie Wonder original “My Cherie Amour,” co-written again with Hank Cosby and Sylvia Moy, full of sophisticated jazz chord progressions, not unlike those heard on the 1966 song “Thank You Love” and on later Stevie Wonder originals. 

But on the other hand, you have the 1941 jazz standard “At Last” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, turned into a driving, up-tempo R&B song, not unlike Wonder’s treatment of “For Once In My Life.”


By the 1970s, on albums like Signed, Sealed & Delivered, Music Of My MindTalking Book, or Songs In The Key Of Life, these jazz standards had been scrubbed from Wonder’s output. With Wonder now in the driver’s seat of his own production and songwriting, the 1970s were a period defined by a unified sound and complete creative control. That precocious, independent 12-year-old from 1962 had finally come into own, forming a unique mixture of jazz, R&B and pop, shaped by the creative challenges (and missteps) of the 1960s.



For more information about Stevie Wonder in the 1960s, check out Chris Molanphy’s excellent podcast Hit Parade, and the “Everybody Say Yeah!” episode he did on "Fingertips, Part 2."

I also consulted James E. Perone’s fine book The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words and Music (Praeger, 2006) in researching this episode.

Music Heard On This Episode

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