Remembering the golden age of Wonder

 

His classic songs and albums have made an indelible mark on modern musical history, but it has been a long time since the Motown legend has touched the great heights he reached in the 1970s. Can his upcoming Dublin show satisfy his ardent fans, asks JIM CARROLL

LET’S BE HONEST with each other here – the Stevie Wonder who is heading to Dublin this summer is not the Stevie Wonder you really want to see. The Stevie Wonder who was the most prolific hit maker to come off Berry Gordy’s Motown conveyor belt and who went on to release five seminal, groundbreaking albums in the 1970s, is to be found on YouTube, not on the stage of the O2.

These days, Wonder, who turns 60 in May, is a man who seems content to trade on past glories. An artist who hasn’t released a decent album or penned a classic in years, Wonder is now on a never-ending lap of honour, where he’slauded all over the world by awestruck fans who remember him in his prime and feted by dignitaries with awards to hand out.

One week, he is in Paris, becoming a Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The next week, he’s in Washington DC, receiving the Gershwin Prize from self-proclaimed superfan president Obama.

Those gongs are then probably deposited in the room in the Wonder mansion devoted to such trinkets. There, they will sit alongside a sizeable haul of Grammy Awards, gold discs, humanitarian citations and a solitary Oscar (for I Just Called To Say I Love Youfrom The Woman In Redsoundtrack).

Given the huge hits Wonder enjoyed in the past and an astute business deal which means he owns all his publishing royalties, it’s unlikely that there’s any financial incentive for him to tour any more. However, he returned to the stage in 2006, after the death of his mother, for what became a two-year stint on the road. Reports from those shows were patchy, to say the least, with more time dedicated to long-winded ballads, interminable jazz-funk workouts and rather odd between-song banter, than to rolling out the classics.

Yet despite all these caveats and quibbles, it’s still blooming Stevie Wonder we’re talking about here. He’s the man who gave the world Talking Book, Innervisionsand Signed, Sealed and Delivered. The opportunity to see a bona-fide superstar in action is why his forthcoming Dublin show will be one of the summer’s hottest tickets.

He’s also been booked for the Glastonbury festival in England as this year’s token old-school kingpin.

As we’ve seen with Leonard Cohen in the past few years (who’s back again this year to add to his pension fund), Irish audiences have a sizeable appetite for heritage acts who haven’t been around in a few years. Wonder was last in Dublin in 1984, when I Just Called To Say I Love Youwas on release, so there are a lot of music fans who’ve been waiting quite some time for their chance to get some live Wonder into their lives.

ASIDE FROM THAT remarkable run of hit songs, the one fact everyone knows about the man born Stevland Hardaway Judkins is that he was blind from birth. This didn’t prevent him from learning how to play the piano, harmonica, drums and bass, or to sing in a church choir, by the time he was 11 years of age.

By the time he turned 13, Little Stevie Wonder was a Motown star with a number one tune already under his belt. Fingertips – Part 2 heralded the first golden age of Wonder, a time when the hyperactive youngster and ace practical joker was producing hits such as Uptight (Everything’s Alright), For Once In My Life, Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterdayand My Cherie Amour. When he wasn’t doing that, he was writing songs such as Tears Of A Clownfor Smokey Robinson, or even posing as Gordy to make prank phone calls to Motown staffers.

But like fellow Motown star Marvin Gaye (who also featured on Fingertips), Wonder tired of the label’s inherent conservatism and factory-like approach to making music.

He let his contract with the label lapse, left Motown on his 21st birthday and recorded two albums off his own bat. Using these recordings as leverage, he negotiated a much better deal for himself with Gordy, which gave him full creative control and a much more lucrative royalty split. All at Motown realised that Little Stevie had grown up.

The release of Music Of My Mindin 1972 launched Wonder’s second golden era. Unlike previous Wonder albums, which were never more than a collections of singles and B-sides, Music of My Mindwas a coherent, musically ambitious and lyrically astute body of work. As Wonder rounded out his musical palette with synthesizers and keyboards, his songs examined racial, spiritual and social issues.

The next four albums were just as expansive. With Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness First Finaleand Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder demonstrated all aspects of his musical ability. There was irresistible funk ( Superstition), political acumen ( Living for the City), reflective experimentation ( They Won’t Go When I Go), fantastic schmaltzy pop tunes ( You Are the Sunshine of My Life) and, just for good measure, more of the above (the majestic Songs in the Key of Lifealbum).

If the 1970s saw Wonder at his creative best, the 1980s were the polar opposite. He kept making records (and yes, those records sold), but the likes of I Just Called To Say I Love Youand the appalling Ebony And Ivoryduet with Paul McCartney weren’t a patch on what he had done before. He may well have been capable of doing better, but Wonder appeared content merely to go through the motions.

Perhaps his mind was on other things. He was one of the leading campaigners to have Martin Luther King’s birthday declared an official holiday in the United States. With a 1981 single, Happy Birthday, helping to promote the cause, Wonder and fellow campaigners were successful and Martin Luther King Day came into existence in 1986.

SINCE THEN, THE twice-married father of seven has become pop’s favourite elder statesman. As befits a man of this stature, he has dueted with the great and the not-so-great, including Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, Sting and Andrea Bocelli. Albums such as Conversation Peaceand A Time to Lovehave been recorded, released and, at best, politely received.

Nevertheless, Wonder’s forthcoming Dublin show will likely be a sell-out. Reviews of recent shows should act as a “caveat emptor” warning to fans to lower their expectations, but there is still only one Stevie Wonder doing the rounds. Music fans are optimists by nature, and there is always the chance, slight though it may be, that this could be the tour when Wonder remembers the good old days and really goes for it again. It could be like that fabulous YouTube clip from a 1973 episode of Sesame Streetwhere Wonder and his band turn up the heat with Superstition.

Wonder himself must realise that when people rave about his music, even his biggest, most illustrious fans gravitate towards the classic records.

In the middle of the US presidential campaign in 2008, Barack Obama talked to Rolling Stone magazine about his musical likes.

“If I had one musical idol, it would have to be Stevie Wonder,” the soon-to-be president declared. “When I was at that point where you start getting involved in music, Stevie had that run with Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Fulfillingness’ First Finaleand Innervisions, then Songs in the Key of Life. Those are as brilliant a set of five albums as we’ve ever seen.”

We can take it, then, that Ebony and Ivory probably doesn’t feature on the White House iPod.

CV

Who is he?Iconic American singer and Motown legend

Why is he in the news?He has just announced a show for Dublin’s O2 on June 24th. Tickets go on sale next Thursday.

Most likely to say“This one’s for you, Barack!”

Least likely to say“Hey guys, let’s do Songs in the Key of Life from start to finish tonight”