Soul Serenade: Curtis Mayfield — Keep On Keeping On

Curtis MayfieldCurtis Mayfield was 14 years old when he joined the group that would become the Impressions. He was born in Chicago in 1942 and by the time he was seven, he was singing in the church’s gospel choir with a group called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Mayfield became friends with Jerry Butler in high school and in 1956, he joined Butler’s group, the Roosters. The other members of the group were the brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks. Two years later, the group changed their name to the Impressions and added Sam Gooden to the lineup.

The Impressions had an early smash with Butler singing lead on “Your Precious Love” and it was enough to motivate Butler to leave the group to start a solo career. Mayfield followed him and co-wrote and played on Butler’s solo hit “He Will Break Your Heart.” But Mayfield wasn’t interested in being a sideman and soon returned to the Impressions who had replaced Butler with Fred Cash. It was the classic Impressions lineup of Mayfield, Gooden, and Cash which signed with ABC Records and released a string of hits which began in 1961 with “Gypsy Woman” and continued with “I’m So Proud,” “It’s Alright,” “Keep on Pushing,” “Amen,” “We’re a Winner,” and “Choice of Colors,” which would be the last hit that Mayfield recorded with the Impressions.

After 14 years with the group, Mayfield left the Impressions to start a solo career. That is where Keep On Keeping On, the new box set from Rhino Records begins. Rhino has lovingly collected Mayfield’s first four solo albums to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of Mayfield’s solo career and to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. The set begins with Mayfield’s first solo album, Curtis, which was released in 1970 and reached the Top 20 on its way to becoming a Gold Album. Curtis includes the hit singles “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” and “Move on Up.” In addition to its commercial success, Curtis was one of the most influential albums of its time, inspiring later socially conscious work by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

Curtis Mayfield - Keep On Keeping OnA year after his successful debut as a solo artist, Mayfield returned with Roots, which reached the Top 10 on the R&B chart. While not quite as successful as the debut, Roots scored with hits like “Get Down,” “Beautiful Brother of Mine,” and “We Got to Have Peace.” Mayfield’s next effort, which is not included in this set because it was not a true solo album, was his incredibly successful soundtrack for the film Super Fly. The album went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts and pushed two singles, “Freddie’s Dead,” and “Superfly” into the Top 10.

In 1973, Mayfield released his third proper solo album, Back to the World. The album topped the R&B chart and returned Mayfield to the Top 20 on the pop albums chart. The album’s hit singles included “Future Shock,” “If I Were a Child Again,” and “Can’t Say Nothin’.” Mayfield’s fourth solo album and the final one collected in this set was released in 1974. Sweet Exorcist came within a whisker of the top spot on the R&B chart, settling at #2 and also found Top 40 success on the pop chart. The album’s success was driven by two hit singles, the title track, and “Kung Fu.”

Keep On Keeping On ends with the Sweet Exorcist album but fortunately, Mayfield’s career did not. He continued to record into the 1990s and standout albums from this period included Sparkle (1976) and Heartbeat (1979). “So In Love,” released in 1975, was the last Mayfield single to hit the pop chart but records like “Only You Babe” (1976), “You Are, You Are” (1978), and “She Don’t Let Nobody (But Me)” (1981), continued to find success on the R&B chart. In all, Mayfield scored more than 30 solo hits on the R&B chart to go along with a similar number of R&B hits during his time with the Impressions.

On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed when a lighting rig fell on him during a show in Brooklyn. The accident ended his career as a guitar player but he could still write songs and sing, something he did to great effect on his final album, New World Order, in 1997. Mayfield died of complications from diabetes in 1999.

Curtis Mayfield is remembered for introducing social activism into soul music. The Impressions hits “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” and “We’re A Winner” became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and were often used by Martin Luther King to inspire marchers. Mayfield and the Impressions were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 (he was also inducted into the Rock Hall as a solo artist in 1999, one of a handful of double inductees). He received a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Just before he died, Mayfield was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Soul Serenade: The Vibrations, “My Girl Sloopy”

The VibrationsI saw a lot of amazing musicians when I was a kid growing up in Atlantic City in the 1960s. Every summer, the city’s famous Steel Pier became the epicenter for shows by some of the best-known artists of the day. There were appearances by Chubby Checker, Duke Ellington, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Count Basie, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles among many others. Dick Clark even brought his Caravan of Stars to the Pier every summer from 1960-1964. Those shows included artists like the Shirelles, and the Crystals.

One group that I remember seeing at Steel Pier on several occasions was the Vibrations. They first got together in Los Angeles in the 1950s and called themselves the Jay Hawks. They had a Top 20 hit in 1956 with “Stranded in the Jungle” on Flash Records. By 1961 they were known as the Vibrations with a lineup that included Jimmy Johnson, Carl Fisher, Dave Gowan, Don Bradley, and Ricky Owens. That group scored with the #25 hit “The Watusi” which was released by Checker.

The Vibrations

In a rather unique twist, that same lineup had another hit in 1961 with “Peanut Butter” (Arvee Records) only this time they were known as the Marathons.

It was a move to Atlantic Records in 1964 that brought the Vibrations their biggest hit. “My Girl Sloopy” was written by Wes Farrell and Bert Berns. The Vibrations recorded the song in January 1964 and the Atlantic release reached the Top 10 on the R&B chart and #26 on the pop chart. But the Vibrations original was not the most successful version of the song. A year later a band from Dayton, Ohio called the McCoys took a retitled and edited down version of the song, by then called “Hang on Sloopy,” to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

Although they never equaled the success of their earlier records, the Vibrations scored again with “Love in Them There Hills” in 1968. “Cause You’re Mine” (Okeh Records) and “Surprise Party for You Baby” (Neptune Records) also made some noise and helped to make the Vibrations records a staple spin on the UK’s Northern Soul scene.

The Vibrations split up in 1971 when Ricky Owens left for an ill-fated stint with the Temptations. Before long, Owens returned, the group re-formed, and the Vibrations found success as a nightclub act in the 1970s before dissolving for good in 1976.

Soul Serenade: Barbara Lynn, “You’ll Lose a Good Thing”

Barbara Lynn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this column, I’ve written about everyone from superstars who ran numerous hits up the charts to one-hit wonders who only had that single moment in the sun. Then are those who broke out of the gate with their big hit and then never repeated that initial success. It has to be the most frustrating feeling of all. Such an artist is Barbara Lynn who, while she had other chart records and even some R&B hits, never managed to equal the enormous success of her first release.

Lynn was born in Beaumont, Texas and began her musical pursuits as a piano player before she switched to guitar. Surely a female, African-American, left-handed electric guitarist who wrote her own songs was a rare thing at the time. Lynn’s influences were a mixture of blues artists like Jimmy Reed and pop purveyors like Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee. Lynn began her career playing in local clubs and her break came when singer Joe Barry caught her act and introduced her to producer Huey P. Meaux.

Barbara Lynn

Meaux owned SugarHill Recording Studios in New Orleans along with a few record labels. But when it was time for Lynn to record her debut single she went to Cosimo Matassa’s legendary J&M studio. The song that was chosen was one written by Lynn and Meaux called “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” Among the session players was one Mac Rebennack AKA Dr. John. Jamie Records released the single in August 1962 and it shot up to the #1 spot on the Billboard R&B chart while also nudging into the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Based on the success of her debut single, Lynn hit the road with some of the biggest stars of the day including James Brown, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Ike & Tina Turner, and Marvin Gaye. There were appearances at the Apollo theater and on American Bandstand. Lynn continued to release singles for Jamie until 1966. Among them were “You’re Gonna Need Me,” “Oh! Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin’),” a Lynn-written song that was covered by the Rolling Stones, “Don’t Spread it Around,” and “It’s Better to Have It.” All of these titles were Top 40 R&B hits.

After leaving Jamie, Lynn signed with Meaux’s Tribe label where she had another R&B chart hit with “You Left the Water Running.” In 1967, Lynn signed with Atlantic Records. Dissatisfaction with the label together with the desire to raise her growing family led Lynn to mostly opt out of the music business in the 1970s although while living in Los Angeles during this time she did play a few club gigs and released one-off singles here and there.

In 1984, Lynn toured Japan where she recorded a live album. After her husband died, Lynn returned to Beaumont in and 1994 she recorded her first studio album in over 20 years. Several more albums followed most recently Blues & Soul Situation in 2004. Lynn received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1999.

Soul Serenade: Barbara Lewis, “Thankful For What I Got”

Barbara LewisAnd here we are. Thanksgiving. The world outside can seem cold even to the most optimistic among us. Political rancor is tearing friends and families apart. Each day seems to bring news of the loss of another of our cherished artists (R.I.P. Della Reese). Meanwhile, the world is poised on the brink of … something. The hope is, and the belief has to be, that it’s something good. A reawakening if you will.

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe I’m just tired. The world will do what it will do. I’m not saying that people can’t affect change. I’ve seen it happen time and again. But at this point, all I’m really interested in is making sure that my own family is safe and secure. Maybe it’s selfish but I think if all of us start there maybe the love can spread because as Stevie Wonder once sang, “love’s in need of love today.” It’s truer than ever.

I don’t have a lot to write about the music today. I’ve written about Barbara Lewis and her 1963 hit “Hello Stranger.” It was her biggest hit by far, reaching all the way up to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, but not her only hit.

Barbara Lewis

Lewis was born in Michigan and she was still in her teens when her recording career began. At first, she worked with a DJ by the name of Ollie McLaughlin. Her first single, “My Heart Went Do Dat Da,” was released in 1962. While it didn’t become a national hit it was a regional success in the Detroit area. Next up was “Hello Stranger,” one of the songs Lewis wrote for her debut LP. Follow-up singles like “Straighten Up Your Heart” and “Puppy Love” were moderately successful.

For her next single, Lewis collaborated with the legendary producer Bert Berns. The result was her second smash hit, “Baby I’m Yours” which reached #11 in 1965. The follow-up single was “Make Me Your Baby,” also produced by Berns, and it reached the same spot on the chart that year. Lewis had one more Top 40 hit in 1966. “Make Me Belong to You,” a song written by Billy Vera and Chip Taylor, was a #28 hit that year.

That was pretty much the end of chart success for Lewis although a couple of other singles straggled into the Top 100. She also made an album for Stax at the end of the ’60s that found her moving from her smooth pop sound for something grittier. But this being Thanksgiving, I wanted to feature a record appropriate to the season. In 1968, Lewis released a song that she had written called “Thankful For What I Got” on Atlantic Records. It was not a hit.

“Hello Stranger” and “Baby I’m Yours” have been covered numerous times over the years. Lewis’ music remains a fixture of the Carolina Beach Music scene. Lewis herself continued singing right up to this year when health issues forced her to retire.

Today is a day to draw your loved ones close to you. Look around at those people at your table today. Remember how much they mean to you despite their flaws, and yours. But don’t just think about it, tell them. Do it today because what I’ve been trying clumsily to say is that maybe if we share the love with those around us today it can begin to spread from your table. And who knows where that might take us. It’s Thanksgiving.

Soul Serenade: The Originals, “Baby, I’m For Real”

The Originals

I’ve been writing this column for over six years now. There have been well over 300 entries in the series. So every now and then I have to check to see if I’ve featured a certain artist or song previously. A dig through the Popdose archives revealed that I did write about the Originals previously, but it was way back in 2010, it was brief, and it featured another of their hits, “The Bells.” I want to expand on their story today, and feature another one of their great records.

The Originals first got together in Detroit in 1966. The original Originals were Walter Gaines, Freddie Gorman, C.P. Spencer, and Hank Dixon. They were all veterans of the Detroit vocal group scene, and before there was a Holland-Dozier-Holland production and songwriting team, there was a Holland-Dozier-Gorman team. As a member of that team, Gorman was the co-writer of Motown’s first #1 hit, the Marvelette’s “Please Mr. Postman.” Gorman came by the inspiration honestly, as he had actually been a mailman.

The group first made their name in the late ’60s as background singers, appearing on hits like “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” by Jimmy Ruffin, “For Once in My Life,” by Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin’s “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me),” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” and “25 Miles.” The Originals were the male counterparts of the Andantes, Motown’s female house backing group, and neither group was ever properly credited.

The Originals did release records under their own name for Motown, beginning in 1966 with the Leadbelly song “Goodnight Irene,” which featured Joe Stubbs (brother of Levi) on the lead vocal, but didn’t make the charts. Another 1966 release that didn’t chart was “Suspicion,” but in later years the song became a Northern Soul staple. In 1969 neither “We’ve Got A Way Out Of Love” or “Green Grow The Lilacs” managed to find any chart success.

The Originals

One of the Motown artists that the Originals had backed on record was Marvin Gaye. They appeared on his “Chained,” and “Just to Keep You Satisfied.” When Gaye began to work with the group in 1969, they began to find success in their own right. Gaye produced and co-write the Originals two biggest hits, “Baby, I’m For Real,” and “The Bells.” Both records became soul classics.

The Originals had a very good year in 1970 with two album releases, and four Top 20 R&B hits. Things slowed down after that however, and no Originals record made the charts between 1971-1975, despite several album releases for Motown during this time. The disco era brought renewed success for the group though as “Down to Love Town” became a #1 dance hit for the group. They left Motown in 1977 and signed with Columbia Records. They released two albums for the label but didn’t find any success. After one last album for the Phase II label they split up in the early ’80s.

When Ian Levine began seeking out Motown veterans for his Motorcity label, the Originals signed on. They recorded a single for the label called “Take The Only Way Out,” and former member Stubbs, who had been in the group for about six months early on, released some solo recordings for Motorcity. There was also a duet recording with their former Motown labelmates the Supremes, “Back By Popular Demand,” in 1991.

Stubbs, Spencer, Gorman, and Gaines have all passed on. Hank Dixon is the only surviving founding member of the Originals, and he remains active musically.

Soul Serenade: Dennis Coffey, “Scorpio”

Dennis Coffey

Session musicians often toil in obscurity. People hear the hit records and become fans of the artists whose names are on them without ever knowing the names of the musicians who created the sound that they love. In recent years however, session players have finally been getting their due. There have been acclaimed documentaries about the Wrecking Crew — who were behind hundreds of hits recorded in Los Angeles in the ’60s, the Swampers — the crew that played on all the soul hits that came out of Muscle Shoals, and the Funk Brothers — the unsung heroes behind all of those Motown hits. Despite that recent notoriety, there are still hundreds of studio musicians who remain unsung despite their contributions.

One way for a studio musician to become known was to record under his own name. Musicians who started in the studio and became stars in their own right include Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, who were both part of the Wrecking Crew, and Darlene Love, who was a successful background singer before making it on her own.

Dennis Coffey is a Detroit guy. He began his career as a guitar player in groups like the Royaltones, a band that not only had some regional hits, but also played on recording sessions with artists like Del Shannon. By the late ’60s, Coffey was the hot guitar player in town, playing on hits like the Reflections “Just Like Romeo and Juliet,” and Darrell Banks “Open the Door to Your Heart.”

Dennis Coffey

PHOTO COURTESY OF CLARENCE AVANT – INTERIOR MUSIC CORP.

The legendary Motown bass player James Jamerson heard what Coffey was doing, and recommended him to producer Norman Whitfield. The next thing you know, Coffey was a Funk Brother. He played the innovative guitar parts on smash hits like the Whitfield-produced “Cloud Nine,” “Ball of Confusion,” and “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations. That’s Coffey you hear on Edwin Starr’s “War,” “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne, and Diana Ross and the Supremes “Someday, We’ll Be Together.”

In the early ’70s Coffey set out to make it on his own as an artist and producer. He and his partner Mike Theodore hooked up with Sussex Records owner Clarence Avant. At Sussex they wrote songs and arrangements, and produced hit records. Among their successes were Gallery’s hit single “Nice to Be With You.” While at Sussex the pair would produce two albums for Sixto Rodriguez who, although initially ignored, has had a career resurgence in recent years, spurred in no small part by the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man.

One of the teams biggest hits came from Coffey’s second solo album, his first for Sussex. “Scorpio” was not only a million-seller, and a funk classic, it also became an important record in the development of hip-hop. Coffey didn’t stop playing sessions though, and you can hear him playing on hits like “Boogie Fever” by the Sylvers. Over the years he’s played on records for Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and others.

When Coffey was gaining fame in the studio in the late ’60s, he was spending his nights playing live gigs in Detroit clubs as part of the Lyman Woodard Trio, which included organist Woodard, and drummer Melvin Davis. The trio began playing in 1966 at a place called Frolic Show Bar. By the following year they had decamped for a long-term residency at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge.

“We played there once a week and always packed the house,” Coffey said. “Much of our audience was middle to upper class folks who were judges, attorneys, businessmen and women who just loved listening to our brand of funk, jazz, rock and soul. I even hooked up a strobe light to the stage and would hit the switch that shut off the main lights. The strobe would go off while we’d jam on stage. It blew their minds!”

What wasn’t widely known until recently was that some of these shows were recorded using studio quality equipment. When word of these recordings reached Resonance Records, it was decided that the public needed to hear the music.

“Right off the bat I was intrigued and felt compelled to release these recordings and tell the story of Dennis Coffey, who is to me one of the unsung heroes of guitar,” said Resonance producer Zev Feldman.

Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ at More Baker’s Showplace Lounge was released on vinyl in November. On January 17, 2017, Resonance Records will release CD and digital versions.

Soul Serenade: Bobby Hebb, “Sunny”

Soul Serenade - Bobby HebbDifferent people react to tragedy in different ways. Some people weep, and some dance. Some people mourn, and some sing. Bobby Hebb was a singer. But not just a singer, he was a singer with a song that he wrote at a time of personal and national tragedy. The song helped to heal him, and the nation, and it made him a star.

Hebb was born in Nashville. His parents were blind musicians, and together with them and his older brother Harold, formed a washboard band of street performers called the Hebb’s Kitchen Cabinet Orchestra. Despite the fact that country music at the time (and now for that matter) was an overwhelmingly white enterprise, Bobby became a member of Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys when he as still in his teens. He played spoons and other instruments in the otherwise all white band.

After serving a stint in the Navy, where he learned to play guitar and trumpet, Hebb realized that his future did not lie in country music, and he began to turn up at the jazz and R&B clubs of north Nashville. In 1955 he took a trip to Chicago, and legend has it that while he was there he played on a Bo Diddley record called “Diddley Daddy,” but there is no definitive proof of that.

Back in Nashville, Hebb sang with a doo-wop group called the Hi-Fis, and played on records by Kid King’s Combo for the Excello label. Eventually he got the opportunity to make his own records for Rich Records, a company owned by DJ John Richbourg. But Hebb was looking for wider acceptance, and a music scene that could provide him with the artistic freedom he was seeking.

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In 1961 Hebb moved to New York City. It was there that he wrote the song he became famous for, “Sunny.” On November 23, 1963 his older brother was murdered outside of a Nashville nightclub. Just one day earlier, John F. Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas. Hebb, along with the rest of the nation, was in deep despair.

“I needed to pick myself up,” Hebb said.

One night he came home from a jam session in Harlem which involved a lot of drinking. The early morning sun was just coming up, and the sight of the purple dawn inspired him. Hebb wasn’t the first artist to sing “Sunny” though. Japanese singer Mieko Herota first recorded Hebb’s song in 1965. Then Dave Pike, a vibraphonist, put the song on one of his albums. It was producer Jerry Ross who finally convinced Hebb to record “Sunny.”

“It was done as the last thing on the session, when we only had a few minutes left,” Hebb told Goldmine magazine

“Sunny” was a smash hit, shooting up the chart all the way to #2 in 1966. The record became a calling card that landed Hebb on the Beatles 1966 tour, their last. Also performing on that tour were the Cyrkle, the Ronettes, and the Remains. Unfortunately, Hebb was never able to replicate the success of “Sunny,” although several of his records including “Love Me,” “A Satisfied Mind,” and “Love Love Love” became popular among Northern Soul fans in the UK. Hebb did have another hit as a songwriter however when Lou Rawls scored with Hebb’s “A Natural Man” in 1971. Rawls won a Grammy for the record.

By the early ’70s Hebb was done, thanks in no small part to his problems with alcohol. He did try again with a disco version of “Sunny” in 1976. His career had a bit of a revival when he moved back to Nashville in 2004. He appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, where he had performed 49 years earlier with Roy Acuff. He was also featured in an exhibition called Night Train to Memphis: Music City Rhythm and Blues 1945-1970 that was mounted by the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In 2005 Hebb released his first album in 35 years, That’s All I Know. There was a short tour in Japan in 2008.

Bobby Hebb died in 2010. He was 72 years-old. His song “Sunny” has been covered countless times over the years, including versions by Marvin Gaye, Dusty Springfield, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra (with Duke Ellington), Cher, José Feliciano, Wes Montgomery, James Brown, the Ventures, the Four Seasons, Nancy Wilson, Jimmy Smith, the Four Tops, and Booker T and the MGs. There is little doubt, however, that Bobby Hebb’s version remains the greatest.

Soul Serenade: Johnny Bristol, “Hang On In There Baby”

Johnny Bristol - Hang On In There BabyIn 1974 Johnny Bristol set the charts alight with his biggest hit, “Hang On In There Baby,” but he traveled a long road to get to that point. Bristol was born in Morgantown, North Carolina in 1939. By his own admission, his show business career began purely by chance.

In the 1950’s Bristol joined the Air Force, and he was stationed at Fort Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan. There he met a fellow airman by the name of Jackey Beavers. The two men had a common interest in singing, so they decided to form a duo which they called Johnny and Jackey. They played doo-wop shows in the Detroit area, and one night Gwen Gordy, sister of Berry Gordy, was in the audience. She was impressed enough to sign the duo to a management contract … (more)

Soul Serenade: McFadden & Whitehead, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”

Soul Serenade - McFadden & WhiteheadI try to keep my personal politics out of this column, but after a somewhat … unusual … convention in Cleveland, the circus has moved on to Philadelphia this week. It’s one of my favorite cities, and I don’t need any inspiration to write about Philadelphia music. But since the eyes of the world are focused on Philly this week I thought I’d add my gaze as well.

I’m in the middle of reading a fine book called A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul by John A. Jackson. According to Mr. Jackson, disco was invented in the City of Brotherly Love, specifically when session drummer Earl Young combined a thumping, four-on-the-floor bass drum rhythm with stick work on an open high-hat cymbal. When called upon by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in 1973 to play on the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes session for “The Love I Lost” (a song that was originally intended to be a ballad), Young invented the disco beat right there on the spot. The resulting single featured Teddy Pendergrass singing lead, and it was Pendergrass who called the record “perhaps the first disco hit.” … (more)

Stevie Wonder: The Historic Album Run

Stevie Wonder - Music of My MindRonnie White of the Miracles is responsible for presenting Stevie Wonder to the world. When Stevie was just 11 years-old, he sang a song he had written, “Lonely Boy,” for Ronnie, and Ronnie was impressed enough to get Stevie an audition at Motown. He impressed the folks at Motown too. Berry Gordy, Jr. signed Stevie to his Tamla imprint, and producer Clarence Paul changed Stevie’s name from Stevland Morris to Little Stevie Wonder.

It was the beginning of a now legendary career. I first saw Stevie when he was billed as the “12 year-old genius,” and he was on the road promoting his early hit “Fingertips Part 1 & 2.” The show was at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, and you didn’t have to be particularly prescient to know that the little kid up on the stage, bursting with talent, was going to be a huge star.

The hits kept coming in rapid succession. Songs like “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” “My Cherie Amour,”Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “We Can Work it Out,” and “If You Really Love Me” all finding places in the upper reaches of the pop chart.

When Stevie’s contract with Motown expired, the company was determined to retain his services. They signed Stevie to a new contract, gave him a higher royalty rate, and perhaps most importantly, more artistic freedom. Stevie responded with the Music of My Mind album, a complete artistic statement on which he played most of the instruments himself. The album included the unique new sound of “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” which was a Top 40 hit.

The next album in this classic Stevie Wonder era was Talking Book, released in 1972. It was Stevie’s fifteenth album, and one of his biggest. It yielded the #1 singles “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” and “Superstition,” which reached to top spot of the R&B and pop charts. Talking Book picked up from where Music of My Mind left off, with Stevie continuing to expand his musical palette. Guest musicians on the album included Jeff Beck, Ray Parker, Jr., Buzzy Feiten, and David Sanborn.

Stevie Wonder

The final track on Talking Book is “I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will be Forever).” The song was written by Stevie and Yvonne Wright. Although it was never released as a single, it is a highly influential song that was featured in the 2000 film High Fidelity, which starred John Cusack, and became an FM radio staple.

Although he has continued to endure as an artist over the years, Stevie’s next album, Innervisions, was certainly one of the peaks in his long and storied career. The album featured the hits “Higher Ground,” “Living for the City,” and “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing.” Innervisions was a peak for sure, but no one can say that Stevie’s next two albums were not its equal. Stevie busted out Fulfillingess’ First Finale in 1974, and followed that with the classic Songs in the Key of Life two years later. Both albums reached the #1 spot on the pop chart.

So let’s recap. Between Music of My Mind, released in March, 1972, and Songs in the Key of Life, released in September, 1976, four out of the five albums that Stevie released were Top 5. Music of My Mind didn’t do quite as well, only reaching #21, but it’s important to remember that it was a complete change from what people had come to expect from Stevie, and it took awhile for the new sound to find an audience.

Stevie continued his run of Top 5 albums with Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (soundtrack – 1979), Hotter Than July (1980), The Woman in Red(soundtrack – 1984), and In Square Circle (1985). After a few albums that “only” made the Top 20, Stevie returned to the upper reaches of the charts in 2005 with his most recent album, A Time to Love.

Ken Shane is the New Music Editor at Popdose

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