Stevie Wonder, “Up-Tight” (Motown Records, 1966); “Innervisions (Motown Records, 1973); “Characters (The Motown Record Company, 1987)
by Mariah Craddick/Reviewing the Arts honors class
Dubbed a child prodigy, a musical genius, and a living legend, soul and funk mastermind Stevie Wonder possesses a keen awareness of the world around him which has cemented him as one of the greatest visionaries of our time, despite his blindness. While the brilliance of his musicianship and songwriting capabilities is undeniable, his true talent lies in his striking ability to paint vivid scenes of the time, observing all aspects of black American life—social injustice, poverty, and every day urban living—significantly better than artists who are able to see. In Wonder’s more than 30-year musical career, three cornerstone albums exemplify this dexterity at different points in time: the classic Motown record “Up-Tight” (1966), the remarkable and socially aware “Innervisions” (1973), and the less outstanding “Characters” (1987) album.
Steveland Morris was introduced to the music world in 1962 as 12-year-old “Little Stevie Wonder.” Discovered by Ronnie White of Motown’s The Miracles and groomed by founder Berry Gordy Jr., Little Stevie was promoted as a squeaky clean, pubescent blind boy with more talent in his fingertips than most of his peers. Not only could he sing, he could play nearly any instrument he was handed—from the piano to the drums. His sound was definitive of Detroit’s Motown Records which was dominating radio airwaves at the time: light-hearted, melodic pop with some elements of funk. Though Gordy had been given such a unique artist with Wonder, Motown’s Hitsville studios managed to turn him into yet another product off of the assembly line; the same line that had produced hit-making machines such as The Temptations, Diana Ross, The Four Tops, and later on The Jackson Five. With their formulaic approach, his first album “Little Stevie Wonder the 12 Year Old Genius” topped the charts and projected the prodigy onto a path of unparalleled success. Yet, like most great artists with real talent—he only caters to the rules of Motown for so long.
“Up-Tight” captures a sixteen-year-old Wonder at the beginning of his maturation process, highlighting his transformation from boy to man. He drops the “Little” from his stage name and his Ray Charles shouts adjust to a deeper, more mature singing voice. The 60’s Motown sound defines this record—from teeny bop and doo wop to rhythm and funk. “Love A Go Go” opens with a bang, a vibrant burst of bouncy beats and rapid percussion. “Nothing’s Too Good for My Baby” uses that same formula and speeds it up with its fast, dancing beat driving the song. This however becomes annoyingly repetitive by the time you hear the title track. While alone “Uptight” is magnificent with its triumphant horn section and exuberant, head-bopping drums, the Motown sound is so sweetly apparent on this album it makes your head hurt. Wonder’s slower tunes “Hold Me” and “With a Child’s Heart” do provide some variety to an otherwise fluffy record, showcasing his new vocal range and expert control. He’s able to slide from soft and wispy to strong and full with complete ease. Still, “Up-Tight” feels incomplete.
It’s the inclusion of Wonder’s convincing take on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” that stands out and makes a mature social commentary about 1960s America. As a country riddled with war abroad and a fight for racial equality at home, Wonder sings with the wisdom of a man nearly twice his age. While Dylan’s acoustic guitar and harmonica-driven version clearly condemns the Vietnam War, Wonder makes it more personal and turns it into a protest anthem for civil rights. His interpretation is somehow optimistic as he questions man’s indifference to such inequalities, singing “How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?” and answering, “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”
While the rest of “Up-Tight” tries to remain light-hearted and as non-controversial as possible, the decision to include “Blowin’ in the Wind” speaks volumes as to what kind of artist Wonder was developing into. Even as a teenager, he is able to comprehend that the power of music goes beyond making people dance and feel good. And with that knowledge, he understands his responsibility to speak out and speak for a generation of black Americans who constantly felt invisible and less than. Though “Up-Tight” as a whole does not achieve that, it sets the course for one of the most important musical masterpieces and social analyses of its time: “Innervisions.”
By 1973, Wonder has a slew of issues to give voice to and this record aims to tackle them all. From the psychedelic effects of drugs on “Too High” to the dark realities of city life on “Living for the City” to falsities in religion on “Jesus Children of America,” Wonder narrates a less-polished observation of urban life than his previous works—moving away from Motown and wholly stepping into his own. Each piece is masterfully executed, from the composition to the instrumental arrangements, and must be appreciated in sequence.”Too High” opens the album with a funky, climbing bass riff, clanging cymbals, and his signature synths as he tells of the dangers of drug use. Though the lyrics serve as a warning, he sings brightly, “I’m too high, I’m so high, I feel like I’m about to die.” Wonder comes down from this high on “Visions,” a simple yet exquisitely executed ballad ending with a chilling guitar break, that—similarly to “Blowin’ in the Wind”—pegs another question to mankind: Can love, truth, and peace exist in this space and time, or “do we have to take our wings and fly away to the vision in our minds?”
Before we can answer the question, we’re hurled into the seven-minute-long, cinematic tour de force “Living for the City.” Guided by synths, the tune recounts the life of a Mississippi-born black boy living in poverty with his family. Though his conditions are hostile, his parents provide their strength and support to keep him “moving in the right direction.” Wonder goes on to detail the boy’s struggles with unemployment and racism, his voice sounding more gritty, angry, and frustrated as the song progresses. He yelps and shouts “living just enough for the city!” over and over, rhythmically clapping to the beat. A spoken interlude bridges the intro to the conclusion, with Wonder painting the entire scene as our protagonist arrives in the “land of opportunity” New York City. He incorporates the sounds of the bus to mimicking the different voices. We hear as the central character is tricked into selling drugs and arrested, later sentenced to ten years in jail. The drums pick back up as Wonder growls the hopeful finale: “I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow, and that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow. This place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder. If we don’t change the world will soon be over.” The track is one of the most vivid and detailed descriptions of urban life ever translated through song—and it’s catchy as hell, too.
“Golden Lady” transports us back to a gentle Wonder singing about love, which is where he does some of his best songwriting. “A touch of rain and sunshine made the flower glow into a lovely smile that’s blooming,” he croons over a soft acoustic guitar and electric piano. The tune is quiet yet so loud it’s enough to make you fall in love. “Higher Ground” takes off in a more powerful direction, a luxurious combination of funk-laden sounds with an exuberant, soaring vocal. While the song only touches on religion and the idea of being born again, “Jesus Children of America” delves deeper into the concept of spirituality as a whole. Wonder becomes a preacher of sorts, condemning the hypocrisy of the “holy roller” and the distortion our culture has put on the role of religion. “You’d better tell your story fast,” he pleads. “And if you lie, it will come to pass.”
“All In Love Is Fair” is back to a love-sick Wonder brooding over the game of love to the sound of his famous piano. “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” lifts us back up again, with its fun, Latin-inspired percussion, bongos, and shaker. Wonder is now in a positive, spirited mood, telling his lover, “Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing, mama. ‘Cause I’ll be standing on the side when you check it out.” The tune gives “Innervisions” some lightness and danceability near the end of the record, like the light at the end of the tunnel or a breath of fresh air.
But Wonder doesn’t end on that note. Instead, he uses the closing track, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” to remind us that everything is not as peachy-clean as we like to pretend. In the song, he chides the conceited swindler with “a counterfeit dollar in his hand… the coolest one with the biggest mouth”—a subtle jab at the newly re-elected President Richard Nixon. Wonder laments his position of power, singing “If we had less of him, don’t you know we’d have a better land?” Sure enough, the Watergate scandal rocks the country to its core shortly after the release of “Innervisions,” a true testament to Wonder’s prophet-like abilities. If “Up-Tight” catches Wonder at the beginning of his creative maturity, “Innervisions” is his height. Nothing he has created before or after has reached that level of social importance or relevance, though he attempts to.
His 1987 “Characters” album tries to ignite the same passion he yielded with “Innervisions” to tap into the social conscience of America, but as a whole misses the mark—though it does have its crowning moments. By the late 80s, music begins to shift to a more urban, hip hop sound and Wonder tries to capitalize on it in his own way: more synths, more harmonica, more funk, more groove. But it becomes so much that the instrumentation often dwarfs the vocals over saturating the record with cheesy, 80s electronica. “Dark ‘N Lovely” is one standout track, but not for its sound. Wonder sings an ode to the beauty of black South Africans at a time when apartheid has crippled the country with acts of civil disobedience, protests, and outside pressure from the world to end their segregationist laws. Again, Wonder uses his platform as an artist to speak to important social issues of the time—even if by this point the overused electronic piano almost makes you take it less seriously.
“With Each Beat of My Heart” is another classic Wonder love song, and like always he excels. A series of exhaling puffs of breath and steady snaps guide the track as he sings in beautiful harmony, “You are my first breath, my first smile, and my morning cup of tea,” and you can’t help but grin. Wonder gets gritty on “Skeletons,” an upbeat dance track with dark undertones about deceit and hidden truths. The meeting of two musical messiahs on his duet with pop superstar Michael Jackson, “Get It,” shoots expectation through the roof but never quite makes it there. Sure, their vocals are unparalleled and cooly glide through the track, but it’s definitely not the hit that should have been guaranteed. In fact, that’s what most of “Characters” is: high expectation, disappointing delivery. And it’s the same issue every mega artist has once they release what critics and the public hail as their “definitive” record. For Wonder, “Innervisions” placed him atop the music world; “Characters” sent him tumbling down. Deservedly? Not quite.
Whether the message Wonder was trying to portray with “Characters” was not conveyed as clearly as “Innervisions,” or if his audience had been less receptive of the message by this point in time are the true questions. Black America in the 1980s still faced some of the same problems they dealt with the decade before. But with the introduction of crack, HIV and AIDS, and gratuitous gun and gang violence—maybe they didn’t want to hear Wonder’s message anymore. Instead, many turned to hip hop which glorified the perils of the street instead of condemning it. And even if an album as marvelous as “Innervisions” were to be released then, it would not have had the same impact it had in 1973. Wonder knew this, just like he knew he had to deliver “Talking Book” (1972), “Innervisions,” and “Fulfillingess’ First Finale” (1974)—praised as the holy trinity—at the times that he did.
The albums “Up-Tight,” “Innervisions,” and “Characters,” each speak to black America at starkly contrasting moments in time, which explains their vastly different sounds. Ever since his break from Motown’s well-oiled music-making machine, Wonder has excelled at telling the stories and giving perspective to the voices often ignored. His musical capabilities—and the fact that he plays nearly every instrument heard on his records—only assist in delivering these prophecies. And ultimately, Wonder proves that what was supposed to be a handicap has instead aided him in seeing the world around him crystal clear.