Wonder Releases

Innervisions demonstrated Stevie Wonder’s musical maturity and propelled the singer-songwriter-activist to a series of Grammy Awards and even more original music making.

Summary of Event

The release of Innervisions in August, 1973, marked Stevie Wonder’s musical maturity. At the age of twenty-three, he had found freedom from the formulas of the Motown Records Motown Records assembly-line method of producing hits so popular and successful in the 1960’s. Then he was “Little Stevie Wonder, the twelve-year-old genius.” Now he was revealed as a consummate African American musician: singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, arranger, and producer. Music;rhythm and blues
Rhythm and blues music
Music;rhythm and blues
Rhythm and blues music
Wonder, Stevie
Gordy, Berry, Jr.
King, Martin Luther, Jr.

Innervisions remained on the pop charts for fifty-eight weeks, reaching as high as number four. Both it and Talking Book
Talking Book (Wonder) of 1972 sold better than any of Wonder’s albums since his first back in 1963. Two top-ten singles were drawn from Innervisions: “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City,” both of which signaled Wonder’s increasing proclivity for adult songs about social conditions. The National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) presented Wonder with four Grammy Awards Grammy Awards at its 1974 show: Album of the Year, for Innervisions; Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, for “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (from Talking Book); Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male, for “Superstition”; and Best R&B Song, also for “Superstition.”

The conservative NARAS had finally recognized a Motown artist; in its prime in the 1960’s, Motown had won nothing. By 1977, however, Wonder had won twelve Grammys. Three albums in a row won Album of the Year awards.

In 1971, when he was twenty-one and free of the restrictions the Motown organization had placed on him as a minor and as its “discovery,” Wonder refused to renew his Motown contract. He moved from Detroit to New York City so that he could control all aspects of his music. Setting up his own studio and publishing company and soon working with a new electronic instrument, the synthesizer, he was able to oversee in great detail and with startling musical acuity the creation of whole albums conceived as units from start to finish. If not exactly “concept” albums in the popular sense (a series of songs entirely united by theme or focus), they were designed less to produce singles than to allow Wonder a chance to improvise and jam, to play all the instruments on an album himself and to mix the results, to expand songs beyond the time limits of cuts aimed solely at the singles market, and to explore new themes and song types.

Stevie Wonder.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Wonder did eventually sign again with Motown, but with guarantees that he would have freedom to produce his own material, which the company would then distribute. For both parties, it turned out to be an ideal arrangement. Motown had moved to Los Angeles; Berry Gordy, Jr., its charismatic founder and creative leader, had moved his headquarters there in 1971. The glory days of the 1960’s were over: Even the label’s star attraction, the Supremes, had broken up, as leader Diana Ross wanted to explore a solo career. Only the new Jackson Five created a sensation echoing that of the early and mid-1960’s. Having started out as teenagers with Motown, the label’s major stars now wanted more freedom to choose songs and the sounds they wanted behind them in the studio.

As a teenage sensation, Stevie Wonder had had his first number one pop hit with “Fingertips (Part Two)” in 1963, and he had followed up with some lively dance tunes and love songs that featured his high-pitched young voice. Sometimes he would still play his harmonica on recordings, but more and more a kind of standard treatment was applied to his recordings, a sort of blandness creeping even into his forays into jazz and standards. He was increasingly frustrated. The new approach, however, heralded the changes and freedom that Innervisions best represents.

As a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist, Wonder needed new contexts, a broader repertoire, and openness to other musical styles. By the late 1960’s, the “Motown sound” and the pop-song crossover formulas for soul music restricted Wonder too much. As a live performer, he loved to improvise and jam, demonstrating his skills on instruments that included harmonica, piano, organ, and drums. He wanted to arrange and produce his own records—an idea unheard of at Motown, with its tight control from the top down.

Wonder had pushed the parameters a bit when he recorded Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1966, but it was a hit single. After 1971, he extended his reach to a broader white audience that had grown up with the Beatles and Dylan and that expected its artists to show independence and creativity beyond the confines of one style. With albums such as Music of My Mind
Music of My Mind (Wonder) and Talking Book (both released in 1972), Wonder took complete charge of his work.

Innervisions continued to chart new paths in this line with extended songs and a sharper look at life. Wonder’s voice had become deeper and richer; he could still croon, but now he convincingly shouted and used a wide range to handle all kinds of material, from the soft and romantic to the raw power of tough rhythm and blues. He could put across densely worded pieces and build a sound made up of complex rhythms and cross-rhythms—largely because he could now work slowly and carefully in his own studio, at his own direction, to get just the soundscape he wanted for any particular song.

Variety became the norm in Wonder’s work. “Too High” faulted a drug-taking woman; “Visions” was one of the first of Wonder’s philosophical songs about dreams of a better world. At seven and a half minutes, “Living for the City” was one of the highlights of the album: A raplike minidrama or dramatic scene, it pictured the harshness of urban life, particularly that of New York City, and incorporated actual city sounds into the musical track. “Higher Ground,” with harder rhythm-and-blues singing, was a warning of potential world collapse (an apocalyptic strain in Wonder’s work that would surface again). In the same manner, “Jesus Children of America” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” represented Wonder’s social and religious concerns, the first a plea for a more truly open and giving religious sensibility and the latter a sharp critique of self-centered and false authority figures. Innervisions was the boldest and most original album of Wonder’s career to that point.


Among other awards, Stevie Wonder won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year for his follow-up to Innervisions, the almost equally original Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Fulfillingness’ First Finale (Wonder) A number one pop album, two of its cuts were pop singles hits: “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin.’” The first was a shouting dance song with extended instrumental passages in Wonder’s best improvisatory manner. The second song was a piece of sharp social criticism about the lack of significant action to lessen the hardships of the disadvantaged. Another innovative cut was “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away,” an evocatively scored song about the inability to embrace humanitarianism, peace, universal brotherhood, and harmony. Lyrically, the song enunciated themes Wonder would treat many times in later albums through the 1970’s and 1980’s. Musically, it was a sort of chanted spiritual, with a repeated throbbing bass and chorus setting up its hypnotic effect and rich chordal harmonies.

Wonder’s albums continued to integrate reggae, rap, jazz, blues, gospel, rock, and even classical elements. Echoes of Johann Sebastian Bach in some chorale-like pieces were mixed with complex African rhythms and the use of actual African instruments in his orchestrations. With his complete control of arrangement and production, Wonder was in essence scoring and orchestrating his songs as complex soundscapes and as extended compositions rather than as simple songs. His double album of 1976, Songs in the Key of Life, Songs in the Key of Life (Wonder) went on to garner Grammys in 1977. Here, Wonder continued to explore social themes in pieces such as “Black Man,” an eight-minute tribute to black leaders and heroes done in a raplike style. “Sir Duke” (a hit single) was a tribute to jazz great Duke Ellington. “Village Ghetto Land” continued in the vein of “Living for the City,” while “Love’s in Need of Love Today” reiterated a favorite Wonder theme. The latter piece was a fascinating example of Wonder’s studio and production art. With its pattern of lead voice overlapped by a responding or echoing chorus, the work achieved an odd, compelling effect. A seven-minute composition, it consisted of an opening plea for love and then burst into a polyphonic main segment, and throughout was marked by a flowing, gently propulsive bass rhythm. “Contusion” exemplified Wonder’s instrumental jamming skills. One song used only a harp and harmonica to back the vocal; another included a long jam with a prominent flute part.

In 1978 and 1979, Wonder became actively involved in lobbying for a national holiday on the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Wonder’s 1980 album Hotter than July
Hotter than July (Wonder) included his own song “Happy Birthday,” a tribute to King, and also included a picture sleeve with a photo of King, a montage of scenes from the turbulent civil rights struggles of the 1960’s, and Wonder’s own prose comments on King’s significance. At a rally held January 15, 1981, in Washington, D.C., to celebrate King’s birthday and to lobby Congress for official recognition of the day as a holiday, Wonder sang his “Happy Birthday” and “We Shall Overcome.” Motown then released the Wonder song as a single backed with excerpts from four speeches by King. Congress finally made the holiday official in 1986.

Wonder’s albums of the 1970’s and his campaign for broader recognition of King’s significance are really congruent aspects of Wonder’s art as singer and composer. His philosophy of love and understanding among all races and countries and his criticisms of hate and narrow religious sectarianism pervade his music. Even the less successful—and distinctly experimental—double album of 1979, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Wonder) explored his common themes of the inner life, peace, and communication with any kind of sensate world. Planned as a sound track for a documentary film about plants, the album featured Wonder on harmonica, organ, and African instruments, which were used to suggest the sensate life of plants themselves. Though not aimed at easy commercial success (though it did reach a number four position on the charts), the album represented the achievement of Wonder as a composer and not simply as a pop songwriter.

Wonder established himself as one of the few popular music figures who could break through the stereotypes and narrow musical categorizations of the music industry. Like his hero, Duke Ellington, Wonder had become a composer; his compositions were the albums he created as musical units. He absorbed many musical influences without becoming a dilettante, and he managed to create a kind of musical universalism. As a major step in Wonder’s transition from child prodigy to master musician, Innervisions indicated that the designation “twelve-year-old genius” was not unwarranted. Music;rhythm and blues
Rhythm and blues music

Further Reading

  • Dahl, Bill. Motown: The Golden Years—The Stars and Music That Shaped a Generation. Iola, Wis.: Krause, 2001. Illustrated A-to-Z biographical guide to Motown artists.
  • Davis, Sharon. Motown: The History. Enfield, England: Guiness, 1988. A thorough and enlightening history of the label. Covers everything in nearly three hundred double-columned pages: the label’s artists, recordings, business aspects, struggles, and conflicts. Fully illustrated, with complete listing of releases; indexed.
  • George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. George, an expert on black music, offers considerable insight into the origins of Motown’s artists and sound in black music traditions. Critical yet appreciative. Illustrated, with a discography by artist; indexed.
  • Haskins, Jim, with Kathleen Benson. The Stevie Wonder Scrapbook. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978. A very good text covering the 1970’s period in some detail, with musical commentary as well as biographical detail. Profusely illustrated; no index.
  • Horn, Martin E. Innervisions: The Music of Stevie Wonder. Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2000. Analyzes all of Wonder’s music song by song. Includes release dates of albums, historical background, and many other details.
  • McEwen, Joe, and Jim Miller. “Motown.” In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke. 3d ed. New York: Random House, 1992. A fine essay on the label, Berry Gordy, Jr., and Motown’s major artists down through the years. Capsule career summaries, singles and albums discography.
  • Rockwell, John. “Stevie Wonder.” In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke. 3d ed. New York: Random House, 1992. Like its companion piece on Motown, this essay is a fine appreciation of Wonder’s work—critical where useful, but balanced and perceptive. Perhaps too brief and dismissive of Wonder’s experiments, but still fully aware of the value of his 1970’s work. Brief discography.
  • Schipper, Henry. Broken Record: The Inside Story of the Grammy Awards. New York: Carol, 1992. A useful history of the Grammys and the conservative nature of NARAS in general. Covers Wonder’s successes with the Grammys in the 1970’s.

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