The year 1972 was a fruitful and productive one for Stevie Wonder.
He turned 22 in May of that year, two months after he released “Music of My Mind,” his 14th studio album. “Mind” received generally positive reviews, most notably for Wonder’s deft use of synthesizers.
“ ‘Music of My Mind’ was also the first to bear the fruits of his increased focus on Moog and Arp synthesizers,” John Bush wrote at AllMusic.com. “The songs never sound synthetic, due in great part to Stevie’s reliance on a parade of real instruments — organic drum work, harmonica, organs and pianos — as well as his mastery of traditional song structure and his immense musical personality.”
“Mind” produced only one notable single for Wonder, “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” which rose to No. 33 on Billboard’s pop singles chart.
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Seven months later, after a tour with the Rolling Stones, Wonder released “Talking Book,” a commercial success: It rose to No. 3 on the pop charts and produced two of his best-known songs: “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
“Talking Book” represented the beginning of what has been called Wonder’s “classic period,” an era of four years and four albums that arguably was the peak of a recording career that has exceeded 40 years. (Wonder’s last record was “A Time to Love,” released in 2005).
One of those four albums was “Songs in the Key of Life,” released in 1976. On Friday at 8 p.m., Wonder will bring his Songs in the Key of Life Tour to the Sprint Center. The show will include a performance of that album in its entirety, plus an encore of three of his biggest hits.
“Songs” is an ambitious, sprawling project, but it is hardly the best album of that four-year period. If your only familiarity with Wonder is the treacly song “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and its place in the film “High Fidelity,” do yourself a favor and delve into his music from this era. Here’s a look at the four albums that made Wonder an icon.
“Talking Book,” released Oct. 28, 1972
Hits: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition”
Another favorite: “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”
Guest musicians: Jeff Beck, David Sanborn, Ray Parker Jr., Buzz Feiten and Jim Gilstrap
Grammy wins: Four
“Talking Book” has been widely hailed as a turning point for Wonder, a body of work that steered away from a fascination with tools and instrumental gimmicks on “Music of My Mind” to a sound that was more organized and refined.
In his January 1973 review of the album, Vince Aletti wrote in Rolling Stone: “ ‘Talking Book’ is more relaxed, dreamy at times, the laid-back funk of the vocals resting on a deliciously liquid instrumental track like a body on a waterbed. Yet there’s never a lack of energy: Even at its dreamiest, the music has a glowing vibrancy.”
In a 2000 review of Motown’s remastering of some of Wonder’s albums, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times noted the progression from “Music” to “Talking Book”: “At its best, as in such tunes here as the warm ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life,’ the hard-driving ‘Superstition’ and the enchantingly optimistic ‘I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever),’ Wonder’s music had a feel that was richly personal, with such an accessible melodic flair that defied you not to sing along.”
Ultimately, “Talking Book” is a preview of what is to come. It includes some of Wonder’s most timeless songs, none more than “Superstition,” a hard-funk horn-fed classic that sounds as vibrant as ever nearly a quarter of a century later, and “Sunshine,” the kind of buttery, sentimental love ballad for which Wonder would become beloved on later albums.
“Innervisions,” released Aug. 3, 1973
Hits: “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing”
Another favorite: “Golden Lady”
Guest musicians: Jim Gilstrap, Willie Weeks and Tasha Thomas
Grammy wins: Four
Less than 10 months after he issued “Talking Book,” Wonder released one of the finest albums of his career. “Innervisions” is a bracing album in many ways. Lyrics address issues of the Nixon era, often with a cynical eye: race, drugs, poverty, spirituality and social unrest. It’s a communion of music and message that won a Grammy for best album and elevated Wonder into pop stardom.
In Rolling Stone in 1974, critic Jon Landau (now Bruce Springsteen’s manager) wrote: “With his last three albums Stevie Wonder has replaced Sly Stone as the most significant individual black innovator in the twin fields of R&B and rock. He has also replaced him as the most popular black music personality: Wonder’s appeal now crosses every boundary.”
“Innervisions” is a near-perfect album, and more than just Wonder’s best album, it remains one of the best of its era. It casts a variety of moods both musically and lyrically, from the joyous, feel-good vibe of “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing” and the jazzy-funk groove of “Too High,” an anti-drug song with a sad ending, to “Golden Lady,” an exquisite love ballad, and the riotous “Higher Ground,” a song about the afterlife and reincarnation and one peak on an album filled with high points.
“Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” released July 22, 1974
Hits: “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ”
Other favorites: “Creepin’,” “Too Shy to Say,” “They Won’t Go When I Go”
Guest musicians: The Jackson 5, Sergio Mendes, the Persuasions, Paul Anka, Michael Sembello, Deniece Williams, James Jamerson, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Minnie Riperton, Reggie McBride
Grammy wins: Four
Three days after the release of “Innervisions,” Wonder, who was 23, was critically injured as a passenger in a car accident in North Carolina. He had severe head injuries and remained in a Winston-Salem hospital for two weeks. Amazingly, 11 months later, he released his 17th studio album, which won the Grammy for best album, his second straight.
“Fulfillingness” would be his first album to top the Billboard 200 chart. It also produced two top-five singles: “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” which reached No. 1, and “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” which rose to No. 3. As he did on “Innervisions,” Wonder made a political statement. “Nothin’ ” is widely considered a jab at Nixon, who would resign within weeks of the album’s release. The rest of the album is loosely about faith, death and love.
John Bush wrote at AllMusic.com: “The songs and arrangements are the warmest since ‘Talking Book,’ and Stevie positively caresses his vocals on this set, encompassing the vagaries of love, from dreaming of it (“Creepin’ ”) to being bashful of it (“Too Shy to Say”) to knowing when it’s over (“It Ain’t No Use”).”
Any album released in the shadow of a stone-cold classic like “Innervisions” was likely to sound inferior or like a letdown. But give Wonder credit: Within a year of his harrowing accident, he went into the studio and produced a solid, more-reflective record, one that includes a couple of his greatest hits, none more eternally engaging than the ebullient “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”
“Songs in the Key of Life,” released Sept. 28, 1976
Hits: “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” “Isn’t She Lovely”
Another favorite: “As”
Guest musicians: Herbie Hancock, George Benson
Grammy wins: Four
After releasing four albums in about 30 months, Wonder took his time recording “Songs,” a 21-song double LP with a four-track, 7-inch EP. It took Wonder more than two years to make it, during which several release dates were announced. More than 10 dozen musicians worked on “Songs,” which would win four Grammys, including album of the year.
“Songs” is a sprawling, elusive, hit-and-miss affair, one that gave Wonder the time and space to pull ideas and inspirations from his hefty bag of tricks and impulses. It’s also one critics had a hard time completely getting their arms around. Many had qualms about the lyrics.
In his December 1976 Rolling Stone review, Aletti wrote: “Wonder’s lyrics aren’t clever or particularly intelligent but, at their best, they’re instinctive, straightforward and touchingly sincere. Unfortunately, at their worst they’re convoluted, awkward, atrociously rhymed and so tangled up in their pretensions to ‘poetic’ style that they become almost comical.”
But he gets at the record’s unyielding strength and virtue: “What he can’t say in words he can say more fluidly, subtly and powerfully in his music. So it’s Wonder’s music, his spirit, that dominates here and seems to fill up the room. It’s his voice — also beyond mere words, into pure expression — that snatches you up. And won’t let go.”
“Songs” may be sweeping and self-indulgent, but its indulgences spring from a brilliant mind that manages to keep his artful, sophisticated ideas rooted in sounds and rhythms that the average music fan can easily digest. You could argue that it was Wonder’s last classic album, that it exhausted him of inspiration and imagination. At least it was the grand finale to an eminent chapter in pop music history.
Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life Tour comes to the Sprint Center at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $39.50 to $149.50 and are available at the arena box office or via SprintCenter.com.