At the Grammy Awards in 1976, Paul Simon would walk up to the stage to accept his award for album of the year (received for Still Crazy After All These Years) in 1975. Up there clutching his trophy in his frumpy tan suit, he thanked Phil Ramone and Art Garfunkel, who worked on the album with him, and then added one more comment before he walked off the stage: “And most of all, I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn’t make an album this year.”
On August 3, 1973, “Innervisions” hit the record stores. After two brilliant albums in 1972, there was a lot of pressure on Wonder to continue his hot streak. And boy did he ever. He not only continued his blistering run of hit songs and critically acclaimed albums but built ever higher on top of it, seamlessly mixing together political criticisms with a burgeoning spirituality. In summer 1973, it seemed like nothing could slow Wonder down.
Three days after “Innervisions” was released, on August 6, 1973, Wonder was involved in a car accident after he played a concert in Greenville, South Carolina. Outside Durham, Wonder had been asleep, with his friend driving, when their car collided with a logging truck. Suddenly huge logs were flying off the truck. One of those logs flew through the windshield and hit Stevie in the forehead. For four days after that he was in a coma with a severe brain contusion.
Yet Wonder pulled through. He woke from his coma and slowly recovered from his traumatic injury, taking time to play his precious clavinet again and write new songs. Things weren’t the same for Wonder, though. Something had changed inside of him, something that perhaps had already been burning down deep inside.
After his close scrape with mortality, Wonder told the New York Times that “the accident opened my ears up to many things around me. Naturally, life is just more important to me now … and what I do with my life.” Since he had already been recording world-class music before the car crash, at the time it was probably hard to imagine how he ever could continue to raise the bar.
As Wonder recovered, the acclaim for his latest album grew. “Innervisions” was the first Wonder album to almost be a complete one-man-band effort. He played almost every instrument on the record, playing every single instrument on seven out of nine tunes. Still, there was plentiful diversity on “Innervisions:” The pulsing throb of the single “Living For The City,” a soaring commentary on the struggles of inner-city blacks in America (The single version was half the length of the 7:21 album version); The Latin groove of “”Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing”; and the shuffling melody of “He’s a Misstra Know-It-All,” a scathing critique of Nixon and his contemporaries.
When it comes to the musical fundamentals of his 70s albums, though, one element always sticks out: Wonder’s drum work. Though not usually celebrated for his drum skills, a deeper listen into the songs in Wonder’s classic period reveals a drummer that was unique, creatively rhythmic, and exuberant in his search for new syncopations and styles. The way he plays the hi-hats, for example, sets his recordings apart from many of his contemporaries. His open hi-hat playing style at the time was often called “slushy”, a sound that became signature to many of his hit songs like “Superstition.”
Then came “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” the first album for Wonder after his devastating car accident. Wonder’s new lease on life saw him digging even deeper into his own psyche, in the process producing one of his most introspective albums to date. Songs like “They Won’t Go When I Go” felt stripped down compared to the exuberance of “Innervisions.” Others like “Creepin’” expressed more mature, world-weary takes on love. Still, a new vitality shone through the woodwork. “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and “Bird of Beauty” showed how Wonder was beginning to explore new music genres, and “Please Don’t Go” might be one of the catchiest arrangements he’s ever put together, complete with a heavenly background choir (and some real “slushy” drums).
To understand more about what Wonder was capable of at the time, you can look to another record he produced, this time for his then-wife Syreeta Wright, whom he met in the Motown office. The track “I Love Every Little Thing About You” was the perfect vehicle for her sensual voice, which rode gracefully on the lush production Wonder painted underneath her. He managed to outdo even his own recording of the song, which somehow felt flatter than the 3D sound on the 1972 album “Syreeta.” Maybe it’s because the song marks the beginning of his experiments with multi-layered vocal parts in the background of his tracks, a technique he was just starting to fiddle with around that time. Regardless, the track is magic, and shows the kind of creative producer Wonder was becoming.
No one, even those who had heard his brilliant records of the early 70s, or the critics who adored him, probably could have predicted “Songs In The Key of Life.” Two LPs and an accompanying EP introduced audiences to a monstrous Stevie Wonder set. Somehow he hit ecstatic highs that he hadn’t dreamed of before, such as with the Duke Ellington tribute “Sir Duke” with its triumphant horn section. Music itself seemed to be vibrating in pure joyous communion with
Wonder took risks, injecting plastic synth on tracks like “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise,” flirting with prog rock and jazz on “Contusion,” and masterfully crafting straight ahead pop songs like “Isn’t She Lovely,” one of his most enduring tracks. It’s hard to quantify “Songs In The Key of Life,” though, because it is so many things. Wonder wanted to encapsulate his rich musical career and the whole cosmos in the process, like on the far-reaching love song that is “As:”
“So make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children’s grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell
I’ll be loving you”
There wasn’t just spirituality here, though. Wonder reminisced about his childhood, ruminated on lost love, and took us on journeys through his musical mind. And what a journey it was. Wonder would win his third Album of the Year Grammy in 1977 for “Songs In The Key of Life,” The album debuted at number one on the Billboard pop charts, the first American artist to ever do that. It stuck at number one until January ‘77, when it was finally knocked from the top by a little album you might have heard of, “Hotel California.”
Such was Stevie’s dominance in the early to mid 70s, in both a popular and critical sense, that it’s hard to think of anyone who’s reached those heights since. Wonder won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1973, 1974, and 1976, for “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” and “Songs in the Key of Life,” respectively. He had become a true superstar, one instantly recognizable across the world.
Although Wonder would briefly reach those heights again with his 1980 album “Hotter Than July,” never again would the sheer power and force of his classic period be realized. He had become such a legend in that time, that, even after strings of so-so records and decade-long gaps between albums, he is as celebrated today as he was then. Wonder did, in a way, encapsulate that era, emerging as a shining, powerful voice of R&B and soul in a time that was soon coming to an end. The golden age of the 60s and 70s would soon give way to disco, and then punk and new wave. The landscape of music, politics, and art would change, but not before Wonder had made his own indelible mark upon it.