If hit songs were eggs, flour and frosting, Stevie Wonder would be a Cake Boss.
He'd be able to bake one of those huge, rectangular monstrosities they roll out at corporate functions, and it would taste damn good. Down deep, there'd be the belly-filling substance of songs like "Front Line" and "Higher Ground." Up top, there's the sweet stuff, like "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and "I Just Called to Say I Love You."
Today is Wonder's 64th birthday, good reason to celebrate all he's served up in a career that's spanned more than a half-century. It's easy to take someone like that for granted. Listen to his songs today, knowing there's so much of his music to enjoy. Then, try imagining a world where he's a one-hit Wonder.
Which song would you choose from his genius catalog to listen to on VH1 specials about The Knack and Dexy's Midnight Runners? In other words, which is the best, most significant song of his legendary career?
I'll take a slice of "Living For the City," thanks. From his 1973 masterpiece, Innervisions, that song just did so many things right. It was unlike anything many of us had ever heard before. I was only eight years old when it came out. It was so gripping that even a kid my age knew it was something important.
It Showcased Wonder's Musical Talent I remember, years later, a lot of kids at my high school making a big deal over Prince.
"He writes his songs, sings them and plays every instrument on them, too," they said.
"It's been done already by Stevie Wonder," I'd tell them, "but get back to me when Prince can't see and is still doing it and I'll let you know if I'm impressed."
Some people love Talking Book or Songs in the Key of Life, but Innervisions is my favorite of all those classic albums. Wonder plays every instrument on six of the album's nine tracks, including "Living For The City."
It Fights Ugly With Ugly "Living For the City" was a protest song, of sorts, but it wasn't a hippie protest song. It sounded angry, with Wonder letting his familiar voice go guttural midway through for effect. The song had the "N" word in it; hearing it come through through the headphones in 1973, felt taboo. This wasn't "Blowing in the Wind."
I remember laying on my back in the orange shag carpet of our living room, imagining the story the song played out. The more I heard it, the more I shared Wonder's fury. Fury over social injustice, racism, the environment. "If we don't change, the world will soon be over,.." he sang, which scared all the bad out of me (at least temporarily). Those were feelings I'd never felt from listening to music before. It thrilled me.
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It's Revered I'm the only one fussing over this particular song right at this particular moment, but its place in music history is secure. Rolling Stone ranked it No. 105 in its list of the 500 greatest songs ever written. Ever. Public Enemy, Richard Pryor and Usher, among others, have paid homage to it via sampling or in their acts. It climbed as high as No. 8 on Billboard.
It Finishes Strong I don't always subscribe to the axiom "it's not how you start, it's how you finish," but certain musical compositions are made better by their closing notes. Derek and the Dominos' "Layla" is one example. "Living For the City" is another.
Wonder examined the face of America in that song. It forced us all to stare at the fresh wounds from Martin Luther King's assassination, Vietnam and the Kent State shootings. Those and other events were going to leave scars. But the voices and music that close "Living For the City" sound hopeful, in spite of it all. They way they build on one another and climb for higher ground somehow promised better things for all of us listening.
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