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From the Vaults

Motown Releases Remind Us of Stevie Wonder's Impact

April 01, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

There's a scene in the marvelous new film "High Fidelity" in which a middle-aged man walks into a record store to buy his daughter a copy of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

Bad move.

The poor fellow has innocently stumbled into a specialty shop where the obsessive employees define everyone by their taste in music--and are contemptuous of anyone whose doesn't fit their definition of hip.

"Just Called," admittedly, is a pretty lame record (even if it did win an Oscar for best song in 1985), and one clerk bullies the customer unmercifully in a tirade that carries over into an attack on veteran artists--like Wonder--whose music loses its punch over time.

It's at once a funny scene and a startling one.

Wonder has made some of the most distinguished and influential music of the contemporary pop era, so it's hard to imagine anyone using him as the butt of a joke. Paul McCartney, possibly. Peter Frampton, most definitely--in fact, he is one target in the film.

But Wonder?

There was a time in the '70s when Wonder dominated the sales charts, Grammy telecasts and year-end critics' polls--a rare pop trifecta.

But this is 2000, and it has been a long time since a new Wonder song sounded so good on the radio that you had to rush out and buy the album.

In celebration of Wonder's 50th birthday May 13, Motown Records is trying to draw our attention back to one of the most impressive creative rolls in pop history.

The label earlier released "Stevie Wonder: At the Close of a Century," a four-disc package that ranged from 1963's "Fingertips--Pt. 2" to Wonder's 1996 teaming with Babyface on "How Come, How Long."

Now it is following that collection with four of Wonder's most prized '70s albums--all digitally remastered, and complete with original artwork and printed lyrics.

*** "Music of My Mind" (1972). This collection was a key step in Wonder's declaration of artistic independence at Motown. In the '60s, his work, like that of most Motown artists, was largely shaped by the label's magnificent team of writers, musicians and producers. Though Wonder wrote occasional tunes, he was chiefly a singer.

In the '70s, however, Wonder took control of his musical destiny, not only producing his albums, but also writing most of the material and playing virtually all the instruments on the records.

"Love Having You Around," the opening track on this album, is a love song, but it's easy to think of the opening line as a playful nod to his newfound independence in the studio:

Every day I want to fly my kite . . .

Every day I want to get on my camel and ride.

In case listeners missed the message, the album's liner notes also stressed the notion of Wonder, just 22 at the time, as a mature, self-contained record maker. "Stevie Wonder comes of age," they declare at one point, and later add, "Stevie in maturity shines with that same loving and brilliant light that has drawn people to him for a decade."

If the remarks were heavy-handed, the music was graceful and convincing--even if it lacked the ambition and range of the music to follow. Most of the tunes were relatively straightforward love songs, but the closing "Evil" gave a hint of the social commentary that would play an increasing part in his music.

*** 1/2 "Talking Book" (1972). There are slow spots here, but the highlights are dazzling--the certification of all the claims of artistic growth made in the "Music of My Mind" liner notes. 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.

**** "Innervisions" (1973). This was the first of three straight Wonder collections that would win Grammys for album of the year. It was a domination of the pop world so dramatic that Paul Simon got the biggest laugh of the night at the 1976 Grammys when, accepting the best album award for "Still Crazy After All These Years," he said, "I'd like to thank Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album this year."

It's a sign of the consistency and strength of "Innervisions" that eight of the nine tracks were included in the "Close of a Century" boxed set. By contrast, only two songs from "Music of My Mind" and just four from "Talking Book" are contained in the set.

Wonder is in absolute control here, injecting such tunes as "Living for the City," "Higher Ground" and "Don't Worry 'Bout a Thing," with elements of spiritual quest, racial pride and social urgency. In between, he finds room for one of his loveliest ballads, "All in Love Is Fair."

**** "Fulfillingness' First Finale." (1974). While it doesn't quite match the punch of "Innervisions" song for song, this is another extraordinarily accomplished work--overflowing with the taste and ambition that characterized Wonder's '70s work. Among the highlights: "Too Shy to Say," which may be Wonder's most memorable love song; "Boogie on Reggae Woman," one of the most deliciously lustful records ever to reach the Top 10; and "You Haven't Done Nothin' ," which was widely interpreted as an attack on the Nixon administration.

Motown plans to release the remastered version of Wonder's next great '70s album, the two-disc "Songs in the Key of Life," on April 18.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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