Today I decided to look at tracks written by Stevie Wonder and performed by an array of artists in various genres. It goes without saying that Wonder has one of the best discographies in history. He’s been entertaining the world since the age of eleven when he performed as “Little Stevie Wonder”. Back then he was covering some of the classics and truly making them his own. He has that knack for writing catchy melodies, infectious grooves and lyrics that just stick with you. “Tears of a Clown” performed by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and “It’s a Shame” performed by The Spinners were just two early tracks written by Wonder that give a glimpse at his hit song writing ability. Wonder also wrote and produced tracks for numerous artist such as his ex-wife and writing partner Syreeta and Minnie Riperton. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983 and the magic of his songwriting skills is highlighted in the amazing compilation by DJ Spinna called “Wonder Wrote It’ which can be found on Soundcloud. There were initially just two volumes, but I think there’s a version 2.5 now and it’s worth checking out. My selections will hopefully not overlap DJ Spinna’s but regardless, you’ll hopefully be left in awe at the breadth of content that Stevie has produced in his life.
Released in 1973 off the album “Innervisions“, Stevie Wonder showed amazing storytelling ability with the hit “Living for the City“. When I moved to NYC in 1998, I had many moments where the dialogue “New York City, just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything” popped into my head. The story of a a young man from Mississippi escaping hard times and racism and heading to NY only to be hit with ten years in prison for false drug charges confronted the modern North East racism that many people failed to acknowledge. As Wonder always does, he infused the track with so much funk and groove that the listener was not left feeling preached at but rather enlightened. He takes us all to task for being indifferent and helps us see that the problems he addresses aren’t just one mans problem, they belong to all of us.
Billboard lists it as song #105 on the Best 500 Tracks of All-Time and it’s impossible for me to imagine anyone doing this track better than Wonder, so I won’t. It doesn’t mean there aren’t some great versions of the song and hopefully you’ll agree that each artist cover retained some of the “wonder” that makes this song such a classic.
I love me some reggae, so it’s not too surprising that I’d feature a reggae cover of this track. Pat Rhoden started out as a ska reggae artist making Rock Steady tracks and in 1974 Trojan Records released his cover of “Living For the City”.
Wonder’s eighteenth studio release, “Songs In the Key of Life” featured “Village Ghetto Land“. It was certainly not a “hit”, but it is a beautifully orchestrated song that continued with the singers socially conscious writing style.UB40 is often thought of as “Pop” act far more than they are considered a “Reggae” act, but if you put aside their mainstream pop hits and look back at their early releases such as their debut “Signing Off“, you’ll find that they hold to the traditions of many Jamaican reggae acts that proceeded them. They often covered reggae classics and their lyrics were meant to act as a battle cry to impoverished working class people in Birmingham England and beyond. I have a soft spot for lead singer Ali Campbell‘s voice and the beautiful harmonies the group was able to achieve. Here is Ali Campbell of UB40 along with his brothers performing “Village Ghetto Land“.
If there was ever a singer that could do a Stevie Wonder track better than Wonder himself, it would have to be Donny Hathaway. I think even Stevie would agree that Donny had a way of understanding a lyric and a melody and delivering it in a way that would strike any listener dead in their tracks. Donny destroyed many a covers. From The Beatles “Yesterday“, Leon Russel’s “A Song For You“, Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Going On” to John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy“. Donny delivered epic moments in music each time he opened his mouth. When you listen to him and realize that he died at 33, so he was barely 30 when he was performing many of these song, you can feel nothing short of amazement. Back to Stevie’s track. Wonder wrote “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You) about his failing marriage to singer Syreeta. He released the track in 1972. Donny’s version was recorded sometime between 1972 and 1973 and released on his posthumous album “In Performance” in 1980.
I don’t really care what anyone has to say about George Michael‘s person life, all I care about is how he sounds. I happen to think the man is white soul! He has such a beautiful tone and perfect pitch. In 1990 he released “Listen Without Prejudice” which featured “Freedom 90” and was accompanied by the famous supermodel lip syncing filled music video. I happened to love the album, but it marked a turning point for Michael and his discontent with his record label and their lack of support for an album that was not as commercial as his previous hit “Faith“. The tracks were more emotional and meaningful to Michael but there certainly weren’t the radio friendly hits from his days in Wham! or Faith. “They Won’t Go When I Go” was the third track on the album and it really showcases George Michael’s vocal range as well as his deep emotional connection to the track. Stevie Wonder wrote the track after living through a car accident and some say it was the profound experience of living through it while others may have passes on that brought about the track. Wonder released the song on the 1974 “Fullfillingness’ First Finale” and wrote the song with his ex-wife’s sister Yvonne Lowrene Wright.
I may as well end this post with a Syreeta cover since I’ve mentioned her so many times in this Stevie Wonder cover post. Unlike all of the other covers featured, this one still has a taste of Stevie since he produced and played on the track. “I Love Everything About You” was released on the 1972 album “Music of My Mind“. Stevie was only 21 when he wrote the album (unreal). Wonder’s album containing the track was released in March and Syreeta’s self titled album featuring the track was released in June of the same year. Syreeta finds a way to make the track her own even with the heavy Stevie production value. She delivers the lyrics with a carefree pixie-like quality that helps embody the spirit of the affectionate track.