Stevie Wonder’s ‘Talking Book’ at 50 – The New York Times

On the anniversary of the landmark 1972 album “Talking Book,” musicians who made it and artists who cherish it share their stories.
On the anniversary of the landmark 1972 album “Talking Book,” musicians who made it and artists who cherish it share their stories.
The New York Times
In 1972 — half a century ago — Stevie Wonder reinvented the sound of pop by embracing all he could accomplish on his own.
He released two albums that year: “Music of My Mind” in March and then, less than eight months later, on Oct. 27, the even more confident and far-reaching “Talking Book.”
“Talking Book” was a breakthrough on multiple fronts. It demonstrated, with the international smash “Superstition,” that Wonder didn’t need Motown’s “hit factory” methods — songwriters and producers providing material that singers would dutifully execute — to have a No. 1 pop blockbuster.
Wonder had given signs on earlier albums, particularly his self-produced “Where I’m Coming From” (1971), that he would not just be writing love songs. “Talking Book” reaffirmed that, and also extended his sonic and technological ambitions, as he used state-of-the-art synthesizers and an arsenal of studio effects to orchestrate his songs with startlingly novel sounds. And its album cover — which showed Wonder wearing African-style robes and braided hair in a quasi-Biblical desert landscape (actually Los Angeles) — made clear that Wonder’s futurism was unmistakably Afrofuturism.
Although Wonder had just reached voting age, he was no novice when he made “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book.” They were his 14th and 15th albums in a decade-long career that stretched back to his days as Little Stevie Wonder, who was just 13 when he had his first No. 1 song with an irresistibly exuberant live recording: “Fingertips, Pt. 2.”
During his teens, Wonder proved himself onstage and in the studio as a singer, keyboardist, harmonica player, drummer and, with hits like “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” as a songwriter. He revealed musicianship that was both richly and widely grounded — in gospel, R&B, jazz, show tunes, folk, pop, country, classical music and more — and playfully but determinedly recombinant. Even when he was a teenager, his music meshed and reconfigured genres.
Wonder’s first Motown Records contract ended as he turned 21 in 1971. Other labels were eager to sign him, and when he returned to the Black-owned Motown, he had won complete creative control for himself. From then on, he would write and produce his own songs, release albums when he decided they were finished and choose his own collaborators. He made an unexpected choice for starters: Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, a team of musicians, producers and engineers.
In what were still the early days of synthesizers, Cecil and Margouleff had constructed a Frankenstein monster of an instrument they called TONTO (which they retronymed The Original New Timbral Orchestra). It weighed more than a ton. Margouleff and Cecil had connected modules and keyboards from Moog, Arp and other manufacturers and figured out a way for the formerly incompatible devices to control one another. Billing themselves as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Margouleff and Cecil made a 1971 album of synthesizer pieces, “Zero Time,” and Wonder heard in it the possibilities for sounds he wanted to summon from his keyboards.
In their test run — a three-day weekend working together in the studio — Wonder wrote 17 songs. From 1972-74, with Wonder writing the songs and Cecil and Margouleff programming the sounds, they would make four landmark albums: “Music of My Mind,” “Talking Book,” “Innervisions” and “Fulfillingness’ First Finale.”
The early 1970s were a wide-open — and in retrospect simply remarkable — era for R&B that melded social consciousness and musical creativity. Groups like Sly and the Family Stone and the late-60s Temptations had shown that psychedelic soul hits could carry strong messages, and in the early ’70s, songwriters like Marvin Gaye (with his album “What’s Going On”) and groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, the O’Jays and Labelle explored utopian dreams and street-level insights in songs that united the sophistication of jazz with the earthiness of funk and rock. These were parallel explorations, often with large stage and studio bands; meanwhile, Wonder found a path of his own, nearly solo.
“Music of My Mind,” the first album under the new Motown contract, started to probe Wonder’s newfound freedom; then “Talking Book” reveled in it. It’s an album mostly of songs about love: euphoric, heartbroken, jealous, regretful, longing, anticipatory. Yet love songs like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” don’t confine themselves to the ups and downs of individual romance; their love can encompass family, friends, community and faith.
Midway through, the album brandishes a pair of hard-nosed reality checks. In “Superstition,” Wonder warns against gullibility and received opinion, with a loose-limbed drumbeat, chattering stereo Clavinets and taunting horns making his advice as danceable as it is vehement. And in “Big Brother,” Wonder sings “I live in the ghetto” and denounces a sanctimonious politician who wants his vote but is “tired of me protesting/children dying every day.”
Wonder influenced generations of singers with his voice on “Talking Book”; he talks, croons, teases, preaches, moans, barks, growls. It’s not exactly gospel, blues, soul, rock or jazz; it’s all of them at once, and it gives every note he sings an unpredictable life of its own. With the keyboards, synthesizers and effects under his control — there’s wah-wah everywhere — Wonder could extrapolate his vocal inflections to the instruments he played.
Unlike some of the more heavily orchestrated or earnest efforts of early ’70s R&B, “Talking Book” doesn’t feel vintage. Its arrangements are lean and contrapuntal, uncushioned, making every note earn its place both as a melodic line and a rhythmic push. Yet their precision doesn’t make them anywhere near mechanical. Wonder had only a handful of additional musicians on “Talking Book,” but he fabricates the sound of a bustling, multifarious neighborhood largely on his own. And the whole production is set in a surreal, elastic, immersive electronic space that’s far more familiar now than it was 50 years ago.
None of that ingenuity would matter if the songs weren’t substantial and touching. Wonder sings about love going right — “In my mind, we can conquer the world,” he declares in “You and I” — and love going very wrong. The singer suddenly realizes he’s being cheated on in “Maybe Your Baby,” with a bass line as viscous as quicksand and backup voices chiming in like know-it-alls. He’s been left lonely in “Blame It on the Sun,” casting about desperately to convince himself it’s not his fault.
And the album ends with “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever),” a Beatles-tinged three-episode song in which the singer picks himself up from “shattered dreams,” imagines the bliss of endless love with a choir of backup harmonies arriving to uplift him, invokes God, then segues into a bluesy come-on to “the girl that I adore.” The romance is all still hypothetical; the sheer joy is not. And every note comes from Wonder himself.
“Talking Book” was not only a hit album — No. 1 on the R&B chart, No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard 200 — but also a harbinger of R&B and pop that would be increasingly electronic and synthetic, proudly unbound by physical realities. One of Wonder’s many gifts to music was that even as he created the artificial sound-worlds of his songs, he made sure they were brimming with humanity.
Here, 27 of the countless musicians and listeners who created and have been inspired by “Talking Book” discuss the album, song by song. These are edited excerpts from the conversations. — Jon Pareles
You Are The Sunshine of My Life
The Motown Records founder Berry Gordy (at piano) with musicians including Smokey Robinson (in the back) and Wonder (on right) at the label’s recording studios in the 1960s.
DIONNE WARWICKDIONNE WARWICK (musician) That song, it’s not only one of my favorites, it has to be the world’s favorite. All the songs reflect Stevie’s life, as far as I’m concerned. He writes so much from his heart. “Sunshine” gave me this inclination of how romantic he could be in expressing his feelings — it could be applied to a young lady, it could be applied to a child, it could be applied to his mother (who he happened to have adored), and friendships.
BERRY GORDYBERRY GORDY (founder, Motown Records) “Talking Book” is a masterpiece that solidified and secured Stevie Wonder’s stature as a superstar for the ages. He had turned 21 the year before we released the album. By that time he had made it very clear to me that he wanted total creative control of his music, and he had a good idea of what he was doing. Strangely enough, I agreed with him all the way. That’s when I realized the progression the “12-year-old genius,” Little Stevie Wonder, had made — from that high-pitched voice, banging on bongos and mastering the harmonica, to a full-voiced singer, awesome writer, multi-instrumentalist and producer.
From the moment we heard the “Music of My Mind” album, released earlier in the same year, I knew Stevie was ready to fly. With “Talking Book,” his brilliance and creativity soared to a whole new level, surpassing all expectations. It was the beginning of what we’d hear from him during the coming decades in his storytelling, sharing his truth and his resonating views of society. Throughout the ’70s he controlled the charts and the Grammys with hit after hit. So allowing him creative control turned out to be one of the best deals I ever made.
DAVID SANBORNDAVID SANBORN (musician, played alto saxophone on “Talking Book”) I was touring with Stevie in his band, right after he made “Music of My Mind” and decided to break free of the Motown production team. There was a little tension there, and I think he was chafing at the confines of what he felt Motown was imposing on him. His manager got him a slot opening for the Rolling Stones in 1972, and every day at soundcheck, he would come in with a new song or a new idea.
ROBERT MARGOULEFFROBERT MARGOULEFF (associate producer, “Talking Book”) We always had difficulty getting Stevie to choose which songs to put on the album because he had so many of them. As usual, he always wanted to include everything. And Malcolm [Cecil, associate producer] said, “Steve, you know, this is an album. It’s not a talking book.”
At that time a talking book was how blind people could read books. They were recorded at half the speed of an LP, at 16-2/3, and therefore ran twice as long. Then Malcolm said, “Oh, I think you should call this album ‘Talking Book.’” Stevie liked it, and that is in fact how “Talking Book” got its name.
ESPERANZA SPALDINGESPERANZA SPALDING (musician) One thing to note is that practice of bringing in your peers: to build a song with the sound of many. The first person you hear on the album is not Stevie Wonder, but the singer Jim Gilstrap.
Something else to notice is  there are some pretty abrupt harmonic shifts in there. He’ll create this in-between line that goes across the chord change to help guide your ear.   And he’s releasing this for the radio, and finding a way to get away with hacking the songs with all this dense harmonic structure but having it feel like it’s so easy. It’s so friendly.
The Motown Records founder Berry Gordy (at piano) with musicians including Smokey Robinson (in the back) and Wonder (on right) at the label’s recording studios in the 1960s.
ROBERT MARGOULEFFROBERT MARGOULEFF Stevie had tons of songs. And how does he remember the lyrics to every song? The answer was he didn’t remember the lyrics to every song. Malcolm would sit there at the console, at the microphone, saying, “You are the sunshine of my life,” and Stevie would sing it. And while he was finishing the line, Malcolm was reading the next line of the song. But very often, if you soloed some of those tracks, the vocal tracks, you’d hear that fairly clipped British accent reciting the words behind Stevie. In order to silence that, we took white Styrofoam coffee cups, and I stuffed them with the foam liner from the inside of a tape box, and we put them on the earphones so the audio wouldn’t leak from the headphones. It looked ludicrous.
BILL FRISELLBILL FRISELL (musician) There was the melody aspect that was always in his stuff, but there were also things that were happening with the harmony, and things modulating in unusual ways. I feel uncomfortable using these words, but it’s just pure art, you know? It was radical, but it could touch everyone somehow.
SMOKEY ROBINSONSMOKEY ROBINSON (musician) “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is a classic record, and it’s going to be around forever.
Maybe Your Baby
Stevie Wonder at the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1976 with dancers including Paul Russell and Brenda Garratt, at right.
CECILE McLORIN SALVANTCECILE McLORIN SALVANT (musician) In terms of the sequencing of the album, it’s just left turn, left turn, left turn. You’re never safe — the next track is always going to be a left turn. And in the beginning you’re shocked. Like from “You Are the Sunshine of my Life” to “Maybe Your Baby,” you’re shocked. And then you start to hope for it. You’re just like, “OK, what is he going to do now? Where’s he going to take us now?”
DAVID SANBORNDAVID SANBORN I remember us working on ideas for that song on the road. I remember the chorus — “Maybe your baby done made some other plans” — and just the funky underbed of the tune. A lot of these were free-floating ideas that he later formulated in the songs. We’d go into a soundcheck and he would sit down and start playing a groove or something. I don’t really know what his process was. I just remember all those tunes sounded familiar when I heard them on the record.
RAPHAEL SAADIQRAPHAEL SAADIQ (musician and producer) His vocals are just warm, and right in your face. The marriage between his Clavinet and his Moog, the tenor of his voice and his instruments. I feel like those instruments were made for Stevie: Clavinet, Fender Rhodes, acoustic drums. In “Maybe Your Baby,” you have  the sped-up vocals in the end   — he was speeding up vocals before a lot of people. Him coming from Detroit, and singing with these gospel tones, these Motown inflections — I just felt a little bit of Sly and the Family Stone in that vocal, too. There’s a lot of different ear candy going on.
ROBERT GLASPERROBERT GLASPER (musician) If you’re not funky, the Clavinet will definitely expose that.  Nobody plays the Clav like Stevie;   he’s literally the undisputed champ of the Clavinet, hands down.
Stevie Wonder at the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1976 with dancers including Paul Russell and Brenda Garratt, at right.
MACY GRAYMACY GRAY (musician, released her own remake of “Talking Book” in 2012) The album is like “Goodfellas.” Every time you watch it, you see something different, you know? There’s all these little details, and you’ll hear it once and you listen to it again, or you’ll hear it in different speakers and something will pop out that you didn’t hear in your car.
You and I
Little Stevie Wonder onstage at the Apollo Theater in New York circa 1963.
CORINNE BAILEY RAECORINNE BAILEY RAE (musician) I love the vocal performance — the unbridled, passionate release, and that place he gets to in the end chorus where he climbs and climbs. It’s the lack of hiddenness in the music; the heart is really at the surface. There’s classic arrangements and harmonies, and then what he brings to it with his folky, psychedelic take on jazz. It’s such an honest love song.
Little Stevie Wonder onstage at the Apollo Theater in New York circa 1963.
Stevie has this thing in his recordings where it just feels like he’s completely without fear and self-consciousness. He’d done a lot of work by that point — he’d been a child star, and he’d been at Motown. I think he’s someone who’s extremely capable and knows how he wants to sound on record, and that really comes across on that song.
ESPERANZA SPALDINGESPERANZA SPALDING Part of what that song is doing is it’s giving you a love note that you can offer to express the depth of your own cosmic awareness of what love means. Giving lovers, giving partners, giving people this poem from the heart that allows them to communicate this vast sense of possibility to their loved one. It’s a melody that feels very singable, like you can hum it to yourself and it feels like you can recreate it. But when you put it in the context of the song it’s so, so complicated with those chord changes.
JANELLE MONÁEJANELLE MONÁE (musician and actress) Listening to that song, I’m in a deep puddle of tears. This album has a special quality, a special thing to just connect with the God inside of you — God being love, love for oneself, love for one’s partner, love for one’s mother, brother, sister, love for the marginalized, love for this country.
SNOH AALEGRASNOH AALEGRA (musician) To me, it’s one of the most beautiful love songs of all time. It’s hopeful, it’s to the point; it’s celebrating ultimate love with a drop of melancholy. When he says  “We can conquer the world”   — it’s just the ultimate feeling when you’re in love, when you feel like everything is possible with this person.
CECILE McLORIN SALVANTCECILE McLORIN SALVANT It was such a weird choice to have  that effect on the vocal   on such a straightforward ballad. They could have just recorded it super straightforward, and it would have been a great song. But they were like, let’s mess it up. In a good way. He’s just so great with the textural contrasts and the contrasts of intentions. In terms of food, it’s like having something that’s extremely rich and hitting it with some acid to balance it out, because otherwise maybe it would be too cloying.
KENNY GARRETTKENNY GARRETT (musician) As a kid, that song was pretty haunting. I didn’t understand the words at the time, but the music drew me in. He and the synthesizers sounded dark in some ways, but it’s still touching my heart.
I always thought about Stevie as really being a jazz musician. There’s something different; there’s a little more substance there.
JACOB COLLIERJACOB COLLIER (musician) I did an arrangement of “You and I,” it was the first Grammy I ever won. It’s a totally epic ballad, and a totally perfect love song wide open for different kinds of interpretations. The idea of you and I can mean two lovers, it can mean a brother and a sister or a mother and a son, or someone who is not there, or two different parts of yourself — there’s so many different ways you can approach the idea of two.
The kind of inevitable-feeling modulations is one thing. He starts in F-sharp major, which is one of his favorite keys, and then he just slips into E flat halfway through the verse and you don’t even notice. He has that lovely gift of making it feel so natural.
Back in ’72, there were these monophonic synths where you had to play each note one at a time. And there’s one of these  really characterful little passageways   that he carves into the song. At that time, the world was learning what on earth a synthesizer was, and I think Stevie was the first person who really made it sing like that. And he had this lovely way of intuitively layering sounds. Rather than them feeling like lots of layers that have different feelings, they all felt like the same expression of the same instrument, which is like Stevie. Stevie is an instrument.
NNENNA FREELONNNENNA FREELON (musician) That tune was not only a love song, talking about “you and I can conquer the world.” But at the end when he modulates, he’s saying “you and I,” people! He’s saying the community, the collective “you and I,”  he reiterates it, and then he modulates up   to emphasize “we”: “We can conquer the world.” It’s all available to us. So affirming. He placed us on Earth: “Here we are on Earth together, just you and I.” I so love that he had a planetary vibe there.
He’s a soothsayer. He’s a truth teller. He’s a griot. I can’t look at him in isolation as a young artist then, because I see him in the body of his work, now. But even then, I imagine he had elements of this very wise, worldly view of love and social change. And love as social change. Like when we love each other, when we go through whatever it is we go through — loving and losing — our humanity is impacted by that. A lot of artists who are successful don’t want to take those risks to bring on social commentary into their music. But at the very root of speaking truth to power is love.
Tuesday Heartbreak
Mick Jagger and Wonder, who supported the Rolling Stones on their 1972 tour.
MACY GRAYMACY GRAY You know, nobody ever talks about Tuesday! Just Fridays and Mondays and the weekend.
CORINNE BAILEY RAECORINNE BAILEY RAE I like the whole mood and color of the song. The title is really good — the idea of heartbreak being a mundane, everyday thing.
Mick Jagger and Wonder, who supported the Rolling Stones on their 1972 tour.
DAVID SANBORNDAVID SANBORN The Stones had invited us up to a party the night before our first show, and we partied until about seven or eight in the morning. I got back to my hotel, and I got a call from Bob Margouleff saying, “Hey, Stevie wants you in the studio. Can you get over here right now?” They played a new tune down and I played along with it a little bit to find my way. And at the end of that fiddling around, I said, “OK, I’m ready to do one.” And Stevie came on the intercom and said, “No, no, that’s great.” Later, the record came out, and there I was. It was my run through —  I’m learning the song on the solo that I’m playing.   Of course I would love to have another crack at it, but at this point in history that seems a little unlikely.
RAPHAEL SAADIQRAPHAEL SAADIQ His rhythms on the drums; his rhythm on the Clavinet; his diction and his swag when he’s singing, “I wanna be with you when the nighttime comes.” Every two bars, his character gets sweeter and different. You can feel his analog performance, which is something that’s missing in music today. Pro Tools [software] fixes everything, but when you listen to those records, you feel all the natural ingredients of Stevie.
On “Tuesday Heartbreak,” you can feel the heartbreak in his lyrics — the tension of his vocals, the tension of the drums. The background vocals are like a symphony of scent. It’s so warm — it just goes all through the record.
JACOB COLLIERJACOB COLLIER The groove is so cool. It’s not like there’s a drummer and there’s a bass player and there’s horns — it’s all Stevie. It’s like all his own DNA, like one person’s extension through many instruments of a mind.
DENIECE WILLIAMSDENIECE WILLIAMS (musician, sang backing vocals on “Tuesday Heartbreak”) We were having fun in those days. It wasn’t work. I love the song — I still love the song to this day.
It just kind of came together in the studio; we’d never performed it and we didn’t know what we were going to be singing that day. But actually that was typical Stevie. It helped create a lot of creativity with us, which made it fun — made it scary sometimes, but made it fun. He would gather us around and he would play it on the piano, and he would sing the melody note of what the backgrounds were going to sing, and then of course, we knew  the three-part harmony to break it up,   and so that’s what we did.
I started with Stevie in 1971. My cousin John got me the audition. His grandmother and my grandmother were sisters, and at big family dinners, he would brag that he knew Stevie. But for seven years I never believed him; I kept telling him, “Pinocchio, your nose is growing.” At the audition, some had piano players, most of them had music and all I had was me. Stevie called me up and I started singing “Teach Me Tonight” with him, and the next thing I knew, everybody in the room had broken into four-part harmony — it was beautiful.
You’ve Got It Bad Girl
From left: Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil with their giant synth, TONTO.
MAKAYA McCRAVENMAKAYA McCRAVEN (musician) The way the melody is harmonized is a little bit unconventional, bringing in denser, thicker, more rich, lush harmony than you might hear in a pop song, and the way that translates, he’s crossing genres and adding elements of jazz and classical music. There’s a variety of arranging techniques and orchestrations with the different synthesizers and sounds. It was extremely influential: you can hear the cross-influence of somebody like Herbie Hancock, who has been influenced by Stevie and also maybe influenced that sound, and they worked together.
From left: Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil with their giant synth, TONTO.
CECILE McLORIN SALVANTCECILE McLORIN SALVANT That is a song I want to sing.  That beginning is so chromatic, climbing up and climbing down.   And the quality of his voice is very sort of airy and it’s also so mysterious. It felt unusual and strange and perfect.
VERDINE WHITEVERDINE WHITE (musician, Earth Wind & Fire) That’s the beginning of the era of really hip music, the early ’70s — the chord changes, the sound, the synthesizers. As we call it in the business, it was a very hip tune. He was progressing toward that way, with the synthesizers. He was the only one that could do it like that on a full record. He had grown so much with “Talking Book”; he’d matured, and become a really great artist.
JASON TAWKINJASON TAWKIN (studio and electronics engineer, National Music Centre, current home of TONTO) One of the things that I noticed when listening back to “Talking Book” is that there is this very  strong, rich, deep bass.   But it sits below everything else, so it doesn’t impede on things like the vocal and the other elements. That’s one of the most quintessential TONTO and Stevie Wonder sounds.
At that time, these were all  brand-new sounds, totally mind blowing.   We’ve become desensitized to the fact that these were otherworldly, exciting sounds because we’re surrounded by them now — our phone is beeping at us all day long. In the early ’70s, these instruments hadn’t proved viable as regular pop instruments. They were seen as these fringe, crazy scientific things. And it was records like this that made them part of the popular vernacular.
There’s no documentation about the sound creation on “Talking Book.” It was a matter of “know your instrument.” And I think for Robert and Malcolm, it was job security. They didn’t want to write anything down. If you wanted that bass sound, they knew how to patch it up. I think that’s part of what’s missing from music today. There are no secrets.
ROBERT MARGOULEFFROBERT MARGOULEFF We planned out TONTO at a Spanish Chinese restaurant across the street from Media Sound studio. It had paper tablecloths, and at the end of every meal I was flushed from the monosodium glutamate, but there were plans all over the tablecloth. Malcolm invented the brain that gave us the ability to control multiple synthesizers and modules. Our album, “Zero Time,” was the cream of the best stuff that Malcolm and I did together, and that brought Stevie.
I think it was Memorial Day weekend, 1971. We were sitting in Malcolm’s apartment, and the windows were open facing 57th Street. And it’s just getting dark when we hear, “Hey, Malcolm, Malcolm!”
We run over to the window and there’s Ronnie Blanco, a friend of Malcolm’s, a fellow bass player, and he’s standing there with this big, tall Black guy. “I’ve got this guy here who really wants to see the instrument and talk to you.” I look down and there’s Stevie standing in a chartreuse green jumpsuit with “Zero Time” under his arm.
TONTO was just huge. It wasn’t in that fancy case at that point. It looked like a corpse covered in wires. It was on a gurney and we’d roll it around in the studio.
Stevie says, “I really want to see what you’re doing.” The studio was locked up — it was closed for the holiday — but we took him downstairs to Studio B and he put his hands all over the synthesizer. I guided him around, Malcolm and I got up a sound, and then he said, “Man, there’s something wrong with this instrument. I’m playing all these notes and it’s not happening.” And Malcolm says, “Well, you have to think about the synthesizer like you would think about a saxophone. It only plays one note or event at a time. But that note, you have to put all your being into it, just like embouchure, breath, attitude. All that stuff has to go into one note.”
Once he got that, it was all over. If you listen to those records carefully, you’ll see how small the sounds really are. It’s like a string quartet. There’s not polyphonic everything, it’s not all soupy or filled with stuff. It’s all Steve’s approach. He knew when he laid something down where to leave a hole for something else. The entire chart is in his head.
ROBERT GLASPERROBERT GLASPER I’m a jazz musician, so especially from a jazz-musician standpoint, the chord changes are crazy. Stevie Wonder is the epitome — he makes complex music very digestible to the world.
ESPERANZA SPALDINGESPERANZA SPALDING A lot of what you’re hearing is that spirit of jazz music, which is full of changes, because it was born of a people who were constantly grappling with the dynamic shifts of oppression and found a way to create a through line of beauty and coherency through those changes. That’s part of why you hear a lot of movement, a lot of chord changes in quote unquote, jazz music. And Stevie Wonder is a student of that lineage and of that technology, so he’s bringing it into the music.
I feel he set the standard for how to bring a sense of spirit and humanness out of those machines, because he’s so filled with spirit and heart. Here are these computers and these machines, and here is an example of how you can bring so much feeling and swing. Not that an organic sense is somehow better. It’s just, it’s possible for it to feel soulful.
JOHN FRUSCIANTEJOHN FRUSCIANTE (musician, Red Hot Chili Peppers) In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, jazz and pop music were linked. A lot of what was called pop music was jazz, right? Everything got simplified in the ’50s, when rock ’n’ roll came along. But Stevie Wonder’s approach to chord progressions on an album like “Talking Book” has so much to do with the history of jazz and with influences like Duke Ellington. In the ’70s, as a little child, I remember my parents had the records, and to a little kid’s mind it seemed as catchy and as poppy as anything. But as an adult, as I’ve studied it, I realized that like he was keeping this link between jazz and pop alive. He followed his own vision and became even more popular than he’d been before.
Wonder recording harmonica for “Talking Book” in July 1972.
ROBERT MARGOULEFFROBERT MARGOULEFF We were at Electric Lady. Malcolm and I had set up every instrument that we thought Steve could use in a big circle in the studio: the acoustic piano, the Rhodes, the Clavinet, the synthesizer. Everything was always all plugged in and playable immediately. Steve could move from instrument to instrument with ease. He walked into the studio and said, “Bob! Malcolm! I have a really good idea for a song.”
Wonder recording harmonica for “Talking Book” in July 1972.
Without any kind of a click track, with the song totally in his head, he sat down and played the drum track for “Superstition.” He sat down at the drums and in 10 or 15 minutes, he said, “That’s it.” We said, “It’s great. Now what?” He said, “Let’s make the bass sound.” We whipped up the synthesizer stuff, and boom!  That was the beginning of “Superstition.”   Working like that was like a fever dream.
MAKAYA McCRAVENMAKAYA McCRAVEN It’s a great example of Stevie on the drums. That feel and the groove — I think a lot of us drummers have spent time trying to dig in and get out of it, and figure out what that thing is. It’s not necessarily a technical thing, but something about the strength of his groove.
 That riff   is one of the first things that brought me to studying keyboard at all, which is a large part of my composition now. My daughter likes to sit at the piano and plunk away at that riff and that song. It’s a quintessential piece of music for us, culturally.
The groove is super-tight, but I think there’s a looseness about the way he plays that is the special thing. The groove itself, pattern-wise, is quite simple. Maybe there’s a couple of idiosyncrasies. But the uniqueness of his feel is the special sauce. It’s simple, so it’s accessible. But to get the feel, that takes a bit more nuance, time, effort and intent.
SMOKEY ROBINSONSMOKEY ROBINSON If you ever see Stevie Wonder, that’s his closing song. From the very downbeat until he finishes, everybody is up and dancing and having a good time and singing. Berry used to say to us, “We got to get them in the first 10 seconds.” So when you hear the first 10 seconds of “Superstition,” he’s got you. It’s one of the funkiest tracks that you’re going to hear. And he’s one of the first people to even utilize the Clavinet to that degree. Stevie put the Clavinet on the map! It’s funky, man!
DAVID SANBORNDAVID SANBORN That’s another massive hit. That Clavinet — Jesus Christ. Nobody does that stuff like him. It’s so rhythmic, it’s so offhandedly brilliant, the rhythm that he generates. That’s the funkiest Clavinet playing, ever. Those rhythmic things, it’s like popcorn percolating.
ROBERT GLASPERROBERT GLASPER That’s the Clav line. There’s not another Clav line to my knowledge that is as iconic as “Superstition.” I’m not gonna lie; I was a little — not a little, I was very intimidated to play it when Stevie sat down next to me [at a Q-Tip show around 2007]. I was hoping he would play that part and I could play some other part. [Laughs] But I got through it.
Stevie has a certain slop on drums. That’s what we call it.  It’s the Stevie slop.   He made it OK that he’s sloppy. He has a sloppy funk. It’s not tight funk, it’s not neat, it’s not perfect, but it feels amazing. “Superstition” wouldn’t be the same without that particular drumbeat and that style of how he’s playing it.
ROBERT MARGOULEFFROBERT MARGOULEFF We built a studio at the Record Plant, Studio B, with a quadraphonic control room. The industry was touting a system called QS, a methodology of putting quad in vinyl. It was a miserable failure. But it changed my life forever, because I was able to start recording and tracking the records with Stevie in quad. When Steve was in the control room working on a record, the Clavinet could be over here [pointing right] and the Rhodes could be in the back with the background vocals, the lead vocal in the middle of the front. And the first record I ever made in quad — in surround, really — was “Superstition.”
It was fantastic. We couldn’t deliver it to the public — we didn’t have the electrical information to do it. But it worked extremely well creatively in the control room. We could hear the instruments really talking to one another. Everything had a place. We occupied the same space as the music, versus listening to the music emulating the illusion of people playing on a stage in front of you. If you’re going to record a symphony orchestra, then you want that sonic texture. But our music had nothing to do with reality. It was floating electrons. All of that stuff came out of the ether, flowing out of Stevie’s brain directly into the medium. Technology was driving the art.
There’s a wholly different vibe when the whole thing is just vibrating electrons and it never has been performed live. This album was performed in reverse. It was written in the studio. Now, it’s very common today. Everyone has a synthesizer, and everybody’s online and offline, and has goes-intos and goes-out-ofs everywhere. But in 1972, that was not normal.
CORY HENRYCORY HENRY (musician, Snarky Puppy) I love the lyrics of “Superstition.” I love what he says: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.” That’s one of my favorite lyrics of all time because I feel like as people, we take hold to a lot of traditions and a lot of things that predate us and still live our lives based on things that we don’t understand, and we suffer as a result of it. As many times as I heard “Superstition” and played it as a teenager, that part just kind of rolled around me, but as I got older, I was like, “Wait a minute … !”
I think it’s a shot at religion; I think it’s a shot at politics; I think it’s a shot at government or banking systems or [laughs] the stock market. People believe in that thing, crazy! It’s a deep lyric; it’s kind of universal. It’s like a scripture.
NNENNA FREELONNNENNA FREELON Stevie had this unique ability to make you feel as a young, emerging Black person in the ’70s, he was a seer. His work created the soundtrack to millions of young and not-so-young Black people. He actually turned the lens to his own experience. And by doing that, he allowed us to see ourselves in a culture that ignored us, or portrayed us in very negative ways.
And his disability, if you want to call it that, on “Talking Book,” he laid that bare. He’s a person who can’t see, yet he allowed us to see ourselves in such unique ways. It’s astounding to me. And maybe a little bit lost on young people today, who see themselves more in various ways than they did back then in the ’70s. You didn’t see Black people in magazines; very few on television, except in very constricted, stereotypical roles. So African American people went to the music for love, for affirmation, for a sense that, yeah, we are here. For that “mmhmm” moment. When “Talking Book” came out, we ate that whole record up. The whole record! Side A and Side B. Because the whole record told a story.
Big Brother
ROBERT MARGOULEFFROBERT MARGOULEFF Malcolm would read stuff to Stevie. He read him pieces from George Orwell, from “1984.” One day Stevie said, “Malcolm, Malcolm, I have a new song.”
“Stevie, it’s not another love song, is it?”
“Oh, no, no,” he said. “I wrote about Big Brother.”
The real essence of what drove me toward Stevie, and the really deeply emotional commitment that lasts even to this day, is his political sensibility and his real understanding of the Black condition. Really, we need more Stevie Wonders today.
CORINNE BAILEY RAECORINNE BAILEY RAE It’s a clever name — of all the love songs, it’s the first one which is about being watched. It sits alongside all these different love songs, and these different takes on interpersonal relationships. If you’d asked me if they were all love songs on the record, I would have said no — but looking at them, they’re mostly about matters of the heart.
“Big Brother” is just sitting underneath “Superstition”; he’s moving toward a political consciousness that continues from here. He has a unique perspective, it feels like a lived experience. You can feel when his pride is hurt or when his heart is crushed or when he’s longing for something that he can’t have.
JACOB COLLIERJACOB COLLIER “Big Brother” is a weighty song. It’s a political song and it’s about government and change and people and uprising, but I just love the Clavinova,  the harmonica.   It’s so expressive and so natural and just tumbles around and around and doesn’t really move harmonically very much, it just exists in a world.
MACY GRAYMACY GRAY It’s just a great way to talk about our government because it’s still relevant to what goes on in the minds of people who don’t get all the benefits and all the perks. And to put that in a song without preaching — he’s just talking about a perspective, and a feeling. You can sing that song today and it still makes sense. Every generation knows what he’s talking about.
NNENNA FREELONNNENNA FREELON It’s not one of the ones that was really aired on the radio that much. But because we all had the LP, we all dug what he was saying, right? We all dug that we were in a political environment that was hostile to us. And so we were like, OK, yeah, all right, Stevie. Even though it wasn’t like a hit, or a hit single or anything. It was still a part of that context that I think is lost when you don’t listen to the whole record.
JANELLE MONÁEJANELLE MONÁE This album really made me become who I am — to take risks and be and be all of me. If I wanted to talk about politics, if I wanted to talk about love, if I wanted to talk about heartbreak, if I wanted to talk about the fun things that were going on during that time, or to be more introspective — this album was the You print. Not the blueprint. Because he was so much himself, and he spoke about so many different topics on one album, and it sounded incredible.
And so it helped me to also be confident in knowing that I can do that and I can take it even further. And that there’s somebody who had come before me, who was Black, who looked like me, who dreamed big, who cared about community, who valued love and valued bringing people together, and also protecting marginalized people as well. This album did just like an exceptional job of creating a world where the artists can play.
Blame It On The Sun
JANELLE MONÁEJANELLE MONÁE I always, always tear up when I hear this song. The lyrics speak to when I’ve had my heart broken or when I’ve broken somebody else’s heart. And perhaps I didn’t want to deal with the fact that it was my fault. In those lyrics you hear Stevie saying like, it was this, it was that. But truly, deep down inside, he knows that his heart blames it on him.
PJ MORTONPJ MORTON (musician) I’m a preacher’s kid. “Blame It on the Sun” has a lot of church worship-type things, to me. [Sings]  “But my heart blames it on me,”   to my young ears, those chords really spoke to me.
I’m in the tradition of using that soul, using that gospel, using that church in songs that aren’t necessarily gospel. I think the advantage of that is connecting directly to the soul. It’s not just me talking about love. It goes deep; what pours out of the heart connects with the heart. I don’t think Stevie exists without both of those things working together. I think that’s why he was able to connect with so many people, because he was touching so many things. No matter what he’s talking about, I hear the church and I hear some soul.
ROBERT GLASPERROBERT GLASPER His music is not just honest; it’s vulnerable — he’s really letting you in, and with those new synthesizers he was using and everything, you feel like you’re in his head in a dream. Or, like, listening to his dreams.
JACOB COLLIERJACOB COLLIER It’s just amazing to be listening to someone’s mind map out a vernacular, like language. Songs like “Blame It On the Sun” or “Tuesday Heartbreak” are just these gorgeous little shapes. People don’t necessarily know all the words to them, but they’re equally as meaningful to me as a fan, if not more than the big hits, because that’s where the real curiosity was awake.
KAMASI WASHINGTONKAMASI WASHINGTON (musician) I just love the melody. That lyric, “I blame it on the sun,” it’s just powerful. That whole idea of feeling something, but then trying to push it off for something else. I always find that it touches my spirit. It makes me feel connected to the world and to the universe.
His music feels so honest. It feels so pure. It feels uncompromised and made me feel like I could do that too: I didn’t have to compromise. And that’s the part that’s probably the most inspirational part about what Stevie meant to me as a young person. It was nice to hear music that was reaching so many people in the world and was so influential that also felt so uncompromised. He didn’t hold anything back. You can tell that Stevie, he knows jazz, he knows funk, he knows pop, he knows R&B, he knows the blues, he knows all of that. And you can hear it in his music and he puts everything into the pot.
Lookin For Another Pure Love
RAPHAEL SAADIQRAPHAEL SAADIQ The background vocals act as strings. I like how Stevie’s singing goes to the bridge, and Jeff Beck comes in. When I listen to  Jeff Beck coming out of Stevie’s voice into his solo, and after he’s done soloing Stevie starts singing and they enter playing together   — it’s just so warm and so natural. I would love to hear that on records — to grab people from other parts of the music world, and get them together to make music.
One of my good friends, Isaac Hayes, told me that there’s no such thing as old school — it’s either you went to school, or you didn’t. If you’re schooled by the best, you want to do the best things you can do. It’s always about learning, and with Stevie it’s always about learning. I heard he had these two pianos — he bought one for him, and one for Ray Charles, and they would sit next to each other and practice. To me, that’s someone who always wants to keep furthering his education and music so he can give it to his listeners and better himself.
PJ MORTONPJ MORTON More than any other Stevie song, it’s the one that pops up in my head randomly. The verses just have a flow — I love how where it goes from the verse to the chorus. The verse, that’s not a pop melody that just anybody can sing along with, but then it goes into this simple chorus that anybody could sing. It’s almost like being an evangelist, or a warrior, for love.
ROBERT GLASPERROBERT GLASPER When I hear that chorus, it reminds me of a country song, and Stevie Wonder loved country music.
I Believe When I Fall In Love It Will be Forever
SMOKEY ROBINSONSMOKEY ROBINSON A good song is a good song and Stevie Wonder is so talented, and his melodies and his interpretations are just so fantastic. Anybody can sing that song and it’s going to be a good song.
DAVID SANBORNDAVID SANBORN What I love about that song is the end, when he goes into that long, funky vamp. He just changes character in the middle. He had all these vocal qualities, these characters that he could put on. I don’t mean in a superficial sense; his technical, emotional range led him to all these different places. It’s like a great actor: Who am I, in this setting, with these kinds of chords or this kind of musical environment — harmonically, rhythmically? And what’s the right part of my voice to use for this?
He could write the parts because he played all the instruments, so he could either play it himself or tell everybody what to do — use their gifts to help him find another place, kind of like what Duke Ellington did. Stevie was also a great producer. He knew how to get the right sounds.
PETRA HADENPETRA HADEN (musician) One of the first songs I heard him sing was “Stay Gold” when I saw the movie “The Outsiders.” I just fell in love with it — his voice, and how he sings with such feeling, like I felt it in me. And when I listened to “I Believe,” I felt the same feeling. I just fell in love with it because of his voice. It’s very mystical.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the song with Bill [Frisell], is that it has a mystical and magical feeling. For me to love a love song, it has to move me, and  this love song goes from minor to major.   The minor part is the sadness and loneliness, and when it changes to major there’s hope and love. Love ends up not necessarily winning, but love is very important. Loneliness can be healed by love. So if I’m in a bad mood, or a sad mood, and I listen to that song, it immediately makes me feel good. And that’s what music is all about.
JANELLE MONÁEJANELLE MONÁE In so many ways he’s just being so vulnerable around like, I don’t have the love. I pray to God in my prayers. God has answered my prayers — I think it’s you. Let’s fall in love. He really pushes himself out there to just get his heart broken all over again. Or not.
JOSH GROBANJOSH GROBAN (musician) It has the light and the dark. It has the vulnerability and the breakdown of talking about how lost somebody can feel. And I think that the “you” in that song is just kind of a whoever — my interpretation is that it’s a “you” that hasn’t been discovered yet. And I think there’s something really, really powerful about that — to be openhearted like that.
One of the reasons it’s fun to cover is that it’s a challenge that I like as a vocalist, especially as a vocalist who came from more of a traditional vocal training standpoint. You can’t sing one of Stevie Wonder’s songs and not feel it in a way that will pull you from any kind of cerebral technique. No matter how hard you try, the heart and soul of his melodies and his lyrics are going to take you to the good stuff — whether or not you’re thinking about whether that note is my range, or whether I’m feeling OK or tired, or whatever it is.
 Stevie Wonder has fantastic vocal technique.   He’s an amazing student of the voice. But there is that invitation in his music, and especially in a song like this, to just let go. And the really fun thing for me singing this song — and when I’ve sung it, I usually do it later in the show or last in the show — is it’s just kind of a “leave it all onstage” kind of a number. And so it brings out a more wild, more kind of loose sensibility to my singing.
CECILE McLORIN SALVANTCECILE McLORIN SALVANT It is such an end-credits song. I wonder if he was thinking of this as a movie. You’ve gone through this whole journey and finally there’s the repetitive thing, “I believe when I fall in love.” It just keeps coming back and back and back again and never ends. And you don’t want it to end. What a great way to end an album.
Produced by Caryn Ganz, Alicia DeSantis, Gabriel Gianordoli, Lorne Manly, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie, Josephine Sedgwick and Amanda Webster.

Interviews by Jeremy Gordon, Jon Pareles, Olivia Horn, Hank Shteamer, Gavin Edwards and Marcus J. Moore.

Images from top: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Patricia Wall/The New York Times (album); RB/Redferns, via Getty Images; Steve Kagan/Getty Images; Associated Press; Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images; Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives and Getty Images; Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, via Getty Images; William E. Sauro/The New York Times; RB/Redferns, via Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Michael Putland/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, via Getty Images; Dennis Stone/Mirrorpix, via Getty Images; Jim Wells/Associated Press; Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, via Getty Images; Michael Putland/Getty Images; Bettmann, via Getty Images; Richard E. Aaron/Redferns, via Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Icon and Image/Getty Images
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