Looking back on the album that thrusted soul music into the future
Stevie Wonder was prepared to walk. In fact, he did.
Wonder had first signed with Motown when he was 11, in 1961, to a contract that was definitely tilted in the label’s favor.
By the time the 60s ended, Wonder was chafing at the contract’s terms. Sure, there were financial issues, but creative ones loomed large. He’d started to pile up hits from 1967 into 1971, most of which he’d had a hand in writing. He’d seen other Black artists at other labels expand the rules for soul artists at other labels. He’d seen labelmate Marvin Gaye take a creative stand against Berry Gordy’s reservations with the recording of the What’s Going On album. That stand proved Gaye to be right, as the album became a huge hit and the best album of his career when it was released in 1971.
Wonder, feeling he’d proven himself not just as a singer, but a creator, wanted that artistic freedom for himself. Motown didn’t, preferring he remain closer to the middle of the road.
Wonder had leverage, knowing he would be a free agent on his 21st birthday. He began to explore on the last album on his original contract. Where I’m Coming From, while uneven, showed elements of what was to come, both in its lyrical themes and its production that began to veer away from the standard Motown sound.
Wonder then let his contract run out, refusing to record new material for the label. He’d begun working on songs independently.
Not wanting to lose one of their biggest names to start getting bigger offers elsewhere, Motown blinked. Wonder got what he wanted, both on the money side and the artistic side.
The latter included his desire to make albums that were conceived as a cohesive statement, rather than just a collection of singles, covers and relative filler.
The first result was Music of My Mind, released in March, 1972. While the album didn’t spawn any big hit singles, it rightly garnered commercial praise and it sold well. Today, it’s regarded as the first in Wonder’s classic run of ’70s albums, a period of unparalleled creativity in his career.
And as good as it was, Music of My Mind was a warmup for his second album that year: Talking Book, released 50 years ago today.
A big direction in Wonder’s creativity was his use of synthesizers at a point where they were still relatively new to popular music. His interest piqued when heard the music of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, an electronic duo of Brit Malcolm Cecil and American Robert Margouleff. T.O.N.T.O. (“The Original New Timbral Orchestra”) was a new and large synthesizer that Cecil had built using a Moog Modular synthesizer Series III that Margouleff owned. Other synths were added. Additional modules, either existing or custom made, became part of it.
You know how large early computers look in old photos? It wasn’t dissimilar with this frankensynth. It was (and still is) the largest synthesizer of its kind, going into cabinets 20 feet in diameter and six feet tall.
Wonder liked what he heard and met with Cecil and Margouleff, who’d go on to work with him on multiple albums over the next few years.
VIDEO: TONTO and Stevie Wonder
It wasn’t just T.O.N.T.O. Wonder learned to work with Arp and Moog synthesizers and the Clavinet. These instruments allowed him to layer sounds in a way he couldn’t have before, in a way that wouldn’t require an orchestra or an additional array of studio players.
This afforded a new degree of control to Wonder when his creativity was expanding. Think back to another all-time pop songwriter– Brian Wilson — during the period of Pet Sounds and Smile when there was a struggle and a delicate dance in trying to get the sounds he heard in his head across to the Wrecking Crew (and them trying to understand him). On Talking Book, Wonder was able to cut out the middleman and translate his head sounds directly.
And thanks to one of the Moogs, he also played most of the bass parts on the album.
It wasn’t just synths, either. Wonder also played all the drums.
Each side of the album started with hits that would represent the aspects that made Wonder in the ’70s. Side One started the unabashed love of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” while Side Two kicked off with the sociopolitical funk of “Superstition.”
The latter was actually intended for someone else. Wonder wasn’t a complete one-man band, as he left the guitar work to others. Wonder knew that Jeff Beck had respected his work. Figuring a collaboration might be in the cards, he asked Beck to come to the sessions, agreeing to write a song for the guitarist in return.
Oddly enough for one of the most respected rock guitarists of the time, Beck’s contribution wound up being on drums, albeit not on the finished track. As the opening beat, Wonder told him to keep playing while he improvised over it. By the end of the day, the two had a demo of the song, a statement of empowerment through self-determination and knowledge.
VIDEO: Stevie Wonder and band performs “Superstition” on Sesame Street, April 1973
It deserves its fate as a hit that became a standard and its status as one of Wonder’s most well-loved compositions. The Clavinet at his hands delivers the rock edge better than any guitar could have. There are killer horn parts (from trumpeter Steve Madaio on trumpet and tenor saxophonist Trevor Lawrence) behind him. Wonder’s drumming showed he learned his lessons well from working with the Funk Brothers on prior records. And in technical terms, he sings the everloving hell out of it.
As it turned out, Beck wouldn’t appear on the song (his guitar did appear on “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love”). But he was set to have it be a single and Wonder planned on letting it be first.
But the Beck, Bogert & Appice album was delayed, and Gordy rightly felt Wonder shouldn’t be sitting on such an obvious hit. And thus, Wonder’s version, which was vastly superior to Beck’s anyway, was released as the lead single four days before the album.
“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is so full of joy that it practically bursts out of speakers. Wonder, who was known for never getting rid of musical ideas, came back to a chord progression on electric piano he came up with in 1970, Wonder came back to it. He turned into a ballad that swings, a declaration of love that’s sincere without being sappy.
Talking Book is full of paths of love gone right and turned bad.
If Isaac Hayes would have turned the story of a heartbroken man whose girlfriend’s cheating on him with his best friend into a lengthy epic with string. Wonder turned it into the slowed down funk of “Maybe Your Baby”. A less narcotized travel over similar musical terrain as Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin On, it’s enlivened by scorching guitar from teen guitar whiz Ray Parker Jr., in his pre-fame days as a session player (which including playing guitar on Honey Cone’s No. 1 hit “Want Ads” in 1971).
It took a little persistence from Wonder, as Parker thought he was getting pranked. He hung up on Wonder several times before Wonder was able to convince him he was real by playing the rhythm track to “Superstition.” Parker, who’d been playing underage in Detroit’s legendary 20 Grand Club, wasn’t just in the studio for the Talking Book sessions. He’d also be in Wonder’s backing band for a series of shows opening for the Rolling Stones before the album’s release. He can even be seen in the classic Sesame Street clip (easily found on YouTube) where Stevie and his band deliver a ferocious and completely not watered down version of “Superstition”.
For all the use of the since debunked talking point of synthesizers as somehow “less authentic” or “colder” than traditional instrumentation, Wonder’s use of them throughout Talking Book showed how false that talking point was. There’s a warmth to how they work in tandem with the piano on “You and I (We Can Conquer the World)”, a passionately-delivered ballad. A love song about his then-wife Syreeta Wright, a talented singer in her own right, it’s right up there among songs whose titles most accurately reflect their contents.
Likewise, they make the jazzy “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” more intimate than other instruments would have. It was an effective choice, letting the unsettling doubt of the voiceless girl cut deeper even as Wonder sounds seductive.
The almost breezy “Tuesday Heartbreak” could have been “Maybe Your Baby 2”, but instead of being confrontational with the partner, Wonder still wants to make it work (“I wanna be with you when the nighttime comes/I wanna be with you when the daytime comes”).
Wonder followed “Superstition” with the more directly political “Big Brother.” It’s a nifty touch to marry his pointed commentary of Black life under Nixon (who was about to be re-elected to a second term he wouldn’t finish) to such utterly cheerful musical backing — the Clavinet and harmonica working in tandem to play off a wonderful and subtly-produced bassline. Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 as well as the arrogance of past fallen empires, Wonder finishes on a pointed note (“My name is secluded/We live in a house the size of a matchbox/Roaches live with us wall to wall/You’ve killed all our leaders/I don’t even have to do nothing to you/You’ll cause your own country to fall”).
But while Wonder wasn’t done being sociopolitical, or with Nixon for that matter (see “He’s Misstra-Know-It-All” off 1973’s Innervisions), most of Talking Book was concerned with affairs of the heart.
The engaging “Blame It On the Sun” explores the sadness of a relationship’s end without wallowing.
For all the one-hit wonder reputation Talking Book gained, Wonder was an open collaborator even while pursuing his own artistic vision. Cecil and Margouleff helped him produce the album. There was terrific use of backing vocalists (including Deniece Williams, who’d start having pop and soul hits of her own later in the ’70s). Guitarist Buzz Feiten, who’d go on to keep adding to his list of credits as a session and backing player, and saxophonist David Sanborn appear as well.
More crucially was his choice of songwriting partners, both women, on a combined four songs. He’d had success in that area before. At a point where his voice had changed, hits were harder to come by. It seems unthinkable now, but it wasn’t impossible that Wonder could have been dropped by Motown. It was Sylvia Moy and producer Henry Cosby who came up with ”Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, which jump started his career. Moy and Cosby would also team up with him for the hits “I Was Made to Love Her”, “My Cherie Amour” and “Never Had a Dream Come True”.
On Talking Book, he’d work with Yvonne Wright (no relation) as well as Syreeta.
The latter wouldn’t be his wife for much longer, as the pair divorced on good terms that year, with Wonder later saying they were better together as friends than as a married couple. And they would work together starting the following year on Syreeta’s classic and unjustly ignored Stevie Wonder Presents: Syreeta album that only reached No. 116 and failed to produce a hit single after its 1974 release. Still friends, they’d continue to work together off-and-on over the years until her appearance on his 1995 album Conversation Peace.
Both of Syreeta’s credits are on songs whose protagonists are in a post-breakup frame of mind — “Blame It On The Sun” and “Looking for a Pure Love”. The latter contrasts the desire to move on with a laid back vibe, punctuated by Beck’s solo. It’s as if the singer knew it was coming and knew he could do better, much as Wright seemed to, between Wonder’s devotion to work (as well as his infidelity).
“He would wake up and go straight to the keyboard. I knew and understood that his passion was music. That was really his No. 1 wife.” Syreeta told the New Yorker in 1995.
“I Believe (“When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”, which closes the album, was Yvonne’s second co-write. And if any song on Talking Book deserved to be a third hit single, this was it. Its optimism is inviting, delivered with an engaging hook in the chorus.
Wonder had never coasted vocally, but he sounded even more invested once he got his new deal. He, not Gordy or anyone else at Motown, was steering the ship on his albums. Now he was getting to fully sing the songs he wanted to write.
That vocal spirit shines on “I Believe.” If the opening “Sunshine” left the listener happy for Wonder, “I Believe” let that same listener feel that joy was possible for themselves. It was masterful ending, a perfect bow on the package.
And what a package it was. Wonder wasn’t a man who had to ask “Now what?” when he got the artistic freedom he wanted. He had strong, smart ideas of where he wanted to go. On Talking Book, he subtly included newest elements — the futuristic use of synths, bits of blues, folk and rock — while remaining a soul artist. This was both classic pop and classic R&B at the hands of a 22-year-old master of his craft, working with other talented people to deliver his clear vision.
Audiences of all kinds responded. It was the biggest commercial hit album he’d had to that point. It earned critical raves and would earn three Grammys the following year.
Wonder’s career-defining run was in full swing, to be cemented by three more classic albums to follow over the next four years, capped by his peak — 1976’s double album Songs in the Key of Life.
Talking Book, 50 years later, is still a reminder that Wonder’s self-confidence was very well-placed and that Motown, when it came down to it, was very wise not to let their superstar walk.