Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions at 50

Looking back on a visionary album from a once-in-a-lifetime artist

Innervisions on cassette (Image: Discogs)

There are recording artists who peak early and spend the rest of their lives trying in vain to recapture that magic.

Then there are those who spend years grinding away in obscurity before they hit it big, sometimes too late to fully appreciate the delayed recognition. Most musicians fall somewhere between the two extremes. Then there’s Stevland Hardaway Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder, who wasn’t–and still isn’t–your average musician.

Signed to Motown’s Tamla division in 1961 at the age of 11, the Michigan native first came to fame as a piano prodigy; a charismatic kid who had a way with rhythm and melody (he lost his sight shortly after birth).

By contrast, Motown signed the Jackson 5 in 1968, the year Michael Jackson turned 10, except the singer and dancer was part of an ensemble. His solo recording years would begin when he turned 14–still impressively early–but seven years would elapse before he established his own unique identity with 1979’s Off the Wall.

Like other Motown artists, Wonder could have kept releasing albums filled with covers, along with the occasional co-write, and he could have made a decent living, but fans might have moved on after awhile. That’s the trajectory for many former child stars who can no longer bank on precociousness, necessitating a complete overhaul to forge a successful adult career. The transformation in Wonder’s case was gradual, but significant.

Wonder spent the 1960s refining his singing, songwriting, instrumental, production, and performance skills while writing for other artists, releasing fine albums, and racking up crossover hits, like 1967’s “I Was Made to Love Her,” a classic of Motown’s Funk Brothers era, but these weren’t necessarily spiritual or sociopolitical statements.



That started to shift in 1971 with Where I’m Coming From for which Wonder wrote every song with Syreeta Wright, who he had married when he was only 20. Though the marriage didn’t last, his label mate, also a former youth performer, helped him to hone his vision, distinct from whatever plans Berry Gordy had for him.

As a child of the 1970s, I have fond memories of hearing Stevie Wonder on the radio, but he hadn’t yet become a full-fledged album artist. In millions of households, including my own, 1972’s Talking Book changed everything.

My divorced parents, who lived on opposite coasts, sparked my interest in popular music, but they had different tastes, and I don’t recall that they owned any of the same albums–except for Talking Book. Mom had the album, and Dad had the eight-track. I used to borrow his portable Panasonic player every time I came to visit, and I would play the album over and over, never tiring of it–or apparently, tiring any listeners in my vicinity.

Talking Book, Wonder’s 15th album, marked the start of an astounding three-record run, which would conclude with 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale. While the former featured several co-writes with Syreeta and Yvonne Wright (whose shared last name was a coincidence), Wonder wrote every song on the 1973 recording.



By now, he wasn’t just a 23-year-old musician with 12 years of experience under his belt, but a technical innovator, one of many reasons his 1970s discography has barely aged a day. Wonder never stopped playing the piano, but his keyboard prowess had come to encompass cutting-edge synthesizers, lending his work an introspective, impressionistic feel reflective of a growing interest in spirituality and Afrocentrism.

Remarkably, Wonder also played most every instrument, including Fender Rhodes, TONTO synthesizer, Hohner clavinet, Moog bass, drums, and percussion, in addition to hand claps and the humble harmonica, an essential component of his sound from the very start, providing a link with his rock and folk peers, Bob Dylan above all.

Innervisions opens with “Too High,” a deceptively buoyant number featuring jazz harmonies and an extended harmonica solo, about drug abuse. Though some listeners have criticized the lyrics as judgmental, Wonder captures the exhilarating thrill of the high, followed by the descent into madness, and in this case, death.

Unlike “Living for the City,” the third song, the anger is tamped-down, but indelible. To my mind, it isn’t necessarily judgmental, but an expression of helplessness about a situation over which he has no control. If anything, the lyrics feel so personal that it’s hard not to imagine he had a particular woman in mind.

“Too High” gives way to the stately “Visions,” a plea for peace, which makes prominent use of flamenco-inflected guitar from Dean Parks, an in-demand session player who buoyed Steely Dan’s peak-era material. Parks also played on Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Goin’ On, a previous, socially-conscious Motown landmark.

“Living for the City,” among Innervisions three singles, would become one of Wonder’s signature numbers. Along with “Higher Ground,” the first single, he’s credited with every instrument. For most of the 7:22-minute run time, drums and bass keep things moving, while the lyrics tell a tragic tale with a beginning, a middle, and an unsparing end. In 1973, it topped the R&B chart and in 1974, it won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.

The central character begins life in Mississippi with loving, hard-working parents, travels to New York City to seek his fortune, and finds every door closed to a Black man without any means. Unusually, Wonder switches to a radio play-like section as he recounts the protagonist’s arrival, minor indiscretion, arrest, conviction, and prison sentence. The guest voices include Ira Tucker Jr., Jonathan Vigod, and Wonder’s brother, Calvin Hardaway.

Stevie Wonder Innervisions, Tamla Records 1973

Though our lead ends as a free man, he isn’t really free: broken by a broken system in which Black lives are disposable. If not for the melody and the ameliorating impact of the Rhodes, it just might be unbearable.

(On a lighter note, the first time I visited New York City, I looked up, up, up at the towering structures that surrounded me, and thought, “Wow, New York, just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything.” The last time I visited the city, I had the same exact thought, no doubt a universal reaction among rubes of all kinds.)

In 2001, Detroit’s the Dirtbombs covered “Living for the City” on their essential covers album, Ultraglide in Black. A savvy artist himself, frontman Mick Collins knew better than to try to compete with Wonder’s original, and his outfit puts their stamp on the song by adding a Latin twist and shaving four minutes from the run time.


AUDIO: The Dirtbombs “Livin’ for the City”

Had Wonder switched the order of the songs on Innervisions, it might still be considered a classic, but artful sequencing makes every song shine brighter, and he follows one about injustice with another about enchantment.

Floating on a Cuban-style rhythm, “Golden Lady” relies on feelings over facts. The title character might not even exist, but it warms the singer’s heart to imagine that she does. Or she could be someone he just met, and hasn’t yet gotten to know, but her radiant presence fills him with joy. Use of the phrase “I’d like to go there” also suggests that the “Golden Lady” might not be a person at all, but a blissful geographical location.

Considering that Wonder performed in Kingston with Bob Marley & the Wailers (though two years after the release of this album), incorporated Jamaican rhythms into his work, and even gave reggae the propulsive synth-meets-barrel house treatment in “Boogie on Reggae Woman” off Fulfillingness’ First Finale, I like to imagine that he’s singing about Jamaica or some other Caribbean nation. I couldn’t say for sure, though Wonder would pay joyous tribute to Marley on “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” which opens 1980’s Hotter Than July.

After that interlude, he picks up the pace with the funk-powered “Higher Ground,” the album’s first #1 R&B chart-topper, and another signature number. If “Living for the City” deals with systemic racism, including the street-hardened man of color–another kind of victim–who puts the protagonist’s life in jeopardy rather than lending him a helping hand, this single looks ahead to better days. Though the lyrics don’t mention Vietnam (“Soldiers keep on warrin’”) or Nixon (“Powers keep on lyin’”) explicitly, it’s not hard to read between the lines. Things are going to get better, Wonder tells himself–and us. At the very least, we can all try to be better human beings.

Beyond the Dirtbombs, countless other acts have covered the songs on Innervisions, and for better or worse, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funk-metal version of “Higher Ground” from 1989’s Mother’s Milk ranks among the best known due to pervasive alt-rock radio play (just as the Dirtbombs’ “Living for the City” includes a few words in Spanish, Wonder’s “Higher Ground” includes a few words in Italian). Though it’s de rigueur to dismiss the Chili Peppers these days, I’ve heard worse. I would just hate to think they have fans who haven’t heard the original.


VIDEO: Red Hot Chili Peppers talk “Higher Ground” on Howard Stern

Wonder turns to religious hypocrisy in “Jesus Children of America,” the fourth song on which he plays every instrument. It’s another that has struck some listeners as judgmental, though I see no problem in expressing disappointment in people of faith, whether “holy rollers” or Jesus freaks, who fail to practice what they preach, especially grifters who prey on the gullible. They’re the targets of his wrath, and not the faithful in general.

It’s also possible that the song’s critics think Wonder believes he’s somehow beyond reproach. “Higher Ground” suggests otherwise when he sings, “I’m so darn glad He let me try it again, ’cause my last time on earth, I lived a whole world of sin, I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then, gonna keep on tryin’ ’til I reach my highest ground.” Assuming the lyrics are autobiographical, Wonder was under no impression that he was perfect.

If anything, that was the album’s intent: to portray modern life, including his own, in all its beauty and ugliness. The title suggests a spiritual outlook, but it was also a reference to blindness, both literal and figurative. He aimed to see–and to encourage others to see–things as they are and not as they appear to be, whether the actions of lying politicians or religious charlatans. It’s “my most personal album,” he told The New York Times.

It’s also, of course, a Black album, though he only uses the word once, in “Living for the City,” when he sings, “His sister’s black, but she is sho’nuff pretty, her skirt is short, but Lord her legs are sturdy.” It’s one of the few times, along with “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” that he slips into African American Vernacular English, aka jive.

The ballad “All in Love Is Fair” features one of Wonder’s finest vocals. A preternaturally supple singer, ever since he debuted as a vocalist on 1962’s Tribute to Uncle Ray, his voice had matured by this point to a richer, more expressive timbre. Sensing the song’s possibility as a showcase for her own famous pipes, Barbra Streisand covered it in 1974, but her more carefully-enunciated, sophisticated approach doesn’t hit quite so hard.

Just as the sounds of street life permeate “Living for the City,” contributing to its cinematic feel, the Latin-tinged “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing” opens with a cacophony of foreign voices, as if Wonder recorded it on a Harlem street corner on a hot summer night, like a cross between the Chambers Brothers in the 1960s and War in the 1970s–a pretty groovy vibe to evoke. Intentionally or otherwise, the line “Just don’t you feel too bad when you get fooled by smiling faces” also recalls Motown act the Undisputed Truth’s 1971 masterwork “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” Considering Wonder’s preoccupation with hypocrisy, it seems likely he was familiar.

Innervisions comes to a close with mid-tempo ballad “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” another reference to Nixon, who had only one year left in his embattled presidency, though the lyrics could apply to most any glad-handing politician, with lines like, “Makes a deal with a smile, knowin’ all the time that his lie’s a mile.” Wonder strikes a tone more exasperated than upset, though his singing gathers gospel-style grit towards the end.

Three days after the release of Innervisions, he was involved in a freak car accident in Durham, North Carolina when a stray log from a lumber truck struck him in the head. For several weeks, it was touch and go. Though it seemed likely he would survive, it was unclear whether he would ever be able to make music again, but not only did he fully recover–other than some facial scarring–Fulfillingness’ First Finale premiered a mere 12 months later. If the accident shifted Wonder’s consciousness into a higher register, he didn’t miss a step professionally, and nor did the album suffer significantly from the loss of promotion and tour support his recovery required.

In 1974, Innervisions won Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording at the Grammy Awards where Wonder, regrettably, neglected to thank Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, the engineers, associate producers, and synthesizer programmers behind his revolutionary 1972-1974 output (TONTO stands for The Original New Timbral Orchestra, a multi-module machine that allowed him to arrange his own material). If anyone needed proof that Wonder was less than perfect, his repeated failure to properly acknowledge the pioneering electronic duo contributed to the end of their groundbreaking alliance.

Innervisions magazine ad (Image: eBay)

Not yet 25, Wonder’s hit-making, award-winning days were hardly over, but he would never again hit the same artistic heights. Granted, times were changing in the 1970s as disco, punk, and other styles came into vogue, but there’s a certain sensual, quasi-psychedelic quality that would disappear from his work. Though some of his 1970s collaborators, like guitarist Michael Sembello–yes, the “Maniac” guy–believe that Wonder’s handlers encouraged him to downplay Cecil and Margouleff’s contributions, in the end, the blame lies with Wonder.

That said, Cecil and Margouleff helped to bring the music of his mind to life, and they were invaluable, but the art began with the artist. The words, the thoughts, the ideas, the experiences–these things originated with Wonder. The result, in 1973, was a record that struck a universal chord, landing a spot on most every list of the best albums of all time. In 2022, Pitchfork gave it a perfect 10. As Craig Jenkins wrote in his review, “Innervisions collapsed the spaces between avant-garde and mainstream, rock and soul, and jazz and pop music.

If Talking Book remains my favorite Wonder album for reasons as personal as aesthetic, second place is a tie between Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. If the former has the edge, it’s due to “Living for the City,” the musical equivalent of a B&W neo-realist motion picture rendered so vividly it’s as if Wonder transmitted it telepathically–the young man, the sister, the dealer who sells him out, the cop who arrests him, the judge who sentences him, and the virtual zombie city living reduces him to. It was one of Stevie Wonder’s most powerful innervisions. The kind from which most people would prefer to turn away, but in his masterly hands: you can’t. 



Kathy Fennessy

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Kathy Fennessy

Kathy Fennessy is a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society, an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, and a regular contributor to Seattle Film Blog. She has also written about film for Amazon, City Pages, Northwest Film Forum, Seattle International Film Festival, and The Stranger.

One thought on “Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions at 50

  • August 15, 2023 at 2:02 am

    Ms. Fennessy, this article was very good. What was left out was the 1972 album Music of My Mind, which was followed by Talking Book. Music Of My Mind was an important stepping stone to Talking Book, which several years later led to Songs In The Key If Life.

    In my opinion, Stevie Wonder is one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. His body of work is very impressive.

    Thank you.


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