On this day in music history: November 6, 1987 – “Characters”, the twenty first album by Stevie Wonder is released. Produced by Stevie Wonder, it is recorded at Wonderland Studios and the 1 DER 1 Mobile Unit in Los Angeles, CA, Westside Studios in London, and CBS/Sony Studios in Tokyo, Japan from Early 1986 – Mid 1987. Issued as the follow up to “In Square Circle”, it sees Wonder returning to his “one man band” concept of recording, heavily utilizing the most state of the art instruments (of the time) and drum programming. It is the Stevie Wonder album since “Music Of My Mind” fifteen years earlier, to miss the Top 10 on the Billboard Top 200, with the critical and commercial response being largely mixed upon its release. In spite of it not including a major pop crossover hit, it is successful on the R&B charts spinning off three top five singles including “Skeletons” (#1 R&B, #19 Pop) (also featured in the film “Die Hard” in 1988 and in the video game “Grand Theft Auto V”), “Get It” (featuring Michael Jackson) (#4 R&B, #80 Pop, #11 AC) and “You Will Know” (#1 R&B, #77 Pop, #16 AC). The track “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” features guest appearances by B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The album earns three Grammy nominations in 1989. The original vinyl LP release is packaged in a gatefold sleeve, matte finished with embossed graphics on the front and back. The vinyl release of the album contains only ten songs, with the CD and cassette configurations adding the tracks “Free” and “My Eyes Don’t Cry” (#6 R&B), the latter of which is released as a single in the US in 1988, and the former in some foreign territories in 1989. “Characters” spends seven weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B album chart, peaking at number seventeen on the Top 200, and is certified Platinum in the US by the RIAA.
On this day in music history: November 1, 1980 – “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” by Stevie Wonder hits #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart for 7 weeks, also peaking at #5 on the Hot 100 on December 6, 1980. Written and produced by Stevie Wonder, it is the thirteenth R&B chart topper for the Motown superstar. Actually recorded during the sessions for his previous album “Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants”, the song is included on the follow up release “Hotter Than July”, and is dedicated to Stevie’s friend reggae legend Bob Marley. Two had been planning to tour together when Marley falls ill with cancer in October of 1980. The track is cut at Wonder’s newly acquired Wonderland Studios in Los Angeles (formerly Crystal Studios) with his band that includes Nathan Watts (bass), Dennis Davis (drums), Ben Bridges and Rick Zunigar (guitars), Isaiah Sanders (organ), Earl DeRouen (percussion), Hank Redd (saxophone), Larry Gittens (trumpet), Angela Winbush, Shirley Brewer, Marva Holcolm, and Alexandra Brown Evans (background vocals). Released as the first single from “Hotter Than July” on September 12, 1980, it is an immediate smash, racing up the R&B and pop singles charts simultaneously. The chart success of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” propels the “Hotter Than July” album to 2x Platinum status in the US.
On this day in music history: October 30, 1979 – “Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants”, the nineteenth studio album by Stevie Wonder is released. Produced by Stevie Wonder, it is recorded at I.A.M. Studios in Irvine, CA, Crystal Recording Studios and Motown Recording Studios in Hollywood, CA, Lyon Recording Studio in Newport Beach, CA, Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, PA, and Studio In The Country in Bogalusa, LA from February – September 1979. Issued as the long awaited follow up to “Songs In The Key Of Life”, it also serves as the score and the soundtrack album to the documentary film “The Secret Life Of Plants”, based on the best selling book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. The film’s producer Michael Braun describes the visual images to Wonder in great detail, who then composes and scores the music to those descriptions. With Motown shipping over a million copies to record stores that Fall, the twenty track double LP set is panned by critics, and is confusing to many fans not prepared for the dramatically contrasting experimental and ambitious work. It initially performs well on the charts, but drops off quickly due to the public’s reaction to the album. As a result, it becomes a cut out bin staple for many years with Motown receiving large amounts of returns after the initial layout. Though in time it is re-evaluated, and comes to be regarded as one of Stevie Wonder’s finest works. It spins off three singles including “Send One Your Love” (#4 Pop, #5 R&B, #1 AC) and “Outside My Window” (#52 Pop, #56 R&B). The song “Overjoyed” is originally recorded during sessions for the album, but is left off of “Journey”, and is later revamped and included on the “In Square Circle” album in 1985. The original LP is packaged in a lavish three panel gatefold sleeve with embossed cover artwork and graphics, with the artist name and title also embossed in braille on the front. Out of print on vinyl since its original release, it is remastered and reissued in September of 2018. “Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants” peaks at number four on both the Billboard Top 200 and R&B album chart.
On this day in music history: October 28, 1972 – “Talking Book”, the fifteenth album by Stevie Wonder is released. Produced by Stevie Wonder, it is recorded at AIR Studios in London, Electric Lady Studios in New York City, Crystal Studios and The Record Plant in Los Angeles, CA from March – September 1972. Issued just seven months after “Music Of My Mind”, it is the second album Wonder writes and produces after gaining full creative control of his music. The album also features Wonder playing most of the instruments, assisted by associate producers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil with the synthesizer programming, guitarists Jeff Beck, “Buzzy” Feiten and saxophonist David Sanborn making guest appearances on the tracks “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love” and “Tuesday Heartbreak” respectively. It produces several classics including the chart topping singles “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and “Superstition”. It is a huge critical and commercial success upon its release, winning three Grammy Awards including Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male. The album is also inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1999. Over time, other songs including “You And I”, “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” and “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”, are covered by numerous other artists. Wonder’s original recording of “I Believe” is later featured in the film “High Fidelity” in 2000. “Maybe Your Baby” is also used in the comedy “Money Talks” in 1997. The original LP pressings feature the title and artist name embossed on the front cover in braille, with an additional message from Wonder (also written in braille) on the inside gatefold that reads, “Here is my music, it is all I have to tell you how I feel. Know that your love keeps my love strong. – Stevie”. The album’s iconic cover and inner gatefold photos are taken co-producer Margouleff. Originally released on CD in 1984, it is remastered and reissued in 2000. The album is also remastered and reissued as a 24K gold CD by Audio Fidelity Records in 2010 (with HDCD encoding). The Audio Fidelity release also includes braille embossing on the CD booklet, replicating the same printing found on original press run LP’s. It is also reissued on vinyl by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, as part of their “Silver Label Vinyl Series” in 2011. High resolution SACD and Blu-ray disc editions of the classic title are released in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Finally, the album is given another vinyl reissue by Motown/UMe in December of 2016, also replicating the original vinyl LP packaging. “Talking Book” spends three weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B Album chart, peaking at number three on the Top 200.
On this day in music history: October 19, 1985 – “Part Time Lover” by Stevie Wonder hits #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart for 6 weeks, topping the Adult Contemporary chart for 3 weeks on October 26, 1985, topping the Hot 100 for 1 week on November 2, 1985, and also topping the Club Play chart for 1 week on November 16, 1985. Written and produced by Stevie Wonder, it is the sixteenth R&B and ninth pop chart topper for the Motown icon. Issued as the first single from “In Square Circle” in August of 1985, it is an instant smash. “Part Time Lover” makes chart history as the first record to hit the top of the Pop, R&B, Dance and Adult Contemporary charts. The track also features background vocals from Luther Vandross, Philip Bailey and Syreeta Wright. Wonder publicly debuts “Part Time Lover” on May 19, 1985 three months before its release, when he performs the song on the television special “Motown Returns To The Apollo” with Boy George of Culture Club. At the time that the single reaches the top of the pop singles chart, it puts Wonder in a tie for fourth place with the Bee Gees and Paul McCartney among the artists with the most number ones. In late 1985, the only other artists ahead of them were The Beatles (20), Elvis Presley (17), and The Supremes (12). The success of “Part Time Lover” propels “In Square Circle” to 2x Platinum status in the US.
On this day in music history: October 16, 1976 – “Songs In The Key Of Life” by Stevie Wonder hits #1 on the Billboard Top 200 for 14 weeks (non-consecutive), also topping the R&B album chart for 20 weeks (non-consecutive) on the same date. Produced by Stevie Wonder , it is recorded at Crystal Sound Studios, The Record Plant in Hollywood, CA, The Record Plant in Sausalito, CA, and The Hit Factory in New York City from Spring 1975 – Fall 1976. Recorded over a period of nearly two years, “Songs” becomes only the third album in US chart history to debut at #1 (Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “Rock Of The Westies” are the first two.). It spins off four singles including “I Wish” (#1 Pop, #1 R&B), “Sir Duke” (#1 Pop, #1 R&B), “As” (#36 Pop and R&B) and “Another Star” (#32 Pop, #18 R&B). “Songs” wins four Grammy Awards including Album Of The Year, making Stevie Wonder one of only three artists in history to win the Album Of The Year prize three times (Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon are the others). The album is inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2002, and is also added to the National Recording Registry by the Library Of Congress in 2005, for its ongoing historic and cultural significance. “Songs In The Key Of Life” is certified 10x Platinum in the US by the RIAA, earning a Diamond Certification.
On this day in music history: October 15, 1968 – “For Once In My Life” by Stevie Wonder is released. Written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden, it is the seventh pop and twelfth R&B top ten hit for the Motown superstar. Written in 1965 by Motown staff songwriters Miller and Murden, it is originally composed as a ballad. The song is first recorded by singer Barbara McNair, and also by Jean DuShon whose version is released as a single by Chess Records in 1966, though neither makes any significant impact. The first male artist who cuts the song is actor Jack Soo ( Detective Nick Yemana of “Barney Miller”), signed to Motown in 1965. Soo records the song in a slow pop ballad style. His version is not released and remains in the Motown tape archives to this day. The Temptations record “For Once In My Life” in 1967 for their “The Temptations In A Mellow Mood” album with Paul Williams on lead vocals. Around this time, singer Tony Bennett records it, becoming a part of his live performance repertoire for the next forty years. Having heard previous versions of “Life”, Stevie Wonder asks Miller if he can record the song in a dramatically different and uptempo style, to which he agrees. The basic track for Wonder’s version is recorded at Motown’s Studio B (the former Golden World Studios located in the Donovan Building in downtown Detroit) on January 18, 1968 with members of The Funk Brothers providing musical backing. He overdubs his initial lead vocal the next day on January 19, 1968 at Studio A, with the horns and strings added on January 25, 1968. Wonder’s initial version is rejected by Motown boss Berry Gordy, Jr., and the master is shelved. When work begins on a new Stevie Wonder album later in 1968, “For Once In My Life” is pulled from the vault, with background vocals by The Originals and the Andantes added on August 28, 1968. Wonder overdubs the songs signature harmonica break on September 8, 1968, also re-recording his lead vocal. When these changes are made to the song, Billie Jean Brown, the head of Motown’s Quality Control department plays the revamped version for Gordy, who then finally gives it his approval for release. Issued in mid October of 1968, the single is an immediate smash, racing up the pop and R&B singles charts simultaneously. Stevie Wonder’s version of “For Once In My Life” peaks at #2 on both the Billboard R&B singles chart and the Hot 100 on December 28, 1968, behind Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, which ironically had also been shelved before finally being released. Published through Motown’s Stein & Van Stock Music (sister to the company’s Jobete Music publishing arm), “For Once In My Life” becomes one of Motown’s most recorded songs with versions by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Wilson, Andy Williams, Cilla Black, and Gladys Knight & The Pips. Stevie Wonder’s recording of “For Once in My Life” is inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2009.
On this day in music history: October 13, 1984 – “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder hits #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 3 weeks, also topping the R&B singles chart and the adult contemporary chart for 3 weeks on the same date. Written and produced by Stevie Wonder, it is the eighth pop and sixteenth R&B chart topper for the Motown superstar. Included on the soundtrack to the Gene Wilder directed comedy “The Woman In Red”, Wonder composed the music for the song in 1977 but writes the lyrics during the recording sessions in mid 1984. Released as the first single from the soundtrack on August 1, 1984, it is an immediate across the board smash. Entering the Hot 100 at #58 on August 18, 1984, it climbs to the top of the chart eight weeks later. Wonder’s long time friend and sometime songwriting collaborator Lee Garrett (“Signed, Sealed Delivered, I’m Yours”, “It’s A Shame”, “Let’s Get Serious”) and Lloyd Chiate claim to have helped co-write the song and file a lawsuit. The suit is settled in Wonder’s favor, with the jury finding that the other two alleged writers did not provide adequate proof that they had co-written the pop and R&B smash. Stevie Wonder wins a Golden Globe and the Academy Award for “Best Original Song” for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” in 1985. When Wonder accepts his Oscar, he dedicates the award to then still imprisoned South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela. With South Africa still under apartheid rule at the time, Stevie Wonder’s music is banned from radio airplay and television broadcast. The ban is lifted with the end of the segregationist system in 1994. “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is certified Gold in the US by the RIAA.
On this day in music history: September 29, 1980 – “Hotter Than July”, the nineteenth album by Stevie Wonder is released. Produced by Stevie Wonder, it is recorded at Wonderland Studios in Los Angeles, CA, I.A.M. Studios in Irvine, CA, and Crystal Sound Studios in Hollywood, CA from Late 1979 – Mid 1980. Following the relative commercial disappointment of his previous album “Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants”, Wonder returns eleven months later with the critically acclaimed and highly successful follow up “July”. Recorded concurrently with “Journey”, it includes a number of tracks that were not thematically or musically suited to be included on the previous album. It spins off four hit singles including “Master Blaster (Jammin’) (#1 R&B, #5 Pop) which is dedicated to Bob Marley, "I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” (#4 R&B, #11 Pop) and “Lately” (#29 R&B, #64 Pop). Though not released as a single at the time, the track “All I Do”, originally written for and recorded by Tammi Terrell in 1966, becomes a major turntable hit. Wonder’s version features background vocals by Michael Jackson, Betty Wright, and Eddie Levert and Walter Williams from The O’Jays. The tracks “Master Blaster” and “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me”, both are featured on the original LP shortened from their full recorded takes, to fit the time limits of vinyl, but are subsequently issued elsewhere. The extended version of “Blaster” surfaces on a promo only US 12" single in late 1980, with “Did I Hear You” being released in 1984 as the B-side of the 12" single for “Don’t Drive Drunk”. It is with “Hotter Than July” that Wonder officially launches his campaign to make Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday (January 15th) a national holiday, via the song “Happy Birthday”. Copies of the original vinyl LP contain an inner sleeve with one side featuring a portrait of Dr. King along with Wonder’s request for others to join him in honoring the legendary Civil Rights leader. The other side features black & white photos taken during the height of the the Civil Rights movement. The US Government makes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (or the third Monday in January on whatever date that falls) a national holiday in 1986, thanks to the musician’s tireless efforts to make it happen. Originally released on CD in 1984, the album is remastered and reissued in 2000, in a standard jewel case and limited edition numbered digi-pak packaging. Out of print on vinyl since 1989, it is remastered and reissued by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in 2011, as part of their “Silver Label Vinyl Series”. It is also remastered and reissued by Universal/UMe in April 2017, with that edition coming packed with a free MP3 download of the full album. “Hotter Than July” spends thirteen weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B album chart, number three on the Top 200, and is certified Platinum in the US by the RIAA.
On this day in music history: September 29, 1973 – “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder hits #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart for 1 week, also peaking at #4 on the Hot 100 on October 13, 1973. Written and produced by Stevie Wonder, it is the seventh R&B chart topper for the prolific musician and songwriter. Issued as the first single from his landmark “Innervisions” album in July of 1973, the song is on the charts while Wonder is recovering from a devastating car accident which leaves him in a coma for four days. While still in a coma, Stevie’s road manager Ira Tucker, Jr. leans down and sing the melody to “Higher Ground” in his ear and Stevie responds by moving fingers in time with song. When this happens, Tucker exclaims, “I think this brother is gonna make it!!” Recorded at Mediasound Studios in New York City, “Higher Ground” is a virtual “one man show” with Wonder playing all of the instruments and singing all of the vocals on the track, with co-producers Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil programming the synthesizers. The Red Hot Chili Peppers score a hit with their cover version of “Higher Ground” when they record it for their 1989 album “Mother’s Milk”, even name checking Stevie Wonder in their version.