In the career of any musician, talent usually comes before artistic credibility. This trend is especially true for artists who sign to a major label and are marketed to be pop stars. Think Justin Bieber, who was discovered through a series of YouTube videos and is now a teen pop superstar but is not someone who has much credibility as a songwriter or musician. He may get there, but not when he’s still hiring songwriters to do the brunt of the work, as on this year’s “Believe.” However, Bieber’s situation is far from unique. One of the most famous pop artist factories is the Motown label. From 1961 to 1971 the label scored 110 top-10 hits from legends such as Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and The Temptations, to name a few. They accomplished this feat by signing great talent but also by running a tight ship. With a team of world-class songwriters, producers and session musicians, label founder Berry Gordy knew his stars had no room for artistic ambition of their own. Yet, as Stevie Wonder — the label’s youngest talent — started to grow up, he got ideas of his own.
In 1961, Ronnie White of Motown’s The Miracles first heard the 11-year old Wonder at a friend’s house, and his prodigious talent was immediately recognized. Wonder was signed to Motown’s Tamla label that year and had his first hit with “Fingertips (Pt. 2)” in 1963 as Little Stevie Wonder. By 1965 he dropped the signifier, his voice matured, and the hits still kept coming. Wonder was honing his songwriting craft, co-writing classics such as The Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown” and his own “Uptight.” Already a gifted harmonica and piano player, Wonder eventually started overdubbing his own drum parts and recording albums independently while still making hits. By the time his 10-year contract with Motown expired in 1971, Wonder had a strong case for his talent and artistic credibility. Gordy re-signed Wonder, giving him creative control and musical rights unheard for Motown.
The re-signing marks the beginning of what is considered Wonder’s classic period, a four-year string of critically and commercially successful albums. Instead of copying Motown’s formula of using full-lengths as mainly promotional tools for the big hits, Wonder explored social and political themes in addition to his usual romantic subject matter. “Music of My Mind” is technically the first album of the classic period and a sign of things to come, where Wonder was both the main musical (he played his own drums and bass) and artistic (he wrote or co-wrote every song) force behind his albums. However, it was later in 1972 that Wonder first made his mark on popular music with “Talking Book.” Wonder again showed his talent by writing or co-writing (with his then-wife Syreeta Wright) and overdubbing to the extent where three of the songs (“You and I,” “Big Brother” and “I Believe”) only have instruments played by Wonder. This time, his songwriting prowess — something he had no doubt been practicing for 10 years — is even more apparent, and the music world responded with multiple accolades for the 21-year old’s masterstroke.
“Talking Book” deserved its initial praise and popularity because it is only classic rhythm and blues on the surface. The rest is a diverse blend of influences that uses its elements to terrific effect while also sounding completely original. Take the bossa-nova drum beat on “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and the Hohner Clavinet on “Superstition” and “Maybe Your Baby.” Though these were not completely novel, they had never been used to make R&B as smooth as “The Girl from Ipanema” or as funky as Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.” At the same time, Wonder was the first prominent black musician to use bass and lead synthesizers, elements still common in R&B 40 years later. The result was a refreshing and original sound that appealed to R&B and rock ‘n’ roll fans. Wonder actually toured with The Rolling Stones in 1972 before “Talking Book” was released and featured blues guitarist Jeff Beck on “Looking for Another Pure Love,” showing he could play to those audiences with no qualms.
The bottom line is that “Talking Book” is the sound of a legend coming into his own and thrilled to finally be in complete control of his product. The brilliant onslaught of keyboards is also complemented by Wonder’s terrific voice and gift for melody, where on this album he may be at his finest. Every song has an earworm, be it the stadium-ready chorus of “I Believe,” the intimate opening lines of “Sunshine,” or the focused and forceful verses of “Superstition.” Come to think of it, there’s hardly a wasted note. Forty years later, “Talking Book” is nothing short of an electrifying, big “first” statement from a wondrous talent.
John Guest's article was originally published in Drexel University's student newspaper The Triangle on October 26th, 2012