In 1972 – half a century ago – Stevie Wonder reinvented pop music by embracing everything he could accomplish on his own.
That year he released two albums:my brain musicIn March and then, less than eight months later, on October 27, the most trusted and far-reaching ‘Modern Book’.
The Talking Book was a breakthrough on multiple fronts. It showed, through universal “myth”, that Wonder didn’t need the “hit-factory” methods – songwriters and producers providing material that would be faithfully executed by singers – to get the best of a popular movie.
Wonder had given indications on his previous albums, especially his self-produced “Where Do You Come From” (1971), that he would not only write love songs. Reaffirming this, “Talking Book” also expanded his vocal and technological ambitions, using the latest musical instruments and an arsenal of studio effects to harmonize his songs with stunning new sounds. The album cover – which featured Wonder wearing African-style robes and braided hair in a semi-biblical desert landscape (actually Los Angeles) – made it clear that Wonder’s future was an unmistakable African one.
Although Wonder had just reached voting age, he wasn’t a beginner when he made “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book”. It was his fourteenth and fifteenth albums of a decade-long career that spanned his days as Little Stevie Wonder, who was just 13 years old when he landed his first number-one single with an irresistibly abundant live recording: “Tips of the Fingers.” , Pt. 2.”
During his adolescence, Wonder established himself on stage and in the studio as a singer, keyboardist, harmonica player, and drummer with successes such as “Uptight” And the “signed, sealed, delivered (I’m yours)As a songwriter. He revealed a musician’s soul that was rich and broad—in gospel, R&B, jazz, percussion, folk, pop, country, classical and more—and comically but assertively interconnected. Even as a teenager, his music intertwined with and reshaped musical genres.
Wonder’s first Motown Records contract expired when he turned 21 in 1971. The other labels were eager to sign him, and when he returned to Black-owned Motown, he had won complete creative control for himself. Since then, he has been writing and producing his own songs, releasing albums when he decides to finish them and choosing his collaborators. He made an unexpected choice for beginners: Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margulf, a team of musicians, producers and engineers.
In what was still the early days of blending, Cecil and Margolf built a Frankenstein monster for a machine they called tono (which they reconstructed the new original Timbral orchestra.) It weighed more than a ton. Margouleff and Cecil connected modules and keyboards from Moog, Arp, and other manufacturers and figured out a way for previously incompatible devices to control each other. Margouleff and Cecil, who describe themselves as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, released a 1971 album of mashup pieces, “Zero timeRarely has he heard the possibilities of the sounds he wants to summon from his keyboards.
On their demo run – a three-day weekend of working together in the studio – Wonder wrote 17 songs. From 1972 to 1974, with Wonder writing songs and Cecil and Margouleff programming the voices, they made four notable albums: “Music of My Mind”, “Talking Book”, “Innervisions” and “Fulfillingness” First Finale. “
The early 1970s were a wide open period – simply way back – a great era for R&B music that blended social awareness with musical creativity. Groups like Sly, Family Stone, and the temptations of the late ’60s showed that psychedelic soul hits can carry powerful messages, and in the early ’70s, songwriters like Marvin Gaye (with his album What’s Going On) and groups like Earth, Wind and Fire Parliament – FunkadelicCouple O’Jays and Labelle explore idealistic dreams and street-level visions in songs that combine the sophistication of jazz with the spirit of funk and rock. These were parallel explorations, often with large theater and studio troupes; Meanwhile, Wonder has found a path of his own, almost solo.
“Music of My Mind,” the first album under Motown’s new contract, began the search for Wonder’s new freedom. Then came the “talking book”. It’s an album mostly of songs about love: joyful, melancholy, jealous, remorseful, longing, proactive. However, love songs such as “You Are Sunshine of My Life” and “Lookin’ for Other Love Pure” are not limited to the ups and downs of a single romance; their love can include family, friends, community, and faith.
Halfway through, the album looms large with a pair of tough reality checks. In “The Fable,” Wonder warns against naivety and receiving opinions, with loose-end drumming, stereo chatter of Clavinets and sarcastic trumpets that make his advice as danceable as it is violent. And in Big Brother, the Wonder Woman sings “I live in the ghetto” and decries a loyal politician who wants his voice but is “sick of me protesting/kids dying every day.”
The wonder affected generations of singers with his voice in “The Talking Book”. He speaks, tones, teases, preaches, moans, barks, roars. It’s not exactly gospel, blues, soul, rock, or jazz. All at once, and he gives each note he sings a life of its own, unpredictable. With keyboards, synthesizers, and effects under his control — there’s wah-wah everywhere — Wonder can extrapolate his sound effects to the instruments he plays.
Unlike some highly organized or earnest efforts in the early 1970s, “Talking Book” doesn’t look outdated. Its arrangements are lean, contrasting, and unlined, making each note earn its place as a melodic line and rhythmic thrust. However, its accuracy doesn’t make it anywhere close to mechanical. Wonder had only a few additional musicians on “Talking Book,” but he made up a diverse and loud live sound largely on his own. And the entire production is set in a surreal, flexible and immersive electronic space that is more familiar now than it was 50 years ago.
None of this finesse would matter if the songs weren’t substantial and touching. Singing wonders about love going so well — “In my mind, we can conquer the world,” he declares in “You and I” — and love going so wrong. The singer suddenly realizes he’s being cheated on in Maybe Your Child, with a bass line sticky like quicksand and backup vocals chime like who knows everything. Left alone in Blame the Sun, he desperately glances at himself to convince himself that it’s not his fault.
The album ends with “I Believe (when I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever)”, a three-episode song by the Beatles in which the singer picks himself up from “shattered dreams”, imagining the bliss of endless love with a chorus of backup harmonies reaching for the soaring him, and pleads with God, then joins the melancholy song “For the Girl I Adore”. Romance is all still virtual. Absolute joy is not. And every note comes from Wonder himself.
“Talking Book” was not only a successful album – #1 on the R&B chart, #3 on all genres on the Billboard 200 – but also a harbinger of R&B and Pop that would increasingly be electronic and industrial, proudly unconstrained by physical facts. One of Wonder’s many gifts to music was that even when he created the synthetic sound worlds for his songs, he made sure they were filled with humanity.
Here, the 27 musicians and countless listeners who created “The Talking Book” discuss album, song after song. These are edited excerpts from the conversations. – John Bareilles