Monday, 5 October 2020

Stevie Wonder - For Once In My Life (1966-1971)

Down To Earth (1966)

A Place In The Sun/Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)/Down To Earth/Thank You Love/Be Cool, Be Calm (And Keep Yourself Together)/Sylvia/My World Is Empty Without You/The Lonesome Road/Angel Baby (Don't You Ever Leave Me)/Mr. Tambourine Man/Sixteen Tons/Hey Love                                         

The first thing that hits you about this upbeat, enjoyable mid-sixties album is the excellent quality stereo sound. It was strange how Motown singles at the time were released in mono, yet albums like this were given a superb stereo mix. The sound is a joy.

This was Stevie Wonder's first real "adult" album. His voice had changed and sounded older now. He was sixteen, still incredibly young, it has to be said. Taking that into account, it is a remarkable album, really.


The album is a lively mix of Motown single material such as
 A Place In The Sun and Hey Love; gospel songs given the Stevie touch in Sixteen Tons and Lonesome Road; Stevie's versions of Motown songs made more famous eventually by others like My World Is Empty Without You (a hit for Diana Ross & The Supremes); covers like Sonny Bono's Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) and Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man and songs that would become known on the seventies Northern Soul circuit, like Darrell BanksAngel Baby and the little-mentioned, floor-shaking stomper that is Be Cool, Be Calm (And Keep Yourself Together).

Obviously, this is not an album in the creative mode that Wonder's seventies albums were, but as a credible mid-sixties Motown album, it is a good one. It is not full of "easy listening" covers. It still has oomph, soul and vitality. Listening to it is a pleasant half hour's breath of fresh air. A nice morning album.

I Was Made To Love Her (1967)

I Was Made To Love Her/Send Me Some Lovin'/I'd Cry/Everybody Needs Somebody (I Need You)/Respect/My Girl/Baby Don't You Do It/A Fool For You/Can I Get A Witness/I Pity The Fool/Please, Please, Please/Every Time I See You I Go Wild       

Another year older, another album from the now seventeen year-old Stevie Wonder. Another one with excellent stereo sound too.
I Was Made To Love Her was a catchy hit single guaranteed to chart and Send Me Some Lovin' had a great bass line and catchy refrain. The same applied to the very typically-Motown upbeat, pulsating I'd Cry. It is full of that pounding drum sound, sumptuous bass and Stevie's harmonica. 

Everybody Needs Somebody (I Need You) has a great guitar riff at the beginning and a bit of a Northern Soul feel about it when it kicks in.

So far on this album, there hasn't been a cover version, which was unusual for a Motown album of the time, but there were a few to come. The first was Aretha Franklin's Respect. Sung by a seventeen year-old boy, it didn't quite have the same effect. The brief harmonica solo redeems it slightly. The TemptationsMy Girl is dealt with more than competently and suits him far more, obviously.


Baby Don't You Do It is one of the best tracks on the album - a muscular, thumping, bassy and soulful grinder. It has an intoxicating drum and bass interplay solo part near the end, which is a great bit. 

A Fool For You is a delicious slice of piano-driven gospelly soul. These two have been excellent songs. Marvin Gaye's Can I Get A Witness is a convincing cover, slightly slowed-down from Gaye's frantic original. 

I Pity The Fool is a quality bluesy number. The horn-driven blues continues on Please Please PleaseThe Four Tops-esque Every Time I See You I Go Wild was another excellent cut, covered by Northern Soul artist J. J. Barnes as well. Wonder's version is the superior one, though, largely due to the backing. Sublime rumbling bass and buzzsaw guitar on it. Fantastic sound reproduction too.

This is actually a thoroughly credible album, which was not always the case with sixties Motown albums. Stevie Wonder was starting to set out his stall as a serious artist who released quality albums as well as hit singles.

For Once In My Life (1968)

For Once In My Life/Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day/You Met Your Match/I Wanna Make Her Love Me/I'm More Than Happy (I'm Satisfied)/I Don't Know Why/Sunny/I'd Be A Fool Right Now/Ain't No Lovin'/God Bless The Child/Do I Love Her/The House On The Hill           

By 1968, Stevie Wonder was rapidly becoming a highly respected, credible Motown artist. At the tender age of eighteen, he already had many hit singles under his belt and also two good, "proper" albums.

This one kicks off with two Wonder classics, the now iconic, melodic and seductive For Once In My Life and the lesser-known, but still incredibly catchy Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day (silly title, though!). 

You Met Your Match is a precursor to his seventies work with the electronic funky keyboard sound to the fore on what is an upbeat, grinding workout. The instrument was the Hohner clavinet, and it would come to dominate Wonder's music for years to come. It made its first appearance here. It stars on the intro to the upbeat, lively I Wanna Make Her Love Me. This is a great song, as also is the romantic and funky groove of I'm More Than Happy (I'm Satisfied). This is a good album full of more originals than covers. Motown was starting to realise the value of putting out quality albums full of original material. Stevie Wonder was more than happy to oblige, as too would be Marvin Gaye and The Temptations.

I Don't Know Why was a bluesy slow-paced song that was covered by The Rolling Stones, eventually seeing the light of day on their Metamorphosis compilation. 

Sunny is beautifully bassy with a sumptuous brass backing. I have to say that the stereo sound on all these Stevie Wonder albums is truly outstanding. Funnily enough, the sound quality drops a little on the verse parts of I'd Be A Fool Right Now. It sounds a bit muffled, hissy and tinny for some reason. Thankfully, Ain't No Lovin' sees a return to normal with a classic Wonder lively romantic number.

God Bless The Child is a bassy, bluesy and jazzy number that shows Wonder's vocal versatility. The trademark harmonica appears for the first time on this album on this one. 

Do I Love Her is a soulful, laid-back groove with some nice bass and percussion. The pulsating, punchy The House On The Hill ends what is a short, but powerfully melodic and appealing album of end of the sixties Motown. Great stuff.

My Cherie Amour (1969)

My Cherie Amour/Hello Young Lovers/At Last/Light My Fire/The Shadow Of Your Smile/You And Me/Pearl/Somebody Knows, Somebody Cares/Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday/Angie Girl/Give Your Love/I've Got You             

After proving to be an artist to be reckoned with, Stevie Wonder trod water just a little with this album. His previous three had showed him to be a rapidly-developing artist in his own right i.e. not just a singer of other writers’ hit singles. He was putting out relatively credible Motown albums in the mid/late sixties, something that was comparatively unusual for many artists on the label, whose albums often contained a lot of “filler” covers of contemporary easy-listening standards in a bad to sell to more than just the teen market. Stevie Wonder did not need to do this, although he does it a little on this album. Considering it was recorded in 1969, there is, for me, a bit of a mid-sixties air to the album. Even the cover looks a bit dated, to be honest.
My Cherie Amour is delightfully melodic and appealing, as everybody knows, of course. An upbeat percussion and string orchestration intro sees in Hello Young Lovers, which also features a truly gorgeous bass line. It is from the musical The King And I but its Motown makeover makes it sounds like a For Once in Your Life-style Stevie Wonder original, complete with trademark harmonica solo. One of these appears in the jaunty At Last too. 

The Doors’ Light My Fire is covered competently, but it is a pretty inessential recording. Tony Bennett’s The Shadow Of Your Smile is appealing enough, but it is very “easy listening”, although it is lifted by some more excellent harmonica.

You And Me is a catchy, bassy shuffler. For some reason, though, the sound on the album doesn’t seem quite as good as on its predecessors, although it is in stereo and the bass is solidly warm. Talking of bass, Pearl has an infectious bass line underpinning it. 

The punchy Somebody Knows, Somebody Cares has a feel of mid-sixties Motown about it, rather than late sixties, as indeed does much of the album. For that reason tend to I think of it as a bit of a pointer towards a change in direction for Stevie.


The album’s other huge hit single Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday is a big slice of bassy, soulful beauty. Angie Girl is another song that sounds as if it from a few years earlier. 

Give Your Love is a comparatively lengthy soulful number with an ambience straight out of a movie soundtrack or musical, full of orchestration. It seems slightly incomplete, however, with an awkward spoken bit in the middle. I've Got You is pleasant enough, but certainly nothing special.

Putting out albums every years, as was the case at this time meant than some would be slightly less captivating than others, for me, this is one of those.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered (1970)

Never Had A Dream Come True/We Can Work It Out/Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)/Heaven Help Us All/You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover/Sugar/Don't Wonder Why/Anything You Want Me To Do/I Can't Let My Heaven Walk Away/Joy (Takes Over Me)/I Gotta Have A Song/Something To Say     

This was Stevie Wonder's first album of the seventies, and, like fellow Motown artists Marvin Gaye and The Temptations, he was starting to rebel, (if that is the right word to use - probably not), against the Motown "hit factory" conveyor belt of poppy, chart-aimed material. He wanted to express more social concerns in his music, and introduce more experimental sounds - electronic keyboards, funkier rhythms. This was very much an album that showed the first telling signs of that change, however it still has some strong echoes of the previous decade hanging around, particularly at the beginning.  For me, it is the last of the sixties albums, as opposed to the first one of a new era. There is definitely change in the air, nevertheless, so maybe on reflection it is the start of "seventies Stevie". My Cherie Amour was the one that saw the sixties out.
Certainly, the album's two biggest hit singles - the poppy, singalong Never Had A Dream Come True and the eminently sixties-ish classic Motown of signed, Sealed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours) did little, initially, to suggest that a sea change was in progress. 

The likeable, quirky, upbeat cover of The BeatlesWe Can Work It Out showed a willingness to experiment with changing the sound and feeling of a well-known song. It has a decidedly funky, clavinet introduction. It really rocks and thumps, actually. Great stuff.

Heaven Help Us All showed that social conscience coming through for probably the most palpable way on any of his songs thus far. It is a soulful, at times gospelly warning of the perils of guns, street crime, poverty and war. It is melodic and uplifting, musically which adds extra poignancy due to its sombre subject matter. It was the most hard-hitting, portentous number he had recorded. It also became a hit single. From its first notes, you feel this is a song worth listening to. "Heaven help the black man if he struggles one more day....". Stevie had never been so "conscious". 

You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover is a grinding, powerful piece of funk. This is as funky as Stevie has sounded. Proper adult music a long way from the tuneful pop of a few years earlier. Sugar, while a love song, had a funky bass line and rhythm to it.

Don't Wonder Why is a big-production typical Wonder ballad, full of lush orchestration and trademark vocals. At nearly five minutes, this is no throwaway three minute poppy number. 

Anything You Want Me To Do, however, sounds more like early/mid sixties to early seventies. Very much a blast from the past, sound-wise. 

I Can't Let My Heaven Walk Away features some of that trademark harmonica in a very typical piece of early seventies Motown. 

Joy (Takes Over Me) is another bluesy, harmonica-enhanced workout. I Gotta Have A Song is probably the one that points most strongly to the tone of much of his seventies material in its easy-going, laid-back verses. The same vibe is continued even more in the effortless groove of Something To Say.

The sound, by the way, as on all the Stevie Wonder albums, is a lovely, full, punchy Motown stereo. It is a most enjoyable listen. Whereas My Cherie Amour had seemed to be a bit of a "treading water" album, this one was far more "on it", so to speak.

Where I'm Coming From (1971)

Look Around/Do Yourself A Favour/Think Of Me As Your Soldier/Something Out Of The Blue/If You Really Love Me/I Wanna Talk To You/Take Up A Course In Happiness/Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer/Sunshine In Their Eyes    

Whereas Signed, Sealed, Delivered from the previous year had signposted Stevie Wonder's desire to break out from the shackles of the Motown hit factory conveyor belt and release "proper albums" of adult music covering adult themes, this was the album that really saw the true change
The album kicks off with the semi-funky introductory, socially-conscious track of Look Around, featuring Stevie's now trademark clavinet. This is developed even more on the funkiest track he had released thus far, the barnstormingly down 'n' dirty Do Yourself A Favor, which has huge hints of the multi-instrumentalist numbers he would lay down on the decade's subsequent offerings. It is the direct forefather of material like You Haven't Done Nothin' and even I Ain't Gonna Stand For It. Check out that swirling organ sound and pounding drum sound. At over six minutes, this was not the sort of song he was releasing only two years earlier. The standard twelve-track album had now turned into a nine-track one. 

Think Of Me As Your Soldier is a typical, slow tempo Wonder ballad of the sort he would do so much in the next ten to fifteen years.

Something Out Of The Blue is a reflective, almost sombre, romantic song. Totally uncommercial. Sumptuously orchestrated. Very "adult". 

If You Really Love Me was the hit single from the album - a jaunty, brass-driven number that is interspersed with some slow tempo typical Wonder ballad-like passages. It is catchy and enjoyable. 

I Wanna Talk To You is a bluesy piece with Wonder trying to sound like an old blues man. It is quirkily appealing, but certainly an acquired taste that wouldn't appeal to the For Once In My Life market. It rambles on far too long, though, it has to be said.

Take Up A Course In Happiness is a bit of an oddity, A strange, jolly, sixties-style show number that pretty much defies description. It lies pretty incongruously with the rest of the album's material. Fair play to Stevie, however, as he tried to produce albums of varied material. Berry Gordy must have been incandescent. Don't mess with the formula? Stevie and Marvin Gaye were ripping it up and throwing it in the bin.

The album gets back on track with the dignified beauty of Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer and concludes with another sumptuous ballad in the lengthy Sunshine In Their Eyes. It also featured a children's choir chorus and some upbeat, jazzy interjections. Quite adventurous stuff. I have to say that apart from If You Really Love Me, this was an utterly uncommercial album that must have mystified buyers at the time. It definitely set the trend for Wonder's subsequent seventies material. It does sound a bit unfulfilled, though, and not quite the finished article, one not quite sure of its direction. Very much a "work in progress" album from an artist finding his new direction.


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