Harmonix Composer/Sound Designer Peter Moore shares his memories of Stevie Wonder's music.
I grew up a weird, pasty-white kid in small-time Nebraska.At age 10, I loved Stevie Wonder.
This should not have happened, right?
Well, it helps to recall that 1970s rock radio in the Midwest was essentially what Classic Rock radio stations are now. (Yeah, right. Those same eleven songs by the same four artists.) So a Stevie song bursting on the radio was…an event. Here was a sound soulful, yet hip, groove-filled, yet passionate. Such cool sonics and engrossing arrangements. And yikes, what a phenomenal singer, what mighty pipes! And lyrics that could speak of joy and oppression with equal fluency. And let me tell you, oppression had great resonance for the youngest in a large Catholic household.
To this day, Stevie Wonder is one of the few artists you can say “This guy’s a genius!” to any rational person, and it’s irrefutable. He exploded onto the scene in the early ‘60s as a child prodigy, a blind 12-year-old from Detroit who could play the harmonica like a saxophone, and could sing to fill a concert hall. In the ‘70s he pioneered employing multi-track technology to play every instrument on his songs. And could dexterously move between myriad musical styles: funk, ballads, rock, jazz fusion, gospel, Latin, you name it. And he continued conquering the charts well into the ‘80s, often with socially conscious works. And he’s still performing, sounding as great as ever. I mean, the guy’s won not one, not two, but twenty-two Grammy awards.
The chestnuts in this Rock Band DLC pack are taken from what is considered by many critics, as well as Wonder fans, as being his Classic period, represented by the five records released from 1972-76: Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life. I hereby decree everyone should own them all. If you’re uncertain, I suggest you first get your feet wet with this awesome pack.
Probably the best known of these songs, “Superstition,” is off of Talking Book.
This is a photo of me (smile please), age 12 or 13, wearing a Talking Book t-shirt that has been so worn you can barely read the iron-on anymore.
To achieve this song’s signature sound, he overdubbed upwards of five different Clavinet takes. (A Clavinet was a keyboard developed by Hohner in the late ‘60s, a kind of “electric clavichord,” in which rubber-tipped hammers perform a guitar-like “hammer-on” against the strings.) The Clavinet was Stevie’s favorite instrument at the time, he even sings about it in his songs sometimes. If you want to hear this instrument isolated, check out the intro for the track “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus, released as DLC earlier this year. It’s one of the funkiest numbers to ever grace the Top 10, and it was actually written by Stevie and given to Chaka Khan & Rufus as a “throwaway.” Anyway, the instrument’s all over that and these five classic records. Yes, it was a challenge for us Harmonix mixers and authorers to distill all those Clavinet overdubs into one playable keyboard track. Okay, we had to give some of the Clavinet parts to the guitar. But that’s permissible as the instrument employs a guitar-like mechanism to create its sound… so that’ll just be our little secret, okay?
A week or two before the release of Innervisions, the third of his classic five albums, Wonder was in the passenger seat during a car accident that embedded a log into his skull and nearly killed him. A yet-to-be-released song was sung to him in the hospital bed by his manager; gradually Stevie tapped his fingers to the beat to show he was recovering. That song was “Higher Ground.” To some of you whippersnappers it may be recognizable from the cover version the Red Hot Chili Peppers released in the early ‘90s. Again, the Clavinet is prominently featured, this time played through an envelope filter effect, or “wah-wah,” which up until then had been mainly the province of guitarists like Hendrix. I, for one, am glad he never learned how to play guitar or bass, because it forced him to use his Clav for guitar parts and his Moog Synthesizer for bass parts. He wrote the book on synthesizer bass lines, as is evidenced in this tune, as well as “Superstition,” “Living for the City,” and many others from this period. In fact, one of the reasons I bought a used MiniMoog synthesizer in 1980, and why I still own and use it for many bass lines in Count Zero and other projects of mine, is because of Stevie’s sexy, fat Moog bass lines.
All the instruments you hear on “Higher Ground” were played by Stevie. Same goes for one of my all-time favorite songs, and probably the most historically significant release, “Living for the City.” For gameplay considerations we used the edited, “single” version for our DLC track. But if you like the song, you really owe it to yourself to check out the unabridged “album” version. It has a spoken word vignette in the middle that dramatizes the plight of a wide-eyed innocent inner-city Everyman, jailed predominantly due to his skin color. It also includes the final verse and chorus, where Stevie sings like he’s damn angry about it. Long version or edited version, it’s still a powerful song. Granted, a song about racism and inequality could seem nearly quaint in this day and age. But it’s my belief that powerful songs like this dominating the airwaves helped to change people’s attitudes so that a song about racism might eventually, in the future, be only that: quaint. Plus, the way it juxtaposes this grittiness with the angelic “la la la” bridge, whose chord progression seems borrowed from a ‘70s British progressive rock outfit, is one of the many examples of this young artist’s fearless integration of styles. Which, in its own way, can be interpreted as a bold gambit for equality and respect between cultures. To this day, even as I was authoring the keys and vocals for this song, it takes a good deal of my energy to not choke up upon hearing it.
1976’s Songs in the Key of Life seemed to take ten zillion light years to appear after 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale. But it finally was released, and I spent most of that winter playing all four sides - well, really five sides if you count the bonus 4-song 45 RPM included. Like the three albums before it, Stevie started off Side 2 with a down-and-dirty-you-must-shake-your-booty single, and he continued the tradition with “I Wish.” He upped the ante on this album, though, with a horn section and a full band - hey, by this point every musician wanted to be on a Stevie Wonder record! Oh, and if this song sounds like Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West” to you young’uns, it’s because he sampled the signature groove from Stevie.
“Sir Duke” was an even bigger hit, as I recall. Whenever I hear the opening horn lines, a grade-school memory is instantly triggered of me teaching myself that line on alto sax, and then to my trumpet-playing best friend. Later, as a songwriter, I was struck by the lyrical subject matter: What the heck is a song about 1930s Big Band legends doing on the charts in the ‘70s? How could he get away with this? It’s like a music history lesson creepin’ in, and you learn a little, but it’s so catchy and fun you don’t notice it.
As an aside, I’m not too shy to say that one of the bonuses of working on the Audio team here at Harmonix is being able to hear individual tracks of your favorite songs isolated. I cherished listening closely to all of Stevie’s isolated vocals, and being able to decipher details that had previously only been jumbles; e.g., “Get down, Wonderlove!” in the outro of this song, which I realized was a shout-out to his backup band.
Just download this DLC pack. I loved transcribing every strange chord change and 20-note, perfectly executed vocal melisma I could. These jams are from his timeless Classic Period, they’re ridiculously fun and yet challenging to play, he’s the greatest R&B singer ever (imho), and if you buy them, maybe we can put out some of the other dozens of Stevie’s wondrous goodies. Pun intended.
Find out more about the Stevie Wonder DLC pack by clicking here.