Monday, March 16, 2009

The 21-Year-Old Genius


Although he was signed to Motown as an eleven-year-old, and all of his hits (save the duets) were on Motown or a Motown-affiliated label such as Tamla, Stevie Wonder hasn't always been a member of Berry Gordy's stable. Stevie's kiddie contract with Motown expired on his 21st birthday, May 13, 1971, just after his album Where I'm Coming From was released and his cover of "We Can Work It Out" peaked at Number Thirteen, and it was on that date that Stevie officially left the Motown fold.

A free agent, Stevie decamped to New York and worked in the studio for almost a year, without a record deal of any kind. When he had completed the material for his next album, Music of My Mind, he shopped it around to several labels, eventually deciding to sign with ... Motown.

In the interim, toward the end of 1971, Motown released a collection of Wonder material called Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits Vol. 2. Think about that: Even before "Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and "Living for the City," even before he turned twenty-one, Stevie Wonder had already produced enough music to fill two volumes of greatest hits.

My favorite Stevie stories revolve around the pranks he used to pull. When he was just a kid hanging around the Motown studios, he'd ask one of the secretaries in the morning what kind of tie Mr. Gordy was wearing that day. Then when he finally "saw" the boss that day, he'd say, "Oh, Mr. Gordy, I love the tie you're wearing, with the green stripes on that electric blue background."

6 comments:

Kinky Paprika said...

W/o actually looking it up, are Greatest Hits Vols. 1 and 2 a testament to Stevie's genius, or to record companies' eagerness to put out greatest-hits albums?

For instance, I'm thinking of the time CSN&Y put out a best-of album ("So Far") that included more than half the studio songs they had released to that point.

I revere Stevie as much as the next dude, but I would be a little surprised if his golden greats from 1963-70 wouldn't actually fit on a single long-player.

T. Nawrocki said...

Stevie's cover of "We Can Work It Out," which I mentioned earlier, was his twentieth Top Forty hit, (including "Workout Stevie, Workout" [sic on that punctuation]). I think the two volumes of greatest hits were warranted.

Kinky Paprika said...

I'll play devil's advocate just long enough to suggest that not everything that cracks the Top 40 is automatically a "greatest hit."

Would you want to buy a Greatest Hits album, by any artist, with a song the caliber of "Workout Stevie, Workout"?

(I agree that, in this case, the song might be worth hearing just b/c it's Stevie Wonder. It's hard to win an argument arguing against Stevie Wonder -- and I'm not trying, honest.)

T. Nawrocki said...

Oh, good God, yes. I think it's the rare greatest hits album that doesn't have at least one song that is neither great nor a hit. "Workout, Stevie Workout" (which I think is supposed to read like "Sunday, Bloody Sunday") was at least undeniably a hit. Sophie B. Hawkins, with her two Top Forty hits, had a greatest hits album, unheard by me, but I bet it had something worse than "Workout, Stevie Workout."

Joe said...

I find Tommy Rock's last comment almost incomprehensible, but I'm not a doctor or Bill James, so no surprise there.

I think the new rule should be: If it can't reasonably be used on American Idol, it doesn't belong on a Greatest Hits album, and therefore the people responsible (artist, record company, whatever) should be held up to public scrutiny and forced to give back their bonus money.

(I may be getting a little confused with the whole AIG thing. But the principle stands.)

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