PopExcavators

Making the once known known again.

The BreakThrough: Stevie Wonder – Where I’m Coming From

Hey everyone – Once a month I’ll be writing an article called “The BreakThrough.”  Each article will detail a specific album or song that took an artist’s career to the next level.  First entry is on (you guessed it) Stevie Wonder.  Enjoy!

 

Every artist has a point in their career when the hard work starts to pay off.  After the blood, toil and stress comes…The BreakThrough.

 

By 1971 Motown artist Stevie Wonder had a career that most musicians could only dream of having.  He had eleven US top ten pop singles, was signed to one of the most successful labels in the world and had been to number one on the R&B charts six times.  Even more impressive is that Wonder had achieved all of this by the age of twenty.  Despite these achievements, Stevie was lacking one thing that kept him from being satisfied.  Something he valued more than any number one single.  Stevie Wonder wanted complete control over his music.

Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. ran his company like a well-oiled machine.  Every part of the machine had a function, and each part was to perform only that function.  The composers were to write, the musicians were to play, and the singers were to sing.  Gordy also had complete control over everything.  Very rarely was someone allowed to break from his micromanagement.

Gordy’s style ended up having positive and negative consequences.  On the positive side, Motown was wildly successful.  The label was responsible for almost 100 top ten hits by the time the ‘60s came to a close.  The cultural impact was immeasurable and Motown became not just a label, but a genre of music.  On the negative side, a lot of artists and writers became frustrated with Gordy for harnessing their creativity.  Several of them, including staff songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label to pursue options where they could be more free.

Stevie Wonder was one of these frustrated artists.  He had a self defined vision for his music that was not being fulfilled.  Although Wonder had co-writing and production credits on his albums, Berry Gordy still controlled the content.  Wonder wanted the freedom to use different musical styles and themes.  This was just not possible under the Motown system at that time.  Fortunately, Wonder’s original contract included a clause stating he could void the whole thing upon becoming an adult.  With his twenty-first birthday approaching, he used the clause as leverage in his negotiations with Motown.  Rather than risk losing Stevie to another company, Gordy gave him complete control over his future albums.  The first of those albums, Where I’m Coming From, was Stevie Wonder’s breakthrough.

Where I’m Coming From was released on April 12, 1971 to critical acclaim.  Wonder was able to finally record an album on his terms.  With the help of wife Syreeta Wright (also a Motown artist), Wonder wrote and produced nine songs that showed the world a side of his artistry it had never seen.  Stevie began to be viewed as a socially conscious artist as opposed to just a guy who recorded catchy pop songs.

On ‘Look Around’ he tells listeners that though all may appear well in the world, a closer look will reveal “the ruins of the human history.”  ‘Do Yourself A Favor’ stresses the importance of education and not taking everything at face value.  ‘Take Up A Course In Happiness’ is encouragement to create your own happiness instead of wallowing in hardship.  The biggest step away from the Motown formula comes in the form of ‘I Wanna Talk To You.’  In it, Wonder voices two characters, a black man and an older white man, as they engage in heavy racial dialogue.  Lyrics such as “you can have dinner with me next week and after that you can mow my lawn” never would have made it past Motown’s Quality Control Team.

Among all the depth, Wonder showed that he was still capable of making hits.  First single ‘Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer’ has become an R&B standard and one of his most popular relationship songs.  Second single “If You Really Love Me” hit number eight on the pop charts and has been covered numerous times since it’s release.

Where I’m Coming From was the first in a string of socially conscious Stevie Wonder albums.  Grammy winners Innervisions  and Songs In The Key Of Life would not exist if Stevie hadn’t taken the risk of following his heart.  The album also pioneered a movement of statement albums by other pop artists, including Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On which was released later the same year.

Stevie Wonder’s career skyrocketed to new heights after the release of Where I’m Coming from.  He went on to have thirty U.S. top ten hits, twenty-two Grammy Awards and has sold over 100 million albums.  He’s in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame and is still touring to sold out audiences today.  His legacy will be remembered forever.  None of this would have happened without The BreakThrough.

 

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10 comments on “The BreakThrough: Stevie Wonder – Where I’m Coming From

  1. marklchampion
    August 14, 2012

    I love the idea of having a “breakthrough” series. It will be a wonder-ful journey (pun intended) seeing how artists from yesteryear broke through the culture. Maybe that’s why it’s called POP culture.

    When we are micromanaged, which some people need, we are able to understand fully the expectations and go after them … or not. When we are not micromanaged, we have the responsibility to seek our potential or let it fizzle.

    I am thankful for your freedom from micromanagement, like Wonder, and your response ability. It has been a glorious time reading through past of your mind.

    Keep bringing the wonder, brother. Continue to excavate this … so called … pop culture. You are helping us break through our cultures and become inspired to pursue a culture that is not of the norm.

    Thank you.

  2. Trevor Honeycutt
    August 14, 2012

    I have a friend who produces TV shows for cable, and I once suggested a show to him called “Defining Moments”. It would be dramatized stories about breakthroughs that people experienced, which turned into defining (and transforming) moments for their whole lives.

    So many people have had powerful, life-changing moments that have made all the difference. Hearing about other people’s breakthroughs can be extremely encouraging.

    Thanks for the encouragement from Stevie’s life, bro!

    • PopExcavators
      August 14, 2012

      Encouraging indeed! Any time someone experiences a breakthrough, overcoming takes place. Be it financial, emotional or spiritual, the journey is always an inspirational one. Glad you agree!

  3. Valente' Rodriguiz
    August 14, 2012

    Yeah you now i Can;t fault Berry Gordy for his formula but if He’d learned to loosen the reigns a little bit he may have never los such artists as the spinners or the Jackson 5 but luckily for us all Stevie was able to find that loophole that allowed him to release all that creativity that was being trapped inside

    • PopExcavators
      August 15, 2012

      I agree. But who knows if Motown would have been as successful if Berry’s reins had been more loose?

      • Cole Rae
        August 19, 2012

        True Valente’. I can see your point but but to answer PopE’s question I doubt it that it would have been as successful if he were different. As bad as his reputation was and is as far as the way he handled the label and his artist; what he accomplished is remarkable. Especially considering the point in the history when Motown was born. I am not defending Gordy. But it is what it is.. He suffered losses but at the end of the day he is still Berry Gordy founder of and internationally known and acclaimed label. I don’t think he would have gotten there without being cut throat.

  4. JazZY
    August 16, 2012

    You know what I like about your excavations, Ryan? I get to have some great ah huh moments…learn something new…be reminded of what I forgot and most of all…I get to take advantage of the net and listen to “I wanna talk to you” and shake my head while thinking…not only is this a racial dialog…but also has a back hand snip at Gordy. While listening and reading I thought about The Temptations movie…how they showed us berry in control…and Stevie’s take on the era and his situation at the time…”boy, I wanna talk to you”…then these lines jumped out at me,
    “Oh but I just can’t complain…You see ya, said I ain’t allowed…Oh but pretty soon will come a change…When I gain the biggest mouth…”
    To me this song is really about Gordy…dressed up in southern bigotry…like he’s saying, “Berry, you’re no different than the…” Ok…that’s my late night take on a song that flew past me back in the day. lol

    You know sometimes things happen so fast we don’t always make the connection from either enjoying what comes from it…being apart of it…and / or just letting it happened. Your “digging” brings all the pieces together for a bigger picture and greater understanding. Thanks again for doing what you do. I’ve been youtubing Stevie’s old jams and finding that I didn’t know what I thought I knew…from to busy playing…dancing…singing without listening…yes, we can do that as well…lol
    Thanks again, J
    ps: where is Nicole? 😦

  5. Cole Rae
    August 19, 2012

    I love this story! I love that Wonder, who came onto the scene when he was like 14 years old (right?) was able to in the end take on Gordy and win by way of sheer musical talent and wisdom. I bet it was incredible to finally have an album based on his own terms. I am sure many artist did as many artist still do feel like puppets and like their labels are puppet masters telling them how to dress, sing, act and basically feel. That is so awesome that Wonder broke free. So many artist before him and that have came on the scene after never/never will feel that freedom. Def. an inspiring story.

  6. ksparq
    August 20, 2012

    This makes me think of the scene in “Ray” when he (Charles) demanded complete control/ownership of masters from ABC Records and how that had “never been done before.” In the movie it portrays Ray & Quincy Jones as “colleagues” so-to-speak. Being that Jones & Gordy often worked very closely, and I’m sure knew Ray Charles pretty well, I wonder if he thought about Ray’s situaish when he was contemplating giving Stevie what he wanted? By the way…Stevie…MAD DRUMMER! MAD!!!

    PS: Ryan, you would appreciate this… Stevie’s vocals on “We Are The World” gives me chills to this day. There’s this part toward the end, ironically right before Ray’s improv motif and when the record fades, where Stevie does this inflection w/his voice when you think he’s done w/the phrase but yet he takes it up another notch…genious. Not breakthrough, but haunting. Go Stevie.

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This entry was posted on August 13, 2012 by in Lives, Phonograph and tagged , , , , .

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