Making the once known known again.
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.