Retrospective Openings and Sonic Possibilities in the Golden Era of Stevie Wonder (1971-1980)

By Jocelyn Proietti

“Beginnings and introductions are occasions for sonic events or apparitions – and song intros are no exception” – Alexander G. Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity[1]

“Wonder’s music performances are protests against passing, and against the forgetting of the particularities of one’s body, its strengths, its place in time and history” – Francesca T. Royster, Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post Soul Era[2]

The impossibility of writing on the entirety of Stevie Wonder’s discography is the driving force behind this smallest of studies. This project began with my own journey collecting Stevie Wonder LPs, an adventure that started at the age of 13 (with Songs in the Key of Life) and has yet to cease. For $15.00 at a small shop in St. Marks Place in New York City, I tentatively entered the universe of Stevie Wonder’s musical making. Wonder’s singular effect upon my imagination, the way he named previously hidden psychic energies and sonic desires, serves as my foundation in, and through, Black studies. That is to say, the kind of curiosity and affective investigations Wonder’s output demands reverberates in how I approach every aspect of my work as a scholar. Indeed, my relationship to Wonder’s music pushes me beyond mere identification, socio-cultural analysis, or any strict conception one could hold about cultural production as an enterprise – Wonder’s work places me squarely in ancestral ground.

Album cover for Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life


Over the years I have tried, in earnest, to always happen upon Wonder’s records. With the exception of one record displayed below this has always been the case.[3] I found these records over the span of a decade in various stores ranging in location from San Francisco, to New York, and most recently Wallingford, Connecticut. I thought I would honor these fantastic encounters with a few brief reflections on each record’s beginning. As the first epigraph to this project points out, beginnings are rich sites for theorizing the possibilities of sonic materiality and space.

I. Where I’m Coming From (1971) – “Look Around”

Album cover for Stevie Wonder, Where I'm Coming From Album cover for Stevie Wonder, Where I'm Coming From


This start has always struck me as a bit jarring. Considering that Wonder would come introduce subsequent records with the impossibly smooth sounds of “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Too High,” “Look Around” could easily be elided in a discussion of his album intros. However, the song’s use of the harpsichord and its baroque-esque quality (a recurring motif in Wonder’s work) are both mystical and deeply introspective. The music lends itself well to lyrics such as: “time is only floating in your mind/you will find searching for time/empty is your mind.” The overall peculiarity of Wonder’s sound and thinking demonstrated early on his penchant for experimentation. What’s most compelling about this track as an entry point into the album is that it demonstrates the scope of Wonder’s ambition. This is echoed in the interactivity that Wonder privileges in the LP’s design. The slightly ominous quality of the song could be read as a heavy handed seriousness, but it’s important to note that Motown’s hold was substantial on Wonder at this point in his career. “Look Around” then, becomes an invitation to re-look at Wonder as a newly independent artist.

Album sleeve for Stevie Wonder, Where I'm Coming FromCover from Stevie Wonder, Where I'm Coming From, with instructions on how to punch out title letters to construct a mobile

II. Music of My Mind (Spring 1972) “Love Having Your Around”

Album cover for Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind

Wonder enters Music of My Mind with unparalleled momentum. His shift from the open spaces of Where I’m Coming From to the more declarative overtones and brassy textures of “Love Having You Around” is substantial. If curious and fitful ambition was what animated Where I’m Coming From, then the sheer force required to advance such ambition structures any listening of Music of My Mind. Wonder’s focus on movement (“get on my camel and ride”) is always concerned with limitless space – and for me, this demonstrates the inseparability of Wonder’s artistic praxis and his overarching thematic concerns.

In other words, when Stevie Wonder talks about love, or time, or space, it is a much about the figure of a lover as it is about him as an artist moving through the space of music.

Back of album cover for Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind

“Uh, and when the day is done
Nothin’ to do, spend all my time just loving you”

Wonder’s focus on the quotidian nature of black life becomes a way to theorize the links between his devotion to love and the affective labor of creating. (See also: “Living for the City,” ”Village Ghetto Land,” and “Saturn”)

Album art for Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind

Lyric sheet and album credits for Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind
III. Talking Book (Fall 1972) “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” 

Album cover for Stevie Wonder, Talking BookBack cover with lyrics for Stevie Wonder, Talking Book

It is remarkable that Talking Book and Music of My Mind were completed within the same year and in fact, only months apart. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is of course a certified hit for Wonder, but its popularity (along with the notoriety of Supersitision) can at times overshadow the more introverted moments that occur in the album’s space.

Lines such as: “I feel like this is the beginning/Though I’ve loved you for a million years” maintain Wonder’s enamorment with the entangled nature of romantic love and love for music. However, Wonder makes significant strides in expanding the dynamism of this link. The motif of storytelling and magic shape the form of the album heavily. I suppose the hypothesis Talking Book seems to test is what can be achieved in the fluctuation between funk and quiet.[4]

Album art for Stevie Wonder, Talking Book

The neatness of the LP’s materials (it does not deploy collage or color in that trademark Stevie Wonder way) offers a stripped down version of Wonder. A cynic might remark that this was a move to go mainstream but,

I’d argue for Wonder’s inventiveness and have always read Talking Book as a pivotal moment of reflection. The tensions between speed and slowness prefigured by “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” allowed Wonder to sharpen his ability to suspend time through music, a skill he will perfect in Songs in the Key of Life.

[Note that though this is the early mid-point of his Golden Era production, Wonder was by all means a seasoned performer (Talking Book is his 15th album to date) and his album a year pace (wherein he was something of an auteur) would only be rivaled by the likes of Prince.]

IV. Innervisions (1973) “Too High”

Album cover for Stevie Wonder, Innervisions

Who can forget the “four eyed cartoon on the T.V. screen” seen by the subject of “Too High”? The shocking mixture of the monstrous and the fantastical added an entirely new dimensions to Wonder’s visual vocabulary.

Where I’m Coming From, Music of My Mind, and Talking Book showcased Wonder entering the depths of his own interior world while Innervisions deftly displayed his ability to enter and perform the minds of others.

Album art and performance credits for Stevie Wonder, Innervisions

That the interior and black imaginative world was so excessive it refracts out in every possible direction. [5]

V. Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) “Smile Please”

Album cover for Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness' First Finale

Life is gonna be what it is” appears to be a fairly relativist line for Stevie Wonder who is widely regarded as an “optimistic” artist. There’s something striking about Wonder’s meditation on gesture in this song that has always lingered with me. What are the stakes of Wonder’s request? Indeed, the push to smile seems melancholic against the dirge inflected “They Won’t Go When I Go” (Wonder’s best reflection on Black death) or politically polemic “You Haven’t Done Nothin.’”

Album art and track listing for Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness' First FinaleAlbum art and lyrics for Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness' First Finale

I am more or less puzzled that this song introduces the album that would essentially explode the boundaries of black optimism as a concept in Wonder’s oeuvre…

VI. Songs in the Key of Life (1976) – “Love’s in Need of Love Today”

Album cover for Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of LifeAlbum cover with track listings for Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life

Any meditations on the functions of beginnings in Wonder’s work would do well to note that their primary function is to guide the listener. One could read “Love’s in Need of Love Today” as Stevie’s greatest plea to his listeners. Wonder is a supreme master of openings– that is to say, opening up ideas that are at odds and overlapping. “Love’s In Need of Love Today” offers the paradox of excessiveness of love at the level of the lyric, sonic, and material [See: Love + Love – Hate = Love]. It also shows Wonder’s capacity to empty out and reimbue emotions with new energies. The affective doubling of love in this introduction becomes a space to imagine the full range of black interior life.

Two introductions takes place in Songs in the Key of Life and it is also crucial to highlight Wonder’s own preface to his work:

Notes and lyrics for Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life

Transcript: I’ve never considered myself an orator nor a politician, only a person who is fortunate enough, thanks to all of you, to become an artist given a chance to express the way he feels and hopefully the feelings of many other people. It is to me a fact that Stevie Wonder is that temporary someone of myself even though we have come to know each other very well and realized because of who he is, the many doors that have been opened may have been closed to myself, Steveland Morris. It is important that you do note permanently in your mind that I do not take a second for granted. For I do believe it is that Stevie Wonder is the necessary vehicle on which Steveland Morris must be carried on his mission to spread love mentalism. In every album that I have and shall do, it is not my goal for that to be better than that and the next to succeed the others, but only that I do and give the best I can at the time of my doing and giving and that only happens because of the dis- or satisfaction that made me want to be a better someone.

‘Songs in the Key of Life’ is only a conglomerate of thoughts in my subconscious that my Maker decided to give me the strength, the love + love – hate = love energy making it possible for me to bring to my conscious an idea. An idea to me is formed thought in the subconscious, the unknown and sometimes sought for impossibilities, but when believed strong enough, can become a reality. So let it be that I shall live the idea of the song and use its word as my sight into the unknown, but believe positive tomorrow and I shall so when in evil darkness smile up at the sun and it shall to me as if I were a pyramid give me the key in which I am to sing, and if it is a key that you too feel, may you join and sing with me

These speculative reflections and almost-liner notes for Stevie Wonder’s discography reject all claims to authority. I approach this work as a fan thirty-some-odd years later attempting to make sense of the wide expanse of Wonder’s work. This project is only a seed of what it might take to honor Stevie Wonder as an artist who has fundamentally transfigured black imagination.

Album art for Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life

[1] Taken from “Intro: It’s Beginning to Feel Like…” 1.

[2] Taken from chapter two: “Stevie Wonder’s Quare Teachings and Cross-Species Collaborations in Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants and Other Songs.” 63.

[3] I purchased Music of My Mind from ebay.

[4] In an expansion of this project I’d like to turn to L.H Stalling’s Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures and Kevin Quashie’s The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. My thinking here is also indebted to Elizabeth Alexander’s reflections in The Black Interior.

[5] See again “Stevie Wonder’s Quare Teachings and Cross-Species Collaborations in Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants and Other Songs.”