Why Stevie Wonder is the GOAT...
Why is Stevie Wonder the greatest?
At 13 years old, he was the youngest artist ever with a number one hit on the US Billboard charts. He already had a greatest hits album at 17 years old. He’s been nominated for 74 Grammy Awards, winning 25 (these are both top five all-time for any artist). He’s tied for winning the most Album of the Year awards, but the only one to win three in a row. He has an Oscar, a Golden Globe... a Kennedy Center Honor, Distinguished Service Award, a National Order of Arts & Letters, a Gershwin Prize, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the first American Troubadour Award, the first Image Award, a UN Messenger of Peace honor, a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was inducted to the Rock and Roll, Songwriters AND Apollo Legends Hall of Fames. He has twenty R&B number one hits and ten US pop number one hits. He sold over 100 million records & 19.5 million albums. He signed a $13 million deal with Motown (the largest music contract at the time). He was the first Motown artist to earn full creative control of his music. He also gave Motown it’s first number one selling album. He played nearly every instrument on multiple albums. He helped create a holiday that wasn’t religious or based on a president (Martin Luther King day)... and maybe the most honorable thing he’s produced, nine children. Note that the majority of these accomplishments took place after a horrible car accident that left passenger Stevie in a coma for almost a week.
And that’s all just Google’s argument for why Stevie is great. My own insight is that no one has a catalog covering romance, politics, religion, social harmony and fun as fluidly as Mr. Wonder. He can be considered the greatest musician, writer, producer, composer, arranger, and/or human while being at least top 10 on vocals, harmonica, piano, drums and head bopping. I'm voting Stevie for anything just based on his versatility alone.
He’s created classic songs in about every genre, every style possible… not even including what he’s composed and played for other artists. He's done, R&B, classic soul/Motown sound, funk, jazz, smooth jazz, jazz fusion, reggae, classical, blues, gospel, country, doo wop, Latin, rock, disco, techno, new jack swing, big band, holiday, electro, EDM, beach/surfer music, ragtime, African, Indian, Oriental, Hip Hop, he even raps a little on songs like “Tomorrow Robins Will Sing”, ballads, which happen to be some of the greatest ever, and easy listening/adult contemporary/lite FM, whatever you want to call it. He even sang in different languages: Zulu, Spanish, of course, English, Italian, Portuguese, and French, barely.
He's done many more songs I’m not fully sure about so I’ll call those “experimental". “Ngiculela/Es Una Historia/I Am Singing” is one of the longest song titles I can think of and has sort of a traditional Afro/Caribbean/Latin vibe, mixed with synths… oh, by the way it features three different languages, a lot going on. “Overjoyed”, where he's using leaves and water drops as part of the drum beat beneath classical music. “Never in Your Sun” is like dance/electro/pop with flamenco/trap-like tambourines, all this in the 1980's. “Pastime Paradise” has Latin & classical influences, plus it features a gospel choir. “Boogie On Reggae Woman” is funk with a blues and reggae rhythm. Send one your Love is an R&B song w/ a reggae-like one drop and jazz/classical music chords, but also features this distinct hi-hat that sounds like it’s maybe overdubbed or auto-tuned. “Until you Come Back to Me” is a unique Motown/soul tune with a little bit of bossa nova and classical mixed in and it has this little cha-cha break down. “You've Got It Bad Girl” is like a soft funk/jazz tune arranged with synth bass and a kick drum played in between the off beat. It also has a little Latin feel... pretty different. Another Star has elements of disco, Latin, and calypso. “Superwoman/Where Were You When I Needed You” is a long medley of two distinct song styles, the first half being smooth jazz/cha cha-like... the second half is the rare uptempo ballad. Even Stevie’s very first hit Fingertips was unique in that he's seamlessly alternating between a complex harmonica solo, singing, and directing a live audience, likely being the only child able to do all of that.
Stevie’s range and diversity is also shown in the themes of his various projects, a Christmas album that isn’t just carols and other standards, an instrumental album led by harmonica melodies, an album of cover songs, a beach music album, a bunch of live albums, an album sung completely in Italian, three film soundtracks, and I lost count of all his greatest hits compilations.
Stevie made a lot of alternative music fit mainstream. He’s renowned for his exotic chords and innovative sounds. Not many artists are able to incorporate the type of 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, chromatic phrases, and complex voicings into popular songs that Stevie uses. I doubt Stevie could even teach an efficient class in music theory because it’d be too intensive. Songs like “Send One Your Love” and “Don’t you Worry Bout a Thing” showcase his high level of musicianship while still appealing to popular music universally. “My Cherie Amour” is arguably the greatest song ever featuring some of the most colorful chords on a pop tune (technically it would be Ma or Mon Cherie Amour, depending if the “cherie” is male or female, but again, Stevie’s always been universal, even in the 60’s)
Stevie uses clavinets and synthesizers as well as anyone. He’s one of the pioneers of using synth as a bass and he has a handful of songs on which you might think you’re hearing an actual bass guitar. He finds a way to literally squeeze an old school chromatic harmonica onto any day’s current sound, making the instrument timeless. He was using the talk box before it got popular in 1976 and is one of the earliest users of the harpejji, a relatively new string instrument that fuses piano and guitar techniques. Stevie plays some of the most unique drum grooves and has as tight a sense of rhythm as anyone.
His breath control and tonal range are up there with the best. I still don't know how he was able to ignore the urge to breathe at the end of “Seems so Long”, where he connects two different long runs with no space in between. Throughout his career he’s used a variety of singing tones including soft, whispering, belting, aggressive, head voice, loose, playful, soulful, and experimental. “On Living for the City”, Stevie’s giving the majority of these. One frequent technique within many Stevie songs is modulating keys, mid song… and he’s done this ever since the 60's all the way through the 2000’s. This isn’t necessarily a sign of greatest or not, but it does test one’s musical dexterity when performing live. It also shows that Stevie isn’t lazy and just using the scales that are convenient.
Stevie publicly has a net worth of barely $100 million, Herb Alpert--- $850 million, and many other musicians make more than him, too. Is someone paying Stevie in 1’s, telling him they’re 100's? What are we doing?
An ongoing amount of artists have made full albums covering his music plus I’m sure that many others have been doing so without paying him for decades. Not to mention the countless times his music’s been and will be sampled. I’m confident he should’ve been beyond a billionaire as early as his 30’s with all his music and influence.
And Stevie’s written some popular hits that people may not even realize or remember, such as Michael Jackson’s “I Can't Help It”, The Spinners’ “It’s a Shame”, Rufus & Chaka Khan’s “Tell me Something Good”, and Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”. He wrote for many others including Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Quincy Jones, Minnie Riperton, Sergio Mendes, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Murphy, Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Julio Iglesias, The Beach Boys, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, James Taylor, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and his ex-wife, Syreeta Wright. If you need some more name drops, Stevie was able to get legends on his tunes as features like Dizzy Gillespie, Luther Vandross, Jeff Beck, James Jamerson, Nathan East, Ray Parker Jr, Sheryl Crow, Deniece Williams, George Benson and Eddie Levert.
Stevie could hold his own in any music setting and hang with anybody musically. Anyone, regardless of musical taste can find at least one song, one lyric, one groove, one chord progression from him to appreciate for a while, if not forever. I can’t think of any other artist with that capability.
On a more personal and biased note, I became a complete musician because of Stevie. He has so many diverse songs that allowed me to pick up the nuances of different styles, scales, chords, and perfect pitch. He has multiple songs representing every natural major/minor key, so I used them to figure out what key other artists’ music was in.
The Stevie Wonder Anthology was like the Rosetta Stone for me as it helped me to translate and navigate from woodwinds all the way through strings and percussion. I used it to make sure I was reading and playing properly on whatever instrument I picked up, since I already knew the songs.
Before writing this piece, I knew about 200 Stevie-influenced songs. That spanned over 30 years of my life. I ran through a rabbit hole of another 100 in the past week, alone. How could anyone ever live long enough to digest Stevie’s full catalog?
I get tired of every bio, article and documentary mentioning that Stevie is blind, because it’s always like, ‘wow, he did all of this while blind’. When you have some of the greatest ears, fingers, and creativity in history, eyesight can be viewed as a distraction. It’s human to be blind; it’s un-human to be a living legend for over six decades.
So with all of that, I challenge anyone to debate me on why Stevie isn’t the most accomplished, prolific, versatile, innovative, humble, musical, underpaid, GOAT artist in history.
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