The Songwriters – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder has had plenty of hits in his own right, but he has also provided dozens of songs for other artists. Not all of them were successful, and even of those that were, they are not necessarily  known as being written by him.

Sometimes, though, you hear a song and feel it has a touch of genius that you can’t pin down, but then you look at the credits and think, “Of course…”

A prime example of that is Tell Me Something Good by Rufus, the funk group fronted by a young Chaka Khan. It’s a strange song when you analyse it (not that analyzing pop songs is a very rewarding business). Take away the funky instrumentation and it positively plods. A recording that seems full of life and energy is based on a melody too full of holes to work on its own.

No doubt when he was writing it, Stevie was hearing the backing and he was able to pass on his ideas  and deliver what was in his head because  he produced the record.

Another early 70s Wonder composition that propelled a different act up the charts is The Spinners’ It’s A Shame, which is simply catchy from start to finish. Known in the UK as the Detroit Spinners, to distinguish them from the folk group of that name, The Spinners had been around since the 1950s with fluctuating degrees of success, but it took a Wonder song to get their name inscribed on the honours board of pop immortality.

One of Wonder’s co-writers on It’s  A Shame was soon to benefit from his patronage with a stellar career of her own. Syreeta Wright had started at Motown as a receptionist. Many hopefuls blagged their way into the company  in minor jobs simply trying to wheedle their way in and get noticed, and Wright certainly accomplished that, singing her way around the building until people noticed and gave her little assignments singing backup and demos for established artists. She also attracted the attention of Stevie Wonder in her capacity as woman, and they were married in 1970.

Initially writing together for other people, they eventually managed to get Syreeta  a record deal for herself and a trio of hits made her a serious name in the Motown roster. The mesmerizing Spinnin’ and Spinnin’ was followed by the cod-reggae of Your Kiss Is Sweet (dismissed as corny by early purists but a fine tune all the same). Harmour Love made an impression on the charts too, and the Wonder/Wright partnership was established for posterity.

In 1974 the faltering career of soul goddess Aretha Franklin was revived by a Stevie Wonder song. Even the woman widely regarded as having the ultimate female voice relied on finding great material, and when Wonder presented her with Until You Come Back To Me, she breezed through it with the insouciance of an expert interpreting a genius.

Roberta Flack was in a  similar situation in 1980, with a sensational track record built on great songs apparently running out of steam before Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long got her back in the UK charts. It wasn’t a smash in the great pop-buying consciousness, but it was a minor masterpiece in my humble opinion. Fellow music lovers  will know the warm feeling you get when someone else shares your feelings about an unrecognized gem.

I was working in a wine shop in south west London when this song came out, and spent long periods sitting by the till, listening to the radio and watching the world go by until the traffic was stopped by red lights at the junction of Putney High Street and the South Circular.

One morning Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long was on as the lights asserted their authority and a van with the driver’s sliding door retracted pulled up alongside a saloon, whose occupants watched, bemused, as the driver of the van performed to them the middle section of the song, a half-spoken sort of rap, complete with hand gestures and pleading arms spread wide. He loved it, he was listening to the same station and a magical piece of unscripted theatre made my day.

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Heartbroken

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

The world is full of sad songs, because sadness is an emotion that makes people want to write, to pour it all out. And as listeners, consumers, we have an insatiable appetite for hearing about it.

But what makes a great sad song stand out is the raw, painful, avert-your-eyes reaction it evokes in us. When Neil Diamond said something to the effect that his best songs were embarrassing for him  to listen to because they were so real, he was talking about You Don’t Bring me Flowers, his duet with Barbra Streisand, which deals with taking a partner for granted.

A real heartbreak song takes it one step further as the writer and singer reveal insecurities, fears, inadequacies and all the rotten infrastructure of our character that we would rather people didn’t see.

Amy Winehouse’s problems were public knowledge long before she died, her susceptibility to alcohol and drugs compounded by her relationship with an equally vulnerable man, a classic bad influence who not only caused her emotional distress and encouraged her substance abuse but accompanied her down the dark roads to which that led.

Back to Black is a typical piece of Winehouse bravado, making light of situations before revealing the damage they did her.

Unlike many people, I don’t claim she had the greatest soul voice, but she did have a way of wearing her heart on her sleeve that leaves us smeared in the blood it sheds.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJAfLE39ZZ8https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJAfLE39ZZ8

In the early 1960s Roy Orbison produced some very affecting, very real material, his rich timbre and mountainous range taking us over the edge of melodrama and into the real stuff.

It’s Over and Crying both hit us like a policeman’s early morning knock at the door which can only mean bad news.

While these seem completely genuine, there is also room here for products of the songwriter’s and singer’s craft, and the dream team of  writer Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, to whom he entrusted the song, make Until You Come Back To Me a chillingly beautiful experience. Aretha seems almost unfairly gifted with her voice; she hasn’t suffered more than everyone else, it  just sounds like that. Her sublime talent is as an interpreter of songs, and when Stevie Wonder called her one night and said he had a song for her, she said “I’ll take it,” without even hearing it. When the author of My Cherie Amour offers you a peach, you have no doubt that it’s going to be sweet.

Compare and contrast Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, in which, whatever the title might suggest, he plainly isn’t that bothered. Irish songstress Mary Coughlan  (see pic at top), whom fame has passed by, took the song, slowed it down and injected some emotion, but it still really just talks the talk rather than walking the walk.

Rickie Lee Jones is an interesting character, her early tomboy front masking a fragility that exists for real in her character as well as her work. Company is an achingly intimate account of the loneliness she knows is about to envelop her as this man leaves her for good. She’s not suicidal, but she is looking forward to seeing him again on the other side.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG0zxxzvyYEhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG0zxxzvyYE

Prince and Sinead O’Connor might have seemed an unlikely pairing until she took on Nothing Compares 2 U, but his ability to write direct from the tatters of his heart combined perfectly with her willingness to wash her dirty laundry in public to produce a timeless piece of heartache. Seven hours and fifteen days has now grown to more than 27 years, but it still feels like a kick in the guts from someone you’ve  given your heart to.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB1TKw8_b1shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB1TKw8_b1s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ref! On the Olympics and George Michael

The candid thoughts of former Premier League referee Colin Preece, as recorded by our eavesdropping mole in the Duck and Peasant.

 Referee

Evening lads,

So, what did we think of the Olympics then? Needs a rethink, Dave? I don’t disagree with you, mate, but I wonder if we have the same thoughts on the general principle.

Well, it’s a paradox, isn’t it? A paradox, Baz, is… kind of hard to explain. It means two things exist together when you’d think it doesn’t make sense. Like George Michael and Aretha Franklin, Dave, thank you. The American Queen of Soul and an English berk who was a teenage girls’ heartthrob until he got arrested for gay activity in public toilets.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Baz? I appreciate that we’re men of the world and despite your Neanderthal appearance you’re trying to keep up, but actually there is something wrong with that. Not necessarily the gay part but the public aspect. Look, we’re going wildly off the subject; what’s the matter with you two tonight?

The Olympics, gents. What I was trying to say is that on the one hand it’s supposed to be a celebration of man’s physical gifts – stop it Dave – and yet you can’t believe any of it because you don’t know who’s been taking performance-enhancing drugs. Now I know we once had a spliff before that match against Woolford, but we didn’t ever do it again because cannabis is not performance enhancing. It robs you of your edge.

There was a time when Malcolm Allison was in charge of Manchester City and he caught one of his players in the middle of a match gazing at the sky and when he asked him what the hell thought he was doing the guy said he was looking at the birds flying overhead. That’s only performance-enhancing if you’re a landscape painter.

But athletes seeking to gain an advantage, they’re taking drugs to make them stronger, bigger, fitter. Yes, it’s been going on for years, but it’s got to stop. I don’t know if there is a drug to make George Michael sing as well as Aretha Franklin, but there are some that will make him think he’s as good as her.

Cheers Gary, I’ll have a shot of Jagermeister and see if I get arrested by the thought police because it looks dodgy.

No, you see, it makes football look like an innocent’s game. Apart from Maradona that time with his wild eyes that had “out of me head” written all over him, I don’t reckon the beautiful game has a drug problem. They’ll push the boundaries with things like injecting sheeps’ placenta into an injured knee – afterbirth, Baz; yes I’m serious, believe it or not – but you don’t find footballers looking like Ben Johnson.

I know Gianluca Vialli when he was Chelsea manager gave everyone half a glass of champagne before a match, but that was psychology. You’re never going to win a game if you’re pissed, and that’s what footballers like to do of an evening.

Of course I’m not saying everyone’s at it, Dave. Probably not even all of the Russians, but you just don’t know, do you? When Maria Sharapova, who looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her lap, admitted taking meldonium but said it was for a heart condition and she knew it by a different name and anyway she’d stopped before it became banned – when that happens, lads, we have to admit the current system is  a lost cause.