Graded on a Curve: Stevie Wonder, Live at the Regal Theater, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Hotter Than July

Celebrating Stevie Wonder, born on this day in 1950.Ed.

The racks are loaded with reissues from key Motown singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Stevie Wonder, the contents covering three phases in his long career. Live at the Regal Theater, Chicago, June 1962 offers his breakout third album under a new title; it’s out now on vinyl through the Jambalaya label. Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which landed amid his improbably fertile ’70s run, and Hotter Than July, a transitional 1980 album cut before Wonder maxed out his creative console’s commercial dial, are available on LP via Motown.

Stevie Wonder’s biography makes a good case for the rewards of patience in artist development, though that’s also a complicated situation; signed to Motown’s Tamla imprint at age 11, Barry Gordy’s company had to take basic human development into consideration. That Wonder wasn’t cast aside as an also-ran after the commercially tepid performance of his first two LPs is credit to the value Motown placed on the people as well as profits.

Wonder has been blind since shortly after birth, a fact making the label’s deliberate attempts to connect him to the sightless soul powerhouse Ray Charles seem more than a little brazen in retrospect; his first recording, the startlingly average Tribute to Uncle Ray, and the much better all-instrumental follow-up The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie were both released in 1962 but in reverse order; both inform his commercial breakthrough, ’63’s Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, renamed by Jambalaya as Live at the Regal Theater with the “Little” removed from Wonder’s moniker.

The LP begins with the Motortown Revue’s MC hyperbolically stating that Wonder is “considered as being the genius of our time.” The boldness of the claim’s not really a surprise in the context of the era; what’s more unusual is the energy and flair on display in “Fingertips,” this concert performance of The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie’s opener delivering a smash hit (simultaneous pop and R&B #1s) when split into two parts on 45.

Showcasing Wonder’s skills on bongos and harmonica on a boisterously swinging hunk of Charles-esque jazz-shaded soul, it’s the clear standout of the record; having established Wonder as no novelty (with Marvin Gaye and James Jamerson assisting on drums and bass respectively), “Soul Bongo” underscores the instrumental adroitness and “La La La La La” dishes out some call-and-response as live show gravy. The record then coasts on Charles’ coattails from there, nabbing four from Tribute to Uncle Ray on route to an understated if serviceable finale.

Today Live at the Regal Theater (or Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, if you insist) gains traction through its time capsule feel. Inferior to Brown’s Apollo and Lewis’ Star Club sets, it still derives from an era when sheer competence was the performance yardstick. It put Wonder on the map, and if commercial ups and downs followed, he ended the ’60s in good shape and like his labelmate Gaye, was poised to enter his most creative stretch.

Depending on who’s assessing Wonder’s output, this period might commence with ’71’s Where I’m Coming From, or ’72’s Music of My Mind; tough customers might hold out for the spectacular Talking Book from the same year. What’s incontestable is Fulfillingness’ First Finale’s making the cut, as it falls between a pair of consensus masterpieces, ’73’s Innervisions and ’76’s Songs in the Key of Life. But while Fulfillingness’ was his first of two consecutive toppers of the Billboard Album Chart, it’s sometimes overlooked in relation to the discs surrounding it in the chronology.

Regarding the 2LP+EP Songs in the Key of Life, which today is widely ranked as Wonder’s pièce de résistance, this is understandable. When compared to Innervisions, the flow of Fulfillingness’ is only slightly lesser, and if one desires to absorb the man’s more balladic and generally more relaxed sides, it might be preferable; opener “Smile Please” exudes a lush, slightly jazzy atmosphere any Steely Dan enthusiast should be able to appreciate, a likelihood heightened by the backing vocals of Deniece Williams.

This is an admittedly lazy comparison, especially as the subtly eclectic (in part through Wonder’s use of Hohner clavinet and Moog bass) and gospel-tinged “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” immediately deviates from the similarity. “Too Shy to Say” slows the pace but keeps the mood interesting in part through the pedal steel input of Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and it leads into the up-tempo Moog bass fiesta “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”

One of the set’s two singles (both major hits) alongside the springy Nixon-bashing funkiness of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” the success of both inside the LP’s flow reinforces the whole as a personal statement. Fulfillingness’ has its share of guests, but mostly in the role of backup singing, including Williams, Minnie Riperton (swell on “Creepin’” and “It Ain’t No Use”), Shirley Brewer, and the Jackson 5.

Furthermore, save for one song, everything was written by Wonder; the exception is a collab with Yvonne Lowrene Wright, the eerie synth-driven “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Next to “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” it’s side two’s highlight. The offbeat warmth of “Bird of Beauty,” with Bobbye Hall’s playing of the Brazilian cuíca drum isn’t far behind. This and the engaging “Please Don’t Go,” which would’ve made a fine third single, contrast markedly from Hotter Than July.

Songs in the Key of Life was followed by the soundtrack (to the obscure nature documentary by Walon Green) Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants.” Imagining a true follow-up to Songs is difficult, and Plants served as an adequate, strong selling if largely forgotten digression. By its autumn 1979 release, punk had exploded and was mutating into new wave, while the disco impulse had yet to subside; record label interest in sprawling personal albums was on the wane, apparently in response to supposed declining consumer appetite for such indulgences.

When Wonder came back with a proper LP in September of 1980, it was trimmer and decidedly more pop-inclined, though it retained much of the artist’s personality. Still, if not yet solidly a part of the Middle of the Road (that would come a couple years later), Hotter Than July registers as a compromise, placating perturbed fans pissed off over Plants and meeting shifting record label demands (though the company he’s worked for through it all has remained Motown).

Stevie Wonder’s appeal begins at the songwriting stage, and July has some good and a couple near great tunes on it. Opener “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” is a sturdy electro-laced mover, though the focus has shifted to a full studio band and a ton of backing voices. And if it’s far too early for full-on ’80s sheen, the production does lack sharpness as the instrumentation gravitates to R&B’s synthetic purgatory. This scenario continues through “All I Do,” though matters are improved by Wonder’s multitasking and the strength of the unabashedly pop-focused writing.

Wonder’s always had a major pop streak, but here the results are sometimes underwhelming, e.g. the string section-imbued “Rocket Love.” It’s followed by one of the LP’s standouts, “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” Wonder’s exaggerated country drawl underscoring the crossover hit potential of a C&W cover during the era (unrealized, though Eric Clapton did eventually render a version). From there, “As If You Read My Mind” brings likeable momentum to the close of side one, and “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” opens the flip with an acceptable slice of pop-reggae.

Side two glides along okay, at least until the major stumbling block of “Lately,” the solo balladry pointing toward underwhelming emoters to come. Righting the ship somewhat is the joyous and righteous “Happy Birthday,” which explicitly advocates for a national holiday celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. It wraps up an album that falls considerably short of the standard set by Wonder’s “classic period,” but still blows the doors off “Ebony and Ivory” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

Live at the Regal Theater, Chicago, June 1962

Fulfillingness’ First Finale

Hotter Than July

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