By Jack Sharkey, January 25, 2017

 

Born in 1950, Steveland Hardaway Judkins was a child prodigy who burst on the scene as an eleven-year-old under the tutelage of Motown’s Berry Gordy. The rest, as they say, is history – both musically and culturally. You’ve heard Stevie Wonder’s music all of your life – and in fact, it is a complete part of your life – but here’s the ten seminal recordings you really need to have in your library.

 

Uptight (Everything’s Alright) (1965). Motown at its very finest, and Wonder giving us a peak of the career to come. Listen to this one loud in all of its lo-fi glory (distorted drums, tape noise, real music!)

 

For Once In My Life (1968). Written in 1965 by by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden, Berry Gordy vetoed Wonder’s 1967 version and it stayed on the shelf until other Motown staffers persuaded Gordy to release it as a single in 1968, where it shot to Number 2 on Billboard’s Pop and R&B charts.

 

Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours) (1971). Another R&B Chart #1, this was also Wonder’s first Grammy Nomination. Wonder gives credit to his mother for the title and she exclaimed it after hearing the melody for the first time as Wonder was writing the song.

 

Superstition  (1974). This is Wonder at the absolute peak of his musical power. All of the instrumentation is Wonder (except for the horns). Since we’re all totally familiar with the final track, here’s an isolated recording of Wonder’s drum tracks. Notice the vocal bleed from the headphones, the sound of Wonder singing along and the squeaky kick pedal. But what’s even more stunning is the choppiness and raggedy nature of some of Wonder’s fills (especially toward the end). In today’s world of snapping rhythm to a click this performance would never fly, but...it's that very human nature that gives the song its amazing life and breath.

 

You Are the Sunshine Of My Life (1973). Another monster hit from Wonder's prolific early 70's period. The first two lines are sung by Jim Gilstrap followed by two lines sung by Lani Groves. Listen closely to the great phasing effect of the Fender Rhodes electric piano ascending along with the notes between the left and right channels.

 

Living For the City (1975). As soft and sweet as You Are the Sunshine Of My Life is, Wonder’s social conscience is on full-display with this frank and unapologetic examination of race.

 

Sir Duke (1977). I Wish was the bigger single off of 1977’s Songs In the Key Of Life, but Wonder’s ode to Duke Ellington and the pioneers of swing is just so much more fun!

 

Try Jah Love (1982). Wonder wrote songs for others as well (Rufus’ mega-hit Tell Me Something Good among the most well-known), but it was two songs (Try Jah Love and You’re Playing Us Too Close) Wonder wrote for the Jamaican band Third World in response to Bob Marley’s death that show Wonder’s comfort in pretty much any genre he choses to work within.

 

 

 

I Just Called To Say I Love You (1985). Written for the soundtrack of the movie Lady In Red, this became Wonder’s biggest hit ever.

 

Skeletons (1988). Wonder’s late-80s synth-pop masterpiece captured a whole new audience when it became part of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

 

Sure these songs are part of our collective musical consciousness, but don’t let that stop you from digging in and enjoying their beauty and majesty. You just have to scratch through the over-playing to get to the essence. Hit the record store when you’re ready to dive in, but in the meantime, these are 10 Essential Downloads to get you started.