Stevie Wonder: Where I’m Coming From and For Once In My Life

The late 1960s had seen a growing number of ‘personal’ albums: records written, performed and produced by the artists themselves. By 1970 the trend had yet to infiltrate Motown, which was sticking to the same album pattern it had throughout its existence – a couple of hit singles, filled out with numerous covers of popular songs and stock songs culled from the Jobete archives.

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder had been growing in ambition since 1968’s For Once In My Life, and yearned to create an album free of Motown’s interference. With his 21st birthday approaching and with it the ability to void his contract with the company, Berry Gordy allowed Stevie to produce his own record. This, along with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, were the first albums from Motown which were allowed such a privilege.

If You Really Love Me

Where I’m Coming From was preceded by its lead single, ‘If You Really Love Me’, a joyous, horn-filled jam which was a top ten hit and featured his wife and lyricist, Syreeta, on backing vocals. Full of triumphant vocals and a traditional plea for love from Stevie, it did not suggest what was to follow with the album.

Given the chance to explore his own themes and ideas, the album was a complete departure lyrically for Wonder, forefronting social and racial issues. Musically, the record was the first to prominently feature the clavinet, an instrument soon to become synonymous with the artist. Both these factors are evident on the opening track, ‘Look Around’, which paints a bleak picture of the world lyrically, backed by a suitably threatening selection of keys and vocal arrangements.

I Wanna Talk To You

The bulk of the album follows this lyrical path, with Stevie touching upon Vietnam (‘Think Of Me As Your Soldier’), the bleak future facing children (‘Sunshine In Their Eyes’) and the dispute between white Southerners and black Americans – both played by Stevie (‘I Wanna Talk To You’). Whilst noble and a sign of things to come, most of these tracks suffer from a lack of optimism and lyrics which are very overt.

‘Sunshine In Their Eyes’ is ambitious, switching from style to style, but not feeling like a whole. The music itself moves from simply drums, bass and piano, creating a barren atmosphere akin to the tales of hardship being sung about, before changing itself in to a more upbeat horn section which picks up the pace and the pitch of Stevie’s voice.

However, the lyrical path remains the same, and defeats the earlier points by Wonder and Syreeta singing ‘Most of the news is bad’ and the like in the same sort of atmosphere as ‘If You Really Love Me’.

Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer

Stevie Wonder: Where I'm Coming From

This mismatch of styles is the one major flaw in the album. Unlike its contemporary, What’s Going On, the record never flows. Tracks with a message and new musical direction like ‘Do Yourself A Favor’ are contrasted with more traditional fare like ‘Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer’, and for every stirring use of the clavinet there is a traditional string section.

Instead the listener is left with fragments of potential, more of a statement of intent by an artist who was still trying to find the sound which fitted him best. Stevie was increasingly of the opinion that he may have to go elsewhere to fully realise that vision, and as a result he informed Motown that he would be voiding his contract, leaving him free to negotiate a contract on his own terms.

For Once In My Life

Since ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ had become an R&B number 1 in early 1966, Stevie had turned round a career Motown feared was heading nowhere. His cover of Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and his own ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ also topped the R&B chart, and with each new release Wonder was taking more of a hand in the writing of his material.

When ‘Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day’ also hit the R&B top spot during the spring of 1968, there was a clear recurring factor in Wonder’s highest performing singles (‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ aside): a songwriting credit for one S. Wonder.

Whereas most of Motown’s biggest stars of the time had their hits written for them by the likes of the legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland, Stevie was following in the footsteps of Smokey Robinson with his level of contribution.

You Met Your Match

In June 1968, For Once In My Life was released, a 12 track album which featured eight songs co-written by Stevie. Another of these, ‘You Met Your Match’, hit number 2 on the R&B chart, and demonstrated another intriguing development in the new Wonder; an increasingly mature musical sound.

Both of the hits which introduced For Once In My Life feature a fast and funky use of keyboards, a sound which would be taken to new heights by the artist in the next few years.

Stevie Wonder - For Once In My Life

Also interesting on For Once In My Life is the negative, almost aggressive nature of some of the lyrics. ‘You Met Your Match’ is self-explanatory, but ‘I Don’t Know Why’ is a frustrated search for clarity as Stevie wonders why he cannot let his woman go, despite the coldness she treats him with. Stevie desperately pleads, unable to catch his breath – he is a man literally straining for more, full of an emotion hitherto unseen from the artist and his co-artists on the Motown label.

There were still elements of the traditional Motown sound throughout the album, however. ‘I Wanna Make Her Love Me’ for example is full of the usual uplifting horns which were predominant in the Detroit Sound and provided a sign that despite flashes of Stevie’s originality, he was still the product of the Motown system.

For Once In My Life the Single

As was still standard for most Motown albums at the time (despite the success of The Beatles and others in producing fully self-penned records) For Once In My Life also features a selection of covers and standards. ‘Sunny’ and Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless The Child’ are neither offensive nor inspiring. Ironically though, the album’s biggest hit was that which spawned its name: ‘For Once In My Life’.

The song had originally been written by Motown staff writers Ron Miller and Orlando Murden a year earlier, and been released to various levels of success by Jean DuShon, The Temptations and Tony Bennett during that period.

Stevie’s version was more upbeat, and as a result an unconvinced Gordy held back the release. When it was let free as a single, it hit number 2 on both the R&B and pop charts, proving to be Stevie’s biggest cross-over hit since ‘Fingertips’ six years before. In America, it was held of the top spot by Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’.

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