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Stevie Wonder
Where I'm Coming From
Gordy, being a control freak of the highest order, wasn't the least bit enthused about losing one of his label's flagship artists and fought whole heartedly against releasing Where I'm Coming From. In part, thi..
Stevie Wonder: Where I'm Coming From         by J.R. Richards
Escaping the creative stranglehold of Motown...

In one of the funniest scenes from the movie High Fidelity, after chastising a record store patron who requested Stevie Wonder's 1984 hit "I Just Called to Say I Love You," Jack Black's character poses the following question: "Is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins?" If you're like me, and probably are if reading this magazine, you seriously pondered this question along with the movie's endless top 5 lists, while the rest of the audience was laughing. It's a heavy issue to consider, and can easily be applied to numerous musicians who hit their creative peak in the 70s.

Here you have an artist whose music not only helped define the 'Motown Sound' of the 60s, but also redefined Soul music in the 70s. That's two decades worth of ground breaking and genre shattering, most of which was accomplished while he was still in his teens. There comes a point where you have to forgive any creative lapses of judgment, I mean if Sting can reunite with The Police and sell out stadiums in 2007, then it's only right that Stevie gets a pass. But you're still on the fence, all you need is to indulge your ears with his highly underrated and overlooked 1971 release Where I'm Coming From. General consensus has always been that Stevie's stylistic rebirth began with Music of My Mind, but before he sang of Mary wanting to be a Superwoman, he asked the question "If you really love me won't you tell me?"

In the 60s, Motown and more specifically Berry Gordy, were sticklers for 'quality control.' The label held weekly meetings where only the most pop radio-friendly recordings made it to the pressing plant. Both Marvin Gaye and Stevie were staunch opponents of Motown's factory-like operation, as well as Gordy's stranglehold on his artist's creative urges. In both artists' cases, their most popular singles were at first held back under the guise of 'quality control,' Marvin's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and Stevie's "My Cherie Amour." While Marvin pressed on with Motown throughout the 70s, Stevie had bigger plans for his music.

As his contract with Motown came up for renewal, Stevie took advantage of a clause which allowed him to void their partnership upon turning 21. Of course Gordy, being a control freak of the highest order, wasn't the least bit enthused about losing one of his label's flagship artists and fought whole heartedly against releasing Where I'm Coming From. In part, this made the album the slept-on gem it is today. Even now, the record has yet to see a domestic reissue.

Once released from the creative confines of the Motown machine, Stevie was left to his own devices and what resulted was the precursor to his brilliant 70s catalog. Leading off the album is "Look Around" which is everything you wouldn't expect from a Motown track. Built around a haunting bass riff and nearly medieval clavinet melody, the song serves as an ominous salvo to an otherwise sanguine yet melancholic album. Lyrics like "Flying to our heavens / We are all together / Into Hell we chase the light of day" express a fragile emotional state of an artist troubled by current affairs, yet optimistic towards the inherent good in Man.

If despair is the problem, then Funk is the solution. Fittingly the album's second track "Do Yourself a Favor" drops it heavy on the one, albeit with a strong political message. Stevie's penchant for expressive hi-hats is backed up by a syncopated bassline, and stammering clav stabs. In a move that screams 'quality control,' the song "If You Really Love Me" stands out as the sole throwback to the 60s Motown sound and subsequently was the only track off Where I'm Coming From to hit the Billboard charts. Clocking in at three minutes, this cut goes down easy and seems to end before it begins.

If you still require proof that Berry Gordy wasn't sitting on this session, you need not look any further than "I Wanna Talk to You." This track portrays a seemingly racially charged discussion between an old Southern White man and a Black man. But upon a closer inspection of the lyrics you'll find that Stevie was instead directing his ire towards Gordy himself. For example, the lines "Come on give me a little room now / Do you have to take it all? / Yeah that's the way it is I guess" concisely convey the position of someone yearning to speak their own voice.

While Stevie was a master of Funky Soul, he was equally adept at penning painfully emotional ballads. The song "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave" is a stripped down affair containing a wandering piano melody punctuated by a swelling string section. This allows Stevie's strained vocals to move into the foreground, for an effect that would be further realized on "Joy Inside My Tears" from Songs in the Key of Life.

The album ends as it began, pining for a better day on the two part cut "Sunshine In Their Eyes / Everything Is Happening." While part one speaks on providing our children with a brighter future, part two addresses the reality of life in 1971 which, at the time, was fraught with crime, financial hardships, and war. Where I'm Coming From concludes with a "Hey Jude"-esque finale, open-ended without resolution yet spiritually uplifting, thus setting the tone for Stevie's artistically fruitful mid-era career.

 

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