Forty years ago on October 30’th, Stevie Wonder released his second album of that year with ‘Talking Book’. This recording came from an enormous burst of creative energy resulting from a synergistic combination of two factors in Stevie’s life at that time: the liberation from his original Motown contract and the promise of full creative freedom,as well as the dissolving marriage to another Motown songwriter/vocalist Syreeta Wright. That potent blend of both joy and uncertainty came to fruition on this recording where he was not only able to express to the world his lyrical candor and introspection, but also the full and equal level of emotional expression in his musical vision as well. With the help of synthesizer innovators Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff,as well as guest musicians such as Ray Parker Jr and Jeff Beck Stevie himself was able to actually create impressionistic electronic and acoustic sounds that very accurately reflected his own emotions at that time. In its time,there were very few commercially successful recordings quite like it and it’s rightly recognized today as a classic.
As the album approaches middle age,the recorded legacy of Stevie Wonder in general has been rather neglected. Through different labels,many releases from Motown have been reissued in double CD deluxe editions with often unheard bonus songs from the sessions as well as live renditions. As well as new liner notes. To date nothing Stevie Wonder did during his salad years of the early to mid 1970’s had received such a treatment. Therefore it would have to be the domain of other artists to pay tribute to his music. Macy Gray was apparently one such person. Though obviously more vocally inspired by Sly Stone and Esther Phillips,she does have just enough of a idiosyncratic elan’ within her musical vision that one would need to be able to fully grasp the creative intent of Stevie Wonder’s work. Many critics,both professional and amateur that I’ve read have said they don’t feel that Macy Gray possesses the vocal ability,technique or experience to adequately express the same level of expression that Stevie Wonder does. And in a literal sense that’s a difficult point to argue with. So here I decided to just look at both versions of the album to see where each artist took the music,rather than their strengths and/or weaknesses.
Some of the songs on these two albums only differ significantly between Macy and Stevie’s vocal ability such as “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”. One thing I noticed immediately was the contrast in fullness of sound. Stevie’s “Tuesday Heartbreak” is musically defined by his wonderfully orchestrated layers of electric pianos such as the clavinet, often amped uniquely to achieve a wah wah sound and David Sanborn’s equally expressive saxophone solos. For the most part Macy and her bands musical take on the same song,while a much more glossy mix,tends to emphasize a more natural instrumental sound. With its strong emphasis on the melody,it doesn’t have the same sense of musical adventure of Stevie’s. That is not the case at all for some of the other songs. Where Stevie’s take on “You Got It Bad Girl” was a slower,pulsing and very jazzy arrangement-filled with electric piano and bass synthesizer harmonies,Macy’s version focuses on the rhythm to a great extent. And it’s a rhythm that comes directly from Benny Benjamin’s drumming style from mid 60’s Funk Brothers era Motown. In this way Macy transcends the sound of Motown from one decade back to the previous one.
Of course the most radically re-worked number here is “Superstition”. It was one of Stevie’s biggest hits and has been done many different ways by everyone from Quincy Jones to Mel Torme. Macy takes the songs,slows the tempo down significantly with is notable since,representing funk,that the original had a rather slow tempo to begin with,and adds some spare reverbed organs as well. It’s a very dark blues the way she does it. It expresses the reverse side of the concern for hopelessness and paranoia Stevie was looking to portray. Again on “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love”,that sense of instrumental naturalness is strongly emphasized. Though that was strongly expressed in the original as well,it was Wonder’s highly expressive vocal-harmonizing with himself on alternate emotional levels like an inner monologue,that bought that song to life. And while a strong guitarist,Macy’s Martin Estrada doesn’t possess the same fluidity of instrumental expression as Jeff Beck. Of course that’s a completely unfair expectation anyhow. “I Believe When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever” is almost done as a straight interpretation,though Macy and the band place more instrumental energy on the final and more funk oriented section of the song.
Although many of the people critiquing are quite correct in pointing out the differences in approach and talent level of Macy and Stevie. On important aspect to bring up in this respect is that,by choosing Talking Book’ as an album-length statement to interpret Macy was tackling what is likely Stevie Wonder’s most personal album;his own analytical outlook on the unraveling of his marriage to Syreeta. Musically Macy and her band are very effectively able to reflect,in their own way of course,the impressionistic instrumental sounds Stevie originally created. In terms of interpreting the lyrics, it’s a very different matter. While Macy’s own compositions have strongly indicated that she has definitely experienced love or loss on many levels it’s likely been quite awhile since she,a married woman with three children,would at the present time have very much success at intimately conveying one of Stevie’s lyrics such as “Things you cherish most in your life can be taken if they’re left neglected“. So while Stevie was conveying his own emotional state through direct experience, Macy is playing the role of a method actor in her interpretation as she is naturally removed to a degree from Stevie’s experience when he first recorded the album.
On the other hand there are many important similarities. Both artists creativity are perhaps defined in many ways by what the rest of society views as an affliction. That of course refers to Wonder’s lack of sight,and Macy’s bipolar disorder. There is always a side of Macy’s personality that she keeps somewhat guarded from the audience. Her vocal approach often makes it clear that she is no more fond of the sound of her voice than many listeners are. Where her interpretations of these songs project that degree of anonymity Wonder’s originals are another matter. A very sage individual with a fine wit and humor, Stevie Wonder always treated that line between mental and physical awareness. He in fact made this point abundantly clear by proclaiming “I’m not one to make-believe,I know that leaves are green”. His introspective and philosophical lyrical bent is one of the main qualities that makes his music as individual as it is,not to mention is talents in instrumentally reinterpreting those words. Of course the most important thing is that Macy chose to interpret Wonder’s entire album rather than select songs from it. If I was asked to describe this all in a nutshell,I would say that both the original and remake of Talking book reflect the two levels of contrast.