GROVER WASHINGTON JR. / “Overjoyed”
So many people have covered Stevie. Constantly. Like they say, from this point forward, always and forever we'll be hearing Stevie Wonder. So what I’ve done is grab a double handful of cover versions I like for a variety of reasons but mainly because they make me smile when I hear them. The list is totally subjective. 1. Kevin Mahogany – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (Pride & Joy) This is from Pride & Joy, my man’s album of Motown tunes. Yeah, that’s right — it’s the same album that we tapped for Kevin’s version of “Tears Of A Clown.” "Tears" was a quiet lament. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” is an a capella, finger-popping exercise in vocal gymnastics. BTW, that is not Take 6 backing up Kevin. It’s a pick-up group brought in for the recording: Gregory Clark, Todd Johnson, Gerald Trottman and Peter Eldridge. Collectively, they sing like they’ve been on the corner together for 15 years after starting in the second floor stairwell back in high school; they’re tight like that. The whole thing has that happy-love feel. You know, like when all you have to do is think about that special someone and you can't stop grinning like a fool. (And ain’t nothing wrong with that!) 2. Luther Vandross – “Creepin’ ” (Live At Radio City Music Hall) Luther is a ham (a serious singer, no doubt, but also a big ham). He loves having a good time. And yes, I speak of him in the present tense; as long as his music is with us, he is with us. After he gives us a generous peep of his pipes, my man goes to clowning. Even though this is not a DVD and we can’t see him stepping, the crowd reaction lets us know my man is getting his freak on—and if you ever saw Luther live, for sure you know he has at least a couple classified moves on the dance floor. Anyway, this one is just for the fun of it. 3. Roberta Flack – “You Are My Heaven” (Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway) Roberta with Donny, her first and greatest male singing cohort. This is about as close as I can come to digging disco. Stevie co-wrote this one with Eric Mercury. As dated as disco is, this one still has a juicy joyfulness carousing through the vocal work. In a lot of ways this doesn’t even sound like a Stevie song except for the hook itself: “You are my love / You are my heaven.” Gotta like Roberta climbing up the scales at the end of the song. 4. José Feliciano – “Golden Lady” (The Wonder Of Stevie) This is from a compilation of Stevie Wonder covers. Originally, it came out on José’s 1974 LP And The Feeling’s Good. José was one serious Puerto Rican soul brother; he had a beautiful way of bringing an urgent mix of intensity and happiness to his up-tempo songs. He always makes me want to give a little shout. 5. Will Downing – “I Can’t Help It” (Sensual Journey) Generally, I hate smooth jazz but this is one take I really like despite the super-slick production. I think it’s the genuine warmth of Downing’s baritone. What a beautiful instrument. The modified bossa-nova beat helps also. The sax solo, which is supposed to be sweet, smells like saccharine to me. In the final analysis, I keep coming back to Downing voice. Listen to the heft of his falsetto on the ending—a baritone falsetto, now that’s singing. BTW, while most people think of "I Can't Help It" as a Michael Jackson song because he popularized it on (I believe) his Off The Wall album, the song is actually a Stevie Wonder composition! 6. Carmen McRae – “Don’t You Worry About A Thing” (Heat Wave) Carmen got with vibraphonist Mr. Cal Tjader for an album of standards and popular numbers done up in Latin style. Their collaboration is one of my favorites of Latin jazz. The dancing arrangements are surprisingly subtle and full of small flourishes from the horns and percussion. And Carmen is in magnificent voice throughout. This is one of the best Latin jazz albums you’ll ever hear. 7. Donny Hathaway – “Superwoman” (These Songs For You: Live!) If had a potential challenger as a vocalist in the gospel/soul/jazz bag it’s Mr. Hathaway. We all know Stevie is a genius. And we all love his music. So much so, that at times we forget what a great vocalist Stevie Wonder is, which is why I dig Donny’s take on “Superwoman.” By that I mean, Donny is top shelf as a vocalist and pulls out all the stops on this set and in doing so, becomes a peer of Stevie as a vocalist (a peer, not a competitor, nor a conqueror). At the end the audience goes bananas and deservedly so. Donny Hathaway, what an awesome talent. 8. Vanessa Rubin – “Superwoman” (New Horizons) Talk about under rated and talent deserving of truckloads more recognition than she has received. Vanessa skips down the street with this one, makes a parade out of a ballad. The rhythm is what we in New Orleans grow up on: the secondline beat (yes, the same that New Orleans drummer Vernell Fournier supplied for Ahmad Jamal). The arrangement grabs you from note one. And then good just gets better and better as Vanessa sensuously winds her way through the changes until she pulls out that outstanding high note, hitting it in tune and holding it. Beautiful. 9. Tok Tok Tok – “Have A Talk With God” (Love Again) BoL has featured this Germany based duo before. Vocalist Tokunbo Akinro and saxophonist/beat-boxer Morten Klein give us a gorgeous version of a seldom-covered Stevie Wonder composition. It’s a meditation. A hushed reflection. A small, quiet, gorgeous talk with god. I dig the arrangement too, how they keep building vocals, beatbox, horn, vocals dubbed over, handclaps; never hurried, never loud, sort of an under-the-breath hallelujah. Beautiful (too)! 10. Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’77 – “All In Love Is Fair” (I Believe) Now here a Brazilian cat who has been on the scene since the sixties, that’s right the sixties and he’s still making popular music. One thing he figured out early on: if you’re going to do pop music, you best hook up with some singers who can sang. Sergio has released a ton of albums and I’ve got a truckload of them but I generally don’t listen to the whole album. Too much of the music is cheesy, yet there always seems to be at least two or three numbers on an album that make you listen a second time. This cover of “All In Love Is Fair” is representative of that invitation to hit the rewind button. Indeed, if you didn’t know who it was, you’d probably never guess Sergio Mendes if you had half a million guesses; but it’s him. The featured vocalist is Sondra Catton who was with Sergio for only about a year. Sounds like something you might hear in a Philly soul joint back in the day when Philly was the spot for both jazz and soul music. 11. Nnenna Freelon – “All In Love Is Fair” (Tales Of Wonder) It’s hard to restraint myself in describing how well Nnenna Freelon interprets one of Stevie’s wonderful love songs. There is something truly sophisticated in her interpretation. (The backing musicians are right there with her, especially Gerry Niewood’s sensitive sax solo and obbligatos.) Obviously Nnenna goes through Nancy Wilson but beyond the influence, Nnenna brings her own thing to the song, including the way she wavers her tone on the held notes. I think it’s the seriousness of her tone and the subtleness of her phrasing that gets to me. Nnenna sound is mature and confident. Moreover, she is a jazz singer, and is very adventurous in shading the melody and embellishing the harmony. Given my history and proclivities in terms of my taste in music, I can’t help but be totally smitten. 12. Stephanie Renee – “Ribbon In The Sky” (Tuning Forked Tongue) Philly-based songstress/spoken word artist/arts activist Stephanie Renee pulls off something inspiring with this doo-wop (that’s right: a capella, female doo-wop) version of Stevie’s song that Stevie originally recorded as a jazz ballad. The opening space-voice reminds me of Jean Carn but then it goes into deep doo-wop. I can’t tell for sure but it sounds like it was overdubbed; the harmonies are tight. I don’t know what’s in the water in Philly, but yall out there need to keep on drinking it as long as it gives you the strength and creativity to produce such inspiring music. 13. Leny Andrade – “Ribbon In The Sky” (Maiden Voyage) Ms. Andrade is Brazil’s preeminent diva of jazz. The voice is husky, the pacing is impeccable but what I really dig is the freedom she employs in her exquisite improvisations. She has a slight accent but don’t let it put you off; sister Leny is offering a master class in jazz vocals. Her vocal filigrees are sonic symbols weaving and floating through the atmosphere, i.e. literal ribbons in the sky, only we ear them instead of seeing them. 14. Nancy Wilson – “Ribbon In The Sky” (Godsend) We had doo-wop, we had jazz, and now Nancy Wilson offers a pop version—all electronic instruments. I would prefer acoustic or a mix of acoustic electronic, especially when the electronic instruments are used as though they were acoustic instruments. (One of the secrets of Stevie’s genius is that he didn’t try to make the electronics sound like acoustic or vice versa; he used the strengths of each.) The flawed instrumental bed notwithstanding, Nancy does her thing and ends on a strong note. 15. Grover Washington Jr. – “Overjoyed” (All My Tomorrows) This is the serious jazz that gave birth to the ersatz jazz called smooth jazz, i.e. admirers trying to copy Grover went for pretty but missed the beauty. Grover’s resplendent sound, subtle as the motion of setting sunlight on gently flowing water, is a definition of seductive. His tone is as smooth and bracing as 20-year aged scotch (there was a time when I was a connoisseur of the spirits: Jack Black). What Grover is doing with his horn may sound easy going down, but it’s far from easy to execute. Just achieving the purity of tone and the lyrical phrasing requires nothing less than superb breath control. Grover’s solo is worthy of at least one semester of master-class study. Beyond the brilliance of the instrumental work, a major plus is the vocal work featuring Nat King Cole’s brother Freddy. Freddy Cole is a voice well known by jazz insiders but little recognized outside of the circle of the cognoscenti. Freddy’s tone reverberates with hard won wisdom and a touching, sensitive masculinity. This is old school smooth at its best—Grover’s soprano on top and Freddy’s warm baritone on the bottom. It’s hard to find music like this today. 16. Tuck & Patti – “If It’s Magic” (Love Warriors) The duo of guitarist Tuck Andress and vocalist/arranger Patti Cathcart conclude our Stevie Wonder covers with a majestic reading of “If It’s Magic.” The beauty of both the lyrics and the melody are offered here in full splendor. Tuck’s guitar fills are just right in complementing the soft soaring of Patti’s vocals. I especially enjoy her deep notes and the way she can jump intervals instantly from a low note to a high note without slipping or sliding across the notes, just booming on the bottom and the next note a splendid wheeeee at the top of the scale. Tuck & Patti's version sounds like a prayer and is a most appropriate 'amen' to this admittedly incomplete and totally subject survey of Stevie Wonder compositions as interpreted by a wide range of artists. I just chose tracks that I enjoy, hopefully you will share in the joy. —Kalamu ya Salaam Lovely, lovely, lovely Of all of these covers, Donny Hathaway's version of "Superwoman" is the monster. I don't know why I'm not a bigger Donny Hathaway fan because this man's voice practically defines the word 'soul.' The first time I heard this cover, I just sat there in amazement. "Superwoman" is one of my all-time favorite songs and Stevie's performance of it is sublime so it was fascinating to hear another artist remake it so damn well. And even more fascinating, Donny performs it straight up — there are no tricks or musical odditites. He comes right at you with honest passion and that deep, gospel-esque delivery. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's actually a more soulful version than the original. I also have to say something about the arrangement of Donny's cover because there's something a little odd going on here. If you recall the original, Stevie takes the first half of the song (the "Superwoman" half) at a breezy mid-tempo. Halfway through (for the "Where Were You When I Needed You" half), Stevie switches to a slightly slower tempo and the mood grows distinctly darker. Donny's remake is titled "Superwoman," but he's actually performing "Where Were You When I Needed You" — he doesn't sing any of the lyrics from the first half. Not only that, Donny's band goes into a more uptempo swing thing near the end of their performance. It's as if Donny remembered that the original had different paces, but didn't remember that the faster pace came first and didn't remember that the different paces were actually due to their being different songs. Or, it could be that Donny knew exactly what he was doing, and decided to sing just the second half on purpose. Whatever the truth of it is, Donny Hathaway's version of "Superwoman" (which is actually "Where Were You When I Needed You") is a curious and magnificent record. Perhaps musicians hear the first half of "Superwoman" as being too personal to be covered. Vanessa Rubin's cover of "Superwoman" repeats the choice made by Donny Hathaway: she performs only the second half of the original recording, but (unlike Donny) she uses the breezy midtempo feel of the first half throughout. I really enjoyed this cover too. It's not as soulful as Donny's and not as epic as Stevie's, but it's gentle and elegant and is carried only by a graceful style of swing that makes it very, very hard to dislike. Dig that little addition Vanessa made to the lyrics: "Where you last winter when I needed you," she sings, but then she adds, "And you needed me too." It's not much, but I like it and I do think it adds a little something. The studio version of Luther Vandross' cover of "Creepin'" is one of the few Stevie Wonder covers that ends up trumping the original. Growing up, I thought of "Creepin'" not as a Stevie song, but as a Luther song. This live version is fairly faithful to Luther's hit version. And the interplay between Luther and his backup singers is pretty cool as well. This is a good one. Other records I liked included Tuck and Patti's "If It's Magic" and Nnenna Freelon's "All In Love Is Fair." I always like when someone covers a record by slowing it way down and here, both artists do it well. I didn't like any of the attempts at "Ribbon In The Sky." Stephanie Renee has a good arrangement but the performance is marred by too many flat and harsh notes. Nancy Wilson's superlative singing voice is wasted on a schmaltzy and way over-the-top performance. And, Leny Andrade's version is hard to even sit through. Before I read Kalamu's write up and found out Ms. Andrade is Brazilian, I thought maybe she'd had a stroke or something; that soft-tongued thing that makes native Portuguese singers so seductive doesn't serve these English-language lyrics at all. This version made me hit the skip button for the first time. As Kalamu said, some of these covers aren't necessarily definitive moments of music-making, but they just plain put a smile on your face. Kevin Mahogany's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" is definitely one of those. José Feliciano's "Golden Lady" is another smile-inducer. The original version is a joyous burst of song in its own right; I have to give José credit for maintaining the same beautiful, natural vibe yet at the same time bringing his own touch to it. That's an excellent cover. Another smile-bringer is Carmen McRae and Cal Tjader's "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing." I've been digging songs from this album since I first heard the titletrack, "Heat Wave." Maybe it's about time I actually get the album. Then there's a batch of songs that I like but I'm not crazy about. Will Downing's "I Can't Help It," Roberta Flack's "You Are My Heaven" and Sergio Mendes' "All In Love Is Fair" are in that category. They're good but they don't necessarily bring anything extra to the tunes that I can't get on either the original or somewhere else. The Tok Tok Tok remake of "Have A Talk With God" is just plain strange. I really like their minimalist approach — both the saxophonist and the vocalist sound superb. BUT, their vibe is totally at odds with the subject matter of the record. I want to like it, but I just can't. Last, I have to mention the feature tune, Grover Washington Jr. and Freddy Cole's "Overjoyed." This one is fantastic. It's everything a cover should be. It's aware of the original, but not beholden to it. The way these two remake the song it sounds like something out of the early part of the 20th century, like a Gershwin tune or something. Lovely, lovely, lovely. :-) —Mtume ya Salaam
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