SYREETA feat. STEVIE WONDER / “To Know You Is To Love You”
Last week, I posted my five favorite Stevie Wonder songs about the seasons. For this, my second installment of Stevie songs, I’m going to post my five favorite Stevie songs as performed by other artists. Note that these are NOT covers. These are songs that were written (or co-written) by Stevie Wonder but actually appeared on other artists’ albums. To my knowledge, none of these songs ever appeared on an official Stevie Wonder release, although he’s been known to perform them all in concert. (For actual remakes of songs written and first performed by Stevie Wonder, see Kalamu’s covers post for this week.)
#5. Michael Jackson – “I Can’t Help It” from Off The Wall (Epic, 1979)
Of the scores of records Stevie wrote or co-wrote for other artists, this one had to be his biggest money-maker. I don’t think “I Can’t Help It” was ever released as a single, but given that Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall LP was the first in Michael’s string of releases that sold eleventy-jillion copies each, Stevie’s royalties from this one writing credit alone have to be significant.
On the subject of the song itself, I’ll admit upfront that I’m biased against Michael’s music. Back when I was a kid, I loved his records like everyone else in the world, but these days, his voice strikes me as thin and overly breathy and (perhaps more to the point) I’m never able to get either his freakish countenance or his repulsive personal life out of my mind enough to just listen to him sing. That said, “I Can’t Help It” is a marvelous pop record. Lush, playful and gorgeously melodic with an easy yet insistent groove — it gives you everything you could possibly ask from a three minute pop song.
#4. Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan – “Tell Me Something Good” from Rags To Rufus (ABC, 1974)
This classic funk record sounds like it could fit halfway between Stevie’s own skank-ish “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and his rock guitar-laden “Maybe Your Baby.” Not coincidentally, Rufus had already recorded a cover of the latter song a year earlier on their debut LP, Rufus. According to Billboard.com:
Rufus gained a fan in Stevie Wonder thanks to their cover of his “Maybe Your Baby.” Wonder gave them a new composition, the slowly grinding “Tell Me Something Good,” that he’d written specifically with Khan’s vocal style in mind. Pulled as a single from their second album, 1974’s Rags to Rufus, “Tell Me Something Good” was a Top Five smash that turned Khan into a star.
Over the years, Stevie’s gift to Rufus has become one of Chaka Khan’s signature songs.
#3. Minnie Riperton – “Perfect Angel” from Perfect Angel (Epic, 1974)
Minnie Riperton’s Perfect Angel LP is best known for the huge hit “Lovin’ You,” but the album is actually named for a Stevie Wonder composition. As the story goes, Stevie Wonder was already familiar with Minnie Riperton and her famous five-octave vocal range by virtue of her contributions to the band Rotary Connection. When Stevie finally met Minnie, it’s said that he was at least as excited to meet her as she was to meet him. According to Minnie, Stevie told her, “You sing like an angel.”
Stevie’s tune for Minnie—appropriately named “Perfect Angel”—is deceptively simple, but if you pay close attention, there is a lot going on in the mix. There are dueling percussion parts, multi-layered background harmonies and a wandering sort of bass line, all of it supporting but never overwhelming Minnie’s beautiful vocal work. By the way, Stevie also wrote a second song for the Perfect Angel LP; perhaps as a way of repaying the favor, Minnie would go on to record background vocals on some of Stevie’s own songs, including 1974’s “Creepin’” and 1976’s “Ordinary Pain.”
#2. The Spinners – “It’s A Shame” from 2nd Time Around (V.I.P./Motown, 1970); Available on The Very Best Of The Spinners (Atlantic, 1993)
The Spinners’ 1970 Top 15 hit “It’s A Shame” is a record I’ve always loved, but I had no idea until recently that it is a Stevie Wonder composition. According to Songfacts.com, the tune “is about a breakup [Stevie] had with his girlfriend at the time, Syreeta Wright, who was to become the mother of Stevie’s daughter Aisha.” I briefly mentioned this last week, but given the usual acrimony that surrounds divorce, it’s fairly amazing that Stevie and Syreeta kept working and writing together both during and after their separation and indeed, Syreeta has co-writing credits on “It’s A Shame.” (Usually, Syreeta did the lyrics and Stevie did the music, this despite the fact that several Syreeta/Stevie works, including “It’s A Shame,” are written from the male point of view.)
In addition to co-composing this classic soul record, Stevie played most of the instruments, including piano, bass and drums, arranged the horns and produced it as well. It’s therefore tempting to call this one a Stevie Wonder record with the Spinners simply sitting in on vocals, but that wouldn’t do justice to the Spinners’ great multi-part vocal work. I’m not familiar enough with the various members of the band to know who’s who, but the cat working the falsetto and the other dude on lead tenor spend the entire second half in a virtual competition of high-level vocal gymnastics. What a record.
#1. Syreeta feat. Stevie Wonder – “To Know You Is To Love You” from Syreeta (Mowest, 1972)
I’m going to keep my comments about our feature track relatively brief because, one of these days, I’m going to do an entire Syreeta feature. For now, I’ll just say that “To Know You Is To Love You”is my second-favorite of the many collaborations between Syreeta and her ex-husband, Stevie Wonder. (We’ve already posted my #1 favorite one, Syreeta’s version of “I Love Every Little Thing About You,” which despite being released a little after Stevie’s more famous version, was actually recorded earlier.) More to come on Syreeta.
I also have to make mention of two other great songs, neither of which I’m putting in my top five, but only because we’ve previously talked about and posted both of them. The first is “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” a 1973 hit single (#1 R&B, #3 Pop) for Aretha Franklin that, as legend has it, Stevie Wonder started writing when he was still in his early teens. Way back in December of ’05, I posted a Cyndi Lauper cover of the tune. Kalamu hated Cyndi’s remake but loves the Aretha Franklin original. You can click here to read our back and forth (and ten reader comments) about that one.
The other Stevie composition I have to mention is Roberta Flack’s stunning extended piece “I Can See The Sun In Late December.” Click here for more about Roberta’s record. I’m not going to repost Roberta’s song (or Aretha’s), but if you don’t already know them, trust me, they’re very, very good.
—Mtume ya Salaam
I have nothing to add but an “amen”!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, April 6th, 2008 at 11:47 pm and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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