So much for enlightenment. That was all I had to say, to myself, as I watched Stevie Wonder battle for vocal supremacy with Grover. In 1973. On Sesame Street. Well, on YouTube, but you get the picture. I was entranced by Stevie, of course, but far more transfixed by Grover, and envious of the latter’s nonchalance in relating to superstars. I’m much more of a sycophant than Grover, and I would certainly never tease Stevie Wonder.
The pair made me giggle. The whole way through, I chuckled like I was 8 years old and talking to my best friend about boobs. And that’s when it hit me: so much for enlightenment. So much for Candide, Foucault, Wordsworth, Einstein, Leibniz, Darwin, Van Gogh, and everyone else who never had Jim Henson’s hand up their ass. After years of pursuing intellectual perfection, I found it staring back at me from my pock-marked 12” iBook G4. And it wore two faces, one a soul wunderkind and another a faded, dingy blue puppet. For all the strides I’d made in breaking away from and growing out of Sesame Street, I was right back there, my cerebral wanting sated by a 33-year-old childrens’ television program. I bestow this gift upon all of you: http://youtube.com/watch?v=W8lUnI35Sd8
Serendipity drove me to this clip, but it was fortuitous—if not planned—since Stevie Wonder has been a recent obsession. “Songs in the Key of Life” is such an effective opus, in fact, that I often wish to have grown up black in a segregated society just so I could better identify with his music. His musicianship and efficacy are virtually unparalleled—the top layer of male Motown solo artists looks like this: Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, and even Michael Jackson fail to resonate as brilliantly on as broad a range of material as Wonder and Gaye.
Between that top pair, though, Wonder clearly has the edge, since he is the far more virtuosic and prodigious of the two. He signed with Motown Records when he was 11, had his first hit single (“Fingertips (Pt. 2)”) when he was 13, sold over 100 million records, won 22 Grammy Awards, had nine #1 hits, and plays about 8 instruments. Furthermore, while you could spend your entire life arguing over who has the better voice, and while the answer lies exclusively in a given peson’s taste, I’m tempted to give Stevie the edge, but not just over Marvin—over everyone. His timbre, phrasing, rhythm, melody, harmony, lyricism, range, and charisma are the best I’ve ever heard, including…dare I say it…please don’t tell him I said this…and I won’t say it again…Justin Timberlake.
Not enough has been made of his triumph over his lost faculties. It’s not just his sight; in fact, the same year he appeared on Sesame Street, Wonder permanently and completely lost his sense of smell in a car crash. Operating without 40% of his base senses, he released “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” the next year and “Songs in the Key of Life” in 1976. Between the years of 1974 and 1977, Wonder won three of the four Album of the Year Grammys that were awarded, for “Innervisions” in 1974, “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” in 1975, and then “Songs in the Key of Life” in 1977 (Paul Simon won the award in 1976 for “Still Crazy After All These Years”).
Public television is blessed that Wonder traded vocal phrases with Grover 33 years ago, with primitive bling hanging from his neck, and an unbridled supernova's spry confidence entrenched on his face. I have finally found enlightenment, and it is truly a Wonder.
Stay with Stevie, Sesame Street