Most Americans follow up their 21st birthdays with a hangover; Stevie Wonder opted for arguably the greatest sustained run of creativity in the history of popular music. Wonder’s “classic period”—the polite phrase for when Stevie spent five years ferociously dunking on the entire history of popular music with the releases of Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life—is usually placed between 1972 and 1976, but it really begins a year earlier, with that birthday. In May 1971, Wonder turned 21 and gained access to 10 years’ worth of royalties that had been accruing in a trust set up for him by Motown Records when he’d signed his first contract, at age 11. He also allowed his Motown contract to expire, meaning that one of pop music’s hottest stars, on his 21st birthday, was now both financially secure and a free agent. If Motown wanted to keep him, it would require a deal unlike any the label had previously granted.
Wonder had been sowing the seeds for his independence for some time. In 1970, he’d written, produced, and played multiple instruments on the Spinners’ hit “It’s a Shame,” and in April 1971 he’d released Where I’m Coming From, a collection of songs he’d co-written with his then-wife, Syreeta Wright. Stevie Wonder was on his way up, and Berry Gordy needed to ensure he wasn’t on his way to another record label. Wonder negotiated a new contract with Motown that would grant him full artistic control over his music, his own publishing company, and an unprecedented royalty rate. It was a revolutionary deal that, over the next five years, would change the history of music.
Wonder’s first release under his new arrangement with Motown was a nine-song suite bearing the modest if portentous title, Music of My Mind. Released in March 1972, Music of My Mind is often considered the weakest of Wonder’s classic period albums, its standing eclipsed by what would follow it. But if Wonder had retired at age 22, Music of My Mind would be considered a miracle of ’70s pop, and rightly so. From the gnarled funk-rock of the album’s opener, “Love Having You Around,” to the post-psychedelic beauty of “Girl Blue,” to the triumphal synthesizer epic “Evil” that closed the record, Music of My Mind wedded a quirky, DIY charm to an emergent musical virtuosity that was explosive in its implications, like if Nick Drake had wandered into the studio with the Funk Brothers, except it was all coming from one dude. The album’s best song was “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” an eight-minute, two-part sprawl, the second part of which was a de facto sequel to Wonder’s 1971 ballad “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and the first part of which featured one of the most achingly beautiful melodies Wonder has ever written. On the song’s second verse there is a high harmony part that’s somehow even lovelier than the main melody, like some casual, flamboyant afterthought.
Wonder played nearly every instrument on Music of My Mind and made particularly groundbreaking use of Moog and TONTO synthesizers. (Synth whizzes Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil co-produced the album with Stevie and would continue to work with him through Fulfillingness’ First Finale.) But my favorite aspect of Music of My Mind is the drums: By the time Talking Book rolled around less than six months later, Stevie Wonder had become one of the best drummers on the face of the earth, but on Music of My Mind he’s still feeling his way around the instrument in the studio. His playing is inventive, playful, breathtakingly musical, the sound of the most talented musician in the world learning before our ears.
“Classic period” is the polite phrase for the five-year span that Stevie spent ferociously dunking on the entire history of popular music.
Music of My Mind was only a modest commercial success, peaking at No. 21 on the Billboard album charts. With the release of Talking Book that October, the classic period found its commercial breakout. (One might think releasing two albums in a calendar year would suggest a reclusive studio-rat; Wonder in fact spent the summer of 1972 on the road opening for the Rolling Stones—who were touring behind Exile on Main St.—and also found time to produce, co-write, and play most of the instruments on Syreeta Wright’s debut album, Syreeta.) Talking Book’s lead single, “Superstition,” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100; its second single, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” repeated the feat. The quirky noodling of Music of My Mind had been replaced by ferocious focus and extraordinary songwriting. Alongside the two chart smashes were the sumptuous ballad “You and I” (which Michelle Obama later revealed was her and President Barack Obama’s wedding song), the exuberant rave-up “Tuesday Heartbreak,” and the album’s soaring closer, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).” Talking Book was rapturously received by critics: “A man whose only colors are in the spectrum of sounds has opened new eyes for all of us,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, while Rolling Stone declared it “the work of a now quite matured genius.”
Talking Book also displayed Wonder’s growing mastery of the album as form through its absolutely flawless sequencing. Take, for instance, the transition between “Superstition” and the track that follows it, “Big Brother.” Both are showcases for Wonder’s clavinet, the electric clavichord instrument made by Hohner that Wonder had been fiddling with since the late 1960s, but the texture of the instrument on both tracks is almost inverse, with “Superstition” all funky and percussive edges and “Big Brother” a smooth, soothing wash—almost the difference between a pluck and a strum. The sound of the two songs bleeding together highlights the range of Wonder’s instrument, but it also highlights the thematic link between the tracks: “Superstition” is an opaque rumination on conspiracy and paranoia, while “Big Brother” wraps a steely-eyed denunciation of Nixonism into a serene electro-folk ballad. (“Your name is big brother/ You say that you’re tired of me protesting”; it’s both prescient and disturbing that in 2016 every one of Stevie’s anti-Nixon tracks resounds perfectly as an anti-Trump track.)
In August 1973, Wonder released Innervisions. His follow-up to Talking Book was an even more high-minded and conceptually ambitious work: Only three of the album’s nine tracks were love songs, with Wonder instead focusing on topics such as drug addiction (“Too High”), religious hypocrisy (“Jesus Children of America”), and, once again, Nixon (“He’s Misstra Know-It-All”). Innervisions produced three hits, “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” the reincarnation meditation “Higher Ground” (which Wonder wrote and recorded entirely by himself in a span of three hours), and “Living for the City,” a seven-and-a-half–minute migration narrative that touched on systemic racial inequality in employment, housing, the criminal justice system, and damn near everything else.
Innervisions also marked Wonder’s full ascendance as a composer. At 23 years old, the kid who could play every instrument on earth (including chromatic harmonica like it was Charlie Parker’s alto sax) was now writing like some combination of George Gershwin and Smokey Robinson. The bridge to “Living for the City”—“da-da-da DAH, dah dah, DAH …”—is among the more harmonically counterintuitive chord progressions in pop music, a bunch of sounds that shouldn’t fit next to each according to every rule in the book and yet somehow fit perfectly. “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” alchemizes a gleefully counterfeit Afro-Cuban verse form with a smooth pop chorus to create some ecstatic new world, while “All in Love Is Fair” is pure Tin Pan Alley and became a standard almost the moment it was released. Innervisions would win Album of the Year at the Grammys, the first time the award had gone to a black artist.
Three days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was in a life-threatening car accident that left him in a coma for several days. While recovering at a hospital in Los Angeles, he told a reporter that “for a few days I was definitely in a much better spiritual place that made me aware of a lot of things that concern my life and my future and what I have to do to reach another higher ground.” Granted the very second chance he’d sung about, in 1974 he turned in arguably his most extraordinary year yet. He co-wrote, produced, and played many of the instruments on his ex-wife Syreeta Wright’s second album, titled Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, while still finding the energy to write hits for Minnie Riperton and Rufus and Chaka Khan.
He also released Fulfillingness’ First Finale, perhaps the most intellectually reaching work of the classic period and the album that feels the most personal and least concerned with commercial success. It still found it, of course: The album’s first single was “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” another anti-Nixon diatribe and another No. 1, and the sleek and raunchy “Boogie On Reggae Woman” cracked the Top 5 as well. But Fulfillingness often felt more concerned with philosophical conversation than radio play: “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” is a riveting bit of gospel-infused Afrofuturism, equal parts mournful and hopeful, and the Chopin-esque dirge “They Won’t Go When I Go” is one of the more scathing compositions in Wonder’s catalog, a rumination on the Promised Land and how Stevie deserves to get there before any of the rest of us (a somewhat dickish if correct assertion). Like Innervisions, Fulfillingness took the Grammy for Album of the Year.
In 1975 Wonder didn’t release a new album for the first time in a decade; when Paul Simon won that year’s Grammy he famously thanked Stevie for sitting the year out. The interregnum was short-lived: In 1976 he returned with Songs in the Key of Life, a sprawling double-album that became only the third album in American history to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Album charts, where it remained for three months, ultimately selling more than 10 million copies. It produced two No. 1 singles (“Sir Duke” and “I Wish”) and won the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll and, of course, Album of the Year at the Grammys, Stevie’s third in four years.
Songs in the Key of Life is a monumental work of American popular culture. It has inspired books, documentaries, cover albums. Released just weeks before the election of Jimmy Carter, it is perhaps the most ambitious work ever made by a pop star at the height of his or her powers, a “concept album” whose concept is nothing less than life itself. Its songs deal with, in rough order: love, God, inequality, music, childhood, romance, religious hypocrisy, betrayal, and divorce, and that’s just the first disc. It is a magnum opus in every sense, the product of an artist consciously setting out to make a career-defining musical landmark and succeeding in breathtaking fashion. That artist was still only 26 years old.
Songs in the Key of Life might not even be the best album of the classic period—I’d put both Innervisions and Talking Book ahead of it, although that’s splitting hairs—but it’s its apotheosis, and its capstone work. Wonder wouldn’t release another album of new material for three more years, before returning in 1979 with the deeply weird Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. If Alexander wept when there were no more worlds left to conquer, Stevie happily composed 90 minutes of largely instrumental music for the soundtrack to a documentary about botany. It was a charming and well-deserved departure. Between 1972 and 1976, Stevie Wonder made what felt like a lifetime’s worth of music—his own, certainly, but ours as well. We’ve never heard anything like it since, and barring another reincarnation, we never will again.
Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic and assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination and the host of the Slate Academy series Pop, Race, and the ’60s.