Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Stevie Wonder Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie (1962, Tamla)

C –

Stevie’s debut album – recorded when he was only twelve years old – is also one of the more oddball releases in his catalog, if only because it’s entirely instrumental. It’s certainly not a bad album and he’s already quite good on harmonica and keyboards – especially for a twelve-year old – but this disc doesn’t even begin to tap Wonder’s full potential as a performer or songwriter. It’s a fascinating album, but it’s not the least bit essential.

Tribute to Uncle Ray (1962, Tamla)

D

An even more head-scratching album than his all-instrumental debut disc, Stevie’s sophomore effort is more proof that Motown really misused the young prodigy’s talents at first. This time around, Stevie doesn’t play at all and sticks to singing, and with the exception of the two closing cuts, he’s exclusively singing material from the Ray Charles catalog, which, of course, are good songs, but also sound rather ridiculous being sung by a twelve-year-old, no matter how gifted a vocalist they might be. There is a glimpse of better things to come with the penultimate track, “Sunset,” penned by Wonder with mentor Clarence Paul, but even that cut still sticks out in a bad way on what is – with the exception of the Berry Gordy-penned closer “My Baby’s Gone” – otherwise an all-covers concept album. 

Recorded Live: The 12-Year Old Genius (1963, Tamla)

C +

The material is really, really spotty – three of the seven songs here hail from Stevie’s last disc, the ill-advised Ray Charles covers album Tribute to Uncle Ray – but this disc – technically a live album, but included here amongst his studio albums for both containing several new tunes and for being his breakthrough album after two poorly-selling discs – has a slight edge over the previous two for one reason: the career-making album opener, a near-seven-minute version of the song “Fingerprints” (a much shorter version of which was originally included on The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie) which is simply electric and packs far more of a punch than the original studio version. Sporting future superstar Marvin Gaye on drums, the performance reveals Stevie to be the true showman, not only wowing the crowd with his harmonica playing but turning the piece into a call-and-response exercise with the audience and even spontaneously continuing the song after its planned ending, memorably prompting a musician who’d just come onstage to play with the next act to shout out “What key? What key?” so he could follow along. Split into two parts for 45 release, the song became Stevie’s first Hot 100 entry, and a Number One hit, at that! If you already have the live version of “Fingerprints” on a 45 or best-of package, though, there’s nothing else here that’s really all that essential, though the whole first side is a pretty pleasant listen.

With a Song in My Heart (1963, Tamla)

D   

With its young prodigy having just scored his first Number One hit, Motown made the utterly absurd and inexplicable decision to have Stevie follow up The 12-Year Old Genius with, of all things, a full album of standards like “Put on a Happy Face,” “Smile,” “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and the Rodgers-and-Hart-penned title track. With albums like this, it’s no wonder Stevie Wonder ultimately ended up leading the charge against Motown to allow its artists to have more creative control over their own albums.

Stevie at the Beach (1964, Tamla)

C

This theme album periodically strays into some pretty ill-advised territory – “Red Sails in the Sunset”? “Beyond the Sea”? “Ebb Tide”? Berry Gordy may be a genius, but the albums Motown and its subsidiaries churned out during the ‘60s would have been so, so much stronger had the label just focused on R&B and not wasted nearly so much time on trying to cater to the Copa crowd – but, nonetheless, Stevie at the Beach is at least a partial step in the right direction, anyway, and the disc yielded two minor hits in “Hey, Harmonica Man” and “Castles in the Sand.”

Up-Tight (1966, Tamla)

B   

A dramatic improvement on any of the previous albums, this might not be a flawless disc – the 1962 single “Contract on Love” is inexplicably included here, for starters – but, with the exception of a cover of “Teach Me Tonight,” the label’s no longer forcing standards upon Stevie, who gets to co-write five cuts here, including the career-reviving Top Five smash “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” The disc also sports a second Top Ten hit in an unlikely – but highly memorable – cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and a Top Twenty hit in “Nothing’s Too Good for My Baby.” The overlooked gem “With a Child’s Heart” is also included here, while even filler like “Ain’t That Asking for Trouble” is pretty fun.

Down to Earth (1966, Tamla)

C

It doesn’t deviate much from the winning formula that made Up-Tight so appealing (Stevie even tries another Dylan cover on with “Mr. Tambourine Man”), but the set of songs just isn’t nearly as good this time around. (The choice of cover material is especially baffling. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons”? Cher’s “Bang Bang”? Good songs both, but neither is suited for Stevie.)  The disc does, however, contain the minor hit “Hey Love” and the Top Ten smash “A Place in the Sun.”

I Was Made to Love Her (1967, Tamla)

C

Less of a cohesive album than a transparent attempt to capitalize on the hit single of the same name, there are way, way too many covers here – ranging from Motown hits like “My Girl,” “Can I Get a Witness,” and “Baby Don’t You Do It” to covers of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” and Otis Redding’s “Respect” – for this album to have the integrity of the two prior discs, and the only tracks here really worth recommending are the four originals, the best of which are “I’d Cry,” and, of course, the legendary title cut, which stopped just one spot shy of topping the pop charts.

Eivets Rednow (1968, Gordy)

C +

Technically credited to the non-existent “Eivets Rednow” (read it backwards), this disc is easily one of the oddest discs Wonder has ever made – a good disc, and definitely a fascinating one, but an odd one all the same. For starters, like his debut album, this is an all-instrumental affair, and one that leans closer to easy-listening than jazz, even going so far as to incorporate covers of Burt Bacharach/Hal David tunes like “Alfie” and “A House Is Not a Home” and The Association’s “Never My Love.” It’s interesting, and it’s all well-played, easily surpassing his debut album for the title of his best all-instrumental release, but it feels an awful lot like Paul McCartney’s Thrillington, a similarly all-instrumental, Muzak-like disc released under a pseudonym that McCartney self-admittedly recorded only as a contractual obligation – fascinating to hear once, but not something you’re likely to come back to very often, if ever.

For Once in My Life (1968, Tamla)

B

Easily his best outing since Up-Tight (and the first album of Stevie’s to feature him on clavinet, an instrument that would become crucial to his sound in the ‘70s), the first side of this album is a pure delight, opening with the classic title track (which, like “I Was Made to Love Her,” stopped just one spot shy of reaching Number One) and proceeded by a string of appealing originals, including three additional Top 40 hits and all very underrated ones, at that: the wildly catchy Top Ten hit “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day”, “You Met Your Match,” and “I Don’t Know Why.” Unfortunately, the second side is of nowhere near the same quality, retreating back to the covers well (this time with Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” and Billie Holliday’s “God Bless the Child”), though it has its moments, namely “I’d Be a Fool Right Now.”