In 1972 — half a century ago — Stevie Wonder reinvented the sound of pop by embracing all he could accomplish on his own.
He released two albums that year: “Music of My Mind” in March and then, less than eight months later, on Oct. 27, the even more confident and far-reaching “Talking Book.”
“Talking Book” was a breakthrough on multiple fronts. It demonstrated, with the international smash “Superstition,” that Wonder didn’t need Motown’s “hit factory” methods — songwriters and producers providing material that singers would dutifully execute — to have a No. 1 pop blockbuster.
Wonder had given signs on earlier albums, particularly his self-produced “Where I’m Coming From” (1971), that he would not just be writing love songs. “Talking Book” reaffirmed that, and also extended his sonic and technological ambitions, as he used state-of-the-art synthesizers and an arsenal of studio effects to orchestrate his songs with startlingly novel sounds. And its album cover — which showed Wonder wearing African-style robes and braided hair in a quasi-Biblical desert landscape (actually Los Angeles) — made clear that Wonder’s futurism was unmistakably Afrofuturism.
Although Wonder had just reached voting age, he was no novice when he made “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book.” They were his 14th and 15th albums in a decade-long career that stretched back to his days as Little Stevie Wonder, who was just 13 when he had his first No. 1 song with an irresistibly exuberant live recording: “Fingertips, Pt. 2.”
During his teens, Wonder proved himself onstage and in the studio as a singer, keyboardist, harmonica player, drummer and, with hits like “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” as a songwriter. He revealed musicianship that was both richly and widely grounded — in gospel, R&B, jazz, show tunes, folk, pop, country, classical music and more — and playfully but determinedly recombinant. Even when he was a teenager, his music meshed and reconfigured genres.
Wonder’s first Motown Records contract ended as he turned 21 in 1971. Other labels were eager to sign him, and when he returned to the Black-owned Motown, he had won complete creative control for himself. From then on, he would write and produce his own songs, release albums when he decided they were finished and choose his own collaborators. He made an unexpected choice for starters: Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, a team of musicians, producers and engineers.
In what were still the early days of synthesizers, Cecil and Margouleff had constructed a Frankenstein monster of an instrument they called TONTO (which they retronymed The Original New Timbral Orchestra). It weighed more than a ton. Margouleff and Cecil had connected modules and keyboards from Moog, Arp and other manufacturers and figured out a way for the formerly incompatible devices to control one another. Billing themselves as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Margouleff and Cecil made a 1971 album of synthesizer pieces, “Zero Time,” and Wonder heard in it the possibilities for sounds he wanted to summon from his keyboards.
In their test run — a three-day weekend working together in the studio — Wonder wrote 17 songs. From 1972-74, with Wonder writing the songs and Cecil and Margouleff programming the sounds, they would make four landmark albums: “Music of My Mind,” “Talking Book,” “Innervisions” and “Fulfillingness’ First Finale.”
The early 1970s were a wide-open — and in retrospect simply remarkable — era for R&B that melded social consciousness and musical creativity. Groups like Sly and the Family Stone and the late-60s Temptations had shown that psychedelic soul hits could carry strong messages, and in the early ’70s, songwriters like Marvin Gaye (with his album “What’s Going On”) and groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, the O’Jays and Labelle explored utopian dreams and street-level insights in songs that united the sophistication of jazz with the earthiness of funk and rock. These were parallel explorations, often with large stage and studio bands; meanwhile, Wonder found a path of his own, nearly solo.
“Music of My Mind,” the first album under the new Motown contract, started to probe Wonder’s newfound freedom; then “Talking Book” reveled in it. It’s an album mostly of songs about love: euphoric, heartbroken, jealous, regretful, longing, anticipatory. Yet love songs like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” don’t confine themselves to the ups and downs of individual romance; their love can encompass family, friends, community and faith.
Midway through, the album brandishes a pair of hard-nosed reality checks. In “Superstition,” Wonder warns against gullibility and received opinion, with a loose-limbed drumbeat, chattering stereo Clavinets and taunting horns making his advice as danceable as it is vehement. And in “Big Brother,” Wonder sings “I live in the ghetto” and denounces a sanctimonious politician who wants his vote but is “tired of me protesting/children dying every day.”
Wonder influenced generations of singers with his voice on “Talking Book”; he talks, croons, teases, preaches, moans, barks, growls. It’s not exactly gospel, blues, soul, rock or jazz; it’s all of them at once, and it gives every note he sings an unpredictable life of its own. With the keyboards, synthesizers and effects under his control — there’s wah-wah everywhere — Wonder could extrapolate his vocal inflections to the instruments he played.
Unlike some of the more heavily orchestrated or earnest efforts of early ’70s R&B, “Talking Book” doesn’t feel vintage. Its arrangements are lean and contrapuntal, uncushioned, making every note earn its place both as a melodic line and a rhythmic push. Yet their precision doesn’t make them anywhere near mechanical. Wonder had only a handful of additional musicians on “Talking Book,” but he fabricates the sound of a bustling, multifarious neighborhood largely on his own. And the whole production is set in a surreal, elastic, immersive electronic space that’s far more familiar now than it was 50 years ago.
None of that ingenuity would matter if the songs weren’t substantial and touching. Wonder sings about love going right — “In my mind, we can conquer the world,” he declares in “You and I” — and love going very wrong. The singer suddenly realizes he’s being cheated on in “Maybe Your Baby,” with a bass line as viscous as quicksand and backup voices chiming in like know-it-alls. He’s been left lonely in “Blame It on the Sun,” casting about desperately to convince himself it’s not his fault.
And the album ends with “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever),” a Beatles-tinged three-episode song in which the singer picks himself up from “shattered dreams,” imagines the bliss of endless love with a choir of backup harmonies arriving to uplift him, invokes God, then segues into a bluesy come-on to “the girl that I adore.” The romance is all still hypothetical; the sheer joy is not. And every note comes from Wonder himself.
“Talking Book” was not only a hit album — No. 1 on the R&B chart, No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard 200 — but also a harbinger of R&B and pop that would be increasingly electronic and synthetic, proudly unbound by physical realities. One of Wonder’s many gifts to music was that even as he created the artificial sound-worlds of his songs, he made sure they were brimming with humanity.
Here, 27 of the countless musicians and listeners who created and have been inspired by “Talking Book” discuss the album, song by song. These are edited excerpts from the conversations. — Jon Pareles