This piece was written for the KCRW music documentary podcast Lost Notes. This season, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib explores a single year: 1980 - the brilliant, awkward and sometimes heartbreaking opening to a monumental decade in popular music. You can find all the episodes from Lost Notes: 1980 here. Support KCRW original programs like Lost Notes by donating or becoming a member.
In early 1980, Stevie Wonder was looking for a way to rebound. He was coming off of “Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants.” It was an album that was a critical and commercial downturn for him. There were whispers filtering into his otherwise impenetrable orbit. They were suggesting he’d lost the magic he’d captivated the world with during an unprecedented run of albums during the 1970s. He was a gifted artist at a crossroads of confidence and creativity.
Almost no one dominated the 1970s like Stevie Wonder did. Not only in sheer volume of work, but also quality. His work ethic was rooted in an excitement for the music he was creating, but also rooted in an eagerness to offer commentary to a rapidly shifting social and political climate. For this, none of his masterpieces sounded or felt the same. Particularly from 1970 to 1976, when Wonder released seven albums. I’m thinking most about “Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” and the masterpiece, “Songs In The Key Of Life.”
It is a brilliant run of albums and songs, one of the greatest in music history. In the 70s, Wonder achieved rarefied air – his singular talents and his endless imagination intersecting to create a series of opuses that intensified in scale, and in sound. “Songs in the Key Of Life” soared between gospel, funk, and symphonic within its first three tracks alone.
And Wonder’s thematic concerns were as sprawling as his sonic ones. He was considering the presence of God in his life as richly as he was considering the plight of the disenfranchised as much as he was considering the multitude of ways that the simplicity of love could propel the human spirit from one moment to the next – love, the overarching theme Stevie was chasing throughout the decade. A love of place, or a love of the unseen, or a love that swells within a person until the words I love you spill out, loud and repetitive, perhaps boring if not for the body the words are spilling out from.
“Songs In The Key Of Life'' was a high watermark in a career-defining run. It was 1976. Stevie was just 26 years old, overflowing with genius.
*To celebrate the release of Lost Notes Season 3, join KCRW for an epic conversation about the albums that made a forever stamp on 1980. At the virtual table will be Lost Notes S3 host Hanif Abdurraqib, KCRW DJs Anne Litt and Eric J. Lawrence, Music Journalist and Historian Dart Adams, and YOU. RSVP HERE!
The making of the album pushed Wonder to the point of obsession. Sessions took place over two years, all over the country. Wonder sometimes wouldn’t sleep for 48 hours at a time, roping in over 100 people to the recording process, accumulating songs and then setting them aside … to accumulate more. There is a vault, Wonder insists now, with several hundred tracks from the “Songs in the Key of Life” sessions. From a purely critical standpoint, I am most often of the belief that if an artist has to choose from several hundred tracks to form an album of 15 or more tracks, there probably aren’t 15 or more great tracks to choose from in the first place. But most artists aren’t Stevie Wonder. And so, if Stevie ever wants to grant access to that vault of unheard tunes from that album’s sessions, I’d be one of the first in line.
At the listening party for “Songs in the Key of Life” on September 7th, 1976, Wonder wore a cowboy suit. A gun holster with words stitched across it: “Number One With A Bullet.”
And when it was released a few weeks later, the album did hit number one, and stayed there for 14 weeks straight.
But then, Wonder went quiet for nearly three years.
The next time journalists descended on a Stevie Wonder album listening party, it was the fall of 1979, in the New York Botanical Garden. Wonder had been working on another album – a soundtrack based on a Walon Green documentary, “The Secret Life of Plants.” The documentary was based off of a book that argued in favor of plant sentience. Your plants might know when you’re lying, or might react when you’re happy.
Enamored with the idea, Wonder had the film’s producer, Michael Braun, describe each image in the film to him. This allowed Wonder to take to the task of creating the film score, translating the descriptions into sound.
The “Secret Life Of Plants” album is compositionally as ambitious as anything else Wonder had attempted. The moods of some songs shift rapidly, from sparse and airy acoustics to large, sweeping synthesizer arrangements. Other songs shift in glacial movements, in an attempt to mirror the slow growth cycle of a plant.
In some ways, the great fascinating work of the album is that a blind musician created a score for a film that he couldn’t see – it was Wonder’s prolific imagination, once again, bringing the descriptions of images to life and braiding together a sonic journey for a medium he couldn’t consume in the manner it was intended.
Critics, however, didn’t agree. Reviews were harshly mixed. The Village Voice called it “painfully awkward.” Rolling Stone called the songs “stunted, wandering instrumentals.” The album entered the charts at #4 before quickly tumbling south. After winning 3 Grammy awards for album of the year between 1974 and 1977, “Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants” was seen by most as a shift in a bad direction – a highly anticipated album that showed Wonder on the wrong side of his limitless ambition.
Nothing made this more clear than the tour for the album, which included over 60 musicians, singers, and crew. It included computers to synchronize synthesizers and a full movie screen to project scenes from the film. Ticket sales didn’t rise to the level of money spent, and the tour was cut to just six dates.
Stevie Wonder faced his first defeat of the decade, just as its final months were ticking away. He insisted that the album’s failure was due to Motown. Before “Songs in the Key of Life,” the label had inked a new deal with Wonder, not only paying him unprecedented money, but giving him unprecedented power over the direction of his career and the future of the label. Still, not even they could figure out how to effectively market the oversized passion project that was “Secret Life Of Plants.” At the dawn of 1980, there were those who thought Stevie Wonder had maybe given all he could reasonably offer. And if that was to be it, there would be a lot to be thankful for – a full career of classic albums before Wonder had even turned 30. But, of course, with a new decade upon him, the artist got right back to work.
In late 1979, and into the early months of 1980, Wonder secluded himself in Los Angeles, inside of his newly acquired Wonderland Studios, which rested inside of a building that had spent previous decades as the American Cancer Society. Wonder repurposed the building into a sprawling, up-to-date studio. The kind of place someone could go to hide out and create for days, weeks, or months on end without leaving. In 1980, the mission wasn’t a complete reinvention. What critics and fans might have missed on "Secret Life Of Plants" while they were so focused on the strangeness of it, was that Stevie had already been toying with shifts in sound that fit what was coming in the new decade and beyond. He’d already figured out how to master the synthesizer in ways his peers hadn’t. He was playing with tone and voice modulation. What he needed to figure out was how to once again translate his ability into making songs that were both challenging to him, but accessible to a wider audience. And, how to collapse the idea of genre, and make it bow to his musical whims.
The album’s eventual title, “Hotter Than July,” would come from its first single. “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” is one of the great songs of the 80s – one of those songs you’ve probably heard, even if you don’t know it by its title.
It was influenced by Wonder spending more time performing with Bob Marley, and becoming enamored with the sounds of reggae music. Marley and Wonder had been touring together, sharing stages, sounds, and influences. The lead single showcased Wonder’s newfound sonic dexterity, but also showcased a newer, louder optimism – the song envisions global world peace, calls for an end to the civil war in Zimbabwe, and imagines all countries lifted up from poverty.
“Hotter Than July” was released into the world in September of 1980. It was thrown into a world in turmoil, seemingly miles away from the utopia it was trying to imagine. And the title itself was appropriate. The album was released after a historic and deadly heatwave hovered over parts of the country. Starting in late June, in the southern and central portions of the United States saw temperatures of over 90 degrees every day until September. The heatwave only broke briefly when Hurricane Allen touched down in Texas in early August, bringing with it a cluster of tornadoes that also blew through the state. The only mercy from the heatwave couldn’t be called mercy at all. In Midwestern cities, there were droughts as temperatures climbed to triple digits. In Memphis, there was a two week stretch of temps above 100 degrees, maxing out at 108. Dallas had nearly a month above 105, with a handful of those days above 110. The high pressure ridge that caused the heatwave also led to windstorms that would blow through cities, killing and injuring residents. There were an estimated 10,000 direct and indirect heat-related fatalities. Crops were damaged, and livestock lost. In photos from that summer, there are dogs standing in between large cracks on the concrete, eyes wide, tongues unfurling from their open mouths. Teenagers sit alongside puddles of melted ice cream. A man holds a box fan close to his chest like a lover returned from war.
By the end of September, there was mercy. Carried on the cool breeze of autumn, arriving too late, but just on time. On the cover of “Hotter Than July,” there is an artistic rendering of Stevie Wonder against a background that looks like a sunset. His mouth half-open. Exhaustion on the way to a smile. Sweat pouring from his forehead to his cheeks. The sun causing a bright burst of reflection at the edge of his glasses. If you stare at it too long, you might start to feel a little warm.
Even today, the album sounds like a gently arranged collage of sounds and styles, that might be haphazardly jumbled in the hands of anyone but Wonder. The album spent 40 weeks on the charts, peaking at #3 in December of 1980. More than a commercial rebound, it was a critical reintroduction to Wonder himself. The critics who seemed to have forgotten his immense capabilities were now back. This time, though, they were lauding Wonder’s rediscovery of the talents they’d grown comfortable with. There is, of course, something to be said here about the limited risks Black artists were (and still are) allowed to take before being written off entirely by largely white critics. But the magazines and publications who had assumed Wonder’s 70s run was the best he had to give were once again singing his praises. The album was seen as a career rebound that didn’t sacrifice experimentation.
The album’s second single, “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It,” finds Wonder singing with a pronounced country twang, so sharp that one might have to unfurl the liner notes to check for who the guest vocalist is. “All I Do,” is one of the great Stevie album cuts, its electric danceability seasoned with Wonder’s urgent, almost growling vocals. “Cash In Your Face” updates some of Wonder’s previous investment in funk, without completely pivoting away from the rhythms he’d established in the past. It is an album of Wonder trying on every outfit in the new decade’s closet, and finding that all of them fit him perfectly.
At the end of 1979, a bill to recognize Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday fell five votes short in the U.S. House of Representatives. There were objections that a holiday to honor a private citizen would go against tradition, since King never held any office. Then again, neither did Christopher Columbus.
With this failure, the King Center turned to the public to help get the campaign moving. They turned to corporations, actors, and, of course, musicians. It was easy to make this case to Wonder, who had openly championed civil rights on his records and outside of them for years.
On the sleeve of the liner notes to “Hotter Than July,” there is a large portrait of Martin Luther King against a black background. Above the photo, the date of King’s birth and the date of his death are printed in white lettering. On the opposite side of the sleeve, there are five photos: across the top, a photo of a city divided by a six-lane highway, both sides of that highway encased in smoke, touched by the aftermath of a riot. Across the bottom, a photo of white police officers with white helmets and weapons at the ready, appearing to advance on black protesters standing nonviolently in defiance. In a photo to the left, there is a black boy being pulled by the limbs. Two police officers on each arm, and one on his leg. In a photo to the right, a black man is in a pool of his own blood outside of a store. Another black man is crouched against the wall, looking away in agony. In the foreground, a police officer in a white helmet stands with a hand on his hip.
The photo in the center is of Martin Luther King Jr., leading a march. It is the type of photo that, independent of the others around it, might often get used to prop up King in the American imagination as someone determined, righteous, and nonviolent – entirely detached from the machinery of American racism and violence that killed him. This photo, placed directly at the middle of the other four horrific and jarring photos, is a reminder that for black people, there is no other way to frame Martin Luther King Jr. without explicitly placing him in the context of an ongoing fight for liberation. One that he did not see through because his country didn’t allow him to live long enough to do it. If that weren’t enough to argue for a celebration of King to be stamped into the American calendar and consciousness, on the opposite page, underneath the smiling standalone photo of King, Stevie Wonder wrote his own message:
"It is believed that for a man to lay down his life for the love of others is the supreme sacrifice. Jesus Christ by his own example showed us that there is no greater love. For nearly two thousand years now we have been striving to have the strength to follow that example. Martin Luther King was a man who had that strength. He showed us, non-violently, a better way of life, a way of mutual respect, helping us to avoid much bitter confrontation and inevitable bloodshed. We still have a long road to travel until we reach the world that was his dream. We in the United States must not forget either his supreme sacrifice or that dream.
I and a growing number of people believe that it is time for our country to adopt legislation that will make January 15, Martin Luther King's birthday, a national holiday, both in recognition of what he achieved and as a reminder of the distance which still has to be traveled.
Join me in the observance of January 15, 1981 as a national holiday."
On “Hotter Than July,” the song “Happy Birthday” is a joyous contrast to the darker tones of the album’s interior artwork. It is the final song on the record and it insists upon the hands clapping. The lyrics that make up the verses are riddled with sometimes comical, slapped together clichés, but it is the chorus that rings out and endures.
By the time you hear this, summer will maybe be over, or feel over. Where I am, the heat has already arrived, nudging its way through the brief delight of spring. It is no climate to be outside in, and yet, it is the only climate to be outside in. Black people marching through neighborhoods. Shutting down streets and bridges. Empty water bottles have filled the passenger side of my car in this heat. In this heat, I’ve given up on wiping sweat away. I’ve just decided to become one with it. The sweat falls into my mouth when I chant, or sing with my peers. We walked and shouted in the name of a justice we couldn’t yet see, but felt on the horizon. It takes a horrible ache to drag people outside in this weather, during a pandemic, no less. It takes an impossible desire to be seen, and be heard. By the time you hear this, I hope there are more than mere echoes of the movement that exist.
What I love is how a protest can quickly burst into joyful excess. In a moment, when there’s a pause from walking, or when a car walks by playing the right song. Or, like here, where I live, when it was someone’s birthday. And there, in front of the statehouse, encased by the tanks of police officers, and triggermen on top of buildings, a small group burst into the singing of “Happy Birthday.” The only way it could have been sung.
It is a blessing to be Black and know that in the midst of any birthday celebration with other Black folks, when we all gather around a candlelit confection, and someone shouts out that happy birthday must be sung, we are singing the one Stevie wrote. We are clapping our hands, and falling into each other laughing when someone gets too excited and misses a beat. We are poking fun at the one person who started singing the slow, droning traditional birthday song. The one with no rhythm. Stevie wrote the song for Martin, of course, but even in the years after 1986, when Martin’s birthday was first celebrated as a national holiday, the chorus of Stevie’s “Happy Birthday” is the one that still holds on, and brings a joyful tapestry of noise out of reveling Black folks. The song is, for me, the greatest triumph on a triumphant album. A promise that even when Stevie fades away, he’ll never truly fade. There will be people who remember him, who celebrate in his name. People who weren’t even born when he wrote the songs on “Hotter Than July,” knowing only one way to celebrate another trip through the calendar on this spinning rock.