Today being Martin Luther King Day brings up an event that occurred during my lifetime ,but of which I am also too young to remember fully. In the early 1980’s Stevie Wonder along with fellow musical artist/writer/poet Gil Scott Heron really championed the crusade to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday. He even wrote a song for the occasion called “Happy Birthday”,included on Stevie’s 1980 album Hotter Than July. It was a song that was recorded and released five years earlier,however, that’s always gotten my attention-from hearing it on 8-track at the families lakeside camp growing up to my present day discussions with friend and fellow music lover Henrique Hopkins.
With an elaborate production taking two and a half years to complete,Stevie Wonder finally managed to release his double album plus four song EP which he entitled Songs In The Key Of Life. It continued the man’s commercial and creative winning streak that had began earlier in the decade. And did so by really reaching for even more imaginative and reflective instrumental,lyrical and compositional heights. One of the songs that impacted me on this sprawling opus was another example of being deeply effected by music that was not a huge commercial hit. But to me anyway,it’s the glue that made the entire album function as a strong musical statement. It was called “Black Man”.
Rhythmic intensity defines the groove from the get go. It’s a fast marching drum rhythm-accentuated by a lightly melodic ring modulated drum sound. A deep Clavinet solo is soon joined by a brittle Moog bass solo. A wandering,higher pitched synthesizer soon joins in along with the horns of Stevie’s band Wonderlove playing the melodic accents of his lead vocal parts. The bridge strips back most the instrumentation so the only things heard are the main rhythm,the modulated one. This leads into a intertwining pair of synthesizers playing a bluesy jazz melody before going back into the main theme-with a verbalized classroom recitation along with Stevie on Vocorder illustrating the songs lyrical theme.
The first time I heard this song,my mother described this song as a history lesson. And that is exactly what this is. Time has allowed me to appreciate on just how many levels it is. Stevie’s outlook on race relations here is not merely integrationist, but understanding the vitality and difference each race present in America brings to the nations continuity. Far as it’s place in black history goes names such as Benjamin Banneker,Garrett Morgan and Dr.Charles Drew would have remained unknown to me-as well as their contributions to the country. They all played a part,as Stevie sang of who helped make our banner wave during the bicentennial year this song was written to celebrate.
One major element that permeated the entire Songs In The Key Of Life album (especially this particular song) was Stevie’s use of the Yamaha GX-1,known as the Dream Machine. It was a double keyboarded synthesizer with a rhythm machine. It felt like a Hammond B-3 organ, but was a very tonally advanced polyphonic synthesizer underneath. It allowed Stevie to build the sound of his own sound along with Wonderlove. The most important thing one can ever say about Stevie Wonder as a musician is his contribution of innovative tonal sounds. Herbie Hancock once pointed out Stevie’s ability to deal with synthesizers on an organic level allowed it to become it’s own instrumental element of the band itself.
Instrumentally speaking,this might well be one of Stevie Wonder’s most exciting compositions. The energy level is both high enough to reach a breaking point, and controlled at a level where the excitement is totally attainable to the listener. The tempo is a lot faster than it is for most funk. Yet rhythm is locked down to a point where the multiple melodic conversations of the different keyboard and synthesizer tones that define this song express tonally the cultural diversity of America for the next almost 40 years from when this song was created to the present day. It’s one of a view songs out there with the power to get every American,of every shade to dance to it’s rhythms.