Stevie Wonder @ 70: His Essential Cameos
The breadth of Stevie Wonder’s musical résumé — writer, producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist — makes him a top-tier collaborator. Just pair him up with any artist, regardless of genre, and the results will likely be interesting.
It’s easy to forget how much time the Motown phenom has spent bouncing around on other people’s projects. In addition to recording 23 solo albums, including an unrivaled streak of soul/funk/rock titles in the early to mid-’70s, Wonder has churned out hundreds of studio cameos over his five-decade career. And you can gauge his eclecticism by those one-off sessions: Wonder is just as comfortable laying down tracks for stadium-packing rock stars (Peter Frampton’s “Rocky’s Hot Club”) as he is for jazz giants (Herbie Hancock’s “Steppin’ in It”) and African pop artists (King Sunny Adé’s “Ase”). He’s usually armed with his trusty harmonica, but he occasionally appears on drums, keyboards or vocals.
Wonder’s music is ingrained in the DNA of modern R&B, pop, funk, rock and hip-hop — partly as an influence, sometimes as a sample and other times because he actually played on the song or album in question. As the master turns 70, it’s worth looking back at some of his stealthy but definitive guest spots.
“I Was Made to Love Her”
BBC Sessions (1998)
Jimi Hendrix, the flashiest rock guitarist on the planet, teamed with Wonder, on drums, for this endearingly shambolic jam during a session for BBC radio program Top Gear in 1967. If the instrumental performance can be labeled a duel — and it often sounds like one — Wonder won. He admittedly had a leg up — it’s his song after all, issued as a single four months earlier. But the 17-year-old ramped up his percussive prowess to match Hendrix’s wah-wah firepower. There are hints of Motown in the tom-tom breaks but also plenty of jazz-fusion in the ride cymbal (check his dizzying bell attack at 1:54).
“What’s That You’re Doing?”
Tug of War (1982)
Wonder can instantly make your track funkier, but it’s possible he’ll run away with it altogether. Exhibit A: “What’s That You’re Doing?,” one of two Paul McCartney duets (along with the more famous “Ebony and Ivory”) that highlight the former Beatle’s 1982 LP, Tug of War. Wonder pulls out all the stops: fiery synth licks, bluesy growls, show-stopping vocal bends. Considering he co-wrote the song — and that it’s closer in spirit to his classic ’70s records than anything McCartney ever recorded — they should have earmarked it for a Wonder album.
“I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”
Too Low for Zero (1983)
Elton John didn’t need a Wonder cameo on “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” With its inseparable marriage of sentimental love lyric and graceful vocal melody, the song would have worked with the most minimal of backing. But Wonder’s harmonica adds yet another layer of magic to John’s definitive ’80s hit. Bouncing like a Slinky over John’s gentle piano and Nigel Olsson’s subtly shuffling drums, his shivering vibrato channels the romantic longing of Bernie Taupin’s words.
“There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart)”
Be Yourself Tonight (1985)
Eurythmics’ dramatic synth-pop wasn’t an obvious fit for Wonder, but he managed to elevate the duo’s gospel-tinged hit. His brief appearance opens with a harmonica solo after the three-minute mark, expanding upon Annie Lennox’s melismatic vocal with jittery rhythmic punctuations and heavy vibrato. After Lennox returns for another chorus, backed by a choral vocal beamed down from the heavens, you’d expect the song to fade out. But you can never have too much Wonder, so he hops back in the mix for another flurry of soulful high-octave notes.
“Brand New Day”
Brand New Day (1999)
Wonder might as well be credited as a second vocalist on Sting’s Grammy-winning soft-rock tune. He fills in almost every second of instrumental space on the breezy track, countering the vocalist’s lines with bluesy fills and asides. The playing is subtle, almost subliminal at times, but it’s hard to imagine the song without it. Wonder’s presence is especially potent on the choruses, where he answers Sting’s universal request for a “brand new day” with snappy staccato phrases.
“Stop Trying to Be God”
Wonder’s catalog has always been a gold mine for sample-inclined hip-hop artists — from Coolio repurposing the chorus of “Pastime Paradise” for “Gangsta’s Paradise” to 2Pac borrowing elements of “That Girl” for “So Many Tears.” But it’s thrilling — and a bit jarring — to hear Wonder collaborate with a rapper in real time. His harmonica cameo adds a layer of organic soulfulness to the woozy, digital trap melodrama of Travis Scott’s “Stop Trying to Be God”: first with the bite-size melody that echoes Kid Cudi and Philip Bailey on the chorus, and then in the more mournful improvisations that pepper James Blake’s bridge.
Ryan Reed is a writer, editor, professor and record collector with regular bylines at Rolling Stone, Relix, Ultimate Classic Rock and Revolver. He’s also contributed to Pitchfork, Billboard, Stereogum, Esquire and Salon, among other outlets.
Image: Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder at the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Cleveland. Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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