In sports, they call it "being in the zone." It's that magical, mystical place where athletes say the game slows to a standstill, the planets align, and the impossible suddenly becomes the inevitable.
While this mindset may not be used as often to describe musical achievement, Stevie Wonder knows it as well as anyone. Need proof? Check out the string of five albums — Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life — he released from 1972 to 1976, which earned him 12 Grammys (including three for Album of the Year).
Wonder was certainly in the zone when he arrived at Media Sound on Memorial Day weekend in 1971. Only a few weeks past his 21st birthday, he had come to the midtown Manhattan studio in search of the otherworldly sounds he heard on Zero Time, an obscure electronic record by synthesizer musician Bob Margouleff and engineer Malcolm Cecil released under the unwieldy moniker T.O.N.T.O.'s Expanding Head Band.
"Zero Time was just me, Malcolm, and one huge synthesizer with multiple interfaces that we experimented with," Margouleff explains. "Stevie heard it and came looking for us."
Wonder was at a crossroads in his career. The day after celebrating his 21st birthday, the former child prodigy notified Motown president Berry Gordy of his intention to dissolve the contracts he had signed as a blind harmonica-playing 12-year-old wunderkind. With the constraints of his recording contract behind him, Wonder was free to create the music he wanted to, and tracked down Margouleff and Cecil through a mutual friend.
"We started right away: I pulled out the synthesizer and Malcolm put the other instruments in a circle so Stevie could walk from one instrument to the next," Margouleff says. "The songs came one right after another, and we didn't stop for the entire weekend. I think we got 20 songs before we took a break. It was all in his head for years and years, so once he got out from under his original Motown contract, it just came pouring out."
With the bedrock of an album in place, Wonder — along with Margouleff and Cecil — decamped to New York's famed Electric Lady Studios to continue recording and to hold auditions for his new band, Wonderlove. One of the musicians was David Sanborn, a saxophonist who had just left Paul Butterfield's Blues Band.
"The sounds of the songs he was working on were just so extraordinary," Sanborn recalls. "Stevie was just omnivorous. His use of the synthesizers created textures and colors and ambience and avoided a lot of the gimmicks. It was like, 'What is this music?' It's lyrical, it's pop, it's funky, it's soulful. The sounds were so personal. It almost feels like you're trespassing on some intimate moment. It is the music of his mind, which is why it's the perfect title for the album."
Music of My Mind was released in the spring of 1972 and met with universal praise and critical acclaim. Unlike most previous records from Motown, which focused heavily on radio singles, it was a unified artistic statement and the work of a one-man band. All the lessons Wonder learned in the years he spent in the Snakepit at Motown came to fruition, as he played every instrument on the album except guitars and horns. But as groundbreaking as Music was, it was just the beginning of a run of albums that represents arguably the greatest single stretch of creativity by any artist in music history.
"It was incredible," says Sanborn, who played in Wonderlove for two years and recorded on Talking Book. Wonder "would come up with a new song every day. I remember being on the road with him and sometimes I'd get the room next to him at the hotel. Stevie would have his ARP 2600 synthesizer, his clavinet, and his Fender Rhodes set up in the room, and he'd play all fuckin' night long. It was like watching this explosion of creativity. All this music had been brewing for a long time and it just came rushing out all at once."
Talking Back: Musicians Discuss Their Wonder Favorites
Stevie Wonder's fingerprints are all over modern rock, pop, funk, soul, and hip-hop. SF Weekly tracked down a few notable artists from around the Bay Area and across the country to talk about Wonder's influence and their favorite album from his golden period.
Jim James, My Morning Jacket
"Not to put it lightly, but Stevie Wonder is the sound of God at work in human form. To hear Stevie's music is to hear life and real human emotion: the whole rainbow. Songs in the Key of Life is probably my favorite album. I think I just picked up that album at a thrift store on vinyl at the right time in my life. It crackled and hissed and was one of my first introductions to the full possibility of music: how rock could be mixed with soul, and how one person could do so many things on one record. I think 'As' may be one of the greatest songs of all time. I love how on 'Isn't She Lovely,' he's actually giving his kid a bath and you can hear them splishing and splashing around. If I had a nickel for every time I've sat around the record player with friends and family listening to that record, I'd be a wealthy man."
"Stevie Wonder is, like, the ultimate songwriter. There's nothing he can't do. He did the funky stuff like James Brown. He did the more socially conscious stuff like Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye. And he did some of the most incredible ballads. No one does ballads like Stevie. My favorite album is Songs in the Key of Life. They're all great albums, but that one has incredible scope. Stevie Wonder's the only dude who can get a hook out of a horn line. People sing along to his horn lines. I don't know anybody else who can make people do that."
Dave Schools, Widespread Panic
"I consider myself lucky to have grown up during the time these albums came out, because that was a period when his music was ubiquitous. Innervisions is my favorite out of the bunch. As an album, it's really complete to me. It's got all the things I like about Stevie, like the horn line from 'Superstition.' That's been stuck in my head since the first time I heard it. It's cold-blooded and sticks like a splinter in your brain."
DJ Spinna, host of "Wonder-Full," a Stevie Wonder tribute night
"It's really hard for me to pick a favorite. Most people think Songs in the Key of Life is one of those quintessential albums of all time, a must for everyone's record collection. I agree, but Innervisions might be the one I return to the most. There's just something about that record and Stevie's message of universal love and social unity on it. Of course, Stevie was blind, but he never saw color: It was more about people's souls and how people treated one another. That's why he was revolutionary."
Esperanza Spaulding, soul singer
"I think my favorite is Fullfillingness' First Finale. I love them all, but every song on that album is like its own character almost. Each one has a life of its own. He's a master at marrying the content of his lyrics with the melody of the song, like every part is connected. They're these complete visions and every piece is dedicated to achieving that vision. He's my hero."