I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder. In fact his music was one of a handful of secular artist my parents had around the house. The often mystical, warm and friendly music that Wonder made was in a world of its own, a world where in the wake of a broken African diaspora there was always hope and sometimes happiness.
That happy and optimistic message earned deep respect for Stevie Wonder, even though I knew no one who actually bought his music. That was until Hotter Than July, his 19th(!) album captured the public’s imagination in 1980.
As I got older, I began to lose interest in Wonder’s brand of genius. Before becoming too cynical, I was still able to appreciate Wonder’s carrying the torch of civil and economic rights in a time when many in R&B just wanted to get their groove on in a post disco fallout.
While the material was potentially heavy, Wonder had a way of easing the bitter medicine of social activism to receptive ears. He did it the old-fashioned way with beautiful melodies, floor stomping rhythms. It never hurt that his lyrics were often thought-provoking abstractions. While known for his artsy side, he was never afraid to break it down with songs that were a call to action (in the real and spiritual realms).
Hotter Than July was one of those albums that thrilled on many levels. The social activist part of Wonder was alive and well with plugs for the then proposed Martin Luther King national holiday on the electronics heavy ‘Happy Birthday’. Causes aside, it’s the albums ballads that shine. ‘Lately‘ is one of those timeless tear jerkers that rank amongst the best of Wonder’s vast catalog of ballads.
When not jerking with your emotions, Wonder displayed a surprising sense of humor. One of the album’s most recognizable hits ‘I An’t Gonna Stand For It’ was basically Wonder’s take on a country song (maybe one by Ronnie Millsap?). Even more surprising were the two Wilson brothers of the Gap Band who sang backup.
There were plenty of other surprises, but being 1980 as it was, Wonder still resisted the impulse to make disco songs. Besides, his style of funk seemed rooted deeply in the ’70s and was counter to most trends in R&B anyway. Wonder was still able to connect to the mainstream without disco.
Some of the most interesting songs happen to be Hotter Than July’s biggest hits. ‘Rocket Love’ is a beautiful and haunting song about a near death experience while ‘All I Do’ is classic Wonder at his best. ‘Master Blaster’ with its soul meets regaee was the biggest hit, reaching #1 on the R&B charts while making it as high as #4 on the more lucrative pop chart.
Hotter than July re-started a period of mainstream pop acceptance for Stevie Wonder, greater than that of his child star days of the ’60s. Always on the cutting edge of electronic production, Wonder had a vast array of musicians working to give Hotter Than July its electronic meets 70s analog sound. Various types of synthesizer were used for piano, bass even the flute.
Future albums became more electronic with slick production values. This would also coincide with Wonder’s rise on the pop charts through the ’80s. When Hotter Than July was released, it had to compete with the re-emergence of funk to really and really did not get my full attention until years later. By then I had outgrown the fantastical world of Stevie Wonder, although I hope I never outgrow the music of Hotter Than July.