The bloodiest battle between mavens and mainstream in that turn-of-the-millennium cinematic tract on music snobbery, High Fidelity, comes when Jack Black as a record-store clerk refuses to sell a middle-age customer a copy of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” for his teen daughter. Why not? “It’s sentimental, tacky crap, that’s why not!” Black sputters. “Do you even know your daughter? There’s no way she likes that song!” And then he fake-hesitates: “Oh-oh-ohh, is she in a coma?”
When I first saw it, I objected to Black’s manners but not his taste, which matched the semiofficial white–Gen Xer line on Stevie Wonder. As a kid, I had been mind-blown by “Superstition” on Sesame Street (not to mention his adorable groove tutorial with Grover) and by “I Wish” and “Sir Duke” catapulting out of radios and passing cars. These songs had themes a child could (almost) grasp, but an interstellar drive that passed all understanding. Then somehow Wonder became the guy behind “Part-Time Lover” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which seemed barely distinguishable from commercial dreck like Lionel Richie. The ’60s and ’70s genius, I thought, had devolved into a lamentable schlockmeister.
About all of this—including Lionel Richie, whose defense I will leave to his chief critical ambassador Jody Rosen—I was dumb as a rock (critic). It’s the argument made whenever “I Just Called” turns up in “worst song ever” lists. But the truth is that Wonder had always made lush romantic ballads, all the way through his unimpeachable classic period. “Superstition” comes from 1972’s Talking Book, which opens with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a song that sounds so perennial I used to think he was covering some old standard. The same album includes “You and I (We Can Conquer the World),” the Obamas’ (and thousands of other couples’) wedding song. Genius Stevie and sappy Stevie are forever one.
Stevie’s role as the Wizard of Schmaltz is inseparable from his broader significance. Schmaltz is a Yiddish term (meaning rendered chicken fat) that’s come to stand for music of unabashed sentiment, perhaps with unctuous layers of strings and background singers, swelling with so much feeling it risks bubbling over. Before the 1960s, the schmaltz stirrers were usually pop balladeers of non-WASP descent (Jewish, Italian, Irish), who offered stiffer-lipped Americans a vicarious experience of losing their cool—it was what you could get from Tony Bennett or Mario Lanza that you couldn’t from, say, Bing Crosby. But it wasn’t quite the right word for sentiment in jazz or rhythm and blues: No matter how passionate a love song might get, there was a certain intensity and economy that mitigated against schmaltz’s wallowing, its comfort and convenience.
Schmaltz, in other words, requires optimistic aspirations. Perhaps the first major figure of black schmaltz was Nat “King” Cole, who trafficked in finely tailored musical velvet around the dawn of the civil rights era. It became more common in the repertoire of later Motown—the hit factory that groomed Wonder—as founder Berry Gordy’s gaze turned west from Detroit to Hollywood and soul started to go symphonic. And it came into full lush bloom in the 1970s with Barry White, Diana Ross, and the whole Philadelphia Soul sound. Funk, with its freaky fusion of partying and protest, was closer to the rock youth counterculture. Soft soul (later branded as Quiet Storm) was for an expanding black middle class, an elegantly intimate sound for grown folks. Wonder was a leader on both sides, but counterintuitively to many white fans, his ballads are arguably the part of his repertoire more squarely directed at a black listenership.
The foundation stone of Stevie sentimentality is 1969’s “My Chérie Amour,” a track that marks a career transition. He sketched it as a song for a girlfriend a couple of years earlier, when he was 17 and attending the Michigan School for the Blind. Gordy thought it had promise and asked in-house talents Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy (Motown’s first female producer) to develop it. First off, Moy dumped the original title, “Oh My Marsha.” The smattering of French bestowed a soupçon of sophistication, a not-uncommon ’60s move. The European reference was fitting, too, because with its punchy lead symphonic hook, “My Chérie Amour” is more reminiscent of a Burt Bacharach pop composition than what one might typically expect from Motown. Yet when Wonder comes in to double the melody, audaciously crowing “la la la la la la!”, it feels like the American songwriter snatching the glory back from those jet-setting strings.
The song was finally finished in late 1968, and released in January as the flip to the more conventional soul single “I Don’t Know Why (I Love You),” but radio DJs kept playing the B-side instead. So Motown reissued “My Chérie Amour” and followed up with a themed album of the same name, a set of nothing but love songs, several of them Broadway and easy-listening standards. The album prompted Melody Maker in the U.K. to ask, in an alarmed April 1969 headline, “Will Stevie Wonder Become Another Sammy Davis?”—an early case of the pandering-sellout accusations that Jack Black’s character would channel 30 years later.
What it actually signaled, as we all know now, was the expansion of range that would explode a couple of years later, when Wonder turned 21 and was able to gain artistic autonomy from Motown. From then on, nothing musical was alien to him. That liberty meant, as he told Rolling Stone in 1974, that he could “get into as much weird shit as possible”—but also that he could get into the most straightforward, sappy shit too.
This is another reason schmaltzy Stevie matters. As the musicologist Mitchell Morris asserts in his book on 1970s pop The Persistence of Sentiment, soft soul in that period was partly a response to a new mood of open-ended exploration in black life. Black music was still dealing in social critique, but there was also a post–civil rights sense that there were new potentials of personhood and spirituality and emotionality to be explored. The gauzy, vague feel of that music was meant to create space for such subjective positions, not just for radicals but for everyday people.
Stevie Wonder was especially suited to that task. He’s always stood at an indefinable distance from every code of obligation and identity, including the rules of the hip and the cool. That idiosyncrasy must spring in part from his background as a child prodigy (signed to Motown at 11), as an unsighted person (and an unsighted black person, absurdly subject to regimes of power based around colors he cannot even see), and as someone who seems to think in music foremost, ahead of ideas or words.
In 1974, Robert Christgau wrote a somewhat fraught piece in the Village Voice called “Stevie Wonder Is a Fool.” But he specified he meant “a sainted fool.” There is something of the Dostoevskian holy idiot, the existential Being There naïf in Wonder, and nowhere so much as in his gloop. The wonder of Wonder is seldom in argument, statement, or subject matter, but in the revelations he’s importing from an ineffable dimension of pure sound. Beneath the soppy surface his ballads often teem with innovative chord inversions and progressions, but it’s his choice, and again his freedom, either to make imaginative leaps or to decide no such leaps are necessary.
Populist hits like “Chérie Amour,” “Sunshine of My Life,” and “I Just Called” are almost the only times, for instance, that he calls on the cheap pop thrill of the key change, modulating up from one chorus to the next. But even then he’s willing to take sharp left turns. In my favorite part of the full-length album version of “I Just Called,” the vocal is suddenly taken over by a vocoder, and this tribute to telecommunications mutates into a telecommunicative cyborg itself. If you’re tuned in to Stevie’s sonic language, his mushiest moments harbor myriad possibilities. Witness Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s cover of “My Chérie Amour” or Herbie Hancock and (another blind performer) Raul Midón’s 2005 hybrid-jazz performance of “I Just Called,” especially the last few minutes, as Wonder listens in the audience with mounting joy.
Wonder’s former duet partner (on what actually might be his worst song, “Ebony and Ivory”) Paul McCartney once famously asked what’s wrong with filling the world with “silly love songs.” He had one good retort: that “love isn’t silly at all.” But Wonder has a better one: that the songs don’t mind what you think. The world’s been filled with music, molecules vibrating and particles pinging together, since long before humans were here to hear it. This man who navigates reality by sound is tuned into all those cosmic frequencies, and to him, they’re all love songs. When they call, just be glad Stevie Wonder is there to answer. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.