The maturity of a genius
In 1972 Stevie Wonder was only 22 years old, but he had been making records with Motown for so long that he seemed like a veteran. Talking Book was the fifteenth album of his career and the second he released that same year, but, depending on how you look at it, it could be considered the first, or the second (if you count Music Of My Mind, the other album he released in 1972), that he made with full artistic independence, free from the ties and ‘assembly line’ approach of his boss, Berry Gordy Jr, and able to clearly express his political and social ideas. The result was an essential album with which Wonder reached the peak of his career, which he would continue with albums such as Innervisions and Songs In The Key Of Life.
After releasing Music Of My Mind on 3 March, Wonder went on tour with the Rolling Stones, who were presenting the legendary Exile On Main Street, which gave him greater visibility in the public eye and gave him a good dose of energy. Part of that energy is reflected in the album's best-known song, the legendary Superstition, which he composed with the help of another veteran of the British Invasion, Jeff Beck.
The fact is that the guitarist was recording in the same studio and stopped by to say hello to Wonder, of whom he was an absolute fan. When he arrived, Wonder was composing a song on his own, so he asked Beck to sit on the drums and play a rhythm. It wasn't the guitarist's forte but he agreed - suddenly Wonder began to sing and after recording a little he asked Beck to give him a moment. He did and when he returned Wonder had almost finished Superstition, with the magical riff, played on his Hohner clavinet, and a new drum beat - recorded by Wonder himself. The singer asked the guitarist for his opinion and the guitarist, dumbfounded, said something to the effect that it was the best thing he had ever heard in his life. Wonder thanked him and said he could record it too.
But Beck's new album was delayed and Berry Gordy, who was a tyrant but could smell a hit a hundred miles away, told Wonder that he had a smash hit on his hands and not to hesitate to release it as the lead single from Talking Book. The Motown owner was right, and Wonder scored his first number one since 1963, when Fingertips topped the charts while he was still a young prodigy at the age of 13.
But Talking Book is so much more than his best-remembered song, it is a perfect piece of work in which the funkier tracks work, such as the aforementioned Superstition and Maybe Your Baby, but also the superb ballads, of which Wonder was an expert, such as You Are the Sunshine of My Life, another number one in the singles chart, Blame It on the Sun or the masterful closing with I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever), an emotional soul ballad, which was also used for the end of the film adaptation of High Fidelity, in which he plays all the instruments.
This is the album with which Wonder definitively uncorked a magic bottle, becoming the ‘official genius of the 70s¡, someone who sang on a par with the best singers, like Marvin Gaye, composed like a chosen one, like Carole King, and also played all the instruments, arranged and produced his own records, together with Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff.
Of course, when Wonder made room for another musician to play on one of his songs, it was always for fabulous musicians like Jeff Beck himself, who brings out his '54 Stratocaster on the solo in Lookin' for Another Pure Love, the very young Ray Parker Jr. (who would become famous in the 80s with the Ghostbusters’ song), who puts his Gibson 355 on that funky delirium called Maybe Your Baby, or the saxophonist David Sanborn who provides the flavour on Tuesday Heartbreak.
Talking Book was Stevie Wonder's first masterpiece, a marvellous album to which any adjective is too small. It is the best example of the perfect blend of soul, funk, rock, jazz and even folk (listen to the wonderful Big Brother, for instance, with Wonder's clavinet imitating an acoustic guitar) - that together represent the best of his music.