Welcome to another installment of Reissue Theory, here we reflect on well-known albums of the past and the reissues they could someday see. With today being a national holiday in honor of an iconic civil rights leader, we take a look at an album with a song written to make that holiday a reality.
Today is a day off for many people in the United States, in observation of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great civil rights leader born on January 15, 1929. It was King’s methodology of peaceful protest and the steadfast belief in equal rights for all citizens that put a positive, determined face on the civil rights movement of the 1960s. While few can argue that Dr. King’s dream has truly been realized – even with the barrier-breaking election of a black U.S. president in 2008 – we remember him as a way of looking back from where we came as a country, and where we will hopefully continue to move forward.
All but the most devoted music junkies may not realize this, but one of the most devoted keepers of King’s flame in the 1980s was Stevie Wonder. “Happy Birthday,” the closing track to 1980’s Hotter Than July, was an upbeat song dedicated to King’s memory, and the idea that his birthday should be observed as a national holiday. (Ronald Reagan ultimately signed a bill putting Martin Luther King Day into effect in 1983, and it would first be observed in 1986.)
“Happy Birthday” was but one of a few notable tunes off one of Wonder’s most notable albums of the 1980s, and in honor of Dr. King’s special day, it is the subject of today’s Reissue Theory post. Read on after the jump.
There are so many astounding stories to the life and career of Steveland Hardaway Morris. Ronald White of The Miracles discovered the boy at age 11 in Detroit, where he lived with his mother and siblings. Though Morris was blind (not born as such, but losing his sight early on due to being born premature), he was a monstrously talented musician, particularly skilled with a harmonica. The story goes that when bought to Motown to play for Berry Gordy, the label head declared, “That boy’s a wonder.”
After a year of recording to little success, Wonder’s live single “Fingertips Pt. 2” (with one of the greatest unscripted moments in concert history – Wonder dashing back to the stage after the encore, leaving the band scrambling to come in on time) became a smash. Wonder followed it up with some of Motown’s greatest singles: “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “My Cherie Amour,” “For Once in My Life,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” (and, for good measure, a songwriting credit on The Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown”). As the 1970s began, Wonder shocked the music world by witholding from re-signing with Motown (at all of 21 years old) and recording music entirely on his own away from other producers. When he did begin a new contract with the label, it was 120 pages and granted him an unprecedented level of creative control. From there, his albums were albums, featuring hit singles aplenty (“Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”) but presented as cohesive artistic statements. (This partially inspired Marvin Gaye to do the same, resulting in What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On and some of the label’s biggest output.)
The albums kept getting bigger and better. Music of My Mind and Talking Book in 1972. Innervisions in 1973. Fulfillingness’ First Finale the next year, after a severe car accident and Grammy for Album of the Year. The double-album (with four-song EP!) Songs in the Key of Life in 1976, after yet another Album of the Year win (he’d scoop up a third for Life).
Critics were left confused by his follow-up, the unfairly maligned Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (1979), an experimental soundtrack to a barely-seen documentary. So when he returned to traditional pop with Hotter Than July, it was different. The hooks were bigger and the music, if not as deep as before, was just as singable. Wonder experimented with other genres, including reggae (“Master Blaster (Jammin’)”) and country (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It”). “All I Do” (written for Tammi Terrell back in 1966) encapsulated the highs of true love while “Lately” dived into some of the sorest heartbreak ever captured on magnetic tape. And then things closed with the simple, effective “Happy Birthday.” Wonder saw that as the most important statement on the album, devoting much the album sleeve to the cause, both pictorially and in a message to fans in the album notes.
While Hotter Than July did not capture the same kind of Grammy adulation as previous works, it was a commercial smash. It was Wonder’s first platinum album (only the first owing to the fact that Motown had only recently begun allowing the Recording Industry Association of America to audit the label’s sales records) and spawned two Top 20 singles in “Master Blaster” and “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It.” (In England, those two songs along with “Lately” and “Happy Birthday” all went to the Top 10.) Wonder would not release a full-length LP for another four years (the commercially successful soundtrack to The Woman in Red, home of the hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You”), although he would add four killer tracks to 1982’s Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, a compilation of the best songs from his second wave at Motown. For posterity reasons, our theoretical track list includes those tracks (including the killer jams “That Girl” and “Do I Do”), along with some related bonus material on the second disc.
Stevie Wonder, Hotter Than July (Motown/UMe)
Disc 1: Original LP and bonus tracks
- Did I Hear You Say You Love Me 4:07
- All I Do – 5:06
- Rocket Love – 4:39
- I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It – 4:39
- As If You Read My Mind – 3:37
- Master Blaster (Jammin’) – 5:07
- Do Like You – 4:25
- Cash in Your Face – 3:59
- Lately – 4:05
- Happy Birthday – 5:57
- Front Line – 5:52
- Ribbon in the Sky – 5:35
- That Girl – 5:15
- Do I Do – 10:27
Disc 1, Tracks 1-10 from Hotter Than July (Tamla T8-373M1, 1980)
Disc 1, Tracks 11-14 from Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I (Tamla 6002 TL2, 1982)
Disc 2: Singles, Remixes and Rarities
- Master Blaster (Jammin’) (12″ Version) (12″ A-side – Motown T 54317, 1980) – 6:15
- I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It (Single Version – Alternate Ending) (7″ A-side – Tamla T 54320, 1980) – 4:37
- All I Do (Single Version – Alternate Intro) (7″ A-side – exact cat. # undetermined) – 5:16
- Happy Birthday (Disco Mix) (U.K. promotional 12″ A-side – Motown 12 TMG 1235, 1980) – 8:20
- Master Blaster (Jammin’) (12″ Dub) (12″ B-side – Motown T 54317, 1980) – 6:29
- Happy Birthday (Sing-a-Long) (U.K. promotional 12″ B-side – Motown 12 TMG 1235, 1980) – 8:42
- Front Line (Instrumental) (12″ promotional B-side – Motown PR-99, 1982) – 6:01
- Do I Do (Instrumental) (12″ promotional B-side – Motown PR-98, 1982) – 10:27
- Greatest Excerpts from Dr. King’s Greatest Speeches: I Have a Dream/Drum Major Instinct Sermon/Dr. King’s Desired Eulogy/I’ve Been to the Mountaintop (12″ B-side – Motown 4517 MG, 1980) – 16:43