BIRTHDAY IN THE KEY OF STEVIE
In honor of one of our greatest living artists, a few illustrations of Stevie’s wonder.
Today is the birthday of one of our greatest national treasures, Mr. Stevland Morris. This isn’t a full Stevie sermon — I’ve been promising a revival-style look at hist music as some point — but a quick highlight of some of my favorite things about Stevie’s art and talent.
1. HE’S ONE OF THE BEST-COVERED ARTISTS EVER
The phrasing here is important. Much in the tradition of Motown (even though Stevie wasn’t a typical Motown artist…Thanks, Marvin), Stevie’s catalogue is heavily mined for covers, remakes, and samples…
The thing is, even though there’s so much STEVIE in his songs, they completely lend themselves to the cover artists to make their own. I’m not sure if that’s Stevie’s talent as a composer, or of the other artists.
We all know there’s been a “Which Ribbon is better?” battle since ‘93.
Stevie can create a definitive piece of work…
…and another artist redefine it, without taking anything away from Stevie’s version. Them Hailey boys’ styles ain’t nothin’ like Stevie’s, and yet, killed it.
I think Donnell had a slam dunk on the vocals here, but the production didn’t age well. You gotta keep the Stevie ballads and mids simple, IMO.
Tevin rendered a version of “Knocks Me Off My Feet” as well.
But this round remains with Stevie, for me.
This talent for creating songs that even other artists could so fully own is also why…
2. HE’S LIKE A SUPER STEALTH SONGWRITER
Stevie doesn’t have a sonic signature as heavy as, say, Babyface. But once you know he was behind the song, you hear it.
“I Can’t Help It” is one of Mike’s smoothest grooves, and of course it is, because it’s Stevie.
Stevie’s range is so broad, he can take you from smooth grooves down into the funk.
But again, once you know it, you’re like yeah… I hear him.
But there’s a couple of songs Stevie’s behind that might be surprising.
Not that Stevie can’t do soft and airy, but this is a super light touch for him. But it is him (production in this case; Minnie and her husband wrote the song).
Stevie is even responsible for one of the all time classic stalker/co-dependent relationship anthem. He wrote this joint when he was 15 or 16!
This one is obvious, sonically (and I tried to find the actual movie clip), but this was such a powerful School Daze moment because of the simple power of the music.
People were comparing Keith John to a young Stevie not even realizing…
We already know that Stevie was a straight prodigy, playing multiple instruments by 11, but his first hit was at 16, when he brought an instrumental to Smokey Robinson. It was Smokey & the Miracles first #1.
Going back to Stevie covers (because goes beyond “sample,” issa cover, IDC), Coolio has hopefully thanked Stevie many times for the #1 song of 1995. When Coolio originally brought “Gangster’s Paradise” to Stevie for approval, the elder rejected the curse words, so Coolio cleaned it up, which no doubt helped it’s mainstream viability.
It completely ruined “Pastime Paradise” for me, though.
I’m really ok with never hearing “Gansta’s Paradise” for the rest of my life. And we not even gonna talk about what Will Smith did with “I Wish” for “Wild Wild West”…
But as long as Stevie’s cashing checks, I won’t hate.
Ok, this isn’t new or surprising info for anyone but
#3 STEVIE IS ONE OF THE GREATEST BALLAD WRITERS OF ALLLLL TAHMMM!
I feel like people go back to the same few Stevie ballads over and over again, but he has so many. For example, everyone knows/loves “Ribbon In the Sky,” but Stevie had another 70s wedding staple.
Even Thelma and Keith got married to Stevie.
Even though “Overjoyed” is a kind of a melancholy song, Nike chose it (via a Mary J cover) to introduce the first generation of Jordan Brand athletes. (To note, only Roy Jones, Jr. and Jeter were actually champions at the time).
I still remember the first time I saw this.
I’ve pointed out before that “Overjoyed” (which is one of my favorites), is really about unrequited love, if you listen closely. It’s just heartbreakingly beautiful.
But my favorite Stevie ballad is also the saddest. I mean just glass case of emotion sad, yet I can never listen to it just once.
The buildup in this song is crazy; I be singing along all loud. This is dim room and wine while contemplating life music.
And then of course there are the songs Stevie writes about the world in general. Love in general. Life in general.
If it’s magic…
Then why can’t it be everlasting
Like the sun that always shines
Like the poets in this rhyme
Like the galaxies in time
…WHO WRITES LIKE THIS???
But really, nobody covers the spectrum of love — infatuation, falling in love, commitment, longing, heartbreak, love of child, love of fellow man, love of nature and God (big or little g) — like Stevie.
He really nails it with heartbreak, though.
And now that everybody is sufficiently in their feelings, since this is just a little Stevie appreciation, not a full tribute, I’m going to close with this clip from Michael’s service.
Ironically (and #UnpopularOpinion), I don’t like doing the Stevie version of Happy Birthday, because it starts really strong and then just collapses around the “Haaaa — pyyyy Birrrttthhh Dayyy” part, but Happy Birthday to you, Steveland.
In case you want to stay in your feelings, or revisit them from time to time, the Ballads in the Key of Stevie playlist is at your service.