Happy Birthday To Ya
After a week of losing 3 Black American music and culture icons I have been thinking a lot about the icons we thankfully still have with us. The legacies of just 3 geniuses: Little Richard, Betty Wright and Andre Harrell represent such a vast landscape of American music history its mind boggling. And each time one of these legendary souls from American culture transitions, millions of us spend time for the next few days or weeks remembering and enjoying their music and at some point I ALWAYS say-thank God we still have Stevie Wonder, and that he is here to get all his flowers and more. If this country had a monarchy to grant knighthood on artists, Sir Stevie should be on top of that list. Whenever we reminisce about the stories of many artists so often he seems to be placed somewhere in the galaxy of their unsurpassed talent. Or he has been asked to grace everyone’s presence by performing a tribute to one of his numerous friends and peers who have passed on. I often think about the emotional toll it must be for him to witness so many friends and fellow geniuses to leave this life. I am curious about what Stevie has to say about how this affects him personally.
Even though his Black American cookout/bbq/family reunion staple Happy Birthday is one of my least favorite songs from him, I still love that it exists. That we have an anthem that recreates a children’s song into something soulful and uniquely American, like our culture. It was written to celebrate when our government finally stopped messing around and made Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. And as much as I love Stevie I had no idea today is his birthday until checking social media this morning, but I tend to be bad about remembering born days anyway. Even my own, which reminds me that I am old enough to remember vinyl before they became ironic accessories sold at Urban Outfitters, and how my big brother Jorge's collection of original albums and their covers compelled me to sit quietly for hours and get lost in their mysteries, to read & consume every inch. The paintings/photos/illustrations, the typography and fonts before I even knew what those words were, the shout outs to the artists' families and friends, obscure influences, secret jokes, and giving thanks to God on the back covers. It’s like getting an additional secret glimpse into their world. Stevie’s Talking Book with its signature text written in Braille offered a surprising sensory experience that made it somehow feel like we shared a little bit of his world and others who use touch to see, and I will always be grateful for his vulnerability and vision to know this unexpected gift would be well received and appreciated by so many for years. Somehow I feel that if albums were still the only way we got our music, record companies would now complain that it’s too expensive to print Braille.
My two favorite Stevie songs happen to be in my top 20 list altogether regardless of artist, and they could not be more different from each other. Do I Do from his under appreciated 1980’s era is a joyous, sweeping, jazzy celebration of love for that special someone who FINALLY revealed themselves to you; that person who makes you believe you belonged to each other before you even met. I have always been an introvert and tend to be pragmatic, but the one thing music does is bring me out of my shell. And this song makes me feel there is a kind of love that makes you believe it’s possible another human can make your heart sing. This song makes me want to get up and cha-cha, then do wide, sweeping, big band dance movements from old black and white jazz era flicks that would make me look silly but who cares. Like a lot of great music Do I Do is cinematic and makes me feel more than the sounds in my ears. We can see all the layers, textures and genres of music Mr. Wonder composed in one record. I love this song so much, the first time I heard it my first thought was ‘I want this played at my wedding’. And at that young age I had yet to even think about big fancy weddings, the dress, or even who the groom would be. All I can think when I hear it (even now) is that nothing would be more incredible than to have Stevie’s happy-in-love voice (and his funny end of the track “rapping”) and Dizzy Gillespie’s triumphant horns serenade me and a room full of loved ones in a room filled with flowers, good food and wine on that special day. This is one of the few songs that make me feel sappy and romantic and I love that it brings this out in me.
Other end of the spectrum is Stevie’s Living for the City. Every time I hear the somber opening of his church organ’s march into this urban, violent and aborted hero’s journey of a small town boy who escapes and gets swallowed up by the big city story that represents too many Americans, it’s like I’m hearing this 7 minute, 23 second opus for the first time. But almost 5 decades after it's release, it’s still as familiar as yet another family’s overwhelming grief with his “this place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder” condemnation of America that rings in my ears every damn time I see another unknown name written as a hashtag that quickly becomes another endless call for justice. But somehow I don’t feel defeated because Stevie’s beauty and humanity reminds me of our own. His proud "her clothes are old, but NEVER are they dirty" always makes me think about how there is no shame about being poor, there are ways to keep your dignity even if it's just for yourself. I always fondly think of this song as being performed by Activist Stevie—the anger and horror in his voice makes me think about how many takes of the recording did he sing before he said “yup, I sound pissed enough that’s a wrap”. Even now, I can’t think of a contemporary song that is so brave and rich with so much gospel, or has the strident testimony in his voice and breadth of his musicality to witness our humanity being challenged by a system that refuses to admit its dependence on its tyranny over us. But even with all that the song still has a sense of hope and perseverance because well, that’s what we do. It’s how we survive, we have no choice. It’s probably the first song I ever heard that showed me how beautiful and hopeful sheer anger can be. Because where would this world be without this uniquely Black American pain turned into art that is consumed by everyone, even those who project all their insecurities and fears onto us for absolutely no reason. And Stevie still fills this song with so much heart and anguish that it became a love poem to His people.
Mr. Wonder remains one of the few human beings where I can say it’s truly an honor to be alive during his lifetime.
Happy Birthday to Ya, Stevie.
Special treat to see Stevie dancing!