“Sweetest Somebody I Know” / Stevie Wonder
One evening I was walking around Midtown, killing time before a show – and suddenly, a block away, I saw a scrum of flashbulbs and reporters, and in the middle of it all was STEVIE WONDER, his face all lit up with that iconic grin. My heart leapt up to see him again, after all these years.
That night I realized it had been years since I’d heard a new Stevie Wonder album. But hey, Stevie Wonder produced more brilliant music by age 30 than most artists can ever expect to do in a lifetime -- if he never sang another note, he’d still be way ahead of all his peers. “Superstition,” “Sunshine of My Life”, "For Once In My Life," "Part-Time Lover," the lush and haunting "Lately" -- most artists I know would kill to have written even one of these.
Then last summer, sitting in a paella restaurant in Barcelona, I finally heard a new Stevie Wonder song (from his 2005 album A Time To Love, actually, but still new to me.) I recognized him at once; not just the voice, but the phrasing, the melodic and rhythmic freeness, the whole marvelous flow. “Sweetest Somebody I Know” is simply drenched in Brazilian samba. Whatever cat is playing the guitar on this is suave as can be, and in the middle eight, Stevie cuts loose with perfect exuberance on the harmonica. I find myself grinning like a complete sap every time I hear it.
Stevie’s voice hasn’t changed one bit. Listen to that joyful quality, as if he just had to burst into song, his heart was so full. He plays cat-and-mouse with that syncopation, a man who lives so deep inside the rhythm that every hesitation or anticipation is meaningful. I hang breathlessly on every beat, even when he's dancing repeatedly on the same note, waiting for him to soar upwards with that boppy melody. It just makes me feel happy.
Stevie Wonder’s not a polished wordsmith; in fact his stuff reads like it’s from somebody who didn’t bother much with English class. (Given that Stevie Wonder was an established Motown star by age 12, that may well be the case.) This one’s got a couple tortured lines, like “And it would behoove me and my soul if I did state my case,” or “In a time when people are on with making sure that they're okay / You pour out your love every second, every minute, every hour of the day.” But somehow with Stevie, those stuffed-in extra syllables, the stilted grammar, don’t matter one bit. It's such a beautiful outpouring of love, I can’t quibble.
Being a star early turns some people into complete jerks. I get the idea that with Stevie, however, fame kept him innocent, buffered from the world by his own celebrity. His idealism, his pure musicality, have never been damaged. I don’t know this for sure; maybe he kicks his dog and cheats on his wife and screams at his assistant like any other hot shot. But just don’t tell me about it. Leave me with my faith in Stevie Wonder; it's one of the things that makes life worth living.
Sweetest Somebody I Know sample