Wednesday, September 04, 2013


"We Can Work It Out" / Stevie Wonder

And now for something completely different...

It's one thing to cover a Beatles song if their records were the soundtrack of your childhood, the inspiration that made you decide to become a musician. But Stevie Wonder was their peer, more or less; with his first album released in 1962, he was already a Motown star when the Beatles first hit the scene. So why cover a Beatles hit?

Granted, Motowners were probably as eager to ride the tail of the Beatles phenomenon as anybody. If it helped them escape the confines of the soul charts and tap into a crossover market, all the better. Given that the Beatles themselves were influenced by American R&B, repaying the favor was only natural, and Beatles songs really did lend themselves to being soul-ified. (Check out Marvin Gaye's "Yesterday" or Gladys Knight's "Let It Be".)

But this wasn't just a filler track for Stevie; it was track two on his 1970 album Signed, Sealed, Delivered  and he released it as a single in 1971, which hit #13 on the Billboard charts and earned him a Grammy nomination. At a time when Stevie was intent on proving his chops as a songwriter and producer, he still invested this much in a cover song. You have to think there was something about this song that really spoke to him.

Well, duh -- there's something about this song that really speaks to me too.

But then what does Stevie do?  He steers the song straight into Funkytown. He kicks up the tempo, leads off with a sassy keyboard intro, scats the lyrics, and takes that McCartney syncopation to a whole new level. Listen to how he punctuates the line endings, with a bah-dum-pah guitar lick straight out of the Jackson Five. That fed-up John Lennon bridge, the thinly veiled threat about "Life is very short / And there's no time / For fussing and fighting"?  Stevie drops the spooky waltzing harpsichord entirely and sings this with straightforward peacemaking intentions.

While McCartney was pleading with his girlfriend, Stevie sails along on a wave of optimism and confidence.  Sure, we can work it out!  Suddenly this song is no longer about a romantic relationship -- it's about blacks and whites finding a common ground. He adds a musical break full of sweet yearning harmonica, coaxing all sorts of mellow sounds out of that lonesome blues instrument -- it sounds downright Burt Bacharach. Whenever Stevie returns to his harmonica prodigy roots, you have to know it's a good thing.

It took another ten years for Stevie and Paul to finally collaborate, and then the product was the cringe-worthy "Ebony and Ivory." They both should have known better. I prefer to pretend that never happened, and turn up "We Can Work It Out" one more time. 


NickS said...

Beatles songs really did lend themselves to being soul-ified. (Check out Marvin Gaye's "Yesterday" or Gladys Knight's "Let It Be".)

Or Otis Redding's Day Tripper which is a good cover and, I've always thought, just a little bit brash in the degree of re-invention.

And suddenly this song is no longer about a romantic relationship -- it's about blacks and whites finding a common ground.

See also Curtis Mayfield's lovely We've Only Just Begun" (with no exaggeration, one of my favorite soul performances ever).

NickS said...

(Check out Marvin Gaye's "Yesterday" or Gladys Knight's "Let It Be".)

I should add, both of those are lovely. I hadn't heard either of them before, and I'm very glad for the recommendation.

Very soulful -- particularly the Marvin Gaye performance.

wwolfe said...

For a more recent soulful version of a Beatles' song, try Bettye LaVette's "The Word," from 2010. For me, one of the few re-workings that improves on the Beatles' original.

Holly A Hughes said...

Yes, I'd just found that Bettye LaVette version and I agree, it adds so much to the original. She's really testifying there, isn't she?