40 Years Ago: Stevie Wonder Releases ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’
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Stevie Wonder‘s 1973 ‘Innervisions’ LP broke the Top Five on the Billboard charts and earned him his first Album of the Year Grammy, but it also arrived shortly before a car accident that left the singer in a four-day coma. The unfortunate event prompted questions of whether he could continue operating at the torrid creative pace that had helped make him a worldwide superstar. Those questions were answered on July 22, 1974, with his 17th studio album, ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale.’
As with ‘Innervisions’ and 1972’s ‘Talking Book,’ ‘Finale’ found Wonder co-producing alongside Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, the duo whose engineering and synthesizer programming expertise helped shape his layered, funk-fueled ’70s sound. As before, the new songs employed a combination of electronic and live instrumentation, with the clavinet and Fender Rhodes sharing space with the Moog and T.O.N.T.O analog synths. This added a top layer of pop sweetness to songs with arrangements and lyrical content occasionally venturing into darker territory.
The commercial verdict was swift and overwhelming: ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’ soared to the top of the charts, giving Wonder his first No. 1 record on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart and setting up a pair of Top Five singles with ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin” and ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman.’ Sandwiched between Eric Clapton‘s ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ and Bad Company‘s self-titled debut, ‘Finale,’ helped disprove the long-held — and soon to be thoroughly, irrevocably discredited — notion that black music was too “urban” to draw pop crossover appeal.
Incredibly, even though he’d released at least one album of new material every year since 1966 — and he’d had to work his way back from a life-threatening injury in the months since ‘Innervisions’ came out — Wonder initially planned to turn ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’ into a double LP; it was only his label’s intransigence regarding a release date that forced him to trim the tracklisting down to a single disc. In fact, as late as the fall of 1974, he publicly toyed with the idea of putting the songs that didn’t make it onto a companion volume.
“I wish you could hear the other part of the album. It’s so much better,” Wonder told Melody Maker in November of 1974, adding that he wanted to get the unreleased material out within six months. “Otherwise, it’s gonna have to wait almost another year — and I’m gonna want to be doing some other stuff by then.”
That plan ultimately never came to pass — he took a little over two years to put the finishing touches on his next collection, 1976’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life.’ In the meantime, fans had a solid set of songs to tide them over — 10 tracks and 42 minutes of vintage Stevie Wonder that veered from beautiful balladry to socially conscious funk.
The latter sound was perhaps best exemplified with the No. 1 hit ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’,’ which wedded an irresistible groove (and backing vocals from the Jackson 5) to a strident set of lyrics that lambasted impeached President Richard Nixon. Like the best message music, ‘Haven’t’ shakes hips as easily as it provokes thought, and leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Lines like “You brought this upon yourself / The world is tired of pacifiers / We want the truth and nothing else” could be just as easily applied to any random ne’er-do-well.
As ever, Wonder had more than a few things on his mind: other songs on the album had a Latin influence (mid-tempo opening track ‘Smile Please’), a reggae flavor (the No. 3 hit ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’), a gospel touch (‘The Won’t Go When I Go’) and even a slight country feel (‘Too Shy to Say’). Slower overall than ‘Innervisions,’ the album was also heavily preoccupied with male-female relationships; he reportedly referred to it as “the sex album,” and while that doesn’t really do ‘Finale’ justice, it’s definitely reflective of songs like ‘Boogie On’ and ‘Creepin’,’ which deal with lust and its complications.
As exciting as his music was during this period, some believe Wonder could have gone even further if he’d aligned himself with a more supportive label. “The thing about Stevie was, he wasn’t an R&B guy,” stressed guitarist Michael Sembello in Mark Ribowsky’s biography, ‘Signed Sealed and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder.’ “He wasn’t funk. He was about music. He wanted to do jazz … But here’s what they did to him, all those Perrier-drinking motherf—ers who were controlling the guy’s budget. They’d say, ‘We need more songs like ‘Superstition.” He’d say ‘F— that,’ but you know, you can’t fight the power of a song like that, so you keep trying to top it.”
Label fights weren’t the only ones brewing behind the scenes during the making of ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale.’ The album also marked Wonder’s last outing with Margouleff and Cecil, who found themselves shouldered aside in his continuing ascent. Cecil described his last session with Wonder in Ribowsky’s book, recalling how he called for quiet in a crowded control room and was admonished by Wonder, who shouted, “Don’t talk to my friends like that!”
“Well, maybe your friends would like to do the overdub,” Cecil remembers saying. “That was the last time I ever worked with Stevie. That was the breaking point, and it was a long time in coming.”
Wonder seems to have known the album would serve as a closing chapter of sorts. “‘Fulfillingness’ was just me working the word: the idea of fulfilling and fulfilling is like a female,” he explained years later. “The other part of that title, ‘the first finale,’ was sort of referencing an ending of the period after ‘Music of My Mind’ and these three albums.”
In fact, after ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’ ran its course, Wonder briefly threatened to retire, and his indecision — however brief — contributed to the two-year break between records that brought his iron grip on the charts to a temporary halt. (When picking up his Album of the Year Grammy for 1975’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years,’ Paul Simon thanked Wonder for taking a year off.)
He eventually changed his mind, of course, negotiating a hugely expensive new contract and wresting a greater degree of creative control for what would become the double album ‘Songs in the Key of Life.’ But while ‘Songs’ can be seen as a sort of culmination of everything Wonder attempted during the ’70s, he was already getting restless, and seemed to feel he’d taken this particular sound as far as it could go. “This is the last of this kind of stuff I’ll be doing,” he hinted while working on ‘Songs.’ “I think my next thing might be a large orchestral thing. A long piece.”
True to his word, Wonder would test experimental waters with 1979’s New Age-tinged ‘Journey Through ‘The Secret Life of Plants” album, which kicked off a (still ongoing) phase in his career during which new recordings came more and more infrequently and his singles gradually fell out of favor at pop formats.
As of this writing, he hasn’t released an album since ‘A Time to Love’ in 2005, nearly a decade ago. But as ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’ and its surrounding works make clear, Stevie Wonder has more than earned the right to make whatever music he wants, whenever he feels like making it.