Don’t get me wrong, from the time Stevie Wonder first signed with Motown records at 11 years old, 57 years ago, he has been a wildly gifted and talented musician, performer and multi-instrumentalist. He has sold millions of albums. He has won 25 Grammy awards. He is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. All of this acclaim has been hard earned and richly deserved.
Stevie Wonder is widely regarded as one of the finest keyboard players in the world. And one of the finest harmonica players. And one of the finest drummers. In so many areas, he is suffocatingly talented. Sadly, as talented as Stevie Wonder is, his otherwise wonderful songs are often held back by syrupy lyrics with simple rhymes, and messages that lack subtlety or substance.
“No April rain, no flowers bloom
No wedding Saturday within the month of June
But what it is, is something true
Made up of these three words that I must say to you”
-“I Just Called to Say I Love You”
“You know apartheid’s wrong, wrong
Like slavery was wrong, wrong
Like the holocaust was wrong, wrong
Apartheid is wrong, wrong, wrong
It’s wrong, wrong, wrong , wrong
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong”
-“Apartheid (It’s Wrong)
“Her brother’s smart he’s got more sense than many
His patience’s long but soon he won’t have any
To find a job is like a haystack needle
‘Cause where he lives they don’t use colored people”
-“Living for the City”
This is not to say that Stevie Wonder has not written some truly great songs, I think he has, but I don’t believe the strength of his greatest songs is in the lyrics. Take, for example, the shimmering brilliance of “Sir Duke” from the great 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life.
The song starts with a sonic blast of horns. The sound is strong and metallic, and is somehow blisteringly cold and invitingly warm at the same time. Upon first hearing the song, the sound of the horns was a sound I had not heard before, and have not heard since. Two trumpets, an alto sax and a tenor sax backed up by Stevie Wonder on drums. Five instruments that make a sound you only have to hear once to never forget.
Jazz pianist, composer and band leader Duke Ellington had died a couple years earlier, and Wonder wrote “Sir Duke” as a tribute to him and other artists of the time. Also name checked are great Jazz artists Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. The song is a passionate, heartfelt tribute.
“Sir Duke” is truly a great song, if you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics. Maybe you love the lyrics. If so, please forgive me. Maybe you love the instrumentation so much, you forgive the lyrics. If so, I understand. Maybe you have heard the song so much, you have learned to ignore the lyrics. If so, well done.
The song begins with a saccharine, commercialized summation of music that sounds like it should be featured on a Saturday morning cartoon or Coca-Cola commercial.
“Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands
But just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove
But you can tell right away at letter A
When the people start to move”
And, I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and teach the world to sing. Ugh.
I know what Stevie Wonder is trying to say here…but what is he saying? Do you love this song? You should. I love this song. I love this song despite the lyrics.
“Music knows it is and always will
Be one of the things that life just won’t quit
But here are some of music’s pioneers
That time will not allow us to forget
For there’s Basie, Miller, Sachmo
And the king of all Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose”
My fifth grade music teacher used “Sir Duke” as a way to teach us about the history of the jazz and popular music. The first time I ever heard the song, in fact, was when he played it for us in class. What an inspired idea…he did the absolute right thing! We had a blast listening to what, at the time, was a brand new, contemporary song. It was exciting and invigorating. It was a perfect living, breathing way to teach an elementary school music class, because the lyrics read like a script to an elementary school film strip! Come on…can you not see the ridiculousness?!?! After all, how exactly does music know that it cannot be quit by life? What does that even mean? I’m still waiting for the beep to move to the next frame.
But all is forgiven, because even with the ridiculous lyrics, “Sir Duke” is a brilliant piece of music. From the horn riff that repeats with escalating energy throughout the song to the killer rhythm section, this is a song that bleeds love, passion and sincerity. Whenever I hear that opening horn riff, I smile. My toes tap, and I sing along to the ridiculousness.
Stevie Wonder is great, “Sir Duke” is great, and even with the ridiculous lyrics, this a perfect song…I can feel it all over.
Written by Stevie Wonder
Performed by Stevie Wonder
Released March 22, 1977