Each week on Rear-view Mirror, Rich Terfry and the Radio 2 team look back at a great song from the good ol’ days. Today, Pete Morey steps in for a story about Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother."
Here's the tangled story of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye's friendship, and how it turned into a battle of the Grammys.
When his career began, everybody called him "Little" Stevie Wonder because he was just twelve years old when he had his first number one record. It was called "Fingertips Part 2." Stevie didn't stop there. He had five more number one hits before he left his teens. "Little" Stevie was always hanging around Motown and became friendly with a young drummer with aspirations to sing called Marvin Gaye. They called Marvin that "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" because he was hard headed, and that nickname became the name of Marvin's first R&B hit.
The years went by and both singers became jewels sported proudly in the Motown crown. And it wasn't long until "Little" Stevie Wonder was a 21 year-old man whose mind was on fire with new ideas. Suddenly, Stevie Wonder wasn't so little any more.
In 1971, The Motown hit factory got a serious shock from "that stubborn kind of fellow," Marvin Gaye. Gaye had written a song with a socially conscious heart. "What's Going On" critiqued the War in Vietnam. It commented on the dire state of the nation and lamented peoples disconnection from God. '70s Motown offered relief from the problems of life. It offered songs of love to ease the pain. One of the only people to champion the album at Motown was Gaye's friend, Stevie Wonder.
Gaye entered a stalemate with Motown, refusing to record any more music until they released the song, which they eventually had to do. It became Motown's biggest selling hit, and an album which covered even tougher issues followed. Gaye had successfully kicked down the bubblegum doors of Motown and let the real world in. From that point on, Motown saw they could make money and hits out of socially conscious music.
After Marvin's breakthrough in 1971, Motown decided to give Stevie Wonder some freedom. The result? The 1972 album, Talking Book. With Talking Book, Motown got the hits they wanted: "Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," and Stevie got to write a songs with a social conscience, like the Orwellian "Big Brother" buried on side two. Marvin Gaye loved Stevie Wonder's new sound, and so did the Grammy judges. At the 1974 Grammys, Talking Book earned Wonder his first 3 awards.
To date, Stevie Wonder has 25 Grammys to his name. Marvin Gaye? Only two!
That's because after Wonder's breakthrough with Talking Book, he took his new found freedom and ran with it, making the Grammy award winning albums Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life, albums all which won in categories Marvin Gaye's albums were also nominated for and would had won had it not been for Wonder. Marvin was jealous of Stevie, but also very proud, saying Wonder was in a song-writing class of his own. They stayed friends and their rivalry was solely professional. as it had been in the early days.
The song "Sexual Healing" finally won Marvin Gaye the Grammy he'd always wanted, but by then it was over a decade since Gaye's creative stand had earned artistic freedom for fellow Motown artists like Stevie. Many have argued Gaye suffered at award season for being the first to rebel against the system.
From Talking Book, here's a socially conscious song from Stevie Wonder. Its lyrics are scathing, political, but its melody light as the breeze. And, it was made in part by taking a page out of Marvin Gaye's book.
Here's "Big Brother" by the not so "Little" Stevie Wonder, on Rear View Mirror.