Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Number 29: Stevie Wonder

Heaven Help Us All (Tamla Motown TMG 757)
Chart Debut: 21 November 1970

Writer: Ron Miller

Again, 29 wasn't the easiest number to work with, but it has gifted me an opportunity to further part of this blog's mission: Stevie Wonder has thrice peaked at 29, but I discarded 'Higher Ground' on the basis that it was too obvious a choice to need my assistance (meanwhile 'Another Star' fell victim to my self-imposed rule about owning the tracks on CD). This for me is a more interesting story, coming from the period just before Wonder's acknowledged purple patch of the 1970s. In fact, the album where this track first appeared, Signed Sealed & Delivered was the end of Wonder's original contract with Motown, signed when he was still a child star; it was also a pivotal release with Wonder taking his his first production credits (though not on this particular track) and also writing a lot of the material, though again this song is an exception, having been penned by hired gun Ron Miller - but it all appears in a tacky cover with Stevie climbing out of a cardboard box (because he's been "delivered" geddit!!!??).

As a matter of fact, I own this track in a different place - in an angered reaction to the re-recorded version of 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours' he did with Blue I rushed to obtain the original, and it happened that the first place I found it was on Greatest Hits Volume 2. As I liked Stevie Wonder already, I'd probably have bought these tracks eventually, but sometimes it's good to be impetuous. Anyway, back to the song. It's as gospel-tinged as the title implies, though of course we're used to hearing the phrase colloquially, almost as an expression of hopelessness. The first verse runs with this interpretation: "Heaven help the girl who walks the streets alone/ Heaven help the roses if the bombs begin to fall" but even in the second we're in subtly different territory - "Heaven help the black man if he struggles one more day" continues the same sense of the expression, but when Wonder sings "Heaven help the white man if he turns his back away/ Heaven help the man who kicks the man who has to crawl" it sounds more like a threat than exasperation; well, I suppose it's a threat driven by exasperation. The chorus covers the more traditionally hymnal "Lord hear our call" but the third verse reverts to more earthly concerns: "Heaven help the boy who won't reach twenty-one/ Heaven help the man who gave that boy a gun". There's a prayer in the final verse, eloquently asking the Lord to "Keep hatred from the mighty/ And the mighty from the small". And yet, for all his appeals to a higher power, Wonder doesn't come across (at least to these ears) as expecting God to fix everything overnight - for me the key word here is "help". Now, of course I'm forming that opinion on the basis of what I've heard in the subsequent Wonder catalogue and the philosophy he expresses in so much of his self-written material, but it seems to me that he's expecting us humans to get our hands dirty too and sort the world out with the benefit of divine guidance. Whether I'd have got the same impression from a lesser singer, I'm less sure, but this is a tour-de-force for his sometimes overlooked gifts as an interpreter (the same album also includes his version of 'We Can Work It Out' which takes on a similar meaning in Wonder's performance). You could probably even trace a thematic connection to the other two singles that peaked at 29 if you really wanted to. For a dissenting view, though, look at Gearchange.

In the context of his overall career, this is only a minor work, but the more I've listened to it in order to do this, the more it's impressed me. The next Stevie Wonder album was the transitional and oddly hard-to-get Where I'm Coming From, released before he'd agreed terms with Motown, before Music Of My Mind began his peerless run of classic albums in the 1970s.

Official website: While you're waiting for, we can enjoy the existing official site at, the less than spectacular UK site or the unofficial but flashy World of Wonder.
YouTube if you want to: Unsurprisingly, there's no official video, but somebody's played it over some footage of an Indian shanty town, which apparently came from a Boyz II Men video of all places. And speaking of things that might make you exclaim the title of this song, there's also Cher and the Osmonds doing a Stevie medley.
Where To Get It: The original Signed Sealed & Delivered album is still available, cover and all. I've also provided a link to the aforementioned Greatest Hits Volume 2, but be warned that it's only half an hour long. The UK edition of the Definitive Collection also includes this track, and it should go without saying that the version I've linked to below is the one that Blue do not appear on.