My my my, are you in for a treat! Stevie Wonder bringing THE FUNK to Sesame Street!
April 12, 1973, Season 4, Episode 0513. About to enter high school, I was supposed to have outgrown Sesame Street by now, but nobody should outgrow THIS: Stevie Wonder fully into the peak of his powers, leading a scorching jam on “Superstition”, the most blazing funk you may ever behold.
There’s so much to love about this video! One of the best live recordings I’ve ever heard (every instrument is crystal clear, a true feat for early 70s TV), a 19 year old Ray Parker (who’d write and perform the original Ghostbusters theme) on guitar, these two guys seriously bringing the horns, this kid on the balcony at :39 and again at 4:10 who’s dancing for us all, multiple shout-outs to Sesame Street along the way, and not one but TWO false endings ‘CAUSE STEVIE AIN’T FINISHED JAMMING YET.
The thing is, Sesame Street was more than a TV show to me. It inspired me. It shaped my career choices (I became a teacher, worked in the inner city in Baltimore and DC, and later made nature documentaries shaped by those amazing little animal shorts on the show), but more broadly, Sesame Street was a vision of the urban utopia I wanted to live in.
This was true for the performers in some ways, too. Sonia Manzano (”Maria”) joined the show in 1971, and when asked in 2015 about the single most standout moment in her 44 years on the show, this is the one she chose.
“The whole studio rocked out and it was great because, white people, black people, young people, old people — everybody was on the same page,“ she said.
“It was a moment of clarity. You know, we started this show, we thought we were going to end racism, we were going to close the education gap. … We had big dreams! And moments like Stevie being on the show gave us a glimpse of the way things could be.”
So prepare to jam, yes, but also open yourself to the possibilities of this world of Wonder.
On this day in music history: August 14, 1971 - “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye hits #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart for 2 weeks, also peaking at #4 on the Hot 100 on August 21, 1971. Written and produced by Marvin Gaye, it is the sixth chart topping single for the Motown icon. After Motown Records finally relents and releases the single “What’s Going On” in January of 1971, after a nearly six month long stand off with Marvin Gaye over its commercial potential, the song is an immediate smash and Motown requests that Gaye record a full album quickly to accompany it. Keeping in with the socially conscious theme of the other songs, one of Gaye’s other concerns is the state of the environment. Along with the anti-war effort of the era, many people are dismayed how the large manufacturing and oil industries have been allowed to pollute the air and water largely unabated, and the need for it to change immediately. Marvin has all of this in mind as he writes what becomes “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, written as plea to clean up the environment before it’s too late. The basic track for “Mercy Mercy Me” is recorded at Motown’s Studio A in Detroit in March of 1971, with Gaye on piano and mellotron, Chet Forest (drums), Bob Babbitt (bass), Robert White, Joe Messina (guitars), Jack Ashford (percussion), Johnny Griffith (celeste), Eddie “Bongo” Brown (congas), Eli Fountain (alto saxophone), and The Andantes (background vocals). David Van DePitte writes the string arrangement, with Gordon Staples conducting members of the Detroit Symphony, overdubbing the strings at another session held at Motown Studio B (Golden World) the same month. Released as the the second single from “What’s Going On” on June 10, 1971 with the non LP B-side “Sad Tomorrows” (recorded August, November 1969, September and November 1970), “Mercy Mercy Me” quickly follows its predecessor up the R&B and pop singles charts. The song becomes one of Marvin Gaye’s most popular and highly regarded works, being covered numerous times by artists including jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., Robert Palmer, and Boyz II Men.
On this day in music history: October 16, 1976 - “Songs In The Key Of Life” by Stevie Wonder hits #1 on the Billboard Top 200 for 14 weeks (non-consecutive), also topping the R&B album chart for 20 weeks (non-consecutive) on the same date. Produced by Stevie Wonder , it is recorded at Crystal Sound Studios, The Record Plant in Hollywood, CA, The Record Plant in Sausalito, CA, and The Hit Factory in New York City from Spring 1975 - Fall 1976. Recorded over a period of nearly two years, “Songs” becomes only the third album in US chart history to debut at #1 (Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “Rock Of The Westies” are the first two.). It spins off four singles including “I Wish” (#1 Pop, #1 R&B), “Sir Duke” (#1 Pop, #1 R&B), “As” (#36 Pop and R&B) and “Another Star” (#32 Pop, #18 R&B). “Songs” wins four Grammy Awards including Album Of The Year, making Stevie Wonder one of only three artists in history to win the Album Of The Year prize three times (Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon are the others). The album is inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2002, and is also added to the National Recording Registry by the Library Of Congress in 2005, for its ongoing historic and cultural significance. “Songs In The Key Of Life” is certified 10x Platinum in the US by the RIAA, earning a Diamond Certification.
On this day in music history: October 7, 1971 - “Got To Be There” by Michael Jackson is released. Written by Elliot Willensky, it is the debut solo single for the then thirteen year old Motown superstar. New Jersey born Elliot Willensky, a graduate of Boston University and the University Of Massachusetts at Amherst, originally intends to pursue a career as a research scientist, when he abruptly quits his post graduate studies in 1969 to follow his true passion to become a professional songwriter. Not long after getting his initial break writing “The Singer” for The 5th Dimension, Willensky writes “Got To Be There”. Producer Hal Davis hears the song demo, and immediately knows that is perfect for Michael Jackson. The track and vocals are recorded Motown’s Hitsville West Studios in Hollywood, CA in June and July of 1971, and is produced by Davis (“I’ll Be There”, “Never Can Say Goodbye”). Though it is released as a solo single, it does also feature Michael’s brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon on background vocals (w/ additional studio background singers). “Got To Be There” peaks at #4 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B singles charts on December 11, 1971, becoming Michael Jackson’s first million selling single as a solo artist. It is also featured as the title track of his debut solo album “Got To Be There” in January of 1972.