Some cute child prodigies seem to enter the stage with a flourish then disappear before puberty sets in. Once in awhile though, they just keep getting better and making more of a mark for themselves. Such was the case for Stevie Wonder, as we were reminded this day in 1973. That was when he scored his second #1 song of the year, and third overall, with “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life.” It was the second single off his Talking Book album, 15th (besides compilations) of his career…even though he was just 22 when it came out!
Talking Book was considered by many the beginning of the run of truly great albums he made through the ’70s. Not that his earlier work was chopped liver; he’d already delivered such memorable hits as “For Once In My Life” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” But little by little he’d been getting better, and taking more control over his music. While most of his early songs were written by others, some covers of well-known hits, others written specifically for him by Motown staff, by Talking Book he was the main writer of all the songs. Not to mention that his expertise on the keyboards kept increasing, and his range of instruments expanding. On this hit, he played the electric piano and drums, he added a range of synthesizers and the clavinet (best heard on his other single from the record, “Superstition”) to the mix. Loni Groves and Gloria Barley add background vocals on this, with Jim Gilstrap singing the first two lines. The reasoning for that was seemingly known only to Wonder, but it worked!
At under three minutes it was the shortest song on the album (the album and single are the same length but the single had the tasteful horns added in) and also the first one recorded. It was recorded in one night at the Electric Lady Studios in New York City during the sessions for his previous album, but he decided to hold it back. Undeniably a happy little love song, one is left to surmise what his inspiration was. He’s said “the feeling of the melody is happy because I wrote in when I was in New York in late spring, early summer. Good things were happening!” Which is nice to hear, albeit suprising as that was right around the time Wonder was divorcing his first wife, fellow Motown singer Syreeta Wright.
“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is one of those ’70s songs that seems to raise spirits right away. Rolling Stone would call it a “pop tour de force” while Billboard predicted it would be a hit, noting its “outstanding production.” Years later, the former would rank it among the 200 best songs of all-time.
It didn’t let anybody down commercially, being the hit predicted. It got to #1 in the U.S. by knocking Tony Orlando’s massive “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” out of the top spot. It was a top 10 in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few other lands and won Stevie one of four Grammys he’d collect in 1974, it winning Best Pop Performance by a Male. Amazingly though, most agree his best work was still to come, later in the decade, proving again that Stevie lives up to his last name.