“Join me in the observation of January 15, 1981 as a national holiday,” declared Stevie Wonder on the inner sleeve artwork of this album, when it was originally released in September 1980. Next to the invitation was Stevie’s thumbprint.
Thirty-four years later, it’s worth noting that the date was not always an occasion to honour Rev. Martin Luther King, and to observe that Stevie was among a determined group of people who helped make the federal holiday happen. He did so alongside the civil rights leader’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and Rep. John Conyers, the congressman from Detroit who introduced the relevant legislation as far back as 1968. The bill was eventually signed into the U.S. statute books in 1983 by President Reagan, after a resolute lobbying campaign which included huge rallies in Washington, D.C., with Stevie’s participation.
And this, of course, is the album which features his musical call for that holiday, “Happy Birthday.” The song remains as irresistibly catchy as it was in 1980, with an exuberant vocal over an undulating track played solely by Stevie on keyboards (mostly synthesisers) and drums, with uncredited backing vocalists chanting the song’s all-important sentiments.
But Stevie was – and is – smart enough as an entertainer to know that people will support a cause if celebration, not recrimination, is made its motif – and if the message is not pushed down their throats. “Happy Birthday” was neither the lead track on Hotter Than July, nor released as a 45 in the U.S.
The album’s opening single was “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” a reggae rave-up and tribute to the genre’s lion (“Marley’s hot on the box”) with sufficient riffs of brass, organ and drums to last until the break of dawn, plus an effective splash of echo added to Stevie’s voice. In Kingston, he and Marley had jammed together in 1975, and again in the U.S. during ’79. The Jamaican was supposed to open for Wonder on his 1980 U.S. tour, until illness intervened; booked in his place was Gil Scott-Heron. Marley, who would have been 70 this February 6, succumbed to cancer in May 1981.
The clever construction and universal lyric of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” ensured the track’s global popularity, and it remains one of Stevie’s most-played songs to this day. One night a few weeks before the release of Hotter Than July, he jammed until dawn as a DJ at a London club, according to biographer Sharon Davis in Rhythms Of Wonder. Among Stevie’s staff then was a Briton, Keith Harris, who used to keep him primed with the latest reggae releases.
Stevie is in fine form throughout Hotter Than July, including a playful “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It,” with its faux-Nashville feel (including steel guitar) and infectious chorus. Another piece of fun is “Do Like You,” a rhythmic tale of Stevie’s young son, Keita, and his dancing ambitions, while the album’s lead-off track, “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me,” is a forceful mix of rock guitar and brass underneath a powerful vocal performance. “If you really, really want me,” Stevie commands, “you’ve got to give me your best.”
Two ballads temper the heat of Hotter Than July. “Rocket Love” puts its subject on a pedestal, built from warm synthesiser notes and spiralling strings arranged by longtime Motown studio maestro, Paul Riser. “Lately” is a slow, tender tune with Stevie playing only piano and bass synthesiser, singing a melancholy account of suspected infidelity.
“All I Do” is intriguing. A polished, hi-hat-driven tune, it fits smoothly into the contemporary sound of Stevie, but has origins going back at least 15 years, when he and mentor Clarence Paul, with Morris Broadnax, wrote it. The song was also recorded (as “All I Do Is Think About You”) around that time, by Brenda Holloway and Tammi Terrell. The latter’s take is straight-ahead, period Motown, cut in late ’65 although unissued until 2010’s Come On And See Me, a complete set of Tammi’s solo work. What distinguishes Stevie’s version here is the lyric, endearingly simple and slightly old-fashioned.
Among the stellar support players heard on Hotter Than July are many of Stevie’s longtime associates: Nathan Watts (bass), Hank Redd (saxophone), Ben Bridges (guitar) and Larry Gittens (trumpet). Background vocalists include some stars in their own right – Michael Jackson and two of the O’Jays on “All I Do,” the Gap Band’s Ronnie and Charlie Wilson on “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” – but they don’t upstage Stevie. Neither does his former wife Syreeta, present harmoniously on “As If You Could Read My Mind.”
If “Happy Birthday” decorates an important cake with a bright chorus, “Cash In Your Face” tackles its tale of discrimination with tough keyboard riffs and reinforced funk. This is unvarnished Wonder, drawing on the experience of a friend whose money may have been the right shade of green, but whose face was not a welcome hue. The song is shaped as a two-way conversation between a would-be apartment tenant and an excuse-making landlord, serving as a musical reminder why nations need leaders like the preacher from Atlanta, Georgia.
Stevie Wonder is always optimistic, of course, and what he sang about and sought in the early 1980s has since been delivered: “And we all know everything/That he stood for, time will bring/For in peace, our hearts will sing/Thanks to Martin Luther King.”