Lives of the great songs: Nobody does it better: You are the sunshine of my life: Every supper-club singer under the sun has had a go at Stevie Wonder's 1972 classic. And none has cracked it. In the sixth part of our series, Giles Smith shows why
Sunday 01 August 1993
If that time comes, he won't be the first to take 'You are the Sunshine of My Life' and leave it a quivering wreck of misplaced accents and duff ad-libs. He'll just be going where light entertainment's elder statespeople have already prepared the ground - or rather, messed it up. Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Perry Como - they've all been tempted to have a shot at this song. And every time, the gun jammed. Stevie Wonder makes it work: Johnny Mathis makes it hard work. What can you say about a number that even Ella Fitzgerald can't cover, without covering herself in embarrassment? What is it about this song, that only its writer can crack it?
So much has 'You are the Sunshine of My Life' become the stuff of becalmed late-night Radio 2 programmes, it's easy to forget that it was written by a man who had just turned 20. The song first came out in November 1972, the opening track on the Talking Book album. Some say Wonder had composed it two years earlier for Gloria Barley, a back-up singer with whom he was in love, but that tact prevented him from putting it on his previous album, Music of My Mind: he was still married to Syreeta Wright. Come Talking Book, though, Wonder and Wright were divorced and Barley got to sing back-ups on the song she inspired.
It's a mid-tempo ballad, tuneful and direct - the kind of song singers would be eager to lift for their repertoires. Like the best Wonder numbers, it nails a sentiment that people might have trouble expressing for themselves, while using the words they would have chosen if they could. True, the lyrics proceed largely untroubled by small technical matters, like rhyme; but maybe this just brings them closer to home. 'You are the sunshine of my life / That's why I'll always be around / You are the apple of my eye / Forever you'll stay in my heart'.
But despite the best efforts of the Geoff Love Singers and Shirley Bassey, only Wonder has turned those words into a hit: it went to No 1 in America and to No 7 in Britain, and it still follows him around. Keith Harris, his co- manager, says: 'When Stevie walks into the piano bar in hotels, invariably it's the tune the piano-player strikes up.'
In 1972, people were not necessarily expecting Stevie Wonder to come up with something cocktail pianists would lean towards. On his 21st birthday, Wonder's contract had been re- written, making him one of the first Motown artists to call his own shots. The albums he would record in the next six years changed the shape of black rhythm and blues and pioneered the use of synthesisers in pop. Talking Book also included the mighty 'Superstition', the opening bars of which virtually defined the term 'funky'. Curiously, Vince Hill and Andy Williams passed that one by. But they pounced on 'You are the Sunshine of My Life' - and failed miserably with it, like everyone else. Wonder created a paradoxical thing here: a standard that nobody else can do anything with - the model of the uncoverable song.
Almost without exception, covers of 'You are the Sunshine' tend to deploy full orchestras, as if there were something grand about it, when in fact, there are only four instruments on Wonder's version (drums, electric piano, congas and a bass guitar) and they all come in straight away. Doing most of the work is a Wurlitzer electric piano, its sound made furry by mild distortion, and then made woozy by a chorusing device - an electronic effect that makes the sound appear to wash in and out. Any cover version worth its salt will try to pay tribute to this noise - from a toytown chink for Johnny Mathis to a dirty rasp for Engelbert Humperdinck. But it only illustrates how that sound is poised on the bounds of good taste. Tamper with it ever so slightly, and you go directly to the land of the cheesey home-organ.
Wonder is also on the drums. He is by no means a conventional percussionist, though in the early Seventies Eric Clapton described him as 'the best drummer in the world', which may only be a slight exaggeration. There's something random about his playing which particularly pays off here. The bass drum is consistent, falling on one and four to create that racing heartbeat which ordinarily drives a samba. But the clicks on the rim of the snare are scattered, because Wonder keeps leaping off to the cymbals to beat the rhythm out there. In place of a solid, direct beat, we get pattering congas, up high in the mix. Rather than taking a direct route, the song rolls and tumbles forward.
Contrast Frank Sinatra's version, arranged as a swing number by Don Costa on the 1974 album, Some Nice Things I've Missed. This may be the worst sin Sinatra ever committed while a tape was rolling. As on Wonder's recording, the song shifts up a key into the final choruses - an old pop trick: the key-change as a new lease of life for the tune. But where Wonder sings an ad-lib melody across the divide to waft himself higher, Sinatra negotiates the key change with all the elegance of a train de-railing. It was perhaps a bad move to hold the word 'you' at this point - 'How could so much love be inside of you?'. It sounds as if someone has goosed him.
Elsewhere, Sinatra's showbiz emphases are not really his fault. 'You are the sunshine of my life,' he sings. 'You are the apple of my eye.' The words are made to float, but the arrangement's accents - the punches of the horns and drums - force him to bring them slap up against the beat, where they sound absurd. It don't mean a thing if you give it that swing.
A similar fault cracks Ella Fitzgerald's version of the song on the concert recording, With the Tommy Flanagan Trio (1977), which at least avoids the orchestra trap. And in the ad-libs at the end, Fitzgerald works in two lines from 'You are My Sunshine' (written in 1942 by Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell) to remind us where Wonder picked up his motif. But for the rest of the time, she is constrained to make the lyric match a strict samba, where it can only seem impersonal, jerky and unaffecting.
On the other hand, the song won't withstand a relaxed approach either. Perry Como, who has built an entire career out of a singing style which doesn't seem to involve breathing, includes the song on his Take it Easy album. He is, as the sleeve-note informs us, 'the man who invented the word easy'. But unfortunately for Perry, Stevie Wonder is the songwriter who invented the word troublesome. It takes more than a murmur to carry the line 'I feel like this is the beginning'. When Wonder performs this song in concert, he usually inserts it when the set is on the rise and runs it into 'Superstition'. It is easy listening - but not that easy. Get lazy with it, and it falls asleep.
Then again, there's no need to shake it hard to keep it awake. The problem with the Humperdinck rendition (it's on Close to You - 20 Classic Songs of Love, 1987) is a problem which may fairly be said to have dogged Engelbert throughout his career - the desire to make every song mimetic of the sexual act. The rhythm sets off conventionally, but at the verse, it drops into a kind of pelvic thrust. If a song could sue a singer for sexual harassment, this would be an open and shut case.
Humperdinck's version is also a rich source of the amazing vocal ad-libs which accompany every attempt at this number - the toe-curling wo-wo-wos, the wince-inducing yeah]s and baby]s. It reminds you how adept Wonder's singing is here. Of the five Grammy Awards he won in 1974, he gave four away and kept one - the trophy for Best Pop Vocal Performance on 'You are the Sunshine of My Life'.
His is not the first voice you hear. The first chorus is performed as a male / female duet - Jim Gilstrap in the right speaker answered by Lani Groves in the left. Wonder doesn't come in until the first verse: 'I feel like this is the beginning / Though I've loved you for a million years'. And from then on, he's busy punctuating the lines with pieces of inarticulate noise. But the point about Wonder's ad-libs is that they are not separately conceived and fastened on - they become part of the lyric. The 'hmm- hmm, yeah-yeah' halfway through the chorus, second time through, is a response to the rhythm, an expression of delight in it which appears to occur to him as he sings.
And what he does at the end of the word 'rescue' defies transcription. It also defies imitation, as any one of the cover versions reveals. You can re-do the song's poppiness, its froth, you can render it as light entertainment, but in the end, it comes down to soul and you can't fake that - unless, that is, you are Stevie Wonder, playing it for laughs. -
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