When Prince passed away, many a non-Prince fan suddenly found out that the man was not only a brilliant songwriter, singer, dancer, guitarist, pianist, stylist, and superstar, but that he was also a virtual one-man band in the studio, able to play almost any instrument, in exactly the way he wanted it played. Prince fans knew this, as do fans of the musician who made Songs in the Key of Life — or what Prince called the greatest album ever recorded. And if Prince were here, he would agree: Stevie Wonder deserves more appreciation for his multi-musicianship while he’s still with us.
Yes, of course, we know him for his “staggering songwriting and vocal skills,” writes PC Muñoz at Drum! magazine, for his “prowess as a formidable, inventive keyboardist (and pop music synthesizer pioneer)” and “his virtuoso-level skills on harmonica.”
But do we know Stevie Wonder as a drummer? Well, “newsflash for those who didn’t know,” Muñoz announces: “Stevie Wonder also happens to be one badass drummer.” (In fact, his very first gig, at 8 years old, was on the drums.) Not that he hasn’t received his just due from fellow musicians, far from it.
Eric Clapton called Wonder “the greatest drummer of our time” in 1974 — “hefty praise” (and maybe a bit of a swipe), wrote music journalist Eric Sandler, “coming from a man who played with Ginger Baker.” See a demonstration of Wonder’s formidable feel and groove behind the kit in the drum solo at the top of the post. But, of course, you’ve already heard his drumming — all, or most, of your life perhaps — on his albums, including most every track on Talking Book, Songs in the Key of Life, and Innervisions — songs like “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” “Living for the City” … all Stevie.
“I grew up practicing to Stevie Wonder’s music,” drummer Eric Carnes tells Muñoz, “but I actually didn’t know he was often the drummer on his own stuff. Until I was in my twenties.” Carnes goes on to describe the hallmarks of Wonder’s style: “very relaxed – not so crisp and not so metronomic. He’s using different parts of the stick at different times, and his hi-hat parts change throughout the song. A lot of times, each chorus in a given song is played slightly differently, too. He escalates a song over a long period of time, really growing the whole piece, instead of topping out early; it gives the music somewhere to go.”
Bill Janovitz of the band Buffalo Tom — in a very thorough paean to Songs in the Key of Life – points to the “innate sense of groove in his drumming.… There is a musical inventiveness that might stem from being a well-rounded multi-instrumentalist, as opposed to someone who strictly defines themselves as a drummer.”
In his appreciation of Wonder’s drumming at Slate, Seth Stevenson also highlights Wonder’s “expressiveness.… No two measures sound the same.” He offers a mini best-of roundup of Wonder’s recorded drumming moments:
My favorite Wonder drum track comes on ‘Too High,’ the first song on Innervisions. Subtle snare rolls, sudden tom-tom tumbles, jazzy ride-cymbal swings – they’re all scrumptious and all in the greater service of the song. This is not the approach of a hired drummer attempting to carve out his own terrain. It’s the work of a multi-instrumentalist composer who fits his vision for each part into an interlocking whole.
Stevenson and Janovitz speak to a thread in so many discussions of “virtuoso” musicians: composers who are also musical prodigies have ways of playing instruments in an idiom only they can understand. One imagines that if we had recordings of Mozart or Bach – both prodigious multi-instrumentalists from very young ages – we would hear classical instruments played in ways we’ve never heard them played before. The magic of recording — and Stevie Wonder’s recordings especially — means we can hear the drums on his songs exactly as he heard, and played, them, and exactly as he wanted them played.