The brilliant run of albums that Stevie Wonder created in the 1970s is often perceived to begin with 1972’s ‘Talking Book.’ Many fans of the Motown genius know that a few months earlier, he released the vitally important ‘Music Of My Mind.’ But the album that truly began his march towards creative independence was ‘Where I’m Coming From’, which introduced us to the adult Stevie Wonder.
The album was, incredibly, already Stevie’s 13th studio release for the label, nine years and many hits on from his 1962 debut. As the 1970s dawned, his work had increasingly shown that there was more depth to him than in the role of mere hitmaker. Wonder was acutely aware, as was his labelmate Marvin Gaye, that greater freedom from the strictures of their contracts was becoming not just a desire, but a necessity.
Stevie also knew that once he turned 21, Motown would not be able to hold him to the terms of the contract he had signed as a minor. Berry Gordy might not have liked the idea at first, but the artist was absolutely determined to do things his way, in the knowledge that Motown would be obliged to accept whatever he gave them.
So it was that in April 1971, a few weeks before that all-important birthday, Stevie released ‘Where I’m Coming From.’ It was a bold announcement of his new-found freedom, full of the impassioned social commentary that would become one of his trademarks but which would have been impossible under the previous restraints.
It’s hard to imagine Gordy, ever-conscious not to offend the conservative middle ground whose support had helped build his company, would have sanctioned such moments of earthy realism as the opening ‘Look Around,’ or ‘Think Of Me As Your Soldier,’ or ‘I Wanna Talk To You.’ But they exemplified the new sound of a multi-instrumentalist who had found his voice.
Writing at the time with his then-wife, the highly talented later Motown star Syreeta Wright, Stevie also showed that he could still create winning melodies with ease. The catchy ‘If You Really Love Me’ was released as a single from the record and reached No. 4 on the R&B chart, No. 8 pop, also hitting No. 20 in the UK. An LP full of imaginative arrangements and instrumentation also contained the gorgeous ballad ‘Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer’ and the charming ‘Something Out Of The Blue.’
The reaction to the album was inevitably cautious, both within the company and in the wider world. ‘Where I’m Coming From’ reached No. 10 on the R&B listing but only No. 62 on the pop album chart, and failed to make much international headway. But in retrospect, it started the momentum that allowed Stevie Wonder to conquer the world.