1977 – Sir Duke, Stevie Wonder

Perfect

And so we finally arrive at the Stevie Wonder entry. It is, of course, simply impossible to imagine this project existing without the inclusion of Stevie Wonder at some point and there’s been more than a few times he could have qualified but holding off until “Sir Duke” rolls around means… well it means we get to talk about “Sir Duke”. There are times, when one approaches a work of art, that its manifest brilliance is simply self-evident. There is little point asking if, say, the Parthenon in Athens is a greater achievement than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or if Hamlet is a greater achievement than The Night Watch. They are all works of art in one form or another and they explicitly, clearly improve the world simply by existing.

They are art in its truest sense and their brilliance is self-evident. No art – no human achievement – is universal. There are, doubtless, people who find Hamlet boring or think the Parthenon is just a pile of old rubble. They’d be wrong, but universality isn’t really what great art aspires to nor really, I suppose, should. But great art enhances the word around it, and that’s exactly what “Sir Duke” does. The world is simply a better place by having something so monumentally close to perfection as “Sir Duke” in it. Back in 1967, “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” was described as the most perfect single of the 60’s and, by extension, quite possibly of all time. However, the distance between “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” and “Sir Duke” is so monumentally tiny, so staggeringly small, that it must, at its largest, be measured in sub-atomic scales – scientists may not even have a term for such a miniscule distance. It’s that good. This is one preternaturally talented musician singing in praise of another preternaturally talented musician. The result is art. And sometimes when one comes across a piece of art so monumentally impressive it can be hard to know where to even begin with it. And so it is for “Sir Duke”.

This was, somehow, Stevie Wonder’s biggest-selling UK hit up until this point. And this didn’t make it to the top of the charts, though it did in the U.S. (and Canada). And that’s OK because, again back in 1967, we commented on the fact that the singles charts indicate nothing beyond popularity – no quality is inferred or implied by a song’s chart position. Still, if ever there was a song that deserved to make it to Number 1, surely it’s “Sir Duke”. Just the opening horns – one of the most joyously recorded sounds in history – is captivating. It’s a riff that repeats throughout the song, frequently enough to allow it to work as a hook, infrequently enough that you anticipate its arrival rather than it being overused. Its inclusion is a masterclass in how to hook an audience in.

And that’s true at every single moment of the song. There is a craftsmanship about the way “Sir Duke” is assembled, and what’s so glorious about the song is how clearly on display that craftsmanship is. Even putting Wonder to one side – and let’s not forget that alongside writing this, Wonder produced and arranged it, as well as singing and playing keyboards – the players are simply a roll-call of excellence. Michael Sembello on lead guitar was seventeen when the sessions for Songs In The Key Of Life kicked off. Seventeen! On trumpet we have Steve Madaio, who’s played with everyone from Rod Stewart to Bob Dylan, and Raymond Maldonado, who’s put in time with Blondie and Chic. Maldonado passed away in 1982 of a drugs overdose (Madaio died in 2019) but even if “Sir Duke” had been his only contribution to recorded music it would still be an utterly indelible one.

But then there’s nobody on this recording that isn’t true for. Every single second of its run-time is full of the craftsmanship that assembles a truly brilliant piece of art, yet the skill involved here is worn lightly. This isn’t a boastful piece and it’s not a bunch of musicians showing off. Instead it’s the perfect encapsulation of a band, a singer, and a writer all working in perfect synch with each other. There’s technical proficiency of course – so, so much technical proficiency – but technical proficiency in service of inadequate material is a cold, uninteresting thing. This is why so many lead guitarists are staggeringly dull. Just because you can play something doesn’t mean you should if there isn’t reason to. This band though? Every note is perfectly in its right place, and it would be unachievable were the musicians involved not such effortless masters of their instruments. This isn’t the dull, sterile sense of people playing because they can – indeed there may be no other recording that captures sheer joy of being able to do what you do quite so effectively as this song does (although, minor spoiler, there will be a later entry in this series which comes pretty damn close). The delight and elation on this song radiates out of it – untameable and exuberant.

And what of Wonder himself? Well. He’s unimpeachable. There are so many Stevie Wonder songs that could be said of – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, “Uptight”, “Superstition”, “Higher Ground”, “Golden Lady” and about a bajillion more – where it’s not just the voice, or the writing, or the playing, but something ineffable that simply comes from the recording, an emergent trait that all brilliance has. That’s true here too. This isn’t lyrically deep or politically pointed, it’s a celebration, so if you wanted to criticise “Sir Duke” – why would anyone want to do that? – well, sure, it’s not a deep lyric. It is heartfelt though, and it’s so obvious how much this means to Wonder, even as he name-checks a few other giants of jazz alongside Ellington (specifically, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Glen Miller and Count Basie).

And of course “Sir Duke” isn’t actually perfect. There’s a couple of moments of phrasing where the syllable lands in a slightly awkward way, the emphasis falling on the wrong one – when he sings “be one of the things that life just won’t quit” on the second verse the word “the” doesn’t quite feel right. And yet that wonkiness, if anything, improves its perfection. It’s not immaculately constructed, and even the tiny flaws add to the whole. “Just because a record has a groove doesn’t make it hit the groove” sings Wonder on the first verse – it’s a goofy phrase but it’s charming, it’s impossible not to love and again adds to the natural feel of the record. It’s not constructed, its felt. That’s very jazz. But you don’t need to love jazz to love “Sir Duke”. Nor Motown. Nor pop. Nor any one genre. It embraces them all, and more. Wonder captures the ineffable joy of music in this one song and when even your flaws actively work to improve what it is you are doing then, really, there’s nothing left to say.

Because there isn’t. “Sir Duke” is, to any meaningful degree and to any extent where this can be said of a work of art, perfect. It really is. It is one of the most perfectly written and recorded pieces of music that has ever been created. It is art, and like all good art it endures, and will carry on enduring. Forever.

What Else Happened in 1977?

Kraftwerk’s totemic, and also perfect, Trans-Europa Express, is released. No further explanation necessary, one hopes. Disco continues its dominance with the opening of Studio 54, the release of both the Village People’s debut album and Rose Royce’s “Car Wash”, and disco has the second-biggest song of the year with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (It also has the distinction of being the first hit to have an entirely synthesized backing track). The biggest song of the year is *checks notes* Oh. It’s “Hotel California”. Hmm. Elvis plays his last gig before his death, and, in related news, Elvis dies. It is in a manner that is not, perhaps, the ideal way for a rock and roll legend to go out. David Bowie kicks off the Berlin Trilogy with Low and Fleetwood Mac release one of the biggest albums of all time, Rumours. In a sign of things to come Talking Heads, The Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury all have their debut releases, and Billy Joel’s best-regarded album, The Stranger, redefines his commercial success. The Sex Pistols inelegantly depart EMI after having released one solitary single, and go on to technically qualify for this project with “God Save The Queen” after some chart jiggery-pokery prevents them getting to Number 1. Marc Bolan is killed in a car crash, Queen give us the drearily self-important “We Are The Champions”, Foreigner are as “Cold As Ice” and both Adam And The Ants and Def Leppard are founded.

What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?

“God Save The Queen”, obviously. The sheer stink the single alone caused – never mind everything else around the Pistols – is still, rightly, seen as one of punks defining moments and re-enforced the idea that music could still prompt real-world reactions. And guess what? Stevie Wonder could have qualified a second time with “I Wish”, which spent longer at Number 2 in the U.S. than it did at Number 1. That’s just showing off, that is. Carly Simon’s Bond theme “Nobody Does It Better” made it to Number 2 in the States, and there’s no doubt she gives a great vocal performance. And in the UK unbearable keyboard masturbators Emerson, Lake and Palmer made it to Number 2 with “Fanfare For The Common Man”. Eesh.

Rankings:

1.   The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2.   Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3.   The Kinks – “Lola”
4.   Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5.   The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
6.   Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
7.   The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
8.   Petula Clark – “Downtown”
9.   Queen, “Killer Queen”
10. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
11. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
12. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
13. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
14. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
15. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
16. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
17. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
18. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”

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